Today’s New York Times Book Review is competent and dull. I can’t even work myself into an indignant froth about anything into it. Frank Rich’s cover story on Zadie Smith’s new novel is respectful and well-written, and oddly has the effect of making me want to rush out tomorrow and buy her first novel, White Teeth, which sounds more interesting than the new one.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. provides a thoughtful essay on the works and influence of religious critic Reinhold Niebuhr, who pondered the question of whether moral righteousness — which requires direct access to God’s priorities list — can ever be justified among the flawed members of the human race. I think it’s a good question, and I like reading essays like this.
I’m glad the Book Review deigned to devote a full-page, color-illustrated review to Marlon Brando’s recently discovered novel, Fan-Tan. It’s a sensuous pirate adventure, and I am interested to learn that Brando’s co-author in this weird experiment was Donald Cammell, who wrote the screenplay for an unappreciated hippie-era film masterpiece, Performance. This 1970 film is a meditation on two Dionysian characters — a mystical, spoiled rock star played by Mick Jagger, and an immoral career criminal who must befriend the rock star in order to kill him. According to Joe Queenan’s recount of the history of Fan-Tan, Brando had wanted to play the hit-man opposite Jagger’s rock star — and this interesting vision alone makes this review worth reading.
But, let’s face it, I’m not going to rush out and buy Fan-Tan. Or, most likely, any of the other books discussed in this week’s Book Review.
A deeply serious endpaper, a Letter from Istanbul by Ted Wilner, describes a novel called Metal Storm that is now popular in Turkey. The book describes a war between Turkey and America, and happily ends with a nuclear explosion in Washington D.C., followed by American surrender. This essay puts the rest of the week’s literary news into perspective as a reminder of the dire times we live in.