Tag Archives: winter 2003

Mexifornia: A State of Becoming

Buy this book from Amazon.comVictor Davis Hanson
Encounter Books ($21.95)

by Anis Shivani

Victor Davis Hanson, classics professor at Cal State Fresno, conservative military historian in favor with the current administration, and long-time California Central Valley farmer, has taken a crack at charting a middle course on the thorny problem of illegal Mexican immigration. On this issue, both the left and the right hold on to orthodox nostrums that allow for little flexibility of opinion. The academic left dismisses any argument for restricting immigration as racist. The corporate right has its own interest in encouraging unlimited cheap labor. Meanwhile, a serious demographic crisis is brewing that few are willing to confront.

Unfortunately, Hanson's effort to tackle this problem comes nowhere near coherency, consistency, and profundity. His tempting but infuriating little book is marred by repetitive excursions into impressionistic and polemic sidebars, rather than a sustained analysis of the problem itself or a solution of it. As such, it is likely to appeal only to the narrow swath of audience already attuned to his particular brand of cultural polemics, rather than a broad audience willing to question their liberal beliefs about immigration or policymakers struggling with the dilemmas of illegal immigration.

It is to Hanson's credit that he at least poses the right questions:

How did we arrive at a world where thousands of citizens have lounged, embittered, on the dole while harvests go unpicked? How did we ignore thousands here, but demand that thousands more come illegally from across the border? How did we manufacture provocateurs at the university who burn the flag of the land they so desperately want to inhabit, while they proudly wave the fault of the country they so demonstrably prefer to abandon? How did we craft a society where the juvenile chooses the barbarism of the predatory jungle, but when injured or maimed he emerges from the wild to demand as his inalienable right the expensive succor of a compassionate and ordered culture he professes to despise? How did we create an intelligentsia that offers as models the despot Montezuma and the outlaw Pancho Villa, instead of Socrates and Lincoln?

Looking at California's exploding illegal Mexican population, Hanson explains it as the result of a devil's bargain made by California's white and Asian middle and upper-middle class residents. In return for having their harvests picked, lawns mowed, hotels cleaned, and trash removed cheaply, California's elite has made the uneasy accommodation to a kind of residential apartheid, moving away from schools and public facilities Mexican immigrants are likely to use. As the recent controversy over issuing drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants shows, no politician in California is willing to strike at the source of the problem. As illegal Mexican immigration causes an unsustainable drain on public services budgets and environmental resources, the false cultural sensitivity of academics and policymakers hampers a rational response to the emergent pressures.

Recalling his own childhood and early adulthood in Selma, a Central California farming community that has become over time predominantly Mexican, Hanson postulates that the brutal pressure to assimilate used to serve an indispensable function. You either adapted to American norms, or you were refused acceptance. The multicultural industry over the last thirty years has inculcated a false pride in Mexican history and culture, blind to the evidence of Mexicans voting with their feet by crossing the border. Yet the academic race industry feeds its constituents such historically unverifiable claims as "the border crossed us, not we the borders." The tricky dilemma, which Hanson seems aware of, is that now that the genie has been let out of the bottle and the old assimilationist model stands fully discredited with academics and educationists, how do we return to the state of affairs Hanson is familiar with from his own days growing up alongside Mexicans eager to become Americans?

While one agrees fully with Hanson's analysis of the critical need for quick assimilation and doing away with such harmful palliatives to self-esteem as bilingual education and Chicano studies, there is nothing original in Hanson's analysis here that can't be obtained from any number of polemics in the culture wars of the last fifteen years. Hanson's idealization of a simpler, more honest time, when Mexicans themselves saw the brutalities of Mexican culture for what they were rather than constructing some false dream of return, suggests a kind of helplessness in the face of the exploding crisis. There needs to be a sustained policy response to sharply reducing the kind of immigration that hurts people on both sides of the border, while preserving and even enhancing the kind of immigration, chiefly not Mexican, that is good for both immigrant and host country. In his brief, popularly worded reflection, Hanson never comes close to articulating what such a policy might be.

Hanson simply isn't hard-headed enough, despite the anti-multiculturalist posture, to take us into truly uncharted ideas to tackle this crisis. His narrative is semi-personal throughout, as he is apparently eager to show no intimate rancor toward Mexican immigrants, despite the many small and big ways they lower his own quality of life and encroach upon his sense of privacy, decency, and generosity. As a conservative historian, no doubt Hanson is attempting to shield himself from charges of racial insensitivity by personalizing the discussion, referring to his own and his family's close relations with Mexicans over a period of decades. Yet this same veneer of racial sensitivity prevents him from asking the toughest questions about what it is about Mexican immigration that leads to a set of unprecedented problems.

The book is shot through with baffling contradictions and internal inconsistencies. The greatest among these is Hanson's varying stance on whether illegal Mexican immigrants are capable of eventual assimilation. On the one hand, Hanson quotes example after example of how Mexicans of an earlier generation, as well as many among the current generation, continue to make a reasonably successful transition to middle-class American life, acquiring at the very least the consumerist trappings that bind one to norms like respect for property and the rule of law. Hanson speaks favorably of his many successful Mexican students, who make the salutary choice of studying the classics and literature rather than indulging in the resentment and bitterness offered by Chicano studies, and then go on to become valuable teachers, civil servants, and professionals. On the other hand, Hanson is concerned by the growing number of unassimilated Mexicans, who don't care to learn and speak English well, have little respect for American history and institutions, believe that crossing the border illegally is only regaining what was unfairly expropriated from them, and succumb to the race industry's insistence that they remain contemptuous of attempts to integrate them.

Throughout the book we wait for Hanson to give us some reliable pattern of where things are headed in terms of assimilation, but other than learning that it's in the race industry's interest to cultivate an embittered and perpetually hostile minority, we don't get a grip on the actual nature of Mexifornia, once it comes into being. Is there something truly pernicious about Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, compared to immigration from any other country? If Asian and other immigrants, legal and illegal, continue to assimilate rapidly, then perhaps the problem needs to be boldly redefined as one of Mexican immigration alone, and addressed as such. While this seems to be the undertone of Hanson's book, this is nowhere made explicit in the terms it needs to be. A particularly half-hearted chapter is called "A Remedy in Popular Culture," which suggests that the uniformity of values brought about by globalized popular culture may be a temporary balm for the cultural divisiveness. But Hanson is aware of the limitations of this remedy, noting that it only smooths the friction for the time being, leaving the actual problem of acquiring Western democratic norms unaddressed. This, in fact, is the tenor of the whole book, a tentative stab at some partial solution, with roots in real concerns, but no real outline of a salvaging philosophy.

Hanson does talk about the specifics of the history between the United States and Mexico, which creates unique challenges to assimilation. The two most revealing chapters of the book are the ones where Hanson dares most to confront the issue in its true extremity. In Chapter Two, "The Universe of the Illegal Alien," Hanson offers a memorable portrait of the enthusiastic, accommodating young Mexican male when he first arrives in America, happy to do the back-breaking work that Southwestern elites shun. Over a couple of decades, however, this same immigrant turns bitter, hostile, and even unproductive, as he is unable to perform at the physical level of his youth, and society has less and less need for him: " . . .[T]he last thing America wants is a Spanish-speaking man fifty years old with dependents but no skills and a bad back." The myth that all immigrants, in any numbers whatsoever, and of whatever class origins, are infinitely assimilable in American society is sharply contradicted by the reminiscences in this chapter.

Chapter Three, "The Mind of the Host," is the best, and by itself makes the book worth the price. Hanson makes the valid claim that Mexican immigration unacceptably and irrevocably lowers the quality of life for all. Hanson recounts how Mexicans crash their uninspected and unlicensed cars into his vineyards and then leave them abandoned, or dump entire trailers full of furniture and other trash by the roadside when fancy strikes them, leaving their white neighbors to pick up after them. Multiply this problem of public nuisance many millions of times, and project it into a future where fifty or a hundred million Mexicans haven't been educated into the norms of civilized Western society, living instead by a false sense of immediate entitlement and perpetual resentment, and you get a sense of the magnitude of the impending disaster.

The fact that there are almost no footnotes, sourced statistics, or scholarly references to back up any of Hanson's impressions doesn't help his cause. Are illegal immigrants a drain on the economy or do they contribute positively? Hanson does a good job of creating a most disturbing impression that, while almost no one wants to acknowledge it, Mexican immigrants might be a huge net drain on society. Their low rates of tax payment probably don't begin to come close to meeting their demands on public schools (especially since the Catholic Mexican immigrant continues to reproduce in numbers far greater than his Protestant white host), hospitals, and the rest of the infrastructure. It could be that the true extent of the economic drain, despite short-term benefits to employers and suburbanites addicted to cheap labor, might be far greater than anyone has yet estimated. But there is little data in the book to build this case.

The left may want to dismiss the whole problem out of hand by saying that similar concerns were expressed about earlier waves of immigration--Irish and Jewish and Italian, and that the Mexican problem will similarly resolve itself without intervention. But this is an absurd argument, ignoring vast differences in the nature and extent of previous immigration waves, and the economic and cultural conditions of the host country then and now. There is something different and disturbing about Mexican immigration in the last few decades. Hanson is one of the few to have presented the problem in these stark terms, without resorting to the nativist sentiments of the populist right.

Should Mexican immigration, legal and illegal, be severely curtailed or banned? If this is a positive public policy goal, with demonstrable benefits to society, how can this be done without interfering with the flow of beneficial immigration, such as from Asia, which almost no one disputes is a net contribution to the economy and culture? What should be done about the many millions of Mexican immigrants already in the country, who are bent, for one reason or another, on never fully assimilating? What will happen when their progeny, unable to find middle-class jobs, become the locus of hostile activity toward their hosts, who by then may no longer be in a tolerant enough mood to accept their demands on scarce jobs and public services? Are the continuing abysmal rates of high school and college graduation among Mexicans a reflection of American society's failings, or a surefire indication of a cultural peculiarity that makes the Mexican immigrant different from any other? And if there is such an unbridgeable cultural difference, what should be the role of public policy in dealing with it?

These are all tough questions, and although Hanson's book is a hesitating first step in the direction of facing the dark side of immigration, a serious attempt to answer them won't be found here. Hanson misses the opportunity, in his fragmentary and repetitive meditation, to integrate his personal experiences with the tough-minded proposals of reformists like Edward Abbey, George Borjas, Dirk Chase Eldredge, Thomas Fleming, and Garrett Hardin. We have made certain deals, untenable over the long-term, to buy into the quick benefits of globalization. The chickens may already have come home to roost.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire

Buy this book from Amazon.comKhassan Baiev (with Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff)
Walker & Co. ($26)

by Scott Esposito

Recently, much has been made of the Pentagon's choice to prevent the distribution of images of American soldiers killed during the Iraq war. This gesture speaks volumes to the effect the brutality of war can have on people when that brutality is exhibited in their living rooms. If the effect is truly as large as the Pentagon seems to fear, then Khassan Baiev's new book, The Oath, should drum up among its readers massive opposition to the on-again off-again war between the Russians and the Chechens.

Baiev spent several years during the first and second Russo-Chechen wars of the '90s administering to the wounded in the areas in and around his hometown, Alkhan Kala, and the nearby Chechen capital Grozny. For his lifesaving efforts Baiev was branded a traitor by both sides, and became the target of vendettas, assassinations, and repeated threats and intimidations. All this because of Baiev's stubborn desire to follow the Hippocratic Oath, to treat those shattered by war regardless of who they were or why they were in Chechnya.

Although much of The Oath details Baiev's experiences during wartime, the book is really a study of the man himself: his upbringing in Soviet Russia, his entrapment in a war that repeatedly held him within an inch of his life, and his eventual escape. The portrait of Baiev's early years reveals a Chechnya immersed in community and tradition. There are many pearls offered, as when Baeiv explains the tradition of bride stealing, and a certain understanding of Chechen life is conveyed by the author.

Also revealed is a Chechnya deeply scarred by the effects of imperial rule. When Baiev is an adolescent, his father, Dada, shows him and his twin brother the ravine in which the weak and elderly of his village were thrown during the Deportation of 1944. A decorated veteran of the Great Patriotic War, Dada recalls with intense anger the disgrace of being evicted by the Soviets under the pretense that Chechens were Nazi collaborators.

Small for his age, Baiev takes up judo in his boyhood as a way to build muscle and self-esteem. He excels at it and becomes a skilled athlete, winning tournament after tournament and making a name for himself throughout Russia. Eventually judo takes Baiev outside Chechnya for training in Krasnoyarsk, a city in Siberia. It is in Krasnoyarsk that Baiev becomes interested in the study of medicine. Using his status as an athlete he is able to overcome the cultural discrimination against Chechens and talks his way into higher education in the Krasnoyarsk Medical Institute.

After college, Baiev becomes a successful plastic surgeon, well enough known to draw patients from among Moscow's elite, and to purchase expensive Italian suits and American cars. Despite his material wealth and the likelihood that he could have fled the country (or at least rode out the war in Moscow), Baiev chooses solidarity over safety when the Russians attack Chechnya in 1995 and returns home to care for his family and treat the wounded. Baiev's experiences during wartime are nothing short of extraordinary:

On January 30 my house was struck by a missile at about 3 pm....The Russians had apparently found out that I was treating Chechen fighters at home....The missile hitting the house was like an enormous thunderclap overhead. The blast threw everyone against the walls...For several minutes I lay unconscious. The reinforced concrete ceiling above us cracked as the house collapsed upon it...we were entombed in a giant coffin.

Horrible as they are, Russian missile attacks on the wounded, (attacks that are outlawed by the Geneva Convention) only scratch the surface of Baiev's war experience. At one point Baiev reports that he was detained in a twenty foot hole for several days while his captors tried to coerce out of him an admission that he spared the life of a Russian doctor targeted for a revenge killing. More than once Baiev was pulled out of his car at roadblocks, and only avoided execution through a combination of luck and quick talking. Baiev was even made the subject of an impromptu trial by the notorious war criminal Arbi Barayev, and the chaos caused by a Russian mortar attack was the only thing that got Baiev out of the "trial" alive.

Despite his tremendous moral fortitude and determination, war eventually has a destructive impact on Baiev's mental well-being. In desperate need of help he turns to a Muslim cleric and psychologists for treatment of post traumatic stress disorder. On one horrific night Baiev contemplates leaping from the window of his hotel room three separate times. Even when describing himself on the brink of mental breakdown Baiev is a frank narrator, as willing to report on the most embarrassing and disgraceful moments in his life as he is the pinnacles.

By 2000 Baiev was a wanted man by the FSB (heirs to the KGB's loathsome duties), and was only able to escape Chechnya largely because of the international attention created by his incredible story. The Oath provides witness to that story; it is both a deep look into the brutality and destruction of the Russo-Chechen wars and the gripping tale of one remarkable doctor.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel Of Thomas

Buy this book from Amazon.comElaine Pagels
Random House ($24.95)

by H. E. Everding

As the biblical scholar Marcus Borg has said, "You can believe all the right things, and still be a jerk." In a sense, that's what Elaine Pagels experienced when after her son's near fatal illness she sought solace from a form of Christianity that represented faith as ascent to doctrines. In Beyond Belief she intersperses this kind of personal experience with her work as a historian of religion. She already knew about the varieties of early Christianity that flourished despite persecution in the fourth century C.E. She also knew that there is more to religious experience of the Sacred than what persons believe or do not believe. The question that drives this work is: "What is it about Christian tradition that we love--and what is it that we cannot love?"

The theology and fate of the "secret Gospel of Thomas" provides Pagels's case study. She interprets Thomas as promoting an egalitarian theology that all persons can come to know God "through one's own, divinely given capacity, since all are created in the image of God." Thomas in Aramaic means "twin" as does Thomas' second name in Greek "Didymus"; thus Thomas in effect invites readers to acknowledge their own potential to be a "twin" of the "living Jesus." Pagels contrasts this theology with that of the canonized Gospel of John, which she interprets as promoting a doctrinaire theology that only those who believe in Jesus as the revealer of God can inherit eternal life or be counted as a legitimate member of the community. In castigating the figure of Thomas, the Gospel of John, Pagels argues, was in fact written to debunk the Gospel of Thomas in the first century C.E.

Although this "debunking" process is a bit rigid--The Gospel of John can be nuanced with a much "softer" reading than in Pagels's dichotomizing approach--it drives the bulk of Beyond Belief. Pagels focuses on "how certain Christian leaders from the second century through the fourth came to reject many other sources of revelation and construct instead the New Testament canon . . . along with the 'canon of truth,' which became the nucleus of the later creeds that have defined Christianity to this day." She provides an elegant interpretation of Irenaeus and other church fathers in the second century C.E. who forged a hard line orthodoxy against gnostics and new forms of prophecy, and shows how the hard line was enforced in the fourth century C.E. through the political processes that formulated the doctrinal "canon of truth," which Pagels labels "the triumph of John." Eventually, the formulation of creed and canon solidify Irenaeus' view that "it is a heresy to assume that human experience is analogous to divine reality, and to infer that each one of us, by exploring our own experience, may discover intimations of truth about God."

What about Pagels's personal quest? "What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions--and the communities that sustain them--is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus's words, 'to seek, and you shall find.'"

Beyond Belief lacks an appendix with a translation of the Gospel of Thomas, though one is available in Bart D. Ehrman's Lost Scriptures: Books The Did Not Make It Into The New Testament, recently released by Oxford University Press. Anyone interested in exploring the wealth of excluded early Christian writings and the issues Pagels discusses will find worthwhile, incisive analyses of these in a companion volume by Ehrman titled Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, also from Oxford. All three books provide a provocative look at the traditions at work in the New Testament.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Isabelle de Courtivron
Palgrave ($22.95)

by Karl Krause

True to its title, most of the essays collected in Isabelle de Courtivron's Lives in Translation focus on lives: first person narratives, struggles, and ponderings about life as an Other. Love affairs with languages and their emotional histories abound as these writers contemplate writing in a second tongue. José F. A. Olivier shares a poetic history of his German and Spanish roots, with curiously Spanish syntax inflecting the English vocabulary. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill writes a charming, graceful account of her search for an identity and a "mother tongue"—which, she suggests, is truly defined only by the blatherings of unconscious or perilous circumstances.

As true lovers are wont to do, many of the essayists in Lives tend toward dramatic exaggerations. Nancy Huston begins "The Mask and the Pen" by saying "A person who decides, voluntarily... to leave her native land and adopt a hitherto unfamiliar language and culture must face the fact that for the rest of her life she will be involved in theatre, imitation, make-believe." Making the point that language cannot be unlearned, Huston later adds that "babies never pronounce their first goo-goos, Ma-mas, and Ba-bas with an accent; they immediately get the sounds right." This is technically untrue; babies' first noises have proven to be as linguistically diverse as the entire spectrum of human language.

I argue with Huston here because in foregrounding the bilingual exploration of identity and creativity, so many of the essays aim to make complicated, irreconcilable differences responsible for a history of personal dilemmas or mysteries. To structure a topic as universal as language wholly within one's own experience—that is mysterious. Lives in Translation does provide a few expansive instances with authors who depart from their own lives as "others" to explore arguments, implications, and new literatures resulting from human expression. Ariel Dorfman's observations on immigration and technology lead him to a collection of terrific, tragic questions, such as "Do you dwell in a language that is wonderful only for making love or teaching your children the difference between right and wrong or serves to pray to God?" Ilan Stavans's magnifies these questions with a grand review of mixed literatures ranging from Cypress Hill's Temples of Boom to Yiddish's infusion into English. In these essays, language shows its plasticity—the natural tendencies stemming from baby babble—with a selfless interest for the plural worlds of bilinguals.

There are some delicate personal histories in Lives—many of which will direct readers to some amiable writers. So inspired, even I have found myself in the first person here, a rare and comfortable condition. While de Courtivron's collection makes only a short attempt to examine bilingualism in its widest human context, the book is rich with introspective first persons; if you are looking to hear their personal accounts, you will find warm words in de Courtivron's enthusiastically diverse collection.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Getting Personal: Selected Writings

Buy this book from Amazon.comPhillip Lopate
Basic Books ($25)

By Ricky Opaterny

It is no small irony that Philip Lopate is considered a master of the personal essay and yet his work is almost entirely out of print. Getting Personal, a selection of essays that range from the confessional to first-person journalism and criticism, draws work from six of his books, four of which are out of print and one that has not been published yet. Thus this substantial volume serves as a sort of greatest hits collection, giving readers access to his work in the form he is best known for, yet it is also smartly designed to trace the arcs of Lopate's personal and professional lives, making it "the informal version of the autobiography he never got around to writing."

Following Lopate's "Notes Toward an Introduction" and an amusing follow-up by a fictitious doctor mourning the author's death (quoted above), the collection is divided into six sections stretching from childhood to middle age. Lopate lays out his vision of the personal essay in the introduction: "I am endlessly interested in the wormy thoughts and regrets and excuses and explanations that people have for their behavior." And later, "I believe in the aesthetically impure as an accurate reflection of reality." This approach makes for an often exciting stream-of-consciousness reading experience, but also permits the perils of self-indulgence and excessive self-reflexivity. Lopate is at his best, ironically, when writing about other people: the Korean woman whose father's poetry he translates, the fellow teacher who commits suicide, the elementary school students with whom he stages Chekov's Uncle Vanya. His writing on film that appears throughout the volume, though it displays an obvious love of the medium, is less engaging.

While recounting the Chekov play—which must be one of the greatest achievements in elementary school theater history—Lopate quotes one of his actors describing the audience of students as "just childish little babies. It's not our fault if this is too mature for them," and then analyzes, "He had already acquired the artist's advance defense mechanism for rejection by the public." Lopate's tactic is not so exonerative, but rather self-questioning and defeating, though only to the point at which it reveals his ambivalence about the topic at hand, taking the questions his work poses and examining them from two, three, four different sides in succession. However, what is illustrative in this passage is the balance with which Lopate can juxtapose observations and self-revelations.

When the pace of his writing moves quickly, Lopate can get away with long passages of thinking on the page that are redeemed by his humor. In an essay against the supposed staples of leisurely activities—dinner parties, idle time, living in the present—Lopate, in the space of a page, makes references to "Laschian political analysis," William Hazlitt, Schlitz, and a study on depression conducted by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. On the same page, he makes the reader laugh out loud: "The prospect of a long day at the beach makes me panic. There is no harder work I can think of than taking myself off to somewhere pleasant, where I am forced to stay for hours and 'have fun.'"

In another piece of ostensible opposition titled "Resistance to the Holocaust," Lopate uses a similar hyperbolic technique to impress his point on the reader—in this case that the Holocaust has been abused as a cultural phenomenon: "Sometimes it almost seems that 'the Holocaust' is a corporation headed by Elie Wiesel, who defends his patents with articles in the 'Arts and Leisure' section of the Sunday New York Times." This is the best piece of Lopate's criticism in the collection. His arguments against treating the Holocaust as an event outside of history without comparison or as an event that must influence all art that follows it are lucid and seem eerily contemporary, since they are equally applicable to the post-9/11 American zeitgeist in which historical contexts and precedents have been abandoned. 9/11 has become like the Holocaust, as Lopate sees it, both a silencer of public discourse and an absolute justification to be applied seemingly at will.

Though he claims not to spend these essays looking for himself in others, Lopate's long hard looks are directed both inward and outward. The last two substantial essays in the collection focus on a pair of paternal figures: the author's father and his colleague at the University of Houston, Donald Barthelme. Both are distanced from Lopate in life—that unexpected distance is part of their attraction—and brought closer through his writing about them; in discussing the latter, he writes: "The difficulty is distinguishing between what was really Donald and what he evoked in me." Barthelme remains rather aloof throughout his relationship with Lopate, who, after the great writer's death, uncertainly labels them "close colleagues, friends, almost-friends." The most memorable image of Barthelme is of him helping Lopate move boxes to an apartment in the West Village on a ninety-four-degree day—being used by the author like a "drayhorse." Barthelme's generosity here is obvious despite his taciturnity, and Lopate, in all his gregariousness on the page, manages to return that sentiment with sympathy and humor, trying not to write to the end of understanding, but simply to hold up, in art, the contradictions that he sees in life.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by John Morthland
Anchor Books ($15)

by Adam Hall

To write rock criticism having never read the work of the late Lester Bangs is a bit like attempting to ignite an audience never having heard of Iggy Pop: you can do it, but you'll have no idea how much better your predecessor was. Bangs's pyrotechnic, adrenaline-fueled diatribes are rife with jarring cultural references, unpopular and unexpected opinions (from anointing Anne Murray a sex goddess in his review of Danny's Song to labeling Bob Dylan as craven opportunist in "Bob Dylan's Dalliance with Mafia Chic"), and infectious passion for the music which consumed him. These elements fulminate into such a heady brew that the reader is invariably taken aback by Bangs's relentless, electrifying ode to rock.

Admittedly, this unceasing soliloquy occasionally degenerates into muddled stream-of consciousness rambling; segues derail into train wrecks and references fly at your face like so much shrapnel. But even as John Morthland, a longtime friend of Bangs and editor of Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, cops to Bangs's inconsistencies, he points out that "his ability to move his most electric thoughts from the brain to the page without interruption" endowed Bangs with the power to create truly extraordinary work. None of the writing contained in this new collection of reviews, fiction, and essays drifts into the copacetic euphemism which is part-and-parcel of rock criticism today. No "jangly guitars," "lush soundscapes," or "melodic croons"—vague terms which populate as many record reviews as press releases these days—inhabit any space in Bangs's oeuvre. Instead, Bangs paints descriptions so vivid that even albums never heard take on a tangible formation in the reader's mind. Witness his description of John Cale's instrumentation for Nico's The Marble Index: "Through a pale morning's arctic sunlight glinting dimly off the snow, a bank of violas emits one endless shrill note which eventually becomes electronically distorted by points of ice panning back and forth through the space between your ears."

One of Bangs's most endearing traits as a critic is the pleasure he took in defacing the pedestals of his own favorite idols, the aforementioned Dylan piece being but one example. Bangs's most cherished sacred piñata takes the shape of the Rolling Stones, who the author reveres as saving his soul in one paragraph and decries as peddlers of mediocrity in the next. Four articles charting the progress of Bangs's growing disillusionment with the band are included in the "Pantheon" section of Mainlines, from his glowing summation of Exile on Main Street, in "I Only Get My Rocks Off When I'm Dreaming" ("When so many are working so hard at solipsism, the Stones define the unhealthy state, cop to how far they are mired in it, and rail at the breakdown with the weapons at their disposal: noise, anger, utter frankness") to his merciless dismissal of Mick Jagger in "State of the Art: Bland on Bland," a review of Black on Blue ("So thank you for not aspiring: you are an inspiration to the blank generation whole."

Bangs, in short, was more than a rock critic; he was a writer, in the truest sense of the word. Instead of taking the pose of the faceless tastemaker dispensing snide "truths," he effortlessly weaves his own pathos, his own joy, and his own personal disappointments into the fabric of his prose. Furthermore, under Bangs's speed-driven fingertips, the typewriter becomes an erratic instrument of social reparation: rock criticism transcends itself and becomes a revolutionary act, a living commentary not just on this record or that band, but on the society and culture from which they spawned. Nowhere is this more evident than in his rant on the death of Sid Vicious, where Bangs decries the Punk Generation for failing to find "valid, non-copout alternatives" to nihilistic, self-destructive punk excesses. "And this isn't like If You Can't Say Anything Nice Don't Say Anything At All," he writes, "it's more like . . . . why restate what's been said and refuted already?"

So much talk about the state of rock music today has led this generation to question whether anyone can save rock and roll. From my admittedly biased vantage, a more cogent question to ask might be "Can anyone save the state of rock criticism?" After reading Bangs, it is tempting to wonder what he would have had to say about the depressing state of modern radio, the proliferation of irony and apathy trumping the actual expression of emotion in music, or the appalling decay and desiccation that has turned his beloved Rolling Stones into even more of a parody of themselves than when he last wrote about them. It is tempting to wonder, because if Bangs were still around, rock critics might actually inflame passions and fuel debate rather than support a status-quo party line for fear of their own cool index. To save rock criticism, we need another hero. We need another Lester Bangs.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates

Buy this book at Amazon.comBlake Bailey
Picador ($35)

by Kathleen Andersen

Richard Yates could once be held up as the exemplar of the "writer's writer"—hailed by his peers as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, but largely unread by the people he was so committed to writing about: ordinary Americans. This was a shame both for the many people who might have been moved by his work, and for Yates, who didn't choose obscurity. His style was direct, his subject matter fearless yet commonplace, and he longed for greater recognition and financial success, even daydreamed about sending his daughters to Harvard on book royalties. But despite a National Book Award nomination, an agent who never stopped working on his behalf, and the love of countless contemporary authors, Yates remained unknown.

A decade after his death, this seems finally to be changing, as Yates's readers old and new have been treated to a resurgence in his work. His fabulous first novel, Revolutionary Road, often hailed as his masterpiece, returned to print in 2000 and The Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates followed a year later, bringing us all of his vast, wild short fiction together for the first time. Now Blake Bailey (The Sixties) has given us a comprehensive biography, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, tracking down school friends, lovers, ex-wives and drinking buddies to tell the very sad and sometimes bewildering story of Richard Yates's life.

While Yates's commitment to his writing never wavered, he suffered from occasional psychotic episodes that, along with alcoholism, general poor health and plain bad luck, left his personal life a shambles. Still, he was eternally hopeful and often seemed to be on the rise. Handsome and always tricked out in the Brooks Brothers suits he learned to wear during his days at an elite boys' high school, he was once hired as Robert Kennedy's speechwriter, and went several times to Hollywood, adapting William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness for the screen (everyone involved, especially Styron, was excited by the screenplay, but the project failed in spite of periodic efforts to revive it over the years).

Although Yates never went to college—and throughout his life was both scornful and envious of those who had—he was hired to teach at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where his students adored his gentle style (as well as his habit of ending classes early so that they could all go out for cocktails). Upon the publication of each of his novels and short story collections, the reviews suggested that he might finally break through as a popular and critical success—this never happened, but he never stopped believing that it could. Despite his optimism, Yates was often very much alone. His instability drove away many friends and lovers, he spent long periods of time far from the daughters whom he loved desperately, and he parted ways with his mother and sister after an unhappy childhood.

Bailey recognizes the part Yates played in creating some of his miseries, and captures the absurdities of his life in a way that his subject, who never lost his dark sense of humor, might have enjoyed:

In later life Yates would become almost a parody of the self-destructive personality: He smoked constantly despite tuberculosis, emphysema, and repeated bouts of pneumonia; he was an alcoholic who, when unable to write, would sometimes start the day with martinis at breakfast; he rarely exercised (indeed could hardly walk without gasping), and ate red meat at every meal if he could help it. Such behavior seems to indicate a death wish, but it wasn't that simple in Yates's case. It was true he had a gloomy temperament and was sometimes all but immobilized by depression, though often enough he was capable of high delight, and as for smoking and drinking—well, he liked smoking and drinking.

Turning to Yates's fiction in order to work through some of these rich contradictions, Bailey begins with the (unwritten) contention that his life and work are inseparable, that much of his fiction can be read as autobiography. This is not implausible, as Yates did use himself as a model for many of his characters, sometimes even naming characters after himself and people he knew in early drafts. He also subjected his characters to experiences he had himself, writing about isolated children, soldiers who questioned their courage, men killing time in tuberculosis wards, frustrated copywriters, people who married young and then found themselves trapped in the suburbs.

Bailey takes the connections he finds between the life and fiction far, often quoting from Yates's work, from his characters' internal monologues, as if they represent Yates's own thoughts and impressions. While he usually acknowledges doing so (phrases like "Yates speculated in a later story..." abound), at some moments the reader must turn to the end notes to determine whether Bailey's source is an interview, one of Yates's own letters, or a section from Yates's fiction, his imagination. This treatment of the work is provocative, a choice that might be supported (or at least explained) in the book, but it is never discussed. It is also a bit odd in a biography so impeccably researched, and otherwise written with great delicacy.

Thus, the book raises questions about the links between an artist's experiences and his writing life. Even when an author draws from personal experience, is it fair to read the fiction in this way? What is lost and what is gained, for the biographer, the reader, and the artist? After all, Yates's genius as a writer stems from his vision of everyday life, and his willingness to grapple with all of its painful and petty aspects, from small humiliations on the job to the ambivalence found in the closest of relationships. While Bailey does his readers a great service in providing this biography at a time when his work is happily coming back, Yates's work is in some ways reduced by the suggestion that so much of it can be traced directly back to his own life.

Despite this, A Tragic Honesty will hold pleasures and surprises for those who love Yates's fiction. It conveys a sense of his complexity as a person, and more importantly, as an author. Richard Yates worked almost every day for half a century, writing stories beautiful enough to break your heart, fully realized and empathetic visions of people living out their own complex and difficult lives. His life's final irony lies in missing his own renaissance, but those who have a chance to read his work should revel in it.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

War is a Racket

Buy this book from Amazon.comSmedley Butler
Feral House ($9.95)
by Joel Turnipseed

It's easy enough to imagine the long history of Marine Corps war heroes: Dan Daly cutting the pistol from a dead horse to continue fighting in Haiti, where he earned his second Medal of Honor; barrel-chested Lewis "Chesty" Puller, serving in campaigns stretching from World War I to Korea, storming over a frozen Korean ridge for his fifth Bronze Star. These are the guys who are, as they say in the Corps, "Brass balls and bulletproof." Puller even petitioned, at age 68, to go to Vietnam in 1966, but was denied. His son, Lewis Puller, Jr., went instead and lost his legs.

What's harder to imagine is the long list of the Marine Corps' anti-war heroes, such as Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers, or David Shoup, also a Medal of Honor winner, who resigned as Commander of the Marine Corps in 1963 over his disagreements with the President about our action in Vietnam. Shoup said in a famous '60s anti-war speech:

I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody dollar-crooked fingers out of the businesses of nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they (would) arrive at a solution of their own that they design(ed) and want(ed). Not one crammed down their throat by Americans.

The leading Marine Corps General in the First Gulf War, Anthony Zinni, started campaigning against a subsequent invasion of Iraq during the Clinton Administration and continues to give speeches critical of our ongoing disaster in that country. Colonel David Hackworth once asked, "What is it with most Marine generals? Do they get inoculated with double shots of truth serum in boot camp?" Who knows, but both camps, the Marine Corps war heroes and the anti-war heroes, could claim the same man as their standard-bearer: Smedley Darlington Butler.

Butler was born to a long line of Quakers but grew up reveling in his grandfathers' tales of the Civil War, on whose behalf they both fought despite their pacifism. So it was only natural that when the Hearst papers ran with the headlines announcing the demise of the U.S.S. Maine, and he overheard his Congressman father talking of the need for new Marine Corps officers, that he bullied his mother into vouching for his adulthood and headed off to war. In his first action, fighting the Filipino soldiers who had taken their country back from Spain and would not surrender it to the US, Butler found his platoon pinned down in a rice paddy. His men were afraid for their life, and so was Butler, but he stood up and started firing anyway, which in turn encouraged his men to do so and the rout was on. In honor of his first victory, he tattooed the Marine Corps emblem on his chest. From there to China, where Butler earned the first decoration of the many that would eventually make him the most decorated Marine ever to leave the battlefield. After a fight in which three of his men were killed, and from which his Marines were in retreat from a village heavily armed with Boxer soldiers, Butler learned that one of his men was unaccounted for. He marched all through the night back to the village, found his man lying in a ditch with a destroyed leg, patched him up, and carried the man seven miles back to their unit. The enlisted men who went with him earned the Medal of Honor. Butler missed out on his because at the time officers were not granted the Medal of Honor, and so he was brevetted from lieutenant to captain. After Congress passed a law allowing officers to win the Medal of Honor, Butler won the two he did earn (and no one has ever earned three, making Butler arguably the greatest warrior in U.S. history) in Mexico and Haiti. When he retired from the Marine Corps at age 50, he was the highest-ranking Marine Corps officer at Brigadier General and one of the most famous Americans in the world—Lowell Thomas, so responsible for making T. E. Lawrence famous, even wrote a dashing hagiography called Old Gimlet Eye.

Imagine the surprise when, in 1935, Butler published a longish pamphlet called War is a Racket, which opens:

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

He wrote it in response to the growing fears that America would be dragged into yet another war, and it should be noted that his views were not so much pacifist as anti-war. A good, honest war in defense of his country's Constitution and Bill of Rights would have roused a great cheer from Butler, who loved his Marines and was as tough as anyone. But after he was asked to help assassinate Roosevelt so that the U.S. could join with the Fascists in Italy (about whom publications like Fortune had written glowingly for their business acumen), Butler said enough was enough. He spent the rest of his life exposing the lie that so often hid behind the noble rhetoric, and the money fueling the engines of war. When reading War is a Racket, you can't help but feel the anger in his words—and yet, too, the tremendous will and steel of a man who had seen hell and was bound not to expose even one more young man to it if he could help it.

Butler's anger was not aimed at war, but the war-makers, or rather, the war-profiteers. Indeed, reading his little book, you think that Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" speech (which would have been a great addition to this volume) is just a gloss on War is a Racket. Of course, even Eisenhower's speech is now lost to the dustbin of cliché and War is once again an honor and a glory (and, for the few, still tremendously profitable). Luckily, after decades out of print, alternative press Feral House has reissued Butler's famous pamphlet. Publisher Adam Parfrey could have added a bit more balance to his introduction (which focuses with harrowing detail on Butler's foiling of a Wall Street plot to assassinate Roosevelt and align the U.S. with the Fascists), but has otherwise done a great job—especially in adding two smaller Butler speeches and Frederick Barber's photographic exhibit of World War I photographs "The Horror of It." At a time when books like Max Boot's Savage Wars of Peace make bestselling sport of fighting small wars all over the globe, there is no more necessary book than Butler's War is a Racket.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Poets of World War II

Buy this book at Amazon.comEdited by Harvey Shapiro
The Library of America ($20)

by Jeffrey Alfier

This anthology is one in a new series called the American Poets Project, an effort intended to produce a "compact national library of American poetry." Editor Harvey Shapiro—himself a veteran of 35 combat missions as a B-17 tail gunner—sets a solemn tone for the volume in his introduction, stating at the outset "We were victorious, but the sight of dead bodies is scattered among these poems about World War II the way bodies were washed up on the shores of invasion beaches." The 62 poets he has selected form a credible collection: "There are Objectivists here, Imagists, followers of the Southern school of formal verse and dense rhetoric," etc. About two-thirds of the contributors are veterans, the others non-veterans; thus the volume includes works by conscientious objectors and other war-resisters such as Robinson Jeffers and William Stafford. All his selections serve his stated purpose: "to demonstrate that the American poets of this war produced a body of work that has not yet been recognized for its clean and powerful eloquence."

Shapiro undoubtedly gathers some of the best poetry of the war. Included are majestically poignant air war poems by John Ciardi, James Dickey, Richard Eberhart, Richard Hugo (though his magnum opus, "Mission to Linz," does not appear here), Randall Jarrell, and Howard Nemerov. Some of the best poems of ground combat are by Louis Simpson, George Oppen, and Anthony Hecht. Several poems are quite moving, such as James Tate's "The Lost Pilot," written for his father who was killed in action when Tate was five months old, and Peter Viereck's "Vale from Carthage," which Viereck wrote on the occasion of his brother's death in the European theater. There are sublime elegies like Vladimir Nabokov's "When he was small, when he would fall" and Richard Eberhart's "A Ceremony by the Sea." Many poets achieve a powerful austerity through just a few lines, as Samuel Menashe does in his 18-syllable, 5-line poem, "Beachhead":

The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds
From a skull
Sea gulls peck

Yet the poems here are not solely about combat and its effects, for they also inform the wider ontology of war, emerging into the foreground of military victory to ask the unanswered questions of race and class. Compelling examples are Witter Bynner's "Defeat" and Gwendolyn Brook's "Negro Hero."

Ever since Plato's Cratylus (ca. 360 BC) critics have debated whether poetry can close the aesthetic space between the reader's expectations and the poet's ability to meet them. The work in this exemplary and diverse collection accomplishes that closure quite effectively, despite the decades that have passed since the end of the Second World War.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

Book of Haikus

Buy this book from Amazon.comJack Kerouac
Edited by Regina Weinreich
Penguin Poets ($13)

by Keith Abbott

If we talk about nothing, doesn't the talk become something? And don't we see, or think we see, the nothing through our something? What this process can achieve is a sense of space. There's this much room between the nothing we wish to address in something, this sentence, words, art, prayer. The space remains.

So, as in meditation, the eyes focus on the middle distance.

But, what if the perceiver, the artist let's say, has an acute consciousness of already existing in that middle space? Of being neither that nothing nor that something?

Jack Kerouac was such an artist, and this is why he wrote the largest body of the best haiku in the English language.

Basho put it this way: "the basis of art is change in the universe." The English is slightly misleading: there are no articles in the Japanese, no restriction on whose universe or what universe. Yours, mine, theirs. No matter.

All day long wearing
a hat that wasn't
on my head

This haiku is funny. Absentmindedness is shunyata, or empty space. A cosmic spy, it exists within our imaginary daily selves. And that's Basho's one change in this poem, so it meets his classical criteria.

Kerouac had an acute, at times almost vertiginous sense of this internal void as self. But because he was in-between, not really invested in either that nothing or that something, it was often funny to him.

Kerouac's friend, the Zen priest and poet Philip Whalen, disliked haikus, saying "Reading them is like being pecked to death." That's the genre's major failing in English. Yet Kerouac was seldom precious, despite his occasional and sometimes entertaining sentimentality, because he saw some very big pictures:

The windmills of
Oklahoma look
In every direction.

This is a superb Buddhist haiku, because the nature of a particular place is captured in it. Oklahoma has very capricious winds. The need to capture that energy, to live, to survive, depends upon recognition of that randomness. This is not a pathetic fallacy, as Kerouac's "look" doesn't really posit a person as windmill; rather, it implies the human placement of the windmill, the need to use this element of wind, and get energy any way possible. A secret desperation lurks in this haiku.

The nature of emptiness is also here: all directions are empty, and all directions are equally capable of filling with wind. As the Sutra says, "Emptiness is form, form emptiness." But humans need to use that emptiness, capture its energy for a moment, and bring up water to drink in a dry windy land.

Allen Ginsberg understood this aspect of Kerouac's art, saying "emptiness, with all its transcendental wisdom including panoramic awareness, oceanic city vastness, a humorous appreciation of minute details of the big dream, especially 'character in the bleak inhuman aloneness' is most clearly consistently set forth in the body of Kerouac's prose, poetry, and essays and so forth."

Zen consciousness is as hard and clear as a diamond, and Kerouac's spirit reflects yet embodies, as Ginsberg points out, the small with the cosmic, the human with the void. Kerouac's remarkable achievement is best found in his own selection at the start of this book, especially those written during the time when he was a serious worker in Buddhist canonical texts, in some cases translating from French sutra transcriptions. But these are quintessentially American haiku, and for that our national literature is much the better.

In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
Has died of old age

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004

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