Saturday, August 12, 2006

Superman and In the Penny Press

Well! Never let it be said Steve isn't open-minded, and never underestimate all the good stuff that can come your way if you keep your mind open.

As loyal readers will recall, I violently detested Superman #654, the first issue of the Kurt Busiek/Carlos Pacheco run on the title. It seemed not to know what in Hell its ass was doing from one panel to the next. I had only grim hopes for #655.

But "Cold Comfort" was great - all the elements so barely visible in the previous issue came together perfectly here.

Maybe it's the fact that Pacheco's artwork has settled down and is in peak form. Everybody's still way to skinny, but that's a minor quibble - almost all the artwork is magnificent. I especially love the gorgeous grace he imparts to Superman in flight.

And the writing seems more stable too, with great results. Lana Lang's presence is much more fully explained, and Doctor Llewellyn's exposition about the origin of the issue's new villain (who looks like he stepped right out of Resident Evil, and who, I predict, won't end up being a villain at all) is intelligently produced.

The issue's only glitch is a darkly horrible one: what if Superman, a character you've loved for seventy years, while in his secret identity as Clark Kent ... reads BAD BOOKS? Superman reads - and likes, albeit luke-warmedly, John Sandford novels? Please, please let it be a plot by Lex Luthor ...

In the Penny Press

It's an odd thing, being old and ugly while reading a magazine like Esquire, which is so aggressively aimed at power-suited testosterone-drenched business school gearhead morons. The magazine manages to deliver a good dozen pages a month of real quality, funny and thought-provoking - but to get at those pages, you have to dodge slalom-like past ads for cigars and articles about banging babes.

So imagine my surprise when that dichotomy showed up in the oddest, least-expected place. In the middle of the latest issue, there's the regular feature 'The Esquire 10,' in which ten things are shamelessly hawked to the disposable-income horndogs turning thet pages.

I expected to skip through it pretty quick, especially since Item #1 was a pair of something called 'the Atomic Snoop Daddy Alpine Skis.'

And then it happened, right there at #5! The San Domenico Palace Hotel, in Siciliy - where I have actually stayed, during my long stretch of residence outside Taormina. It made me smile - I'm guessing almost all the idiot mogul-shredders reading this issue OWN most of the over-priced gimcracks on the rest of the list, but I wonder how many of them have slept in the San Domenico?

Elsewhere in the issue, there's the second part of Scott Raab's series on the rebuilding of Ground Zero - a series I can only presume will be the building-blocks of a future book. The article itself was interesting from front to back - which, given the leadenly boring subject matter, is a tribute to Raab's winning way with words.

Speaking of winning ways with words, there's always Esquire's greatest secret weapon, the Answer Fella (in fact, his way with words is so unfailingly nimble and funny that I suspect he's not a fella at all).

In this issue, his most entertaining question is this: Why is David Hasselhoff so popular in Germany?

It's a lobbed softball, I grant you, but even so, the reply is so good it warrants quoting at length:

"Hmmmmm ... the guy's a stiff of an actor, an awful singer, and a staggering shvantz who managed to sever a tendon in his arm while shaving, and yet a nation of humorless, overcompetent technocrats endowed with a vast heritage of great literature, gorgeous music, and murderous evil has embraced and enriched him. Beats the heck out of AF"

a vast heritage of great literature, gorgeous music, and murderous evil ...


And onward:

"Natalie Marshall, president of David Hasselhoff Online, a poor stranger to historical irony, mentions his 'Christian attitude' and the 'marching tone' of his songs as factors in his appeal and cites his live rendition of the song 'Looking for Freedom' at the Berlin Wall on New Year's Eve 1989 as the moment he was forever clasped to Deutschland's stony bosom."

a poor stranger to historical irony ... Hee ...

An item in the letters page was so out of left field it jumped out at me:

"I inhaled the State of the American Man issue in less than two hours. It shocks me that I have no problem identifying men - FDR, Anthony Burgess, and, much to my father's dismay, Iggy Pop - to pattern myself after" writes Hilary Crowe of Tampa Florida .. an odd and joyful little note of hope that I thought would appeal to my young friend Sebastian, who's a big fan of Anthony Burgess and sometimes despairingly wonders if anybody else on the planet READS him anymore. If Sebastian ever needed to travel more than ten or fifteen feet from his nearest Starbucks in order to have impromptu lusty sex, he could book a ticket to Tampa in the serene expectation of a warm welcome.

But by far the best thing in the issue - its amazing, heart-wrenchingly beautifuly grace note, is Tom Chiarella's short essay "How to Give a Eulogy,"

I've given more eulogies than any of you reading this, and yet I read Chiarella's piece in rapt mental silence.

If I can decipher a linking or pasting method that allows it, I'll give you all access to the entire essay (which can also be obtained by buying the issue, of course), which is so honest and sharp no excerpt can do it justice. But in the meantime, let me quote the piece's ending, at which Chiarella is talking about delivering the eulogy for his dear friend Mary. During the delivery, he hits an awkward silent spot, works the crowd past it, and writes:

"Even so, I wanted to cry just then. That's one of those surprises that comes when you give a eulogy, one of those things you prepare for but do no expect. But I had more to read and more that I owed Mary. I took a deep breath then, and I did the thing everyone does after someone they loved has died.
I gathered myself. And I decided to proceed."

Over in the Atlantic, things turned out every bit as bad as Sebastian had warned me. Tucked back in the books section, there it was: Christopher Hitchens' frothing, jibbering screed about President John Kennedy.

Hitchens hasn't been at his best for a few years but this piece makes the sad reality all too clear: the syphillis has reached the brain.

Utterly impossible, even for somebody as mean as I am, to know where to start dismantling this semi-delirious stream-of-consciousness nocturnal emission of stale envy.

He calls 'Camelot' "the fouth-rate Lerner and Lowe musical" - but unlike every other Lerner and Lowe musical, 'Camelot' has not one single bad or even boring song ... something you can't even say about "Guys and Dolls."

Then there's the sad fact that Hitchens, whatever the strengths and weaknesses of his arguments, has degenerated to the point where he can produce sentences like this:

"In spite of much boorishness and demagoguery - partly undertaken to conceal the increasing lack of confidence that the USSR and the Communist movement felt after his own 'secret speech' concerning the crimes of Stalinism - Krushchev was, probably no less than his eventual successor Gorbachev, a man with whom, at a minimum, business could be done."

'increasing lack'? 'probably no less'? 'eventual successor'?

And lest you think this is an isolated gaff:

"Perhaps even this spell is now not too strong to be broken."

I'm sure it need not be pointed out to any of my faithful readers that neither of these sentences is, technically, English. Extra ironic, that they should crop up over and over in a putative expose of a man who never wrote an inelegant line in his life.

I loved the Kennedys, warts and all. To my admittedly anachronistic mind (not necessarily wrong, for all that), they are the true inheritors of ancient Rome's first families, or the wealthy merchant-princes of the Renaissance: when a family's generational wealth is assured, some turn to public service even though it might lead to personal death and tragedy.

But you don't have to love the Kennedys to hate this sordid piece of gymnasium-envy (I won't say that if Jack or Bobby were still alive they'd punch Hitchens in the nose for this piece, but I sure as Hell felt like it). It's an offense just on its own slim merits.

And the offense that bugs me the most?

Well, you all know me. I know as much about the Kennedy administration as anybody (I have my reasons, and they have nothing to do with Boston, Irish, or Catholic). I read pieces like this with an admitted proprietary element. And the thing that bothers me most about Hitchens' latest piece is the recurring implication that JFK's medical treatments for his back-pain led him to be a Howard Hughes-style deranged drug addict in the Oval Office. Like this:

"At practically all material times, the Galahad of Camelot was pumped full of drugs that affected his mental and physical ability ..."

At another point JFK's referred to as "too crazed with dope." Sigh.

Heavy sigh.

It's been forty years, but even so: there should be plenty of witnesses out there, plenty of people who've shared a dinner with the man, or many - plenty of people who've TALKED to the man, often for nights on end. They're not all dead - they're out there. They can attest to the fact, not the loyalist assertion but the FACT, that never at any point - not once, not ever at any point, did ANY of them, even his sworn enemies, get even the faintest impression that he was even slightly fogged, let alone 'crazed' ...

Hitchens calls for 'us' to finally lay to rest all the illusions regarding Camelot and JFK. But there's been a dark counter-Camelot set of illusions attached to JFK all along, right from the start, and it's time for Hitchens to lay them to rest as well: JFK the sex-crazed cowboy drug addict - a creature who couldn't have been elected President with all the Kennedy money in the world, a creature who couldn't have INSPIRED anybody at all, let alone an entire generation.

It's tough, I know. It's tough to see all the stuff they have - great looks, better than average intelligence, impeccable style sense, impenetrably close family relationships, huge wealth - it's tough to see all that and give them anything else. Hitchens obviously finds it impossible, dumpy thing that he is. But this sad little piece of his is much more a commentary on him than it is on the Kennedys.

Also, as a kind of p.s., Hitchens, true to form for obstinate drunks, still refuses to admit a tiny error: it's not Galahad, ya moron. Galahad doesn't appear in "Camelot."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Loved the sound of Hitch on the rack just then. I had dinner with someone just the other day who said they met him briefly before a speech at the Kennedy School a couple of years back. Hitch was enjoying a Johnny Walker (black) and discoursing at length on the rigors of war. Mano-a-mano, my friend asked him what he thought the proper role of women in wartime ought to be. Hitch grinned & his glassy eyes lit. "On their backs!" he chuckled out. So the self-elected conscience of the west is a closet misogynist as well.

Well, nothing like a bit of malicious gossip to get the day started right, eh? -- Cambridge