What I Read in October

November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen, by Mark Rudd. A memoir from the man on whom Mark Slackmeyer from Doonesbury is supposedly based, and identified in more than one review as the guy who was not Bill Ayers. While serving as chairman of the Columbia University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, Rudd led the occupation of five campus buildings in protest of school policies that supported U.S. imperialism, and then, once expelled, played a leading role in the Days of Rage in Chicago in October 1969. Pressure from the Maoist Progressive Labor Party caused the organization to splinter, and it was under Rudd’s leadership of the Weatherman faction that the focus shifted from peaceful protest to acts of violence up to and including a string of nonlethal bombings. An accidental explosion of bomb-making materials resulted in the deaths of three SDS members in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970, upon which Rudd went into hiding, living a quiet life in New Mexico until 1977, when he turned himself in.

Unlike most memoirs, the book does not linger in spots for the author to congratulate himself (though Rudd does like to brag about his freewheeling sexual adventures more than we need to hear), nor does he skip over instances of poor judgment. Coming from a background of privilege, Rudd checks in at key points with his parents, who can only respond with befuddlement, unconditional love, cash donations, and free food. As SDS goes from a conscientious crusader of justice to an organization more bent on careless showboating, Rudd, ostensibly for the benefit of current and future activists, tries to put his finger on the point where he and his fellow revolutionaries lost their way. It is hard not to notice that the only time the word terrorism appears in the book is in reference to another group that became infamous for its rash acts of expression: the Symbionese Liberation Army.

More Baths Less Talking, Nick Hornby. As much as I enjoy The Believer, a single issue costs $8.00 and around here you have to go down to Northampton if you want to buy a copy, and then there’s no guarantee that half the issue won’t be taken up by some delightfully arcane subject, say, a critical review of the films of Gus Van Sant. So when another collection of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns is released, I pick it up and dash through it. Economic concerns, micro and macro, are on Hornby’s mind this time around, if the books selected are any indication, and though my memory is probably off, I don’t recall him being so strict in his allegiance to authors from the British Isles in his earlier collections. Parts of the first two columns are devoted to David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, followed up by Colum McCann, Colm Toibin, Muriel Spark, John Lanchester, and both Our Mutual Friend and Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens.

Among books he covers that I happen to have read are Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, which we both love(d), and Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: a Life of Montaigne, which Hornby adores and I despised (it felt to me full of restatements of the obvious, like a book report on the Essais stretched out to meet a minimum length). Perhaps it reads differently across the pond.

As with the previous collections, More Baths is put out by Believer Books, and, in an endearing nod to old mass-market paperbacks, there is a cutout order form for the magazine at the end. I am tempted to wait twenty years, and if The Believer is out of print or produced in some new innovative format by then,  mail it out with a check and see what happens.

The Pat Hobby Stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The problem with reading Fitzgerald is that you want everything he has written to be as fluid and timeless as his best work. This is impossible for any writer, but in his case the gap yawns. Gatsby is written by a different person, with different motivations, from This Side of Paradise (so choppy it would be unpublishable today) and Tender Is the Night.

These stories were written toward the end of his life, when Fitzgerald was strapped for cash and relevance. Had they been executed with care, they might have had something unique and valuable to say about the burgeoning American motion-picture industry, about evolving standards for what constitutes fame and success and struggle, and about Manifest Destiny and the American West. But the protagonist has to be made a caricature—the down-on-his-luck screenwriter aging out of his industry—and the supporting cast is all ditzy women and huffy men on deadlines.

Arnold Gingrich’s introduction, from 1962 (my Scribner paperback edition is from 1995), documents the correspondence between Fitzgerald and Gingrich, the editor of Esquire, where most of the stories were submitted and published. Fitzgerald’s end of the conversation hints as to how his investment the project rose and sank:

  • Enclosed is a copy of “Teamed with Genius” revised. Do you think the Pat stories would be effective if published in one issue, or would that be against your budget system? I mean it would only be worth doing as a feature.
  • The following sounds crazy but I picked up the second Pat Hobby story and liked it so well that I thought I’d make that one a little better also. I hope it’s not too late to use this version.
  • Pay for this what you like. It’s not up to the last story—yet it belongs to the series.
  • At the same time I wish you’d drop me a general opinion about whether you think Pat has run his course or not.
  • On your advice I am going on with the Hobby stories for at least two more. This is an in and outer, but I think certainly as good as the last.
  • I am sorry you can’t pay more for the Pat stories. I’ve gotten so interested in them that I feel a great deal is going into them.

Gulf Coast, Summer/Fall 2012. This beautifully produced journal from the University of Houston clocks in at 264 pages of eclectic variety; given that it only sells for $10, I have to think they’re hemorrhaging money down there. The highlight of the issue is a roundtable discussion on the role of humor in fiction, led by editor Zachary Martin with contributors Sam Lipsyte, Steve Almond, Deb Olin Unferth, Elisa Albert, Brock Clarke, and John McNally. (The beginning of the discussion can be read here.)

Almond gets to the heart of things quickly:

 The basic misunderstanding Brock mentions begins way back with Aristotle, the idea that the comic and tragic modes are somehow separate and opposed. That’s complete nonsense. The comic impulse arises directly from feelings that are inherently tragic: sorrow, shame, disappointment, moral outrage, and so on. Humor is how we contend with the bad data, always has been, from Aristophanes right up to Jon Stewart. […]
For me, the key distinction is whether the funny stuff is there to force us to face otherwise unbearable feelings, or whether it’s just an advertisement for the writer’s wit. My favorite writers, many of them crammed into this roundtable clown car, are funny not because they’re trying to be, but because they face the dark shit. They get to the truth quicker than I can, by more transgressive paths and with more forgiveness.

I may have to look back again, but I don’t think the name Mark Twain ever comes up in the discussion. (Will Rogers does.)

Speaking of humor, there’s also a funny story by Kevin Wilson called “Hunger Strike,” about a trio of students who take to fasting to protest a favorite professor’s firing by the university, a wry comment on lukewarm activism by the otherwise unengaged.


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