Review: On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt Print E-mail

shit-fuck-train-conductor(Free Inquiry August/September 2006 Volume 26, Number 5)

On Bovine Excrement

Words, the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka once noted, have users. But, more important, users have words. Baraka believed that if we want to understand language, we need to get out of its etymological backyard and into its sociological neighborhood. Take the word bullshit. When it’s uttered in a locker room or a closed door meeting between lawyers working on plea bargains, context says the word means "you’re lying." In such a venue, it’s hardly profane. The same word used by a high school teacher or on television would be heavily profane: its rare utterance gives the word a force it would otherwise not have. Our in-group/out-group divisions, our media-mass relationships, cannot be ignored when we interrogate words under the lamp of usage.

Review: Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis Print E-mail

Lunar_park(San Diego Union-Tribune September 4, 2005)

A Big Self-Conscious Mess

If a novelist writes a bad novel, a critic has a duty to say why: The plot is lame, the characters flat, the conflict uncoiled, the theme old hat. But if the novelist is Bret Easton Ellis, who began his career in 1985 with the strangely beguiling "Less Than Zero" and whose newest fiction reads like his last two roundly detested works—the BTK-like screed "American Psycho" (a novel that women's groups vehemently objected to, Simon and Schuster dropped, eating their $300,000 advance, and Knopf published) and the fashionista flop "Glamorama"—a reviewer has to watch it. He shouldn't let his disgust with Ellis' predictably affected infantilism overcome his judgment.

Review: From Dvorak to Duke Ellington by Maurice Peress Print E-mail

Duke_Ellington_1943(American Book Review January/February 2005, Volume 26, Number 2)

The Soul of American Music

The hybridization of racial and ethnic cultures in American art, particularly in literature, film, dance, and painting, did not really begin until after 1950. Before then there was little mixing—not because artists were incapable of cross-cultural influences but because European traditions of song and dance were so set, audiences so white, and barriers so thick, that racial commingling seldom occurred. One notes Mark Twain and Langston Hughes as exceptions, but they also prove the rule. Such a lineage, however, is not true of music. Music is America’s most democratic art, probably because of its, rather than, our nature. And yet the identity of American music—a dialogue and debate with those European traditions—arose from the experiences of slaves.

Review: The Myth of Solid Ground by David Ulin Print E-mail

Myth_of_Solid_Ground(San Diego Union-Tribune July 25, 2004)

Shaken and Stirred

We all felt it, June 15 of this year: a 5.2 temblor 40 miles off the coast Coronado. That first shake of the building (if you were indoors); the recognition, "It's a quake"; then the peak of the seismic wave jolting the walls and the table and everything on the table. All of it in five seconds.

What I recall of that long instant is how time distended under stress. For example, the fourth of those five seconds, when the quake got much stronger. Suddenly, that unwieldy fact got me up and headed for the door; when I stepped outside, the rattling stopped. And yet how many of us think back and say, we're certain we had the presence of mind to handle whatever would have happened? A total prevarication. In the moment, you don't know how long the possibility of the quake is, which is really the possibility of your death—a fear no different, I assume, from the fear that rises in battle.

Review: H. L. Mencken on Religion, Edited by S. T. Joshi Print E-mail

mencken2(Free Inquiry February/March 2004 Volume 24, Number 2)

The Passion According to Henry

The pith and purity of his prejudices, the grit and grace of his language, the dazzle and buck of his outrage: Does it really matter what H. L. Mencken attacked? Politics, literature, culture? We read him now as we have always read him, to see how and how hard he hits whatever he targets. When it comes to religion, Mencken’s view of Christian science is not much different from his view of, say, evangelicalism. "Sewers of superstition," he calls them all—practice and practitioner. For Mencken, those who think the divine intercedes in or rules human affairs are boobs whose "sin" is not belief but the piety with which their belief is lacquered.

S. T. Joshi’s anthology, H. L. Mencken on Religion, brings together 70 like-biled excoriations from Mencken’s most fertile period—as editor of the Smart Set, 1914 to 1923, and the American Mercury, till 1933. Most of the essays here fall within a 12-year frame, squarely on the Coolidge and Hoover years. In 1925, Mencken reached fever pitch in a series of editorialized dispatches (the former effacing the latter) while covering the Scopes trial. A quarter of this collection concerns that trial with Mencken flaying small-minded Dayton, Tennessee, and the "Fundamentalist Pope," William Jennings Bryan.

Review: Visions of Utopia by Edward Rothstein, Herbert Muschamp, and Martin Marty Print E-mail

utopia(American Book Review November/December 2003 Volume 25, Number 1)

Searching for Nowhere

Embedded in utopian thinking are so many ironies that one might conclude, after enumerating them, that the idea of a paradise was devised to house its impossibilities, not to resolve them. A utopia is, as commonly thought, neither something perfect in its momentariness (the seventh game of the World Series, tied in the ninth inning) nor something supposedly once perfect (life in small-town America). While eu-topos refers to "good place," ou-topos, or utopia, refers to "no place." How can a place be no place? It’s in the nature of the mind to form paradoxes, make literary constructs, smoke the artistic hookah. Our wiring tells us to imagine that which we can’t have. For two reasons: to change or accept our lot. In the latter case, utopian thinking is a Bodhisattva-like calling, helping us to accept what is, not what isn’t. What is, is unalterable, and, perhaps, is what should be.

Review: Train by Pete Dexter Print E-mail

dexter-train(San Diego Union-Tribune October 5, 2003)

The Fatalist

In Pete Dexter's multiracial Los Angeles, the time is 1953, and the city is quickly being encircled with housing developments and leisure venues to serve the new tracts. Inexorable sunshine and aquaducted water have birthed a spate of golf courses, opportunity mills for game and graft. Small-time syndicates are everywhere—boxing rings, extortion schemes and colluding white cops who will stage a murder if a black man's "inherent criminality" can be fingered.

The wayward center of Dexter's sixth novel (Paris Trout won the National Book Award in 1988) is an 18-year-old black man—real name Lionel, nickname Train. Train's turf is Brookline, a Brentwood country club, where he caddies and occasionally works on the greens. He stays at his mom's place under the vengeful eye of her boyfriend, keeps every feeling to himself and plays a torrid round of golf. But since he's black, he can only practice his stroke in the half-light of early morning or late evening, when the course is closed.

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