A Tiger Mom Shares Her Secrets

Huffington Post, January 22, 2011

A lot of other tigers ask me: Why do South Chinese tigers raise such successful cubs? Why do our cats grow up to be such prodigious hunters? Why are our coats so luxuriant? Why are our teeth so toothy, our growls so growly?

Underneath, I think, what these tigers are really asking me is: Can I get the same results with my own cubs?

Well, I'm here to say: You can. Because I've done it.

Here, for instance, is a short list of things my cubs, Hwang and Li, were never allowed to do:

  • Lick their own genitals

  • Roll in their own filth

  • Nap for more than two hours at a time

  • Clock under 35 mph in pursuit of a kill

  • Take second place to a clouded leopard

  • Bring home any prey smaller than a musk deer

  • Become a component in traditional Asian medicine

I hear all the time from Bengal and Siberian and Indochinese tigers who think they're being strict. A friend of mine made a point of boasting that her cubs hunt four hours a day. "Four hours?" I said. "South Chinese cubs are just breaking a sweat by then."

How well I remember the night my little Li brought back her first kill. It was still attached to its branch, and it looked like a cross between a bat and a panda, and when Li dropped it at my feet, I was startled to see it had a pulse.

"What's this?" I asked, doing my best to keep my voice calm.

"A pygmy slow loris," answered Li.

"I see. And what exactly are we supposed to do with it?"

"Eat it?" she ventured.

"Oh, that's interesting. Eat it. That's very interesting. And maybe tomorrow, you can bring back a stump-tailed macaque. Or a Himalayan field rat. Ooh, I know! A lesser white-toothed shrew. Weeks of eating right there."

"Mom, it took me two hours just to find him."

"Two hours," I said. "And how many hours are left until sunrise?"

She mumbled something.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"Four."

"So that means you still have four hours to find a mammal that doesn't bring shame to your entire Linnaean order."

She was plenty mad at me, I don't mind saying. She growled. She dug in her paws. She vowed to run off and live with langurs. For my part, I threatened to throw out all her chew toys and make her live on nothing but bamboo and gaur chips.

"And you'll eat that for a year," I snarled. "Ten years. Twenty-five!"

I didn't back down, not even when she pointed out that our natural life span is twenty. Finally, after we had exhausted ourselves arguing, Li sulkily consented to go back into the wilderness—followed, I need hardly add, by her watchful mom.

It wasn't easy. She came a-cropper with a hairy-fronted muntjac and nearly lost her life to an Asiatic black bear. Now and again, when some quadruped proved too quick for her, she would gaze back at me, silently beseeching. "Don't look at me," I glared back. "I'm not your prey."

And so it was that, just before dawn, Li homed in on a young saiga antelope. I watched, with mounting excitement, as she crouched behind a rock and waited for the beast to trot toward its watering hole. Then, creeping toward it with an infinite and exacting patience, she lowered her head and, before the beast had even fully registered her presence, flung herself at it. For a minute or so, they rolled on the ground. The outcome was by no means certain, but Li somehow found the inner strength to straddle that squirming creature and sink her jaw into the back of its neck. And when she heard the sharp answering snap of its spine, I think it's safe to say something inside her clicked, too. She had earned this.

Now I'd be lying if I said I don't get pushback. My mate, who's Sumatran, is always telling me how hard I am on the cubs. "Why don't you ever give them a break?" he asks. "Why don't you just say, 'Hey, nice kill!'" I say, "Come talk to me when your subspecies isn't teetering on the brink of extinction." "Back atcha," he says.

Oh, Guntur is adorable and handsome, and considering that he's wandering solitary for weeks at time, he takes a surprising amount of interest in the kids. But he had a mother who nursed him until he was two weeks and told him his skat didn't stink, so he doesn't understand that a South Chinese tiger-mother never praises, she only demands. Why have cubs at all, I like to say, if they aren't going to be a credit to you and your shrinking gene pool? You might as well hand them over to the poachers. Here! Turn them into rugs already.

And in the long run, your cubs will appreciate you. I always come back to that dawn-streaked moment on the steppes when Li had her first taste of warm and viscous antelope blood.

"You were right, Mom," she said, licking her whiskers clean. "I only hated hunting because I wasn't good at it."

I very nearly made the mistake of complimenting her, but I coughed the words back down.

"You're mighty pleased with yourself, I guess. Just be sure to save the back legs for your father. And if you think I'm going to help you drag it home, think again."

She said nothing in that moment, but she didn't need to. Her eyes said it all.

"Thanks, Mom. Thanks for being such a bitch."

Mom, Meet Dad. He Promises He's Not Going To Break The Kids.

NPR, April 17, 2012

Another day, another New York Times feature—and another plunge into unexamined biases. If we're to take Julie Weed's article "When Mom Travels for Work" at face value, today's dads are so helpless that their wives, prior to going on business trips, must arrange grocery-delivery services, leave behind printed itineraries and medical records and then, once they're on the road, send hour-by-hour instructions via text, Skype and e-mail—with occasional sweet-talk mixed in so their menfolk don't feel like employees.

As a dad myself, I'm only marginally offended. As a human being living in, oh, 2012, I'm baffled. What is this strange Times-y world where households crumble the moment Mom walks out the door and Dad is so flummoxed by the demands of caregiving that he has to lie on the couch until the next set of wired commands comes through?

It's not the world I live in—the one where every day, competent hands-on fathers (married, partnered, single) navigate their children from point to point without mishap. But then it's not the world anyone lives in. With more and more women serving as primary wage-earners and more and more men serving as primary caregivers, it's only logical that the organizing intelligence behind any given household might actually have a Y chromosome.

So how has this news failed to reach the major cultural organs? It's one thing when Huggies puts out a series of ads showing dads unmanned by the mere prospect of a diaper. It's pretty much the identical thing—subtler but no less pernicious—when a champion of bourgeois values like the Times beats the same dead horse.

And if anything, the Times article shows how harmful the anti-dad bias can be to women. I was amused at first to see the logistical extremes Weed's supermoms go to whenever they leave town: ordering drugstore supplies online, canceling play dates in advance, laying out skating outfits and freezing a week's worth of meals and leaving a list of "all the carpools, sports practices and games, babysitter hours" and anything else their husbands might need.

But then my amusement faded into sadness. How exhausting! And, of course, how double-edged—to reassure women that they're still in charge of their homes, and then to haunt them with what might happen should they ever relinquish charge. That dreaded slippery slope that begins with missed soccer practices and terminates in squalor, disease and delinquency. All in less than a week.

The truth is that millions of dads are coping daily with the absence of wives and partners—and they don't need barrages of texts or Skyped commands to do it. A business trip doesn't throw them for even the teensiest of loops. Neither does a soiled diaper.

So ... Mom? Before you go off to that conference? I'd like to introduce you to Dad. He'll be fine. So will you.

Elmore Leonard dies: 'Get Shorty' author was 87

The Washington Post, August 30, 2013

Elmore Leonard, a masterly crime novelist whose razor-sharp dialogue and indelibly realized lowlifes earned him an unusual mix of mass-market appeal and highbrow acclaim, died Aug. 20 at his home in Bloomfield Township, Mich. He was 87.

The cause was complications from a stroke, said his researcher, Gregg Sutter.

A diligent, unpretentious writer who worked in relative obscurity for many years, Mr. Leonard went on to influence a generation of crime writers, whose sales may have eclipsed his but whose adoration of him never waned.

His lean, violent stories also served up choice film vehicles for actors including Paul Newman ("Hombre"), John Travolta ("Get Shorty"), George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez ("Out of Sight"), Charles Bronson ("Mr. Majestyk"), Roy Scheider ("52 Pick-Up") and Pam Grier ("Jackie Brown").

What made Mr. Leonard stand out among other chroniclers of crime and punishment was his voice—laconic, funny, unsentimental—and his ruthlessly coherent vision of life in the lower depths. As described in a 2008 Washington Post profile, Mr. Leonard's world is "populated by cops who aren't exactly good, crooks who aren't exactly bad, and women who have an eye for the in-between."

What galvanizes this gallery of rogues and scoundrels, more often than not, is a scheme—a kidnapping, con job or robbery that will bring quick and easy money. As it turns out, the money is neither quick nor easy, and the schemes are doomed from the start, spinning down unexpected tangents and threatened at every turn by absurdity.

In "Rum Punch" (1992), would-be thief Louis Gara spends so much time crafting his "Do not panic" stickup note that the bank he's plotting to rob has closed by the time he gets there. In "Switch" (1978), two ex-cons abduct the wife of a rich, philandering builder, only to learn that he has no intention of paying the ransom. (They gain an ally in his wife.)

Time and again, bad guys pause in the middle of bad acts for extended bull sessions on music or clothes. Screenwriter-director Quentin Tarantino, who turned Mr. Leonard's "Rum Punch" into the 1997 film "Jackie Brown," cited the author as a key influence on his own garrulous movie thugs.

Taken as a whole, the Leonard oeuvre serves to demolish the myth of the criminal genius. And yet what his villains lack in intelligence, they make up for in mayhem. Beatings, torture and murder feature prominently in the author's pages. The villain in Mr. Leonard's first bestseller, "Glitz" (1985), is a psychopath who kills prostitutes and rapes old ladies.

Mr. Leonard, in marked contrast, was a quiet, reserved, owlishly bespectacled man who lived in the Detroit suburbs and sported Kangol caps and tweed jackets. He had no rap sheet; he never owned a gun; he gave up drinking in his early 50s after his first marriage crumbled.

Although critics tended to lump him into the hard-boiled detective school of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald, Mr. Leonard resisted the tag of mystery writer, pointing out that his work lacks anything in the way of a puzzle.

The mystery was all in the books' creation. "I develop characters, and I'm not sure where they're going until I get to know them," he told the London Independent in 1998. "In fact, I seldom know before I'm halfway through what the thing is about."

For Mr. Leonard, the writing process was an extended audition, in which major characters could be fired if they didn't sparkle and minor characters might suddenly receive star billing. "If I'm curious enough to turn the pages," he said, "I figure it'll have the same effect on readers."

Elmore John Leonard Jr. was born in New Orleans on Oct. 11, 1925. His father, a dealership scout for General Motors, moved the family from city to city before settling in Detroit. The young Elmore was nicknamed "Dutch" after a Washington Senators knuckleball pitcher with the same surname.

Mr. Leonard went on to serve in World War II. His bad eyesight consigned him to a job as a store manager for the Seabees, doling out beer for the troops.

After graduating from the University of Detroit in 1950, Mr. Leonard married his college sweetheart, Beverly Cline, and took a job with a local advertising agency. He nurtured his fiction habit in private. He woke at 5 a.m. every morning and churned out pulp westerns for two hours before heading to work.

"I'd come down in the dark into the living room—that Michigan cold—and I wouldn't even let myself heat the coffee water until I'd started writing," he told People magazine. "I'd write in longhand, one word after the other in pencil on a yellow pad, then rewrite on the typewriter. I'm so damned glad I did it. I studied hard, I worked hard, I learned what I could and couldn't do. I can't do description well, so now I don't do it at all."

In 1951, he published his first short story in Argosy magazine for $1,000. His first novel, "The Bounty Hunters," came out in 1954. Two of his early stories became popular western movies, "The Tall T" with Randolph Scott, and "3:10 to Yuma" with Glenn Ford (both in 1957), and the latter was remade in 2007 with Russell Crowe.

By the end of the 1950s, the western market was saturated, so to support his wife and five children, Mr. Leonard turned to writing scripts for educational films.

Then, in 1967, 20th Century Fox bought the rights to his novel "Hombre" for $10,000. The resulting film, starring Newman as a white man raised by American Indians, was only a moderate box office success, but it gave Mr. Leonard the financial cushion he needed to reboot his fiction.

His next book, "The Big Bounce," the story of an ex-con falling into the clutches of a psychotic young seductress, was rejected 84 times before finding a publisher. It found devoted readers, though, and it placed Mr. Leonard for the first time in his natural milieu—the modern American underworld—while planting the seeds for the outstanding work of the 1970s and early 1980s, including "City Primeval," "Split Images," "Stick" and "52 Pick-Up."

This was also a time of personal turmoil for Mr. Leonard. His first marriage ended in divorce, and his heavy drinking was a contributing factor.

"I'd been drinking since I was a kid," he told People magazine, "and for 20 years I was a happy drunk. Then I started to get wild." He joined and dropped out of Alcoholics Anonymous three times before he quit alcohol entirely. "I had my last drink at 9 a.m. on Jan. 24, 1977," he said. "I think it was Scotch and ginger ale."

Two years later, he married Joan Shepard. She died in 1993. His third marriage, to Christine Kent, ended in divorce. Survivors include five children from his first marriage; 13 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Hollywood had long warmed to Mr. Leonard's taut, dialogue-heavy yarns. "The Big Bounce" was filmed twice. (Mr. Leonard hated both versions.) "Joe Kidd" (1972) featured Clint Eastwood as a bounty hunter tracking a Mexican revolutionary, and "Mr. Majestyk" (1974) starred Bronson as a farmer battling the syndicate.

More successful were Barry Sonnenfeld's "Get Shorty" (1995), about a loan shark who finds little difference between organized crime and the film industry, and Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" (1998), in which a deputy U.S. marshal fights and eventually resolves her feelings for a handsome jailbreaker.

In recent years, Mr. Leonard's work inspired the FX television series "Justified," with Timothy Olyphant as a federal lawman busting heads in the hill country of eastern Kentucky.

Even as Mr. Leonard's sales figures and box-office receipts mounted, he began winning kudos (much to his own surprise) from the intelligentsia.

Walker Percy and Saul Bellow were fans. George Will gave out Leonard first-editions as Christmas presents. Martin Amis declared that "for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard." In 2012, Mr. Leonard received the National Book Foundation's medal for distinguished contribution to American letters.

The author reacted to his cultural enshrinement with a mixture of pride and puzzlement.

When a professor rhapsodized about his "patterns of imagery," Mr. Leonard's initial response was, "What's he talking about?" Mr. Leonard liked to quote the review from a librarian at a Connecticut prison: "While you ain't caught on with the crack and cocaine heads, you have got a following amongst the heroin crowd."

In truth, Mr. Leonard's art is plain and seamless enough to escape more than crackheads. He supplies human behavior in all its variety, but he is as notable for what he leaves out: imagery, metaphor, thematic summations, even psychological motivation. Most conspicuously, he leaves out Elmore Leonard. "If I ever show myself in there," he once declared, "then there's something wrong."

He expanded on this principle in an essay on writing for the New York Times. Among his injunctions: "Never open a book with weather." "Avoid prologues." And, "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." His most important rule: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." His ultimate object, he wrote, was "invisibility."

And yet his ear for American vernacular was unmistakably his own. The many hours he spent in Detroit bars, police stations and courtrooms gave him a sense of how people reveal themselves through elision and compression.

In his bare-bones dialogue, even conjunctions and punctuation drop away: "I had a tire iron we could find out in ten minutes." "I do what she wants, she comes up with something else, I don't talk to her." In "La Brava," a hoodlum tersely accounts for the money from his last heist. "I spent half of it on broads, boats and booze. The rest I just wasted."

Asked to explain his facility with idiom, Mr. Leonard replied: "There is no secret. I listen when people are talking. I listen when they're talking to each other, and I listen when they talk to me."

Chesapeake

Washington City Paper, January 10, 2014

A quarter-century ago—or maybe it was a million years—I dated a full-lipped, morally unanchored charmer named Benjamin, who was in his third year of Georgetown Law. Better to say I tried to date him. One night, because he wouldn't cut me loose and because I couldn't cut myself loose and because abjection came as naturally to me then as breathing, I followed him without his knowledge from Badlands down P Street. He crossed Dupont Circle, cut up New Hampshire. Then, a little shy of U Street, he paused in front of a cinnamon-brick apartment building. Like a mariner back from the Spice Islands, he gazed up at a second-floor window, where a lamp was even now extending a tongue of light. He nodded to himself, then made straight for the vestibule, where he waited for the answering buzz. In less than a minute, his shadow—unmistakable with its lacrosse shoulders—flickered across the apartment's curtains.

This much I knew: He would eat before he did anything else. Twenty minutes later, an order from Trio Pizza arrived. I slipped in after the delivery guy, followed him to the second floor, watched a door spring open, saw a pair of hands—not Benjamin's.

Apartment 203. The blaze of revelation subsided as I planted myself opposite the door. If I were to have the confrontation I wanted, needed, feared, I'd have to sit there for the rest of the evening, my back against the wall. Instead, I fell asleep and woke an uncertain number of hours later. A slender young man was standing in the open doorway of apartment 203 in a pair of oversized sweatpants.

I lurched to my feet. "Sorry. I'm Knox...."

"Like the fort."

"Yeah."

"Benjamin's gone, sweetie." The voice was soft but low, with Carolina vowels. "I doubt he even saw you there, he was in a hurry to get to class."

Even in my sleep-dazzled state, I could discern two things. The young man was lying. And this lying was a form of charity.

"I'm Joey," he said. "You should come in."

He made a pot of Irish Breakfast and poured it out in beer mugs. He fed me Danish and Jiffy Pop. He loaned me a comb. The clock radio on his kitchen counter had ticked just past 11 a.m. when he leaned across his biscuit-crate coffee table and folded his soft white plump fingers around my long thin veined ones.

"You know he's not worth this," he said.

It occurred to me to deny it, but in the next breath, Joey said, "I think I'm done with him, too."

Decades later, I'm still unpacking the grace of that moment: one man able, in just a few words, to free two men, to take them both out of the hunt.

"Do you have a place to stay tonight?" he asked.

The answer was no. I had just been evicted from my apartment in Mount Pleasant; my belongings were somewhere in the attic of City Lights; and I was waiting to hear about a studio in Shaw. I was 23. I had come to Washington not for a career but for a boy. And I was dying. But we all were.

"The couch pulls out," said Joey.

I lay on that couch for about a week. Joey cleaned around me—he was a terror about dust—and when he got tired of that, he draped the Thursday classifieds over me. "Just in case," he said. I wasn't very employable then: two years of a crunchy liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania, segments of office slavery, a moderate acquaintanceship with WordStar and MultiMate. But I beefed up my resume as much as I dared and flooded every office in town. No one called back. For cash, I took gigs busing tables at the American Cafe, answering phones at an optometric association, modeling in the deep background of a Sheraton print ad. Sometimes, in a brief flush of solvency, I would offer to write Joey a check for the rent, but he waved his hand at me. "When the ship comes in."

Never once did I see him write a check of his own, nor could I begin to say whose name was on the lease or who was paying for our groceries—the bowls of citrus fruit on the kitchen counter, the whole chickens in the freezer, the packages of Tuna Helper in the cupboard. They were just there, waiting. Most days, Joey slept until one or two or the afternoon, and it wasn't until eight or nine in the evening that he would put on his denim shorts and his two Polo shirts and go off to see his friend. Friend being, in this case, a category rather than an individual. The one job I knew him to hold down was as a dancer at the Chesapeake House and only because he invited me, on impulse, to watch him perform.

Of the three guys dancing on the runway that night, he was the oldest—which is to say he was 23—but the most boyish in appearance. He wore a jock strap, gray athletic socks, and white Tretorns, and he moved in a benign fog, as though we were all part of his dream. From time to time, when there was cash in it, he would gyrate in the direction of patrons. They weren't allowed to touch him, but if they were forthcoming, he might spank them with his penis. I hustled out of the place before midnight. Joey told me later I'd missed the Scottish fantasia.

Our schedules were ideally matched. If I wanted to bring a trick home from Tracks or the Frat House, Joey would already be gone, and by the time the guy was leaving the next morning, Joey was just coming back, laden with rolls and oranges. "Have a blessed day!" he'd call out.

Our only moment of intersection came late in the afternoon when, like an old married couple, we would sit on the chapped leather couch and watch the squawk box. Neither Joey nor I had any sure idea of what was going on in the world, but we both found the news mysteriously restful, like listening to traffic reports for highways you would never travel. So it was that, one afternoon in June, our eyes came to rest on a perfectly unremarkable press conference: three legislators before a thicket of microphones. The third man was halfway through his remarks when Joey said, "Oh. That's Earflaps."

It was Joey's habit to give each of his Chesapeake House patrons a mnemonic tag: Cleft Chin, Furry Ears, Menthol Mouth, Chin Skin. Earflaps was named for the blue corduroy hunting cap he sported in all weather. It had the virtue of concealing his head and casting a good portion of his face in shadow. He was a man bent on anonymity. He ordered a single Miller Lite. He spoke to no one, just leaned against the back wall and watched, although on occasion, his hand would run to his crotch. He was usually gone by the time Joey was finished, but one night in December—only a couple of weeks before Christmas—Earflaps was waiting in the bathroom. He rolled up a twenty and carefully inserted it in the band of Joey's jockstrap.

"Show's over," Joey said.

But Earflaps dragged him into the middle stall and bent him over. The man was not gentle, but he was fast. A minute, tops. He grunted just once as he came, then he dropped another twenty at Joey's feet and hurried out, zipping his pants as he went. At no point did he take his hat off.

"Plus I'm not sure he used a condom, so cross fingers."

"But how can you recognize him now?" I asked, squinting at the TV.

"Oh, it's the eyes, see 'em? Nothing but fear."

"Are you sure?"

"Ain't a face God could make that I'd forget."

And yet what an unremarkable face it was, that slab of lightly poached flesh with the shining brow. Anywhere but the Hill, you wouldn't have given it a second look. Even now I could feel it slipping away—until the name flashed across the screen.

Elliot Manking. R-Kans.

"What's R?" asked Joey.

"Republican."

"Figures."

"Listen now. I'm going to ask you one more time. This is absolutely the same guy as Earflaps?"

"Grandmother's grave."

The next day, I went to the Martin Luther King library and started jotting down some notes about the Honorable Elliot H. Manking (rhymes with banking). Third-term representative for Kansas' 2nd District. United Methodist. Wichita State graduate. Dodge dealership owner. Radio broadcaster. Anti-tax, anti-Communist, pro-defense, pro-life.

Married, with three children.

How easy it was to imagine him riding home from his Longworth office in the champagne-colored Town Car with congressional plates. Saying good night to his young (flaxen, handsome) chauffeur-staffer. Disappearing into his apartment in...Rosslyn? Cleveland Park?...and then creeping out two or three hours later in his redneck armor. Pulling the flaps over his ears, trembling at the thought of the taut flesh awaiting him. Knowing—knowing—every step of the way that he was invincible, that the young men he preyed on would have no way to strike back.

"It's not right," I said.

"What isn't?"

"This Manking character. He's a fucking hypocrite."

"'Course he is."

"Not your everyday bullshit hypocrite, he's worse. I bet he's never voted a dollar for AIDS research. I bet he goes golfing with his Republican buddies and tells fag jokes. Limp wrist, lisp, the whole works."

"Probably."

"I bet you can't even get him to say the word gay. He probably says homosexual. Sodomite. Goes to church every Sunday and prays for God to strike down sodomites. And then prays for sodomites to protect him."

"How?"

"With our silence, that's how."

It was a new note for me. Oratorical.

"Geez," said Joey. "You're making the news no fun."

I composed the first letter that night, on stationery Joey had once carried home from the Mayflower. Dear Congressman, We know what you're doing nights. I sealed it in a white envelope, and then scrawled For Personal Attention of Member.

The next day I sent another: We've seen what you do with stripper boys. The next day: Do the voters know?

Just making trouble, that's what I would've told you if you'd asked. Afflicting the comfortable. But one night, staring down at another blank page of Mayflower stationery, I saw my left hand writing, What's the price of silence? And when I sealed the envelope, I felt a little shiver of power. Being able to bend someone else to my will: surely this was what Benjamin had felt. And all those other men I'd gone chasing after with my fool's heart. We were a league now.

Over the next week, I amped up the volume. What's it worth to you?...Let's make a deal...It's now or never...Would hate to tell your wife...Then, when I judged the hook to be squarely in, I wrote the real letter, outlining how much I expected to be paid. It was a monthly sum, roughly equivalent to what I would have been paying in rent if Joey had ever asked. My hand trembled a little as I dropped the envelope in the mailbox on New Hampshire Avenue. Every day, for the next two weeks, I checked the post office box. Nothing came.

March was bleeding into April now, and I was, for the first time, harboring doubts about my strategy. What if Manking had never seen any of the notes? What if a staffer had tossed them unread into the nearest trashcan?

"We need to go see him," I said.

Joey wiped Hot Pocket juice from his lips. "See who?"

"Earflaps."

"How come?"

"He could be useful to us. He could get me a job. Or introduce you to different guys. Nicer guys."

"Why would he do that?"

"'Cause he liked you, remember? There was something about you he must have trusted."

"Is that what it was?"

When Joey still hesitated, I said, "I'll make you a pecan pie."

We only had one tie between us, so that's what I wore, and Joey borrowed a blue oxford shirt and a pair of cordovan loafers, which were two sizes too large and required him to skate across the floors of the Longworth Office Building. When we got to Manking's office, Joey just popped the shoes off his feet and held them to his side. The receptionist was a petite young beauty wrapped in scarves, icily self-possessed.

"Do you have an appointment?"

"We're from the congressman's district."

"Where, exactly?"

"Salina."

"Normally, we encourage folks to make an appointment before they stop by. Only 'cause the congressman's super busy."

"That's OK, we're happy to wait."

"Are you sure? I really can't guarantee you anything."

"We're not in a hurry. Can you just do us a favor? Can you remind the congressman we met at the Chesapeake?"

She frowned. "Is that a restaurant?"

"Yep."

"So he'll remember meeting you?"

"Yep."

We sat on a scratchy maroon couch under a Kansas flag. An hour passed. Two. Three.

"I wish I smoked," said Joey. He tottered out into the hallway and stretched his arms toward the ceiling. "Oh," he said. "There he is."

Greenhorns that we were, we hadn't reckoned for the other door, the one through which the lumbering, heavy-shouldered figure of Elliot H. Manking was now emerging.

"Congressman!" I called.

He kept walking. From nowhere, a staffer—a boy no more than 20—appeared at the congressman's side, wedged against him like a buttress. Joey and I circled them around.

"Do you remember us, Congressman?"

The teeth were tiny gray studs, but the head was massive, the voice improbably large.

"Why, sure I do! It's great to see you. Now listen, boys, you just talk to my scheduler, we'll get you in."

"Don't know if we can wait that long."

With a daring that astonishes me even now, I slid the card straight into the pocket of his broadcloth shirt. The blank index card, scrawled with our phone number and the single word CHESAPEAKE.

"Hold on now," said the staffer, but Manking put up a hand. "It's all right." He gave his pocket a light tap. "Got it right here, okay? You boys take care now. Someone'll be in touch."

But the apartment phone was silent for the rest of the day and the two days following. I lay on Joey's couch, trying to decode my last glimpse of Manking—those small weak fierce brown eyes. No fear there, no malice. Maybe nothing at all.

By Saturday evening, I was so tired of waiting that I fled the apartment. I assumed I was trolling for sex, but I ended up singing tunes from Carousel at the Friends piano bar and then stumbling back a little past midnight. Much to my surprise, Joey was home, sitting on the couch, lost in the mask that was Bernard Shaw.

"You're watching without me," I said.

He didn't say anything.

"Any pie left?" I asked.

I can't tell you how long I went on in that vein. Or how long it took me to notice the angle between Joey's head and his shoulder.

The official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, which, for want of any other evidence, would go down as a natural cause. By then, I was too numb to protest. When I was asked for Joey's next of kin, I realized I couldn't call back a single name, let alone a hometown.

Three days after they carried him away, the phone jangled me out of my mid-afternoon nap.

"Am I speaking to Knox?"

"Yeah."

"Hi, this is Rosemary."

"Hi."

"I'm the legislative director for Congressman Hale's office."

I sat up. "Yeah?"

"We'd like you to come in for an interview."

And in that moment—you have to believe me—I couldn't discount the possibility that I actually had applied. Hadn't I responded to every blind ad the Democratic Study Group and Republican Study Committee had tossed my way? Wasn't it possible, just barely possible, that Congressman Hale's office had been one of the tossers?

"We'd love it if you could come by at three tomorrow..."

"Sure." I drew the phone from my ear, then drew it back. "Can you tell me just one thing?"

"Of course."

"Where is Congressman Hale's district?"

"Kansas."

I don't remember the interview. All I recall is the administrative assistant in his too-short tie and his seersucker suit. "Come on board," he said.

My job was to merge mailing lists, but on the strength of my new salary—fifteen thousand a year—I rented an English basement near the Ellen Wilson projects. Eventually, I got a legislative correspondent job with an Ohio Republican, a scholarly sort with hair flopping over his eyes. Then, after a couple of years, I switched to the Congressional Research Service, where I have been ever since, responding as neutrally as possible to all policy inquiries, sporting a limited ensemble of cardigans. In a few years, I'll be up for full retirement. I have some notion of traveling.

Congressman Manking, you may remember, lasted four more terms before being felled by a stroke at a Lincoln Day dinner in Junction City. For some weeks he lingered, then slipped away for good in a Topeka hospital room, with his wife and children around him.

Not so long ago, a man I loved told me I was silly to blame Manking for anything.

"I blame myself," I said.

"It's the same thing! You conspiracy theorists need to have some cabal doing all your dirty work when the hard truth is there is no cabal. Nobody cares enough to arrange our deaths. We're not that important."

And it seemed to me then—it seems to me now—that if Joey isn't important, nothing is.

"Maybe you're right," I said.

© Louis Bayard

William Shakespeare, Playwright and Poet, Is Dead at 52

The New York Times, April 23, 2016

On this date—April 23, 1616—the creator of "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and "Romeo and Juliet" left the beauty of this world. To us, he bequeathed his tragedies and comedies, his sonnets and verse, which would survive 400 years.

"To be or not to be," said Hamlet, prince of Denmark, "that is the question." Yesterday, Hamlet's creator was; today, he is not. Of that there is no question.

Poet, playwright, actor and theatrical-company shareholder, William Shakespeare (sometimes spelled Shakspeare, or Shagspere, or Shaxpere, or Shaxberd,1 or any number of blessed ways) died today, April 23, 1616, at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was, more or less, 52. His passing was confirmed by his daughter Judith.2

Over the course of three decades, Mr. Shakespeare rose from working-class obscurity in Warwickshire to become one of England's foremost playwrights and poets3—acclaimed for his penetrating insights into the human character, his eloquent, flexible and infinitely expressive verse; and his readiness to burst the bounds of the English language (drawing on a vocabulary of more than 25,000 words).

Thanes, Romans, Countrymen

Among the deeply flawed characters who have strutted and fretted their hour on Mr. Shakespeare's stage, perhaps the foremost is Hamlet, who must decide whether or not to kill the uncle who murdered his father and married his mother. It takes him as much as five hours to decide, depending on the performance, and by then, a good portion of Denmark is dead.

Had Hamlet never existed, playgoers would still speak of Macbeth, an upwardly mobile and downwardly moral Scottish thane who, with the steady prodding of his wife, who may be mad, lets nothing stand between him and the throne and is defeated only by a combination of a C-section baby4 and traveling trees.

Other immortal creations: Julius Caesar, a great Roman leader who gets a whole play named after him but dies in Act III; Romeo and Juliet, two young Veronians from warring families who fall in love the only way teenagers can—for keeps; King Lear, a senescent king who disinherits the one daughter who actually likes him; Othello, a brave Moorish soldier who becomes, after a few well-timed prods and a suspicious handkerchief,5 the kind of fellow who requires a restraining order.

Yet, as indelible as Mr. Shakespeare's tragic creations are, his comedies have proved every bit as enduring. In "The Taming of the Shrew," a husband uses a variety of psychological torture devices to make his strong-minded wife compliant. (He thinks.)6

In "Much Ado About Nothing," Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, meets Beatrice, a confirmed bachelorette, and together they create the world's first rom-com. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," scheming fairies make sport with moonstruck lovers, and a queen becomes enamored of an ass, which is not the first time that ever happened.

Mr. Shakespeare devoted nearly a quarter of his dramaturgical output to chronicling his native country's brawling, bloody past. Though not factual in the most scrupulous sense, his history plays bring to roaring life the full panoply of England's dynasts and claimants and insurgents, all doing whatever it takes to get or keep a crown.

Who could forget the deposed Richard II? ("For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the deaths of kings.") Who could forget the malevolent Richard III? ("Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.") Who could forget that great rabble-rouser, Henry V? ("Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;/Or close the wall up with our English dead!")

Who could forget Henry VI? Well, we have forgotten him, just a little. Those were early plays.

Imaginative breadth, rapier wit, profound psychological depth, the commercial instincts of a bear-baiter—all these qualities descended, Muselike, upon a glover's son.

Glover's Son and Plot Thief

William Shakespeare was born on April 23rd-ish, 1564. His mother was Mary Arden.7 His father was John Shakespeare, an aspirational sort who worked his way up the social ladder from glovering and whittawering to constabling, burgessing, chamberlaining and, finally, high bailiffing. (Mayoring, if you like.) Sadly, Shakespeare pere was prosecuted four times for wool trading and usury, which may explain why he retired from public life when Will was just 12.

Of William Shakespeare's four sisters, only one survived to adulthood.8 Of his three brothers, Mr. Shakespeare was the only one who married. In an age that puts little store in records, this is practically all we know about his brothers and sisters.

Mr. Shakespeare almost certainly received a fine classical education at Stratford's local grammar school and may have, at some point, acquired French and Italian. His grasp of both geography and history was finite. (No one seems to have informed him that Milan and Verona are not seaports. With all due respect to "Julius Caesar," the ancient Romans didn't own clocks, and "Antony and Cleopatra," the ancient Egyptians didn't play billiards. Cato was born roughly three centuries later than "Coriolanus" suggests. Et cetera.)

At the age of 18, Mr. Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway,9 who gets a nod in one of his later sonnets ("'I hate' from hate away she threw/And saved my life, saying 'not you'") but about whom precious little is known except that she was eight years older. The record notes, sans judgment, that she was also several months pregnant when they married. Did she entrap him? Did he climb into the trap and calmly fasten its sweet, warm metal jaws around him? The world will never know.

Nor is anyone entirely sure what Mr. Shakespeare was doing from 1585 to 1592, other than, at some point, making his way to London, where his vaulting ambition manifested itself through acting in and writing plays.

By 1592, he was enough of a colossus in the theatrical establishment that a dying malcontent named Robert Greene felt the need to drag him to earth, comparing him to "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers" and "is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country." (Mr. Greene's editor later apologized, which is what powerful friends can do for you.)

According to the images that survive of him, Mr. Shakespeare was on the balding side and looked surprisingly good with an earring.

For most of his career, he wrote for a theater company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, founded in 1594. As a shareholder, Mr. Shakespeare benefited both from the troupe's financial successes and from its ability to survive the winds of Elizabethan political change. (The company's association with the Earl of Essex became briefly problematic when Essex mounted the world's most ineffectual revolt against the queen.) With the accession of James I, the players changed their name to the King's Men and performed before His Majesty on 187 occasions, more than all rival companies put together. The king loved his men.10

Before he died, Mr. Shakespeare saw his plays performed at Blackfriars Theater, at the Globe (which burned down during a performance of "Henry VIII," an event perhaps more exciting than anything that happens during "Henry VIII"), at the Inns of Court and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His audience extended beyond the bounds of Albion. In 1607, it is reported, the English crew of the Red Dragon merchant ship performed "Hamlet" for local leaders in Sierra Leone. To no small amount of bafflement, one might wager.

In all, Mr. Shakespeare wrote between 37 and 40 plays, depending on whom you ask. Some he wrote in collaboration. "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," for instance, does not make sense as the work of a single playwright; in fact, it makes little sense at all. Only 18 of Mr. Shakespeare's plays were published over the course of his life—in flimsy little quartos that practically dissolve if they're looked at too closely. "Macbeth" and "Julius Caesar" are still waiting, but sources say that seven years hence, two of Shakespeare's acting colleagues will reassemble almost all of the plays into a quasi-definitive First Folio. (We are prescient that way.)

Mr. Shakespeare didn't hesitate to steal plots—from Seneca and Plutarch and Ovid, from Spenser and Chaucer and Holinshed's Chronicles. Nor did he hesitate to alter those plots. (According to Holinshed, Macbeth's witches were originally nymphs.)11 Nor did he hesitate to coin new words. More than 2,000 received their first recorded use in his work, including barefaced, assassination, excellent, frugal, eyeball, auspicious, swagger, zany, summit, moonbeam, obscene, cold-blooded, hot-blooded, epileptic, fashionable, gossip, lonely, grovel, torture, manager, well-read, buzzer and rant.

It should be added that Mr. Shakespeare was equally, if not more, revered in his lifetime for his nontheatrical poetry. His "Rape of Lucrece" (not as graphic as it sounds) went into multiple reprints, and "Venus and Adonis"—dedicated to the 3rd Earl of Southampton12--was the greatest publishing coup of his career, far outselling any editions of his plays.

Lovers of verse particularly revere Mr. Shakespeare's 154 sonnets,13 which include these fragrant lines: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"; "Love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds"; "When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,/I all alone beweep my outcast state"; "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun."

Mr. Shakespeare never subscribed to the penniless-artist school and hoarded his coins as assiduously as Shylock, twice defaulting on fairly measly tax payments. By the time he reached the age of "the lean and slippered pantaloon," he had purchased high-end real estate in both London and Stratford, as well as a coat of arms. An aspirer just like his father.

Through it all, he continued, rather surprisingly, to act in plays—including his own and those of his friendly rival Ben Jonson.14 Reached today for comment, Mr. Jonson said Mr. Shakespeare was "a monument without a tomb" and "not of an age but for all time." After a couple of ales, Mr. Jonson added that his old friend knew "small Latin and less Greek" and, when it was remarked that Mr. Shakespeare never had to blot a paper with edits, Mr. Jonson snapped, "Would he had blotted a thousand!" (Mr. Shakespeare's other chief rival, Christopher Marlowe,15 was unavailable for comment, having been dead 23 years.)

Who Got the Best Bed?

At some point between 1610 and 1613, Mr. Shakespeare seems to have retired from the stage. He still got down to London but may have spent increasing amounts of time in Stratford, where he concerned himself with such weighty spiritual affairs as road repairs and land enclosures. It is possible he gardened. It is possible he bored friends and family with hoary stage anecdotes.

He is survived by his wife, Anne, who was bequeathed his second-best bed; his aforementioned daughter, Judith; another daughter, Susanna; and a granddaughter, Elizabeth. He is preceded in death by his son Hamnet and by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, who shuffled off this mortal coil well before some of Mr. Shakespeare's most famous plays were even written. Or did he?16

Mr. Shakespeare will also be survived by: Bardolaters, conspiracy theorists, Freudian theorists, postcolonial theorists, Shakespeare-studies minors, readers in at least 80 languages (including Krio, spoken by freed slaves in Sierra Leone), Stratford-upon-Avon tourists in open-top double-decker buses ("Mind the branches"), "West Side Story," T-shirts, coffee mugs, key rings, mints, board games, action figures, college-dorm posters, Christmas tree ornaments, bookmarks, temporary tattoos, magnetic poetry kits, shower curtains, onesies, twosies, inspirational memes and Harold Bloom.17

In addition, Mr. Shakespeare will be survived by Mr. Shakespeare.

As long as we speak of "star-crossed lovers" or "cold comfort" or "a pound of flesh" or "a laughingstock" or "a wild-goose chase"; as long as we call imps "puckish" and morbidly obese people "Falstaffian"18 and refer to jealousy as "the green-eyed monster";19 as long as we use phrases like "It's Greek to me" or "To thine own self be true" or "Clothes make the man" or "The lady doth protest too much" or "Give the Devil his due," Mr. Shakespeare will be shaping our everyday speech.

And as long as we wrestle with what it means to be human, Mr. Shakespeare will be our companion and our lodestar. The words of Hamlet serve as fitting epitaph for his creator: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!"

© Louis Bayard




1. Elizabethan spelling was notoriously variable, which explains why more than 80 different versions of Shakespeare's name made their way into print, including Shackspeare, Shakspere, Shaksper and Shak-speare. Shakespeare was the most commonly used spelling in his day, but by the 18th century, the version most favored was Shakespear, and only in the 20th century did Shakespeare become the standard. Interestingly, of the six surviving signatures the great man himself left behind, not one is spelled Shakespeare.

2. Judith may have been distracted at the time because her new husband, a dodgy vintner named Thomas Quiney, had just fathered a child with another woman.

3. Why not the foremost English writer? In "Shakespeare: The World as Stage," Bill Bryson writes that at the time of Shakespeare's death, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher and Ben Jonson all enjoyed greater esteem as playwrights. Beaumont was the first dramatist to be buried in Westminster Abbey—an honor never accorded Shakespeare, even though the two men died a few months apart. It took another century for Shakespeare's reputation to outstrip that of his peers.

4. Macbeth is assured that "none of woman born" will ever harm him. Unluckily for our Scot, his ultimate conqueror, Macduff, was "from his mother's womb/Untimely ripped." The Devil is in the loopholes.

5. The symbol of Desdemona's fidelity—and the device that seals her doom—is a white handkerchief "spotted" (i.e., embroidered) with strawberries, which Iago gets hold of and plants in Cassio's room.

6. Kate's "submission speech"—"Fie, fie! Unknit that threat'ning unkind brow"—would suggest that she has, in fact been tamed, but some modern theatrical productions have reconfigured that submission as an act of skepticism, irony or even defiance.

7. Arden is the name Shakespeare gave to the forest in "As You Like It," where the exiled Duke Senior and his "many merry men" "fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world."

8. Joan Shakespeare married a hatter named William Hart, who died just six days before his famous brother-in-law. Joan herself lived to the ripe old age of 77. She is the only member of the Shakespeare clan with known modern descendants.

9. Confusingly, she is listed as Anne Whateley on the marriage-license application. Her father, in his will, refers to her as Agnes (which was pronounced then with a silent g, as in ANN-us). She outlived her husband by seven years.

10. King James's bisexuality was recognized even by his contemporaries. The love of his life, by most accounts, was George Villiers, who rose from royal cupbearer to Earl of Buckingham and who is addressed in one of the king's letters as "my sweet child and wife."

11. Raphael Holinshed first published his "Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande" in 1577. The second edition, released in 1587, was Shakespeare's primary source for the bulk of his history plays, as well as "King Lear" and "Cymbeline."

12. Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton and Baron of Titchfield, was only 19 when "Venus" was published. The young nobleman was known for being wealthy and foppish and for having dalliances with both sexes. "The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end," Shakespeare wrote. There is no record of how the earl responded.

13. More than 100 of Shakespeare's sonnets are dedicated to a beautiful male youth, who is assumed by some scholars to be Henry Wriothesley but has never been conclusively identified. Another 27 sonnets are intended for a "dark lady" with "raven black eyes." She has never been conclusively identified either.

14. Shakespeare was listed as a principal performer in two Jonson plays: "Every Man in His Humour" (1598) and "Sejanus His Fall" (1603). (We don't know which roles he played.) According to one story, Shakespeare and Jonson were eating and drinking together the week before Shakespeare's death, apparently with mortal consequences.

15. Marlowe was stabbed to death at 29, allegedly in a brawl over a tavern bill. The mystery surrounding his murder has spawned many centuries' worth of conspiracy theories, further deepened by the possibility that Marlowe was a government spy.

16. The startling notion that the Earl of Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare's plays was first propounded in 1918 by the unfortunately named J. Thomas Looney, an English schoolmaster. Oxford is now the leading alternative claimant to Shakespeare's literary throne, but mainstream Shakespearean scholars dismiss the idea, pointing out, among other things, that Oxford died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare's plays saw the light of day—and before the historical events that inspired such works as "Macbeth" (the Gunpowder Plot) and "The Tempest" (a much-publicized shipwreck off Bermuda).

17. One of the best-known Bardolaters of our day, Harold Bloom has contended that we owe our modern human consciousness to Shakespeare.

18. The corpulent, cowardly Falstaff was originally based on Sir John Oldcastle, a Lollard heretic whose friendship with Henry V shielded him from prosecution. However, after mounting an open rebellion against the king, Oldcastle was captured and hanged over a fire. Shakespeare kept the Oldcastle name for the first staging of "Henry IV" but, for the print edition, changed it to Falstaff—perhaps out of deference to Oldcastle's powerful descendants, the Lords Cobham. (And yes, there was also a John Fastolf: an English knight accused, perhaps unfairly, of running away during a battle against Joan of Arc.)

19. Iago: "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;/It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock/The meat it feeds on." (Not the only time Shakespeare used that metaphor. Portia speaks of "green-eyed jealousy" in "The Merchant of Venice.")

Picture Imperfect

AARP, May 5, 2016

"Hey, I saw that picture of you," said my 20-something neighbor as she passed me in the local coffee shop. "So young-looking!"

It took me a while to grasp that she hadn't been leafing through my high-school or college yearbook. She hadn't gotten a glimpse of my driver's -license picture (which hasn't been updated in a decade and a half). She was talking about something of far more recent vintage: my author photo.

A picture that had been taken some five years earlier on a fall day in Battery Park. Even then, it had tasted of the aspirational. The photographer, harnessing every last trick in his digital magic bag, had found a way to plane away my crow's feet, plant pixie dust beneath my skin, make the blue of my eyes pop like a Swiss mountain lake.

Is that me? I remember asking myself.

Well, of course it was. Just ... more.

And so, as the years went by, I learned to ignore the people who told me how "hot" I looked on my dust jacket, how "flattering" the picture was, what "good work" the photographer had done. I comforted myself in the knowledge that author photos never really look like the people in question. Truth be told, this is the one form of vanity still available to wordsmiths. For one brief shining moment, we get to look like our best selves. Even if that best self was a generation ago.

Still, that passing remark from my young neighbor really dug under my skin. I felt like Blanche DuBois or Norma Desmond, dragged into the light of day. There was no getting around it anymore: I would have to update my "public face."

So I asked the son of a friend to snap some pics of me in a local park, and it was only in the act of unspooling the images across my computer screen that I grasped—at some molecular level—how old I had become while I was looking the other way. The vertical fissure just above my nose; the crow's feet, no longer diffused but etched; the unmistakable spackling of gray across my hair.

Is that me?

Yes. Right now, that's the face I'm presenting to the world. And after some reflection, I've decided I'm okay OK with that. Because whatever went into making my books is present and accounted for in every sag and line and wrinkle. My body—like my body of work—is just the outward reflection of what's inside.

So the next time some young neighbor bumps into me in a coffee shop, I want her to say: "You look just like your picture." And I desperately want me to say: "Thank you."

© Louis Bayard

Homesick for Downton Abbey? Here's a Way to Go Back There

New York Times, November 16, 2017

It lives.

The show you could never quite kick the habit of. The show you tried to replace with "The Crown" or "Call the Midwife" or "Peaky Blinders" or, God, "Poldark." But nothing, it turned out, could quite fibrillate your atrium like that first sight of Downton Abbey every Sunday evening, framed against a blue sky by a yellow lab's twitching haunches, and bringing with it the promise of gorgeous, onrolling misery for every character, upstairs and down.

Quietly, stubbornly, you kept the flame alive, trolling the show's Wiki forum, lunging at every report of a possible film version, plotting your make-believe itineraries to Highclere Castle, where most of the show was filmed. And now your faithfulness has its reward. The Abbey—or, at least, "Downton Abbey: The Exhibition"—has come back to you.

Housed in a Victorian-era building near Columbus Circle, this exhibition, which opens Saturday and runs through January, is a kind of theme park for re-addiction, a cleverly immersive experience mounted with the same exacting care as the show itself. It gives "Abbey" addicts both the short-term injection they need, and the reassurance that nothing from their favorite show has ever been thrown away.

All the old habitats, including Mr. Carson's pantry, the servants' dining room and Lady Mary's bedroom (faintly scandalous with its memory of Kemal Pamuk's coital demise) are painstakingly recreated, right down to the forks and spoons arranged just so on the Crawley dinner table. Behind the green baize door lies the servants' quarters just as you left them, along with Mr. Carson's old desk, complete with period-era bills and correspondence, and on the far wall, the immortal bell board, spontaneously erupting with some mysterious new summons from abovestairs.

The sense of arrested time grows particularly acute when you wander into Mrs. Patmore's kitchen, that realm of shining wooden surfaces and ceramic bowls and copper pots, one of which sits even now steaming on the stove. "It's all exactly the same," marvels the actress Sophie McShera, who has come to New York on promotional duties and who, as dim Daisy, cut up six seasons' worth of produce on these very chopping boards—with this very knife. Also on hand was Mrs. P herself (or Lesley Nicol, as the real world insists on calling her) who admitted to getting "a bit gulpy" at being surrounded again by the old props. (In the same breath, she confessed that she didn't do much actual cooking on the show. "I did what Gordon Ramsay did. I just tasted and swore.")

Where the exhibition surprises is in its high-tech flourishes, which include a CGI clip-loop with scenes from the original show in the library and interactive stations designed to test your fitness for a servant's position. (How fit were the actual servants, I'm trying to remember?) You might, in passing, spare a thought for poor Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), who was discombobulated not just by electricity but also by swivel chairs and who might have given up the ghost altogether at the sight of Mrs. Hughes's beaming hologram.

Needless to say, Violet occupies her own special place in the retrospective (though, sadly, Ms. Smith is not among the cast members who have filmed exhibition-specific greetings) and virtually every major character is granted some kind of plinth, supplemented by artifacts and interpretation. You can crank an old gramophone, if you like, or turn the wireless dial—or just stare at the creepy Crawley family portraits on the dining-room walls and wonder why you never really saw them before.

It's on the third and last floor that the exhibition gets down to business. By which I mean clothes. Under the ministrations of the costume designer Anna Robbins, we are borne back to Lord Grantham's hunting pinks, to Sybil's boho harem pants, to the felt hat Mary sported in her point-to-point. Stop, if you would, and admire Edith's first wedding gown, but please don't be so rude as to mention that she barely got to wear it because here's Edith's second wedding gown! A perfect flotilla of antique lace, rather more impressive than her sister Mary's, and for those of you who keeping score in that festering sibling rivalry, I'll just mention that Edith gets her own window in front of the building, and Mary doesn't.

Mr. Carson's elusive gong is waiting for you in the final video installation, where you can once more watch that nasty servant O'Brien place her bar of soap just so and you can catch poor Lady Sybil in the death throes of eclampsia and see Mr. Bates off to jail and see Mrs. Bates off to jail and watch Matthew motoring to his doom and somewhere in there World War I wandered through, remember? It's all over so fast, and before you know it, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is declaring in that rumbling bass of his: "Perhaps we'll meet again. You never know."

Which is either a plug for the "Downton" film—still in development, according to exhibition organizers (it is being presented by NBCU International Studios)—or a thinly disguised hope that you'll come back to feed your addiction. (And enlist more addicts, while you're at it. The exhibition will be traveling to other, still-to-be-announced cities in America.) In the meantime, to tide you over, there's the gift shop, a pond of Anglophilia that offers, among the expected Christmas crackers and Walkers shortbread, a range of licensed Downton merchandise: T-shirts and mugs and Christmas ornaments and, if you're feeling lonely, your very own bell board or, if you're feeling flush, a Royal Doulton figurine of Lord and Lady Grantham for $350.

Yes, in its own quiet and improbable way, "Downton" has become a franchise every bit as enduring, every bit as penetrative as "Star Wars" or "Iron Man." The only question that lingers as you stumble back outside is whether a franchise was what you really craved. Didn't the show's appeal always lie in how snugly its lifestyle lay outside your reach? You could no more ride to hounds or be presented at court or dine at the Ritz in a perfectly fitted sea foam gown with mermaid tail than you could declare yourself regent. Is it right that you should be able to buy your way in, tchotchke by tchotchke? Would you belong to a club that would have you as a member?

© Louis Bayard

Personal Compositions

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2010

My father wrote me once a week when I was in college. Chitchat, for the most part. "Your Uncle Joe called. . . . Dishwasher went out. . . . Had a nice jog this morning." Exactly the kind of stuff people post on Facebook now. I read each of his letters exactly once and put it . . . where? That's what I couldn't remember in the days and weeks after his death. I went through box after box, hunting for those ancient relics, and when I realized they were well and truly gone, I felt as if I'd betrayed not just my father but the whole point of his writing me in the first place.

For isn't there a sacred premise behind every letter? That it will be kept and savored as long as there are eyes to read? Then again, how many of the letters we've received over the years are still with us? And what has happened to the letters we ourselves cast into the world? Is anyone brooding over those?

Letter writing may be an art, as Thomas Mallon argues in his richly entertaining overview, but it is a highly contingent and perishable one—a bit like the mural that Joyce Cary's half-mad artist, Gulley Jimson, paints as a valedictory on a condemned church. For a letter to survive, someone must deem it worth saving, and someone must deem it worth passing down. The famous correspondence of Madame de Sévigné, valued as much for its aphoristic pith ("I fear nothing so much as a man who is witty all day long") as for its insights into the court life of Louis XIV, was pruned and, in some cases, rewritten by her granddaughter. Scottie Fitzgerald would coldly examine her illustrious dad's notes for "checks and news," then dump them in her desk drawer. (It was her daughter who later compiled and published them.) Tennessee Williams's letters to his sometime muse Maria St. Just have been set aside for posterity, but where are the pages she wrote in reply? Did Williams toss them away in a fit of pique? Or did they just vanish into the maelstrom of his life?

Even letters that survive the test of time may face a stiffer test from history. The words of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill will always command attention. But what of a long-forgotten literary critic named Francis Matthiessen, whom we find in Mallon's book building a romantic life with another man? What of the deaf English seamstress tensely negotiating her future with a tailor? The Oxford language student struggling to remain faithful to her soldier lover on the far side of the world?

It's to Mallon's credit that he is attuned to the drama of these seemingly undramatic lives—and to the grim irony that letter writing today thrives most in extremis, among the prisoners and refugees who have been deprived of electronic communication. "Our situations are very different," an imprisoned dissident writes Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping; "you are at the top of a billion people and I am at the very bottom—but life isn't easy for either of us. It's just that I am not the one making your life difficult, while you're the one making it hard for me."

That power imbalance is, at least in the context of this letter, neutralized. Addresser speaks to addressee on equal terms. Still, Mallon knows that most of us approach a volume like this not for democracy in action but for the aristocracy of gossip. This he delivers in abundance. H. L. Mencken on Wallis Simpson: "a highly oxidized double-divorcée." Hannah Arendt on Vladimir Nabokov: "There is something vulgar in his refinement." Oscar Wilde on fickle Bosie (his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas): "The mere fact that he wrecked my life makes me love him."

Telegrams, suicide notes, memos, execution-eve manifestoes—they're all here. Oh, sure, you may mourn the critters who got away: Elizabeth Bishop or Evelyn Waugh or, hell, Émile Zola. (Was "J'accuse," his open letter defending Alfred Dreyfus, too public a performance?) But you're as likely to be astonished by how much Mallon has packed into so small a space: Helene Hanff's transatlantic flirtation with Charing Cross bookseller Frank Doel; Walter Raleigh's curiously pragmatic and, as events would prove, premature last testament; Sullivan Ballou's heart-rending farewell to his wife on the eve of Bull Run (almost impossible to read now without the strains of "Ashokan Farewell" in your ear).

If Yours Ever runs more wide than deep, that is at least partly a function of its subject. Letters must often compress a great deal of ore into a small seam—they make a virtue of their own impoverishment—and the best letter-writers are those who strike pay dirt with the least amount of spadework. This is what Mallon does, again and again. He writes of Colette, living her life "as a kind of giant maw." Of Lord Byron, bent from birth on "becoming an adjective." Of John Keats: "No matter how hard circumstances press, the bedsprings of his self are available for falling back on; the harder his fall, the more cheerful his squeak."

I particularly liked Mallon's take on Philip Larkin, who "craved sooty windows the way others do bright lights" and whose letters illuminate the distinction between happiness and fulfillment. The former may be what one wants, but the latter is what one needs, and as such is much more profound. Philip Larkin's natural temperament was deeply, depressingly fulfilled."

We might question Mallon's fondness for puns ("Pushkin came to shove") and his dismissal of John Milton, an advocate for divorce and a free press, as "English literature's most august and terrifying adherent to convention." There are moments, too, when the literary worth of a particular writer (Jean Harris, say, or Neal Cassady) is more obvious to Mallon than to the reader. But there is no denying the love that undergirds the author's labor or the seemingly laborless way in which he calls these dead pages back to life.

What kind of life, though? That's the question that began niggling at me the moment I closed this delightful book. Yours Ever is conceived as a museum for a lost art, and it is not hard to see Mallon as the docent in the cardigan sweater, ushering us into each room and then sending us off into the gloaming of modernity. "Mr. Jobs's world," he calls it. By which he means a benighted land where people have lost all capacity for reflection and "considered exchange." Where even educated folk are reduced to sending text messages that read, in their entirety, "r u there?" Where "addictive gratifications have replaced the old, slow anticipation of the daily visit from the mailman."

There is, in short, a reflexive melancholy to Mallon's self-appointed mission, and I'm not convinced that all his belletristesse is merited. (Then again, waiting for the mailman has always struck me as a dubious pleasure.) When I sift through my past week's electronic in-box, I find easily half a dozen messages that qualify as letters in every traditional sense. They are coherently structured, written with care and design. They enlighten, they illuminate, they endear. They even follow the old epistolary ritual of signing off (not "yours ever," but some venerable variant: "yours" . . . "cheers" . . . "all best" . . . "xo"). My e-mail may not ascend to the level of Madame de Sévigné, but then, neither did Madame de Sévigné all the time.

More to the point, these messages would probably never have come my way if the senders had been obliged to take out pen and paper. Indeed, it is the very facility of electronic communication that makes the Luddite soul tremble. When Mallon complains that e-mail has "made the telegram's instant high dudgeon affordable to all," it is clear that the access troubles him as much as the dudgeon. Look at me! I'm a belletrist, too! But does the relative ease of an e-mail's composition necessarily detract from its value? Are postage stamps a bona fide of literaryintent?

Even in the age of tweets and pokes and blasts, the impulse to bring order to our thoughts and lives persists, and at the risk of sounding like a technojingoist, one might argue that technology facilitates this impulse as much as it impedes it. One might even envision a day when the electronic message becomes more durable than the letter, when we no longer have to rummage through cellar shadows for our father's old notes because our hard drives have tucked them away in some brightly lit corner.

That's not the story Thomas Mallon set out to write, but with his wit and range of reference, his curiosity and gift for synthesis, he is as equipped as anyone to write it. Let us hope, then, that he hasn't signed off on the subject completely, that he is even now composing some postscript that will, instead of making a fetish of loss, observe without prejudice as our missives leave the printed page and head in still-unguessed directions.

"The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe" by Andrew O'Hagan

The Washington Post, December 6, 2010

Andrew O'Hagan's jeu d'esprit washes toward us on a transatlantic wave of praise. It is brilliant, says Roddy Doyle, and moving and very funny. Edna O'Brien predicts it will become a classic. Colm Toibin loves it, too. What does it say about me, I wonder, that I found it a grinding, irksome bore? In my defense, I can only argue that comic novels, by their very nature, provoke a binary response in readers: Something is funny or it isn't, and nothing can persuade us otherwise. I love pretty much everything Dawn Powell or Saki ever wrote, but I still can't make it through "A Confederacy of Dunces" (God knows I've tried) or "Molloy" or Thomas Pynchon's recent picaresques. And I'm afraid I resented every minute I had to spend with "The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe."

Starting with that broadly winking title. The eponymous Maf is our narrator, deeply garrulous and, according to his papers, a Scottish-born Maltese, "the sort of dog who is set for foreign adventures and ordained to tell the story." This particular story takes him to America in the early '60s, where, through a complicated chain of ownership, he is lateraled from Frank Sinatra to America's favorite sex symbol, who has just split up with America's most revered playwright.

Nursing herself back to mental health, Marilyn camps out in an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment and spends her days crawling through long Russian novels, rehearsing scenes from "Anna Christie" at the Actors Studio, visiting her shrink and trying, in some vague but real way, to determine who she is, apart from the world's desires.

She finds a spiritual ally in her lapdog, Maf, who is entranced by her beauty and kindness and Chanel No. 5 scent. "I think," writes Maf, "we shared a feeling for the tribulations of the period, an instinct for killing the distance between the high and the low, something that would come in time to explain the depth of our friendship. If she brought out the actor in me then it might be said that I brought out the philosopher in her. The Marilyn I knew was smelly and fun and an artist to the very end of her fingertips."

Dog and owner stroll through Central Park, take the ferry to Staten Island, hang out at the Copa, drop in on Leo Castelli's art gallery and hobnob with lit-crit dragons at Alfred Kazin's apartment. But Marilyn grows "listless with thoughts, regrets"and, after spiraling into depression, flees with Maf back to California, where even the promise of a new house and a new starring role can't keep her from embracing drink and pills and the long "slide towards abstraction."

The book climaxes not with Marilyn's death but with her singing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy—the moment, in short, when Marilyn was swallowed by her own caricature. Only to become, in the hands of European intellectuals, a new sort of caricature: the emblem (and victim) of Cold War America's Eros-Thanatos contradictions. Yes, they love Dead Marilyn across the pond, and no one loves her more than emigre Maf, who, having somehow absorbed the full continuum of Western culture, devoutly wishes to situate his former mistress within it.

He's the kind of pedantic pooch who can't even sit for a spell in Central Park without conjuring up visions of the Ice Age and dinosaurs and the Dutch settlers. The kind who, even when he's giving you the inside poop on his illustrious owners, has to water it with a stream of pensees: "Trotsky said there is no place for self-satisfaction at the point of revolution. . . . Those of us who tell stories are committed slaves to the past's dominion, to the fresh echo of the little bell which announced M. Swann's arrival. . . . It was America, dear, golden, childish America, that joined the narrative of personal ambition to the myth of a common consciousness, making a hymn, oh yes, to the future, the spirit, and the rolling land." On and on it goes, and if you're anything like me, you'll be reaching for the nearest muzzle or, failing that, a rolled-up newspaper.

I won't argue that O'Hagan is ungifted. He buffs phrase after phrase to a Turtle Wax sheen: Arthur Miller's "inky old blameless honour," John Kennedy's "dictatorship of good intentions." He sketches a portrait of Marilyn that is largely persuasive and grants her neither too much nor too little intellectual weight. And while his ear for American dialect is erratic, he can, if he wishes, create tableaux of cut-glass perfection: a wacky cocktail hour at the home of Natalie Wood's Russian parents; a moment of sisterly communion between Marilyn and Shelley Winters. The problem is that every time you find yourself inching toward enjoyment, that damned dog rushes in with his yappy lectures and his scrolls of cultural signifiers and his "Is the possibility of Being contingent on an acceptance of Mortality?" and his "I wonder if the Russian dogs care for Plutarch as much as I do,"and any prospect of joy flies out the door.

To his credit, O'Hagan has sidestepped whimsy, but he has wholeheartedly embraced pretentiousness, and if that's not a laugh killer, I don't know what is. Among the many, many, many literary allusions dropped by Maf over the course of this slender novel is Virginia Woolf's putdown of "Ulysses": "the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples." I think you can see a similar impulse at play in O'Hagan, who makes such an exhausting case for his own brilliance that he comes off like the cleverest boy in fifth form. All I wanted to do at book's end was find a real dog and rub it behind its ears.

"Frank: The Voice" by James Kaplan

The Washington Post, December 10, 2010

It's not the voice—or it's not just the voice. Other male popular singers have had greater instruments: Tony Bennett, Luther Vandross, Roy Orbison—hell, Vic Damone. What makes Frank Sinatra stand out is not simply tone or diction or phrasing but . . . okay, what is it?

Here's James Kaplan's theory: "The indefinable something composed of loneliness and need and infinite ambition and storytelling intelligence and intense musicality and Hoboken," not to mention an overtone or two of Sinatra's redoubtable mother, "Hatpin Dolly," who earned her living as a midwife who performed abortions and had the rap sheet to show for it.

It's all those things, or maybe it's just this: When you're listening to Sinatra in his prime, you're hearing the truth. The truth of a particular song and the man singing it and that whole complicated dance between an art work and its interpreter that makes you wonder where one leaves off and the other begins, until you realize it doesn't matter.

Frank Sinatra's effect on American pop culture was as nuclear as Elvis Presley's or the Beatles' or Michael Jackson's, so let's dispense first of all with the notion that we don't need another book about him. Or that the job of anatomizing his mystery should be left either to the gossip-hounds (Kitty Kelley, J. Randy Taraborrelli) or the sycophants (daughters, valet, fan club president, etc.). Let's accept the implicit contention of "Frank," that a big star needs a big book—this is the first of two projected volumes—something that can situate him both horizontally, in the expanse of his times, and vertically, down to the itchiest layers of his soul.

Is Kaplan's book that book? It certainly aspires to be. A hernial sound rises from each page, as if the author were hoisting a world of scholarship onto his shoulders, and to his credit, that labor produces a stream of insights. Kaplan really gets what made Sinatra unique. He understands the crucial importance of arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Axel Stordahl in the Sinatra discography, and he ably dissects Sinatra's strange courtship rituals with mobsters (which may have extended to the singer serving as a Mafia bagman).

Above all, Kaplan grasps how unsuited—and at the same time, how perfect—Sinatra was for the job of American idol. He was an only child, irreversibly Italian in a WASP world, scarred by forceps and acne and a mastoid operation, so skinny he nearly disappeared behind his microphone. His drive and hunger, though, were outsize, and his show-biz breaks came slowly but punctually: first with Major Bowes's "Original Amateur Hour," then a stint with bandleader Harry James, and then the big time with Tommy Dorsey.

Sinatra was supposed to be just one of the boys behind Dorsey's trombone, but the more time he spent in front, the more potent a spell he cast. "What he did to women," recalled Dorsey, "was something awful." What he did to girls was even worse. A publicist who watched a 1943 Sinatra concert was able to pick out one sound above the bobby-soxers' din: "a low moan, emanating from a lanky black-haired girl. . . . It was a sound he had heard before—only in very different, much more private, circumstances."

This element of sexual hysteria was new to popular music, and to see it generated by a beanpole in floppy bow ties (sewn by his wife) was a mystery even to Sinatra's contemporaries—but not to Sinatra. He understood, as one journalist wrote, that "the male of the species has never developed a more effective seduction line than the display of frailty."

In short, the little guy from Hoboken scored. Again and again. And when Hollywood beckoned, Sinatra seemed to devote as much time to chasing famous skirts as he did to churning out indifferent musicals. Never mind that he had Nancy and the three kids at home. There was a war on, and a world of conveniently abandoned women just waiting for him. His sexual escapades were so poorly concealed that by the end of World War II, writes historian William Manchester, Sinatra was "the most hated man in the armed services": a 4-F cuckolder who was, symbolically or actually, getting it on with the girls back home.

Inevitably, those same girls grew up and got married, and in the ensuing years Sinatra's record sales and drawing power suffered a corresponding decline. By the early 1950s, he was reduced to booking his own gigs and recording cheesy novelty tunes like "Mama Will Bark," a dream duet for two canines, complete with yips and woof. Clearly, the Voice would need a new platform or risk going silent altogether.

It's always tempting to turn the first half of Sinatra's career into a morality play: a rake's progress and reformation. But to hear Kaplan tell it, Sinatra was no more coherent in success than in failure because his substrate was pure emotion. None of that Bing Crosby coolness (and coldness). The qualifiers that cluster around the young Sinatra—hysterical, hypersensitive, obsessive-compulsive, suicidal—suggest not the tough guy he desperately wanted to be but a diva, an inescapably feeling artist who "would never stop yearning, because he could never get what he truly wanted. And he could never—ever—get it fast enough."

Kaplan is no slouch at channeling other men's voices, having previously ghosted memoirs for Jerry Lewis and John McEnroe, but it must be said that the effect of filtering data through Sinatra's Runyonesque swagger is not always pleasing. "The smile on Big Nancy's face whenever he stopped by reminded him of that chick in the painting by da Vinci."

And in attempting to divine the feelings of long-dead folks, Kaplan too often teeters between New Journalese and mass-market romance: "And at that moment, Nancy literally had to hold on to the doorway for support: the earth had spun off its axis. . . . Her green-gold eyes said that she knew all his secrets. . . . Both knew the bottomless loneliness that stalks the deep watches of the night. . . . But their love was like a fire that flamed up and consumed them both."

A little of this goes a long way, and "Frank" is made still longer by the necessity of recounting Sinatra's turbulent relationship with Ava Gardner, that "gorgeous nihilist" and Frank's "true partner in the opera that was his life." It's a tale full of sound and fury, yes, but its endless cycle of wild arguments and wild makeup sex is as exhausting for a reader as it must have been for the lovers themselves.

We can at least be grateful to Gardner for schooling Sinatra so thoroughly in the ways of his own heart. For that we are all the richer.

Kaplan makes the conventional decision to end Volume One with Sinatra's Oscar-winning triumph as the doomed Maggio in "From Here to Eternity." (And by the way, Kaplan discounts the Mario Puzo-inspired legend that the Mob secured the role for Sinatra. Blame it instead on Eli Wallach's agents for demanding too much money.)

To my mind, though, the true turning point of Sinatra's career was the series of melancholy concept albums he put out in the mid-1950s for Capitol Records: "Songs for Young Lovers," "In the Wee Small Hours" and, most supreme, "Only the Lonely." Buttressed by Riddle's mournful strings and noir horns, Sinatra plunges so religiously into his own despair that he almost doesn't return. (And maybe, somewhere down there, he meets Wagner and Mahler.)

It's not just the specter of Ava Gardner he's seeking in those aural depths, it's his own extinction. And has death ever sounded more beautiful? It says something about Sinatra that the only way he could heal his heart was to break ours.

"Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain" by Hal Holbrook

The Washington Post, October 14, 2011

Hal Holbrook is a fine actor. He is a lovely and distinguished man. He is a great American, even. Does he really need more than 500 pages to tell his life's story?

Well, that's the plan, anyway. The first installment in a projected two-memoir sequence, "Harold" puts us on notice right away. It will stop before the onset of Holbrook's film career. (The Oscar-nominated turn in "Into the Wild" is still decades away.) It won't get around to his TV triumphs in "Pueblo" and "That Certain Summer" or his marriage (his third) to the divine Dixie Carter, or what he thought about Bill Clinton or Kennedy or capri pants, or where he was for the moon landing. "Harold" is about the guy who became Hal Holbrook, and it takes its good sweet time getting him there.

Then again, it's a wonder he got there at all, given how many strikes he had against him going in. A mother who had run off to Hollywood, never to be seen again . A father shuffling in and out of insane asylums. A kindly grandfather in Cleveland who died too soon, abandoning Harold to strangers and sadistic schoolmasters. Very early in life, the boy's mission was sealed: "I would survive even if no one else did."

Salvation comes from Culver Military Academy, where he finds, for the first time, stability—and a soft academic credit in dramatics. As soon as he sets foot on stage, though, something "immense and powerful" happens. "I spoke my first line and then another and another, and they felt real to me. Bold and scary but real. . . . People were listening to me. Listening to me."

He enrolls in the drama department at Denison University, and after some stateside war duty, he and his pretty new wife mount a touring show of the classics—Shakespeare and Moliere and Maxwell Anderson—driving hundreds of miles a day to perform for women's clubs and fidgeting school kids. They dress behind screens, they shake dead cockroaches from their sheets, they weave their Ford station wagon around cattle and steers. Always one step ahead of poverty, they say yes to every gig, and they keep moving, "a tiny speck racing across America." And for what? Twenty bucks a show, and the chance to bring culture to Oklahoma City.

Holbrook honed his craft in summer stock and got his first break in a daytime soap opera. Then an agent suggested turning his Mark Twain material into a one-man show, along the lines of Twain's famous lectures. Holbrook refined the act the only way he knew—on the road—and in 1959, he went for the brass ring: a solo bill, with all of New York's critical knives sharpening in the dark.

The knives were soon sheathed, and if you've ever seen Holbrook's Twain, you'll know why. More than just a masterful makeup job or an exemplary display of technique, it's an absolute fusion of actor and character. It's Mark Twain, walking and breathing before you.

So the success wagon finally stopped and let Hal Holbrook aboard, but the predominant note of "Harold" is one of loss. His sister dies young, possibly from a botched abortion. His wife suffers a nervous breakdown. Holbrook himself struggles with profound fear and insecurity. He has an affair; he neglects his kids. No sin goes unrecounted, and in his description of his sexual failings, the honesty can rise to the level of excruciating.

"Harold," in short, is an exercise in healing—and not always an artful one. For every felicitous phrase (a theatrical agent who "smelled like the walls"), there is a slurry of purple ("the massed anger and fear that lay waiting like a wolf in the night would come howling out of the darkness and claim center stage in the struggle to come"). And with its shoals of raw data, "Harold" can make you feel like you've been squeezed next to an old uncle as he leafs through all his scrapbooks. Ancient receipts and itineraries. Playbills and postcards. Every rave he's ever received. And it's so nice outside!

Maybe it's only when you've freed yourself from Uncle Hal that you realize what a uniquely American pilgrimage he undertook all those years ago—traveling vast empty spaces for a few moments in the dark—and how much it cost him. Maybe you'll even think of Willy Loman (another kind of actor): "He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back, that's an earthquake."

"The Litigators" by John Grisham

The Washington Post, October 21, 2011

Is it me, or are John Grisham's titles following a slow ramp to dreariness? The muted menace of "The Firm" and "The Client" has given way to such spine-tinglers as "The Broker," "The Appeal," "The Associate" and now, in a flourish of syllables designed to stop the pulse, "The Litigators." With a chill of foreboding, I await "The Trademark and Copyright Specialists" and "The Underground Storage Tank Regulators."

Fortunately, the books themselves are climbing in the other direction. I speak as someone who abandoned Grisham after plowing through three early volumes, which were page-turners only in the sense that nothing much was holding the pages down. Wit, texture, idiosyncrasy, anything that might have kept the chassis from speeding home had been stripped away.

Did that affect Grisham's sales? It did not. But instead of (or in addition to) laughing all the way to the bank, he took the road less traveled by: He got better. He worked some new kinks into the old formulas. He read (I'm guessing) Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly and Scott Turow with profit. Most intriguingly, he began tossing back drinks with characters who would never in their lives be played by Tom Cruise.

So if you're a Grisham apostate, now might be the time to get reacquainted. And this snappy, well-turned novel might be a good place to start.

Our hero is David Zinc, a Harvard Law grad and, at 31, a burnt-out case, one of the many associates and junior partners toiling for long hours and large (unspent) wages in a downtown Chicago law firm. All is going as planned, which is to say horribly, until one morning David suffers an anxiety attack on the 93rd floor and bolts. After a long day's drinking, he ends up in the gutter outside an establishment called Finley & Figg.

The business of this particular firm is "hustling injury cases, a daily grind that required little skill or creativity and would never be considered cool or sexy. Profits were as elusive as status. The firm was small because it couldn't afford to grow. It was selective only because no one wanted to work there, including the two men who owned it. . . . With a Vietnamese massage parlor to its left and a lawn mower repair shop to its right, it was clear at a casual glance that Finley & Figg was not prospering."

Nor is anyone inside it. The secretary, Rochelle, is bitter and undercompensated. The senior partner, Oscar, is married to "a terrifying woman he wanted to sue every day for his own divorce." And the junior partner, Wally, is a temporarily recovering alcoholic trolling for business in funeral homes and bingo parlors.

It's the kind of ambulance-chasing outfit that can't even afford to advertise on billboards or TV, but David is desperate enough for a change that he offers his services on the spot. And for a pittance. His leap of faith is rewarded when the firm climbs aboard a class-action suit against the makers of Krayoxx, an anti-cholesterol drug that might or might not be causing heart attacks and strokes.

The evidence against the drug is thin, and the plaintiffs are few, but Wally sees the litigation as the firm's chance to "forget the humdrum of the street, the cheap divorces and drunk drivers, and go for the big money." That promise of a quick settlement unexpectedly lands the three lawyers in federal court, where none of them has argued a case, and pits them against an army of obscenely well-paid barracudas from David's old firm.

And if you think you know where this is heading . . . yes, you do, and no, you don't, because Grisham swerves clear of the usual melodramatic devices. Corporations aren't intrinsically venal; plaintiffs aren't lambent with goodness. And best of all, no one is murdered for stumbling Too Close to the Truth. The closest we ever come to violence is a bungled arson attempt and the cold-cocking of a blogger. (Take that, New Media.)

To these tragicomic proceedings, Grisham brings his usual nuanced understanding of tort law and civil jurisprudence, but he seems just as interested in the non-experts. Those hard-luck cases, for instance, who sign on to the Krayoxx suit: widows and sons seeking the break that's eluded them all their lives. At the risk of making Grisham sound pretentious or -- worse -- boring, I would argue that his true subject -- now that he has the luxury to explore it -- is how the law serves as both accessory and antagonist to our dreams.

Fiction, of course, is an even chancier system than the law. The result is that a superficially "good" character such as David's wife remains dead on the page (so does David, to some extent), while those old reprobates Oscar and Wally, warriors of the streets, stroll off with our sympathies. The author's, too, I'd wager. "The Litigators" is about a man who quits the path of assured wealth to work among the broken and fallible. From a certain distance, he resembles John Grisham.

"Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark" by Brian Kellow

The Washington Post, December 16, 2011

When we were in high school, my friend Carl and I used to await her dispatches the way the Hebrews awaited tablets from Sinai. Every other week, we rushed to People's Drug and grabbed a New Yorker off the newsstand and read her latest review on the spot—savoring the smart, profane, feisty music of her sentences. We loved Pauline Kael because she made us feel smarter and saner—more alive.

And in a weird way, I think, sexier. The titles of her collections were no accident: "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "I Lost It at the Movies," "Reeling." Kael practiced an erotics of criticism. You could disagree with her—you had no choice at times—but you couldn't love or want or need movies more than she did.

I've already used more dashes than usual. That's her doing, too.

Her fellow critic David Thomson once theorized that she would have given up everything to play one great scene in a movie. But what casting director would have taken the chance? She was diminutive, unglamorous, quick to argue. An unorthodox Jewish childhood (some of it spent on a chicken ranch in Petaluma, Calif.) led to philosophy studies at the University of California at Berkeley and then a long period of struggle that only in retrospect looks like apprenticeship: dead-end jobs, a daughter born out of wedlock, a bad marriage, doomed attachments to gay men.

And yet there was something celluloidal about Kael's first break. She was 33, holding forth at a Berkeley coffeehouse, when a magazine editor sitting nearby asked her if she wanted to review the latest Chaplin picture, "Limelight." Kael loathed it and told the world, and a career was born.

She reviewed for a local radio station; she organized and annotated film revivals; she gained a toehold in journals such as Film Quarterly and the Partisan Review. But it wasn't until 1967 that Kael won her catbird seat: a permanent reviewing slot with the New Yorker. The money wasn't great, and she had to wage bloody war with her editor, William Shawn, to preserve her earthy, idiomatic voice. But she had the platform she craved, and she made full use of it, challenging musty Europhiliac aesthetics, championing the redemptive powers of trash and pushing for a cinema of vibrancy, sensation and disorder.

"She wanted," recalls one admirer, "to open the windows and let in some air." And, just as urgently, to let out some air. With no space restrictions to stop her, she drew readers through Melvillean digressions that her biographer, Brian Kellow, usefully compares to jazz riffs, veering off from the main theme but always reconnecting in the end. The result was a kind of criticism that no one had seen before: raucous, personal, scornful of theory and received opinion—and focused above all, as Kellow writes, on "the confluence of what happened onscreen and what happened in life."

Part of me, I admit, wonders what would have happened if a writer of comparable talent had been asked to evaluate Kael's career. And then I remember it's been tried. Renata Adler's infamous scorched-earth attack on Kael in the New York Review of Books had all of Kael's aggression and none of her wit. So let us be grateful that Kellow's admiring but even-handed approach in "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark" so neatly captures the unruly emotions his subject provoked.

For the legend of Kael, unlike that of other critics, derived as much from her quirks and blind spots as from her gifts. We knew she refused to see any movie more than once. We knew she could push her judgments to untenable extremes. (Could any movie have merited the encomium she lavished on "Last Tango in Paris"?) She encouraged the adulation of younger critics—the much-mocked "Paulettes"—and abandoned any pretense of critical detachment by befriending directors such as Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman and then pushing (and sometimes panning) their work in print.

Indeed, until I read Kellow's biography, I hadn't realized quite how embedded Kael was in the film industry, chatting it up with Barbra Streisand, vetting the scripts of "Taxi Driver" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" long before they went into production, and lobbying Stephen Frears to cast Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Liaisons." (Good move.) Seen in this light, her brief and disastrous stint as a producer for Warren Beatty was a natural extension of her love-hate relationship with the Dream Factory—and, it must be added, her inability to maintain boundaries, either in art or in life.

But what, finally, is the source of any critic's value? Not simply her judgments, which falter and date, but how those judgments are expressed. And that's why Kael still matters. Open "5001 Nights at the Movies" or the new Library of America collection of Kael's writings, and you'll find, on every page, something that makes you laugh out loud or opens up a new space in your brain. Three examples, chosen at random. Ingrid Bergman's "good, solid" psychoanalyst in "Spellbound," "dispensing cures with the wholesome simplicity of a mother adding wheat germ to the family diet." From a review of "Bloodbrothers" (1978): "Richard Gere is to De Niro and Brando what the singers in 'Beatlemania' are to the Beatles."

And from a review of "Weekend": "Godard has already imposed his way of seeing on us—we look at cities, at billboards and brand names, at a girl's hair differently because of him. And when others pick up the artifacts of his way of seeing, we murmur 'Godard' and they are sunk. ... They do what Godard himself has already gone past, and the young filmmakers look out-of-date before they've got started; and their corpses are beginning to litter the festivals."

"The Fry Chronicles," by Stephen Fry

The Washington Post, January 20, 2012

Nobody likes a showoff. Oh, wait, I mean everybody does. Stephen Fry, the waggish, wonkish actor-writer-director-quiz-show-host-I-forget-what-else has attracted more than 3.5 million Twitter followers, which means that, at any minute of the day, a population larger than Berlin's is waiting for the next words to fall from his electronic lips.

Will these admirers line up for his second volume of memoirs? The answer may depend, first of all, on whether they're English. "The Fry Chronicles" drops name after showbiz name, and unless you're acutely Anglophiliac, seeing Ian Botham, Rik Mayall, Vic Reeves and Lenny Henry strut and fret their minutes upon the page won't produce many answering chords.

A second consideration: How close are you to a dictionary? Such words as "nubiferously" and "colaphize" lie strewn across your path, not to mention such phrases as "Parisian post-structuralists and their caravanserai of prolix and impenetrable evangels and dogmatically zealous acolytes." That hunk of text repeats itself at least twice by my count, but as Fry shrugs: "The felid remains incapable of permuting his nevi." No, don't get up. He only means that this leopard won't be changing his spots.

And yet a fairly deep change does play out across this funny, poignant, exhausting book. Readers of Fry's first memoir, "Moab Is My Washpot" (1997), will recall the author's deeply troubled youth, checkered by expulsions and suicide attempts and a brief spell of incarceration for stealing credit cards. When we pick him up again, he has somehow gotten himself into Cambridge University. Tall and gangling, covertly gay, he expects nothing more adventurous from his life than a teaching career, but after due consideration, he auditions for three drama club productions and gets into all of them.

"I loved the tingle of nerves as I waited in the wings," he remembers, "I loved the almost mystical hyperaesthetic way in which one was aware of each microsecond on stage, of how one could detect precisely where an audience's focus was at any one moment, I loved the thrill of knowing that I was carrying hundreds of people with me, that they were surfing on the ebb and flow of my voice."

Fry joins fates with two other undergrads: a semi-radical feminist named Emma Thompson ("She seemed, like Athene, to have arrived in the world fully armed") and a rower named Hugh Laurie, who becomes Fry's best friend and writing partner. Their troupe, the Cambridge Footlights, wins honors at the Edinburgh theater festival, and, upon graduating, they team up for lightly watched TV sketch comedies. When Fry is asked to draft a new book for a musty British musical called "For Me and My Girl," the show becomes an unexpected hit, leaving him with a cash cow.

And with a problem: What exactly to do with this teeming brain and these plural talents? The answer, as any fan could tell you, has been a bit of everything. And there lies the rub. For all his urbanity and pukka assurance, Stephen Fry would like you to know—would really like you to know—that he is deeply insecure and compulsively self-lacerating: "a jack of so many trades and manifestly a master of none." "What a waste," he adds, warming to his subject. "What a fatuous, selfish, air-headed, indolent and insulting waste my life has been."

Okay, he protests too much. And even if he didn't, this book would be its own refutation, with its linguistic brio, its hilarious anecdotes about Alistair Cooke, Stephen Sondheim, Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser ... and, fittingly enough for a champion tweeter, its glittering epigrams. The playwright Simon Gray "did not have a drinking problem. He had a drinking solution. ... Is it not a rule in life that no one is quite as stupid as we would like them to be?"

Fry may hate himself for not being his hero, Oscar Wilde, but he is Wilde enough in this respect: His prose feels like an ideal form of conversation. And at the risk of interrupting, I would propose that the world is already lousy with artists. It's the true entertainers who are thin on the ground. Shut up, Mr. Fry, and keep talking.

"Drop Dead Healthy" by A.J. Jacobs

The Washington Post, April 20, 2012

Some pity, please, for the family of journalist A.J. Jacobs, whose monomaniacal book stunts must create the kind of domestic unrest that used to exist only in Kaufman-and-Hart plays.

"Mommy, why did Daddy snarl at me when I interrupted his reading?" "Because he's trying to get through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and he's only as far as Balzac." "Mommy, why is Daddy wearing a long beard and smelling like road kill?" "Hush, sweetie, he's obeying the proscriptions of Leviticus." "Mommy, why has Daddy installed a platform over the toilet?" "Because he's . . ."

Well, why, indeed? Blame it on a pneumonia scare in a Caribbean hospital, or blame it on a book deal. Whatever it was, something prompted Jacobs to transform himself from "a mushy, easily winded, moderately sickly blob" into a paragon of health and fitness—and to share the whole journey with us in "Drop Dead Healthy."

As Yoda might say, long this journey is: roughly two years in duration, with train stops at virtually every exercise and nutrition depot known to Men's Fitness and Outside and Esquire (where the author serves as editor at large). In his efforts to become "the healthiest man in the world," Jacobs leaves no stone unlifted. He smashes logs in Central Park (the Roman legionnaire's workout). He jogs shoeless through Harlem (the "Born to Run" workout). He writes e-mails on a treadmill. He eats Swiss chard and quinoa.

Even his downtime is spent sniffing spices, swallowing creatine supplements, slathering himself with Aveeno and wearing noise-canceling earphones. Along the way, he sifts through the riotous and contradictory advice of wellness experts, unanimous only in their disdain for each other. Perhaps the most intimidating guru is his toxiphobic aunt, who sweeps through his apartment like an exorcist, damning shower curtains and microwaves, and who, at the sight of American cheese, cries: "Oh, my God! This is child abuse."

On and on it goes: Wii kayaking and Swiss exercise balls and AntiGravity Yoga and compression suits from Under Armour. Jacobs is on a mission. He doesn't just cut sugar from his diet; he cuts it from his language, changing his wife's nickname from "sweetie" to "pumpkin." (Pumpkin has more fiber.) Oh, and maybe it's now—or maybe it was many pages ago—that you realize Jacobs's quest for bodily perfection is, like all his stunts, a quest for yuks.

Laughter is a good thing. As Jacobs will tell you, it reduces the level of the stress hormone cortisol by 26 percent, helps people with heart attacks recover 40 percent faster and burns as many calories an hour as rowing. You might even get your recommended dietary allowance of laughter just from Jacobs's quips: Calorie restriction is "the most extreme diet you can find that isn't technically a psychological disorder or human rights violation. . . . Our ability to hear higher registers goes first, which means that the voices of women and children are silenced sooner, as if God were W.C. Fields."

But Jacobs's not-so-secret agenda is to have some not-so-original fun with a peculiar subsection of Manhattan: those consumers of the body who throw themselves into caveman diets and sphincter toning and juice fasts ($400 a pop) and all the genuinely obsessive acts that suppose death to be optional. And who are, at some level, preferable to their chronicler-enabler, dancing from fad to fad without being touched by any of it.

In one respect, at least, Jacobs enacts the very mania he satirizes: He can't get enough of himself. Photographing his shrinking paunch, tape-recording his snores, pausing in each chapter to alert us to his weight and belt size and lipid panels and bench-press capacity, he is his own first person. "I'm spending an embarrassing amount of time every night," he writes, "studying my torso in the mirror, trying to discern the progress." The final chapter is, in the words of the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, a hymn to him: "I'll chew more. I'll walk more, and hum and pet dogs. . . . I'll stop to smell the almonds. . . . I'll reframe life's horrible situations and outsource my worries. I'll floss my teeth and breathe from my stomach. . . . I'll drink ice water, meditate, and give abundant thanks. . . . When I exercise, I'll do High-Intensity Interval Training, alternating between sprinting and walking every minute. I'll avoid blue light before bedtime."

Well, maybe narcissism adds years to your life, too. At any rate, "Drop Dead Healthy" leaves us with two inquiries, both insoluble on their face. Are health maniacs cheating death or cheating life? And can A.J. Jacobs conceive of a book that doesn't have A.J. Jacobs as both its subject and object?

"The Fan Who Knew Too Much" by Anthony Heilbut

The Washington Post, August 3, 2012

If you haven't heard of Anthony Heilbut, it may be because his best work has been as sporadic as it has been definitive. "The Gospel Sound" (1971) is still the standard popular history of African American church music. "Exiled in Paradise" (1983) covers the progress of German artists and intellectuals across World War II America. As for "Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature" (1996), remember that stuffy old closet case they used to make you read in college? This is the book to make you want to read him again.

And yet, for all his accomplishments, Heilbut still flies under the radar—in part, I'm guessing, because he comes at his subjects quietly and humanely, with no agenda other than to understand. Many years ago, he acquired a Harvard doctorate in English, but as the title of his new essay collection alerts us, he is at heart an amateur: "The Fan Who Knew Too Much."

There aren't many fans like Heilbut, with his cataloguing ardor, his teeming frame of reference and his thirst for experience. Without breaking a sweat, he swings from the plight of modern academia ("a world of downsized intellectuals and lapsed wunderkinder") to the enduring values of the daytime radio serial ("the dramatic equivalent of a five-day-a-week psychoanalysis, marked by the same meandering small talk and the same world-shattering epiphanies." He drops in on old favorites such as Einstein and Hannah Arendt, and he pauses from time to time to consider the perils of politics and art: "The sadness of a lapsed radical or a betrayed fan rests on a common fear that they wasted the deepest, most imaginative hours of their lives on the wrong object."

Out of self-protection, maybe, Heilbut devotes himself to many objects, but by throwing them all into a single volume, he gives us the thread to bind them. And if criticism is, as Oscar Wilde wrote, the most refined form of autobiography, then the thread starts with Heilbut: a reticent soul who turns these pages into a piecemeal memoir.

He grew up in 1950s New York, the son of German Jewish refugees and, even worse for him, "the class bookworm, nerd, outcast." Prey to "gifted bullies," he found at age 16 an unlikely savior in gospel music. That full-throated, emotionally naked sound "wasn't merely about making it," he recalls, "but about doing so in spite of your enemies. Gospel grounded me and kept me sane, not because 'it gets better,' but because for most people, it does not."

Although he was a committed atheist, the young Heilbut became a fixture in black churches, fraternizing with the likes of Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, catching Aretha Franklin in her teens and eventually winning new audiences for his musical idols as an esteemed gospel record producer. Along the way, he came to a surprising conclusion: The folks who formed the church's true "rock and shield" were gay. Imagine his dismay today as he watches these same believers cast out by homophobic Pentecostals. "If you banished the sissies and bull daggers," warns Heilbut, "the tabernacle might crumble. It would be like Germany without its Jews."

And with that, the author's two worlds shift into balance. We come to see that the people who fascinate him are the ones who walk the same tightrope he did, between old and new. The socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht, for example, driven from his native milieu to the shoals of Hollywood screenwriting. Or the great Aretha, venturing from the arms of her illustrious preacher father into the cooler embrace of white America. Heilbut closes his account on a note both triumphal and hedged, with Aretha singing at a 2011 Oprah Winfrey tribute. "She had all reason to shout the victory. There she was, singing hard gospel to an audience way beyond counting; ten thousand megachurches couldn't hold them. Her father's daughter. Safe thus far."

"The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days" by Ian Frazier

The Washington Post, October 19, 2012

Join me in laying one last wreath on the grave of William Shawn, the dauntless editor who labored for many decades against writers as formidable as Norman Mailer,John McPhee and Pauline Kael to keep naughty words out of the New Yorker. More often than not he succeeded, but his prudishness was interred with his bones, and under the glasnost of Tina Brown and David Remnick, profanity now struts and swivels its hips across the magazine's pages.

For a measure of how far things have come, consider "The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days," a full-length comic fugue derived from Ian Frazier's New Yorker columns, whose most notable passages would never have made it off Shawn's desk—any more than they can be quoted in a family newspaper. The mommy in question travels from Happy Homemaker to Mad Housewife in the space of a sentence, and her attempts to undertake even the simplest domestic chores end in ruin and a stream of block-capital swearing that would make a rapper blush.

But cut the woman some slack. Her older son is a budding delinquent with antisocial tendencies. ("I have reminded Trevor again and again about not committing arson.") Her younger son can't get through the school day without swooning. Her useless father (actually, "useless" is not the word she uses) is making a spectacle of himself at the local assisted-living center. Her husband is a wage slave who sobs quietly before going to work and spends most of his free time in the basement, playing with capacitors. Her husband's boss is making the moves on her. One of her credit cards is maxed out. Sphagnum Health is gouging her with premium hikes. The garage is falling down. The cats are ripping up the furniture. Squirrels are in the chimney. Did we mention the sandstorm?

A woman under such stress has the right to find solace where she can: in her book club, say, or in mood-leveling pills or in copious amounts of alcohol. ("People sometimes suggest to me, gently, that I should drink a bit less, and after moments like this, I countersuggest, not as gently, that I should drink a lot more.") But when all else fails, nothing works quite so well as screaming your lungs out. After which the Cursing Mommy tends to lie in a supine position and reflect: "Oh, what a . . . horrible day this is going to be." With an additional qualifier for "horrible."

Readers of Ian Frazier's previous humor collections—including the marvelous "Coyote v. Acme"—know just how funny he can be in short infusions and what a knack he has for crackpot Americana. (The Cursing Mommy's dad, for example, performs a gymnastics routine to "Some Enchanted Evening" and gets pelted with rolls by his fellow seniors.)

But an extra burden of proof attaches to the humorist who stretches his conceit to long form. Will he gain in narrative drive and characterization what he loses in concision and compression? Will his jokes keep detonating?

Well, not this time. "Book of Days" is a sort-of novel, but it can't escape its own deadening hope-to-despair rhythm—or the handicap of being built on a single endlessly recycled joke. With each new home-improvement project our heroine takes on (cooking a casserole, cleaning the refrigerator, changing the air-conditioning filter), you may start to feel the wrong kind of foreboding because you know it will end exactly as the last one did—in a flurry of Lucille Ball slapstick and a fusillade of oaths—and you can feel the comic payoff shrinking toward zero.

Moreover, under pressure of repetition, cracks materialize in Frazier's original template. Why does the Cursing Mommy's expository tone wobble between ingenuous and worldly-wise? Is she relating events after the fact (as the journal framework suggests) or experiencing them in real time (as the rants suggest)? And a further question, arising from my own profanity-strewn household: Why isn't the cursing parent a father?

Frazier might argue that it's funnier to hear a woman swear, but surely, after the pioneering work of Sophie Tucker and Moms Mabley and Bette Midler and Roseanne Barr, the novelty of salty-tongued gals has worn off. The odd thing about Frazier's conceit—a stay-at-home mom colliding with unattainable standards of domestic perfection—is how easily it could be transported back to the Eisenhower era, when folks might actually be shocked to hear a woman drop F-bombs. All in all, it makes you wonder if the new New Yorker is as edgy as it's cracked up to be—and if Shawn is as dead as he appears to be.

"The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies" by David Thomson

BOOKFORUM, December/January 2013

The final sequence of Abel Gance's silent epic, Napoléon (1927), unfurls in something called Polyvision: A triptych of screens in which the center panel shows the main action, while complementary or simultaneous action plays out on the side panels. In person, the device can feel more theatrical than cinematic—particularly if you're lucky enough to have a live symphony orchestra playing along. And yet I can't think of a better template for the sensibility we bring to watching movies: filtering the main event through the unending stream of images that floods our brain.

There is, in other words, an ongoing conversation between what's on that screen and the screens that came before it—and there's no student of film who's held up his end of that conversation better than David Thomson. Indeed, one of the joys of his masterwork, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, lies in how he keeps the conversation running—both through the multiplicity of his stories and the constant reassessment of his opinions. (He revises and expands the volume every 10 years.) It's a permanently open-ended work that resists resolution every bit as much as Polyvision does.

And yet the older he gets, the more intently Thomson seems to crave the last word. His 2004 book, The Whole Equation, sought to give us the history of Hollywood in 400 pages. Now, entering his eight decade, he aims even higher with The Big Screen, a summa cinematica that promises nothing less than "the story of the movies." More than that, Thompson tells us he's assembling an entire "theory of screens," embracing everything "from Muybridge to Facebook," and premised on "the possibility that in looking to see we might understand."

He's a man with a plan, all right, and as I took up this latest ambitious chronicle, I confess I had thoughts of George Eliot's doomed pedant Casaubon, groping hopelessly toward a key to all mythologies. But Thomson, as always, knows how to keep the wheels spinning and the tone light, and from page to page, The Big Screen gleams with his customary grace notes. There are, as usual, his provoking aphorisms: "Cinema seldom loses or kills off its monsters .... Few crazy indulgences or shattered budgets offend America as much as those in arts." The glistening brushstrokes: Orson Welles speaking "like a ruined angel"; Billy Wilder's characters "luxuriating in their own fatal story"; Lauren Bacall, in To Have and Have Not, "holding up a doorway in case it faints."

And there are many epigrammatic distillations of entire careers. Godard: "There has seldom in the arts been anyone with such a command of beauty and so willful in his urge to eliminate it." L.B. Mayer: "Conservative but outrageous, high-minded and given to low blows, a pirate and a prison guard." Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc: "Like Louise Brooks, she came and went in less than two hours, and left burn marks." Chaplin "made silence one more way of seeming above the world, while Keaton's quiet is as stricken as ruined philosophy. So Chaplin is silently noisy with protestation and pleas for affection, and Keaton suspects the deepest things cannot be told or uttered."

This is Thomson at his best: holding his jewels, singly, to the light and finding unglimpsed facets. If you haven't seen, say, Boudu Saved from Drowning or A Man Escaped or Hiroshima, Mon Amour or Sunrise or Metropolis, you'll want to. And even if you've seen them, you may want to go back because a movie is no longer quite the same once it's been viewed through Thomson's exacting lens.

And it is, in fact, this fine analytical grain, coupled with Thomson's penchant for eccentric judgments and rhetorical excess, that make him so ill-suited to the historical survey format of The Big Screen. Locked in a death march through time, he either dawdles (kissing ring after ring on Hitchcock's fingers, circling back to the same Bunuel movie) or he sprints (galloping past the European directors of the 1960s and 70s in just two pages with the barest nods to Malle, Fellini and Rohmer). Space limits preclude him from even discussing Satyajit Ray or Andrei Tarkovsky or Krzysztof Kieslowski or Wong Kar Wai. And the obligations of chronology force him into bizarre conjunctions, yoking noir to the musical and Max Ophuls to Robert Bresson.

None of this would matter so much if Thomson had lived up to his promise of providing that unified-field "theory of screens." But it is here, with his quarry in sight, that he blinks and falters. Modernity doesn't hold much interest for him, after all, so if you're looking for his thoughts on digital imagery or Netflix streaming or mumblecore or found-footage horror movies or 3D retrofitting or even superheroes ... well, you'll have to wait for another Thomson volume. (Surely, one is coming.)

Yes, he has some dire things to say about Facebook, that escaped monster from Dr. Mabuse's laboratory: "Its aura of youthful generosity and utility belies how easily it could be turned into a system of surveillance and control." And with his mouth set in a grim line, he sits down before porno flicks and YouTube and Jackass and Call of Duty, and no matter what he's looking at, he's borne back ceaselessly into the past: "If you add up the broken pieces a young person sees in a day, the chaos is like the earliest years of movie [sic], when a viewer saw so many things we would call shorts, or clips, or bites. They were not whole movies, but the debris from an explosion in the culture, where reality seemed to be scattered everywhere we looked. It is the bang that made cubism, the machine gun, and shellshock."

Shellshock is a good diagnosis for what overcomes Thomson whenever he gazes into the future. Words, for once, fail. But the title should have alerted us: It's the big screen that has always mattered to him and always will. And so we are left not with any theory of screen but with a half-witting character portrait: a befuddled elder, at sea in the now, stuffing his bottle with "a love letter to a lost love".

He is sentimental, this old fellow—a little touched, even—going on about something called the "real age of movies." Which, to hear him tell it, was a period of about fifty years during which "the light was enlightening and moving and even transforming" and "the mere act of looking and wanting to see possessed an innocence and an energy. It seemed like a way of growing up. How lucky to be alive then and there." What happened to this golden era? Well, sometime around the mid-1960s, or maybe it was the late 1970s, "the shining light became a mockery of enlightenment and a means of imprisoning the mass."

You nod as you listen, knowing the old man is engaging in just the kind of mushy mythography that a tough-minded critic should be immune to. (How exactly were the masses of the 1920s any less imprisoned than the masses of the 2010s?) But he's revealed himself all the same. Helplessly, one might add, for "helpless" is the qualifier he uses more than any other. The "helpless guilt" of Vertigo. The "helpless authorship" of Orson Welles and Brando's "helpless need ...to become something else." The "helpless gamble" of casting and the "helpless progress" of censorship and the "helpless respect" of Universal Studios for Michael Cimino and the "merry admission of helplessness" in Tarantino's work.

So much impotence, and no one more helpless than this veteran watcher of screens, who suspects that his greatest love has been his enemy—our enemy. Film has "enacted and armored our detachment from the world" and steered us away "from inner truth to appearance." It may once have looked like a "lustrous, improved version" of reality, but in truth, it has "let us give up on reality, and use it as a story, a dream, a toy version of life."

Through this veil of regret, the film critic bears a passing resemblance to Charles Swann, who realizes too late he has wasted his life on the wrong woman. Or perhaps the better analogy is to Otto Preminger's 1944 noir classic Laura (a particular favorite of Thomson's) in which a proletarian detective (Dana Andrews) finds himself gazing—helplessly, yes—at the portrait of a dead woman: at a screen, if you like, imbued with the dread and longing that haunts every cinematic image. And surely what makes Andrews' eyes so sad is the presentiment that Laura still lives. That she is, as Thomson writes, "ordinary and awkward" (though she is played by the absurdly beautiful Gene Tierney). And still he looks, and hopes. Because it is in this act that he is most alive—and most doomed. The film critic, we must regretfully report, is just another noir chump.

In Dave Barry's 'Insane City,' a few tasty bits in a buffet of leftovers

The Washington Post, January 31, 2013

Yeah, sure, politics and race and religion make people crazy. But when you get right down to it, what's a more divisive force than comedy? Case in point: "The Hangover," a cleverly structured farce that convulsed roughly half the Earth's population with its antics and hijinks and tasering of Zach Galifianakis and left a small minority (me included) frowning at the screen, waiting for something funny to happen. If you fell in the former camp and can't quite wait for "The Hangover, Part III" to come out in May, then by all means avail yourself of Dave Barry's new novel, "Insane City," which replicates the comic franchise's set-up, step by lurching step.

A bunch of dudes prepares to treat a hapless groom to a raunchy bachelor party? Check. Said party does not go as planned? Check. Matters are made worse by a stripper and a baby and an exotic animal and bad guys with guns, and somebody steals a police cruiser, and right up until the very end, the wedding is in danger of being called off? Check, check and check.

Indeed, unless you count Barry's bizarre decision to inhabit the consciousness of a Haitian refugee mother (that's more Dave Eggers than Dave Barry) or the fact that the groom's Jewish parents act like Jewish great-grandparents, the most surprising thing about "Insane City" is how unsurprising it is, even at its most baroque. From the moment the Groom Posse loses its way, we can see pretty much every plot complication coming miles off. We know the ring will be lost, the clothes will be ruined, alliances will be tested. As surely as night follows day, that box of pot brownies will be ingested by the wrong people, and if a suitcase is left near an orangutan's cage, the orangutan will have his way with it. As for that Gorgon-bride who broadcasts her bitchiness from the very first scene, I'm guessing that her nice-guy fiance, in the course of flailing around the greater Miami area, will find a worthier object for his affections. Hiding in plain sight, even.

It's quite a buffet of leftovers the author has served us, but for all that, he's Dave Barry, America's great middle-register humorist. For many years, as his admirers know, he penned a weekly column that negotiated grotesquerie, politics and gender wars without resorting either to rancor or blandness. Then as now, his true devilishness was in the details. "Insane City," for instance, anatomizes the agony of standing behind an elderly coupon queen in a drugstore checkout line. It introduces us to a strip club named Chuckletrousers and a Beltway PR firm "tweet whore" who posts dispatches on feminine hygiene products: "WomanFresh. Because you never know when somebody unexpected will drop in." It offers conclusive proof that, while a seedy tourist sideshow may change its name from Snake Village to Reptile City to Monkey Adventure to Primate Encounter, it will remain, years later, "a roadside shack exhibiting critters in crates."

And with spring break approaching, "Insane City" performs the valuable public service of showing what happens when four intoxicated Ohio State football players decide to twist an albino python into the shape of O-H-I-O. Hint: They get as far as H.

Capper: The snake's owner does nothing to save them because he's a University of Miami fan.

Most pleasingly, "Insane City" introduces us to a subsidiary character named Wendell Corliss, a gazillionaire who, under the influence of aforementioned pot brownies, remembers seeing another gazillionaire doze over dinner. "So I'm watching him," says Wendell, "and I see this fly walking around on his head. Herb had a huge head, totally bald, and this fly is just strolling around on it, very casual, for a fly. And then, while I'm watching, the fly walks into his ear. All the way in. And I didn't see it come back out. Can you imagine? . . . Being that fly and walking into Herb Wentworth's ear. I mean, to the fly, that earhole was the size of the Lincoln Tunnel. But the fly just walked in there as if it knew exactly what it was doing. Think about it. Think about the confidence."

In the course of his weed reverie, Wendell will buy two restaurants because they refuse to deliver, will become fast friends with the groom's slacker best man (another lovely creation, begging to be played by Zach Galifianakis) and will question the single-mindedness that made him so rich and feared. Amid the relentless commotion that marks the rest of "Insane City," Wendell's quiet, character-driven arc of discovery suggests the book that could have been.

Burt Bacharach: ˜Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music

The Washington Post, July 17, 2013

"Make It Easy on Yourself," "Always Something There to Remind Me," "Promises, Promises."

So many Burt Bacharach titles lend themselves to the dodgy act of memoir. And it's more telling than he knows, probably, that he's chosen "Anyone Who Had a Heart," to which our musical subconscious adds the necessary predicate: "could love me, too." If that isn't the cri de coeur of every memoirist, I don't know what is.

Do we love Burt Bacharach, too? Chances are good we love at least one of the songs he composed, whether it's "Walk on By" or "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," or "I Say a Little Prayer for You" or "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." In partnership with the underappreciated lyricist Hal David, Bacharach enjoyed one of the most exceptional runs in pop music, stretching roughly from 1958 to 1969—or, if you prefer, from "Magic Moments" to "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."

This was the music you were listening to if rock wasn't your bag—or if your bag was large enough to admit more than three-chord progressions. As a music student, Bacharach spent his days in conservatories and his nights in jazz clubs, and what came out of his Brill Building office was a high-low hybrid of rare complexity and inventiveness. "Wives and Lovers," beneath its masculine swagger, is a tricky little jazz waltz. "What's New, Pussycat?" boasts five out-of-sync pianos playing chords that Kurt Weill would have warmed to. "Don't Make Me Over" zigzags between a 12/8 bar and a 6/8 bar, with a melody line that spans nearly two octaves. "Alfie" is, to my ears, a tone poem that keeps trying to escape its central motif and declines even to finish in its home key. (The song nearly defeated its original singer, Cilla Black.)

Unusual among his peers, Bacharach insisted on arranging and orchestrating his own tunes. "In the studio, I would do as many as twenty or thirty takes, listen compulsively to all the playbacks and mixes as many times as I could, and then play the acetate over and over again. Before a record was ever released, I would have heard it about a thousand times and I was still never satisfied with the way it sounded on the radio. ...No matter how hard I tried, nothing was ever perfect."

We might have been excused for thinking it was. Bacharach, in lyricist Sammy Cahn's words, was "the only songwriter who didn't look like a dentist," and he parlayed his handsomeness and charm into high-profile ventures: an early conducting gig with Marlene Dietrich (whose advances he resisted), a chain of TV specials, even a cheesy Martini & Rossi commercial with then-wife Angie Dickinson. People who could never have picked Harold Arlen out of a lineup could have told you who Burt Bacharach was.

But can he tell you? That's the question left unanswered by this unreflective memoir, which devotes as much time to the composer's Gershwin Prize as to his childhood. We do learn that his first wife, Broadway singer Paula Stewart, "was really good-looking and had great [breasts], which back then could not be prefabricated." We learn, too, that Dickinson, in the midst of an emotional breakdown, "was wearing this incredible white dress that left her stomach bare and she looked terrific." (Wives should always be lovers, too.) We learn, too, that the day after Sharon Tate was murdered, Bacharach was flying up to San Francisco to watch a preview of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." How those two events are correlated remains a mystery.

The most unfinished business of Bacharach's life (he is now 85) seems to be his daughter Nikki, a troubled girl who suffered from obsessive-compulsive behaviors belatedly diagnosed as Asperger syndrome. Even here, the author's anguish can't quite muffle the note of crassness: "Nikki was really quite nuts. . . . If a child was born as prematurely as she was back then, there was no way she was going to come out with a full deck."

Not exactly the look of love, but give the piano player his due. He could have coasted on his own version of the past; instead, he has sent co-author Robert Greenfield to harvest dissenting voices. It's a surprisingly gracious gesture that, in the case of his first three wives, yields a Strindbergian brew of counter-accusation. Stewart: "I think I married his talent." Dickinson: "I knew I couldn't compete with his hatred or his money." Carole Bayer Sager: "Nothing changes with Burt when he changes wives. The only thing that changes is the wife."

Or, to quote Bacharach himself: "What do you want from me? I'm a selfish guy." Throw in narcissist, workaholic, philanderer—all the bad names his exes have been saving up—and now admit that he's ignored the advice of his own song. He's refused to make it easy on himself. And the music still lives, more than anything that could be written about it.