Friday, October 19, 2007
In the Penny Press!
Just the other day we were having a delicious No-Name Restaurant lunch with an old friend of ours, a well-known public figure we’ve castigated in print more than once. But all is peace and camaraderie over a heaped plate of fried shrimp, so the subjects flowed. And at one point, our old friend leaned across the table and intoned, “Dammit, I miss In the Penny Press. Can’t you indulge your readers once in a while?”
We informed him of the obvious: apart (perhaps) from himself, our readers hardly DESERVE indulgence. Whether it’s the cock-fighting or the cutting or the tagging, you irresponsible little pishwicks are a 24-7 trial on our otherwise-pure soul.
Still, our old friend was insistent (and, needless to say, picked up the tab), and it HAS been an interesting fortnight in the world of periodical literature. So let’s take a quick stroll In the Penny Press and see what’s been going on, shall we?
For instance, we have a double-dose of the New Yorker. In the 15 October issue, there’s a Talk of the Town piece by Hendrik Hertzberg about something that’s apparently been a main topic in the politblogosphere: as inconsequential a thing as Senator Hillary Clinton’s LAUGH. The furor arose when the candidate’s husband was asked in an interview to mention something the electorate doesn’t know about his wife. His answer? “She has the world’s best laugh.”
This SHOULD be interesting because it’s rather plainly the answer of a man very much in love with his wife – but alas, such is not the world in which we live. Instead, the always-on-call vast right-wing conspiracy commenced its customary hyperventilating, calling the laughter evil and using it as a surefire indicator that the candidate doesn’t take anything seriously and never has, ever. Sigh. Believe it or not, the subject of presidential candidate laughter is an old one with a storied history. Much longer pieces than this one were written about the guffawing of Lyndon Johnson, for instance, and the spasmic explosions of Theodore Roosevelt drew press attention immediately. Nixon and JFK shared a curious similarity in how uncomfortable they both seemed to be with their own public laughing. And then there’s the greatest presidential laugher of them all, William Howard Taft, whose booming, buttery bellylaughs have been the subject of entire book chapters. In none of these cases was the nature of the laugh in question considered or used as a mark against the candidate’s qualifications.
Nor would it be so if the chuckle in question had come from candidate Edwards, or candidate Giuliani, or candidate Obama. Hell, it’s the main foundation of candidate Thompson’s run. But when it comes to a female candidate, a boisterous laugh must be a sign of flightiness, or witchcraft, or both.
And this isn’t even the general election, where the sexist insanity can only get steeper. Make no mistake: we here at Stevereads aren’t saying any attack on candidate Clinton is a priori sexist; every candidate is vulnerable to some legitimate criticism, although the current Republican field is marked by a depth of cronyism, stupidity, and insulting cynicism the like of which the electorate hasn’t seen in several decades. No, the point we’re making is far simpler: Hillary Clinton is the best of all the current candidates for president, and in a perfect republic, she’s be elected for that reason.
It’s embarrassment all around, for the others. Worst of all by far, as any Bostonian will tell you, is the liar Mitt Romney, who thinks nothing, believes nothing, is committed to nothing, and fully understands nothing. But the rest aren’t much better: Rudy Giuliani is a barely-sentient ghoul parasiting off one of the nation’s worst tragedies; John Edwards seems hellbent on continuing the tradition of working out his personal psychoses in the public forum that was started by his equally screwed-up namesake; Barack Obama is, we can only hope, the future, but he is most certainly not the present; Fred Thompson’s disastrously plausible odds of achieving the Oval Office ought to be – and hopefully will be – mitigated by the country’s awareness of what high costs are incurred by having a thoughtless actor in power (the other kind is fine by us! Don Cheadle? Donald Sutherland? Reese Witherspoon - although that would be a bigger loss to the future of American cinema than any of you heathens would readily believe); Hell, even Paul Giamatti, if we’re willing to risk a couple of minor brush-wars in unknown countries, followed pretty quickly by mumbled apologies).
And then there’s Mrs. Clinton. Like her husband was years ago, she’s handily smarter than any of her opponents. That need not detain us, of course – Woodrow Wilson was one of the most intelligent men ever elected to the office, and he was an almost unmitigated disaster. But brains is still a good place to start, and candidate Clinton has a lot more to recommend her. The short list: experience, experience, experience. She’s already experienced first-hand what it’s like to live in the epicenter of world power, and unlike every other candidate, she’s had the immeasurable advantage of talking virtually every day with a working president (those of you tempted to parrot the tired old line that the Clintons hardly ever talked? Take another look at the quote that started this whole shindig: take it from us, the husband who’s able to pay such an intimate compliment to his wife hasn’t forgotten why he fell in love with her in the first place). If the presidency of George W. Bush has taught the country anything, it’s taught the tragedy of electing someone to the highest executive office who has no experience whatsoever. Such a man – such a person – will be as newly-elected President Taft was once described: a perfectly amiable person, surrounded by men who know exactly what they want. So let’s hope the country can force itself not to CARE what Mrs. Clinton’s laugh sounds like.
Hillary Clinton wasn’t the only lady leader featured in the 15 October issue. There was also a wonderful article by Cynthia Zarin called “Teen Queen,” about the doomed brief reign of poor Lady Jane Grey. More specifically, the piece is about two portraits that’ve surfaced, each of which has scholarly advocates saying it, and not the other, is a true representation of the girl in question. Half the fun of the piece is standing on the sidelines watching these old fogies duke it out, but of course we here at Stevereads have our own reasons for liking the piece.
And what is it that got us smiling, you feverishly wonder? Why, this bit right here:
“In 1548, [Lady Jane’s] father sold her guardianship, for two thousand pounds, to Lord Thomas Seymour, an uncle of Prince Edward’s. Seymour’s plan was to marry Jane to Edward, who that year succeeded Henry VIII. Nothing came of it, although Seymour was executed (his plan involved kidnapping Edward), and Jane was sent back to Bradgate. In June of 1553, however, Edward, adamant that the crown not pass to his Catholic half sister, Mary, secretly drafted a Device of Succession, which made Jane his heir, and disinherited both Mary and his other half sister, Elizabeth. (Disinheriting only Mary, and not Elizabeth – who was also Protestant – was too transparent politically.) Edward was abetted by the president of his Privy Council, the Duke of Northumberland, who had his own agenda: in May, Jane had been married off to his son Guilford Dudley.”
Thank you, Miss Zarin! Far, far too often (most celebratedly in Trevor Nunn’s very entertaining movie “Lady Jane”), we here at Stevereads encounter a version of these and other events in which young Edward is merely a sickly, manipulated dupe of Northumberland. Needless to say, this bugs us. Edward might have been young, but he was a Tudor to his bones, supernaturally intelligent, pigheaded, volatile when provoked, and most of all forceful, as forceful as a hurricane. He it was, not chance-mongering Northumberland, who pushed forward the idea of a wholly Protestant England (there might have been mixed with this the resentment of a bright young man enfamilied with far smarter sisters, but we cannot be certain). He was fully capable until just a few months before his extremely untimely death, and it’s refreshing to have somebody assume that without prodding.
Refreshing also, to put it mildly, to find fine short fiction in the New Yorker, where once upon a time it visited regularly. Even more astonishing that this short story is written by T. Coragahessan Boyle, a sturdy enough writer who has almost always managed to disappoint us here at Stevereads. His short story, “Sin Dolor,” is therefore a surprise, a wrenching little story about a boy who feels no pain. Boyle’s prose here is evocative throughout – our only quibble is that the medical man in his story seems not to know that the physiological condition of ‘deaf nerves’ is a real one, not a fictional conceit. Boyle’s titular character, nicknamed Sin Dolor, feels nothing at all – he walks on shattered legs, for instance. In the real world, the physiological conditions that give rise to this phenomenon have degrees; some feel only a flittery numbness every so often, others are more (or less, as the case may be) developed, feeling no external stiumlae but still experiencing all the internal ones – the misery of agues, the warning of abdominal pains, the agony of broken bones, etc. Only the very worst afflicted – as this boy is – experience no sensory nerve-traffic at all, and of course they seldom live longer than childhood. Still, Boyle’s story brims with a newfound brio, and it makes us wonder – perhaps even hope – that this author might be moving into a new and far deeper stage in his late-life work. It’s woefully rare but not unknown – Bruce Wagner, William Vollmann, even Cormac McCarthy are all exhibiting signs of wanting to grow continuously in their craft (would that we could add Pete Dexter’s name to that list, but who knows? It’s been so long, perhaps something miraculous is slouching toward Yaddo to be born).
An exceptional short story also adorns the previous issue of the New Yorker, from the 8 October issue: Tessa Hadley’s “Married Love” starts out starchy and droll and ends up genuinely touching. Her prose mastery is on display even right up front in the scene-setting, as for example this:
“This was at the breakfast table a her parents’ house one weekend. The kitchen in that house was upstairs, its windows overlooking the garden below. It was a tall, thin, old house, comfortably untidy, worn to fit the shape of the family. The summer morning was rainy, so all the lights were on, the atmosphere close and dreamy, perfumed with toast and coffee.”
That’s good stuff. Who can read such a description and not feel like they’ve lived in such a house? If this, too, is an indication of what Tessa Hadley might go on to do, more power to her, we here at Stevereads say.
Of course, the 8 October New Yorker contained troubling items as well, none moreso than the piece ‘Our Man in Pyongyang,’ detailing how most of the diplomatic overtures made to the regime currently ruling North Korea have been made by … a goomba-wannabe operating out of his barbecue restaurant in Hackensack.
What’s that, you say? Surely you misread the above – this isn’t, after all, 1807 but 2007: amateur adventurers surely no longer work on the world stage?
And yet, you read correct: Bobby Egan, the finger-ringed Hackensack imbecile whose concerns sling roast beef to track-panted Sopranos hopefuls all day long, also enjoys a special friendship with Kim Jong II and all of his highest and mightiest ministers.
This is cause for horror, yes, but perhaps – and just perhaps, mind you all – that horror is vitiated by the fact that, to the extent he can, goomba Egans is aware of the travesty of his unofficial position. Believe it or not, he feels like he’s up against it:
“His efforts on the North Koreans’ behalf, he says, have always been aimed toward a peaceful end that would benefit both countries. As he put it, ‘How can you have fifty years of no diplomatic relations, no low-level talks with a country that shares a peninsula with one of our best allies, South Korea, and that borders our biggest economic adversary and military adversary, China? How could that be?’ Egan says that the very fact that the North Koreans choose to work with a guy like him shows how badly they want to get out of the hole of isolation in which they have buried themselves. ‘Look at what lengths the Koreans would go to - by using a guy with as little credibility as me, because there was nobody else to support them,’ he says.”
Terrifying stuff, considering the volatile nature of the totally insane North Korean leadership. Egan comes across as a relatively decent sort, but it’s impossible not to draw the conclusion that the North Koreans like him at least partially because his own status – officially rogue, slightly bellicose, and almost certainly backed by criminal concerns – parallels theirs as a nation. As the stuff of statecraft, it’s a troubling image.
The latest Vanity Fair contains some almost equally troubling images, from the distant past. Specifically, the Camelot years, as captured by Richard Avedon. In this particular instance, we’re talking about a set of black-and-white photos taken in 1961 and not released until this month.
Avedon is brilliant and always has been, but we submit that in that brilliance he met his match in JFK. Not Jackie – she absolutely BLOSSOMS whenever any professional photographer comes near, and this session is no exception: she’s more beautiful, more gracious, more REGAL than any contemporary or follower, most certainly including the princesses Grace and Diana. Unlike those two unfortunate young women, Jackie was the actual helpmeet to an actually powerful man, in fact the most powerful man in the world.
Both sides of that equation are easily visible in these ‘new’ Avedon photos: she smiles and changes expression from shot to shot, she looks either directly at the camera or else tenderly down at young Caroline and little baby John Jr. He, on the other hand, looks pitifully uncomfortable in every shot – not, as his critics might have contended, because his thoughts were on philandering in fields afar, but because the fakery of the photos themselves would have irritated him.
(Robert Dallek, who writes the accompanying text for the article, gets things badly wrong when he suggests it was JFK’s idea to approach Avedon; such a move was pure Jackie).
But as compelling as such images from another age are, they don’t constitute the most compelling article in this issue of Vanity Fair. No, that honor would go to a fantastic but quease-inducing piece by Bryan Burrough titled ‘Mad About the Boys,’ about Lou Pearlman, the fat, balding impresario behind most of the boy bands that plagued the latter days of the 20th century.
Pearlman bilked investors out of upwards of $300 million, and Burrough’s article goes into a great deal of detail on that (there’s a book in all this, and if we’re lucky, Burrough will be the one who writes it), but of course the juice of the story is the other half, the bit that could be ripped from a Jackie Collins potboiler: in an unsurprising turn, it seems the boy band impresario was interested in far more than his young charges’ musical futures: he liked to slab his meaty hands all over their seductive little presents too.
Burroughs does a wonderful job throughout, despite what one immediately senses were unenviable obstacles, reportorial, legal, and otherwise.
The ‘otherwise’ is so deliciously awful that it stalks, it pulses through the piece like an off-tempo brush-stroke. The scenario is like something out of Suetonius: Pearlman was in charge, a one-man conduit between an endless stream of good-looking young men and a million dollar payday. And Pearlman knew it; according to Burroughs, he often told his young victims that ‘next year’ they’d be millionaires. He wasn’t above invoking the various stages of poverty from which they came. He wasn’t above invoking grateful mothers and needy relatives.
And he got what he wanted, that much is certain regardless of how careful Burroughs is in his writing. The gist any alert reader comes away with is this: some of the members of the boy bands of the 90s sacrificed their gorgeous young bodies to gain success. That’s pretty stark.
Pretty stark, and pretty salacious, and Burroughs knows it. His piece is as carefully written as it possibly could be (there’s even a disclaimer about the photos accompanying the piece: “The photos do not imply improper relations between Pearlman and particular boys” – as if the mere act of being photographed with the man is a slur), but the story it tells is a bombshell.
Obviously, most former boy band members refuse to talk with Burroughs or to appear in the piece. One who does is Rich Cronin, as bright (and valiant) a young man as ever crooned on MTV, and he’s a vivid witness to Pearlman’s wandering hands and smarmy talk of soothing ‘auras’:
“That was the line, the ‘aura,’ I definitely heard that aura bullshit. It took everything in me not to laugh. He was like, ‘I know some mystical fricking ancient massage technique that if I massage you and we bond in a certain way, through these special massages, it will strengthen your aura to the point you are irrestitible to people. I had to bite my cheeks to stop from laughing. I mean, I now know what it’s like to be a chick … He was so touchy-feely, always grabbing your shoulders, touching you, rubbing your abs. It was so obvious and disgusting.”
Another cooperative source is Steve Mooney, who in the late ‘90s was an aspiring boy-band wannabe and Pearlman’s assistant, living in his house and therefore in a perfect position to see the various icky goings-on in the wee small hours:
“More than once, he [Mooney] says, he encountered young male singers slipping out of [Pearlman’s bedroom] doors late at night, tucking in their shirts, a sheepish look on their faces. ‘There was one guy in every band – on sacrifice – one guy in every band who takes it for Lou,’ says Mooney, echoing a sentiment I heard from several people. ‘That’s just the way it was.’
And if it’s true (it might not be – if Mooney had ever made it into one of Pearlman’s bands, he might be singing a different tune today), it immediately prompts a rather tawdry guessing game: which member of each band ‘took it for Lou’? Burroughs comes as close as he legally can to saying it was delectable young Nick Carter who was the sacrificial lamb for the Backstreet Boys. But what about the others? Rich Cronin’s candor rules him out as the sacrifice for LFO, which leaves his two band-mates – so was it the doe-eyed Brad Fischetti or the massively-muscled Devin Lima? In Burroughs’ piece, Pearlman is pictured twice with Richie Strigini, the designated ‘cute one’ from US5 – coincidence, or code? Pouty, full-mouthed Ashley Parker Angel seems the likely bet for O-Town, but what if it was brooding, rebellious Jacob instead? And of course there’s the biggest question of them all: what about ‘Nsync? Tiny, picture-perfect JC Chavez had done a stint as Pearlman’s in-house assistant, and Lance Bass has now conspicuously outed himself – both are prime candidates. But what if it was someone else? What if one of the most successful solo performers on the planet paid for his start in the business by dropping to his knees on Lou Pearlman’s shag carpet? If such a thing became known, it would be very difficult indeed to bring the sexy back from that.
In short, this whirlwind of sin and scandal capped off a singularly enjoyable tour through the Penny Press. Our old friend was right to prompt us, and we’ll thank him by giving his next wretched article a free pass here at Stevereads.