Every once in a while the New York Times Book Review publishes an article for the ages, and Jim Harrison’s thoughtful appreciation of Charles Bukowski’s poetry, which takes the form of a review of the new collection Pleasures of the Damned: Poems 1951-1993, might be one. Harrison wisely begins by speculating that Bukowski’s poetic vision was grounded in his physical homeliness, in the “acne vulgaris” that scarred his young face. Harrison appreciates Bukowski’s “hard found music of the streets” and suggests that he will be appreciated more by poetry critics of the future than of our time, since:
Time constructs the true canon, not critics contemporaneous to the work, whether they are the Vendlerites of the Boston area, the Bloombadgers of New Haven or the Goodyear Tires of New York City.
I like this punchy and wide-ranging article about as much as I’ve recently liked anything I’ve read in this publication. I expected to also like John Simon’s cover article on the new Letters of Noel Coward edited by Barry Day, especially since I am absolutely crazy about Noel Coward and have always enjoyed Simon’s tough-love approach to drama criticism (though I haven’t heard much from him recently). Alas, Simon is much better writing about stuff he hates than stuff he loves, and he loves Noel Coward very much and has thus produced a fairly boring and off-putting review. Gushing is always unseemly. Simon tries hard to replicate Coward’s playful and airy style but falls on his face when, for instance, he tells us that Coward’s mother received “if not the lion’s, the lioness’s share of these letters”. Coward might have written a line like that, but he would have scratched it out by opening night. It’s also strange when Simon says:
What made the playwright Coward so special is that — unlike Wilde, Shaw, Maugham and Rattigan — he was also an actor.
His genius as an actor is largely lost to us now (though Simon brags that he once witnessed him in a late-career stage performance) but certainly what made the playwright so special is that, unlike Wilde, Shaw, Maugham and Rattigan, he was a great songwriter, undoubtedly in a class with Gilbert and Sullivan, Cole Porter, the Gershwin brothers and Rodgers and Hart. Simon doesn’t seem to know that Noel Coward’s songs are what make him so relevant today.
I’m also disappointed by Uzodinma Iweala’s underwhelmed reaction to Matthew Eck’s The Farther Shore, a slice-of-life novel involving American soldiers lost in 1993 Somalia. Iweala thinks Eck’s writing could “use more rhythm and more emotional emphasis”, but I’ve already finished this book and consider it worthy of much higher praise. On the facing page, Walter Kirn appreciates Ha Jin’s modest paean to the American dream, A Free Life, though after finishing the one-page review I feel I’ve had enough and do not wish to begin the 660-page book.
On to the political articles, which we’ve been studying recently. Gary Rosen’s review of John Dean’s Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches is an abomination. First, Rosen gets the facts dead wrong. Check this out:
And, of course, [Dean] participated in some of the grossest abuses of that power as a dirty-trickster in the Nixon White House. But Dean has had other things on his mind since the attacks of 9/11. Celebrated as the whistle-blower who brought down one Republican administration, he has tried in recent years to repeat that feat, though with notably less cause or success.
Dean was a key player in the Watergate affair, but he was neither a dirty-trickster (they were Donald Segretti, Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, Jeb Magruder, etc.) nor a whistle-blower (that was, we have only recently learned, Mark Felt). As the leader of the Nixon’s administration’s legal team, Dean had no involvement in the dirty tricks campaigns until the tricksters got caught, at which point his only goal was to steer the White House clear of the crisis. He then spent many painful months trying to contain Mark Felt’s mysterious and highly effective whistle blowing before making a difficult decision to seek immunity from prosecution by confessing his crimes and implicating his superiors in the Nixon administration. John Dean could fairly be called a rat-fink, but his revelations came about eight months too late for him to be a whistle-blower.
Why would Gary Rosen get it so wrong? I have no idea, but his errors of judgement turn out to be worse than his errors of fact. Taking a page from the Bill O’Reilly playbook, he tries to paint John Dean as an extremist and mocks him for having “many fans in the left-wing blogosphere”. I’m not sure if I’d call myself a John Dean fan, but I know I appreciate hearing his smart commentary when he appears as a frequent guest on MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”, and I think many other Americans do as well. John Dean is no extremist, and his 2004 book Worse Than Watergate has shown him to be more prescient and fearless than many of his peers.
I’ve been looking for patterns in the NYTBR’s political coverage, but the main pattern I’m finding is one of disappointing understatement. Anthony Lewis says this in his review of The Confidante: Condoleeza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy by Glenn Kessler:
If there was a single low point in American diplomacy in recent years, it may have been the Bush administration’s handling of the 2006 Lebanese war.
I can’t be the only one who finds this sentence deeply unsatisfying. Let’s backspace over several words and try it this way:
If there was a single low point in American diplomacy in recent years, it may have been the Bush administration.
Now we’re getting somewhere. And this brings us closer to the heart of the matter, and closer to a conclusion: whatever conservative bias the Book Review editor-in-chief Sam Tanenhaus may have is probably manifested not overtly but by omission, and by weak representations of liberal or globally-minded points of view. There are many bold and exciting journalistic voices breaking ground out there, but one wouldn’t know this from reading the New York Times Book Review every week. If the NYTBR has room for Gary Rosen, and for Martin Walker (who tells us, rather strangely, that “Iraq under Saddam Hussein came within perhaps a year” of developing nuclear weapons) then they should have room for progressive critics like Howard Zinn, Craig Unger, Noam Chomsky, Arianna Huffington and Markos Moulitsas as well. Why is it so hard to imagine any of them writing an article that appears in the New York Times Book Review?