Reviewing the Review: May 7 2006

It’s no big surprise when an error appears in the New York Times Book Review. But it is remarkable when a reviewer declares a book to be “riddled with errors” and the book turns out to be demonstrably correct, and especially so when the book is by 92-year-old Watergate whistle-blower Mark “Deep Throat” Felt and the reviewer is John Dean.

Dean should have had no problem taking down Felt’s A G-Man’s Life, not on political grounds but on the issue of authorship. Felt is incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease, and the book has obviously been stitched together by co-author John O’Connor from fragments of existing manuscripts, none of which offer new information about Watergate. So it’s strange that Dean instead attacks the book’s accuracy but offers only two examples, including this:

Felt, who was passed over for the [F.B.I.] director’s job, claims that in the period after [L. Patrick] Gray’s departure from the F.B.I., he “knew that as long as John Dean and John Ehrlichman were in the White House,” he “would have less chance of receiving the appointment than the man in the moon.” But Ehrlichman and I were out of the White House at that time.

Say what? Dean is wrong, even though he was there and obviously knows the subject well. He is describing two of the key events in the progression of the Watergate cover-up. L. Patrick Gray’s confirmation hearings in February and March 1973 were a disaster for the Nixon White House, as the presidential appointee spilled the first public evidence of a high-level cover-up. Gray’s nomination was doomed by the beginning of April, at which time John Dean was still directly managing the cover-up (this is why Ehrlichman famously told Dean that the White House was planning to let Gray “twist slowly, slowly in the wind”). Gray’s resignation from the F.B.I. was finally made official on April 27, and John Dean, Bob Haldeman and John Erhlichman were forced to leave the White House on April 30.

I’ve looked at Dean’s statement from every possible angle and I still find the error (and the Times’ failure to catch it) inexplicable. Perhaps Dean is alluding to the fact that he had recently become persona non grata at the White House by the time L. Patrick Gray resigned, but the fact that Gray was leaving was widely known weeks earlier. As for Ehrlichman, he was by every account (including Dean’s) still a trusted member of Nixon’s inner circle up until the day of his resignation, and certainly could have influenced the choice of Gray’s successor.

It looks like Deep Throat has got the better of John Dean, yet again.

This is exciting stuff for a Watergate buff like me, and I had to struggle to regain my composure enough to read the rest of this week’s New York Times Book Review. Nadine Gordimer reviews Philip Roth’s slim new Everyman on the front cover, and when a Nobel Prize winning author writes about the latest minor work by an aged literary icon you know the vast winds of empty praise are going to be blowing. I’ve spent some time looking at Roth’s new book myself, and I can spot a cranky throwaway novel when I see it. So when I read stuff like this:

Another ecstasy. Not to be denied by mortality. Philip Roth is a magnificent victor in attempting to disprove Georg Lukacs’s dictum of the impossible aim of the writer to encompass all of life.

I can only think, “Yeah, whatever.” Less air-kissing, please … it’s unseemly.

James Campbell’s consideration of Roger Angell’s autobiographical Let Me Finish is marred by psychobabble about the trauma of Angell’s childhood, which the reviewer detects by reading between Angell’s cheerful lines.

I felt hopeful towards Walter Kirn’s review of This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes, and I like sentences like this:

Homes spends the imaginative assets that she’s conserved by hiring a cast of nonunion cut-out characters to conceive and mount the tricky scenarios that bring them into manic collision.

But most of the article is (uncharacteristically for Kirn) difficult to follow, and at the end of the full-page review I can clearly detect that Kirn does not like the novel but I do not have a clear idea of whether or not I would like it.

Poetry critic Stephen Burt’s review of Swithering by Robin Robertson and To a Fault by Nick Laird is as good as this week’s issue gets. I’m automatically turned off by a poetry book called Swithering, and Burt gives me no reason to think I’ll be missing much if I don’t read it. But his description of Nick Laird’s word-charged poetic approach is intriguing, and in the end this is the only book covered in today’s Book Review that I feel compelled to check out.

6 Responses

  1. shouldn’t I be mowing the
    shouldn’t I be mowing the lawn?

    I’m not clear on the Felt-Dean rift. But to me there are only two screaming issues that no one ever talks about (maybe Carl Bernstein from time to time) — one, was Watergate an effort to eliminate free elections in America; and two, did Henry Kissinger kill Allende (ref – Wikipedia). To me, elections are central to democracy, and to do away with one would be like eliminating buffaloes was to the Sioux.

    And secondly, while we love ourselves and our country, we’re always at this loss as to why others in the world don’t share that view. Could it be Shah Reza Pahlawi, Ngo Dinh Diem, Norodom Sihanouk, Salvador Allende, Daniel Ortega, Omar Torrijos, et al. Y ‘gots t’ be careful setting up governments in other countries, lest the folks there hold yah responsible for evil despots… well, like the Shah, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Noriega, Castro. Our foreign policies haven’t always aptly displayed what a truly good and decent people we are; and no one is ever held accountable for those deadly mistakes, like 9/11.

    But to more pressing matters, I read part of the first paragraph of Roth’s book. Why wasn’t I able to read more? Um…why do great writers get a free pass when it comes to atrocious writing? Which one of us could get away with that first paragraph? Damn (to quote Will Smith).

  2. Good evaluation, Stokey.
    Good evaluation, Stokey. About the despots, I mean. I haven’t read Roth’s book.

    America meddles like hell. I don’t know whether to give up hope or bury my head. Voting hasn’t worked so far.

  3. Hey, I just thought of
    Hey, I just thought of something. Going back to William James and the Theory of Emotion, I wonder if tears were originally to wash dirt from our eyes as we frantically burrowed our heads into the ground for safety.

  4. or to wash from our eyes what
    or to wash from our eyes what we have seen.

  5. Indeed. Although technically,
    Indeed. Although technically, that would be a function of amnesia. But I know what you mean.

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