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O C T O B E R 2 0 0 0
Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation
by Jeffrey Meyers.
Norton, 397 pages, $27.95.
No other writer in the English language has been more often likened to a saint than George Orwell. His contemporaries and subsequent hagiographers have lauded his self-denial, integrity, courage, and decency, and these personal qualities -- so the thinking goes -- are inseparable from his writerly ones: only such a man could write such clean, clear prose, "like a windowpane." But Orwell himself averred that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent." In this biography Jeffrey Meyers draws an admiring portrait of Orwell, but he doesn't omit the writer's unsaintlike qualities. Orwell was often gentle, but had a violent, even sadistic, streak. He was endearing in his eccentricities, but obliviously selfish in his married life. In his dalliances with married women and Berber girls, and in his string of clumsy incompleted passes, Orwell, the cadaverous ascetic, was also, as Meyers writes, a bit of a "puritanical lecher." Orwell's two earlier biographers saw this side of their subject, but Meyers, the first able to avail himself of the materials in Orwell's recently published complete papers, is more specific, and hence his portrait is somewhat darker. Meyers, however, too easily dismisses the complicated issues involved in what has recently emerged as one of the most controversial incidents in Orwell's life: in 1949 Orwell gave an object of his attentions, who worked at the Foreign Office, the names of Communist sympathizers who couldn't be relied on to write pro-British propaganda. (This list was revealed only a few years ago.) Although Meyers is right that Orwell's move was hardly McCarthyite, it did, at the very least, display his inclination toward stupidity about women with whom he was besotted. Meyers's discussion of Orwell's writing and ideas is surprisingly wooden and superficial, but his is now the authoritative biography, and it amply confirms Malcolm Muggeridge's judgment that Orwell was "more lovable than likeable."
-- Benjamin Schwarz
A Place of Execution
by Val McDermid.
St. Martin's Minotaur, 404 pages, $24.95.
APlace of Execution is a novel about a murder in which the police find the culprit but not the body -- a circumstance rich in the stuff of which page-turners, even slow-plotted ones like this, are made. The setting, an isolated village in the craggy limestone dales of Derbyshire, harbors fogs of mystery. Scardale, with its inbred marital webs, is just a case of incest or two removed from civic idiocy, so when, in December of 1963, Alison Carter, thirteen, disappears while out walking her dog in the woods, the village reveals itself as a stricken family. George Bennett, a young university-trained detective-inspector on his first big case, and his seen-it-all partner, Tommy Clough, must find her murderer among its members. Val McDermid, the author of a shelf's worth of detective novels, generates not suspense, exactly, but curiosity and, finally, whiplash surprise. Her focus is on the inner lives of her policemen as they come to terms with bottom-of-hell horror and grave error. The gradations of class, accent, intelligence, and rusticity separating the uniformed policemen from the un-uniformed do not escape her notice -- this is England, after all. And, amid the grief and guilt, there are relieving dabs of buddy humor. After nearly pummeling a sensation-mongering journalist, George puts it to Tommy: "How long do you think I'd get if I beat that smile off his face with a truncheon?" ... "Depends if the jury know him or not. Cup of tea?"
-- Jack Beatty
by Kay Ryan.
Grove, 76 pages, $13.00.
These precise, epigrammatic poems, which come with hook-and-eye rhymes that click sweetly into place, move deftly and economically to cope with subjects as elusive and specific as "survival skills," "great thoughts," and "help." Though they dispose of their subjects wittily and ingeniously, they cannot always suppress a smile of self-satisfaction at having mastered their material; and, like macaroons, they should be taken a few at a time. They are cleverly made, shifting back and forth and up and down. Like cat's cradles, they may be taken in or let out, but at their best they alter the fit of the mind.
-- Peter Davison
Three Generations That Built an Empire
by Gwenda Blair.
Simon & Schuster, 592 pages,
"The Donald is fantastic in the golf and very good in the tennis," Ivana Trump once observed, imperishably, of that "national symbol of luxury and sybaritic excess" Donald Trump, whom Gwenda Blair depicts as a Gatsby of self-infatuation transfixed by the green light at the end of his own dock. Donald Trump's grandfather, an immigrant from Bismarck's Germany, ran prostitutes in the hotels he opened in Seattle and the Klondike, supplying scales so that miners could weigh their pleasures in gold dust. His son, Fred Trump, made a fortune building low-cost housing in Queens and Brooklyn under elastic government contracts. Gwenda Blair tells the elder Trumps' stories in historically resonant detail and with marked business and financial lucidity. Grandson Donald's entry challenges her biographical skills -- she can't hide from the reader that the builder of Trump Tower, Trump Palace, Trump Plaza, and Trump City, and the erstwhile owner of the Trump Shuttle, sponsor of the Tour de Trump, and skipper of the Trump Princess, has all the depth of a stack of hundred-dollar bills -- and eventually overtaxes her charity. "At his own father's funeral," she writes indicatively, "[Donald] did not stop patting himself on the back.... The first-person singular pronouns, the I and the me, eclipsed the he and his.... There was to be no sorrow; there was only success." Hell is a cross-country bus ride trapped in the company of a tumescent bore like this.
-- Jack Beatty
by Candace Bushnell.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 245 pages,
Candace Bushnell, the author of Sex and the City and a former in-the-know columnist for the revoltingly in-the-know New York Observer, now offers a grimmer, fictional portrait of rich, beautiful, and powerful Manhattanites in their social, professional, and, above all, sexual lives. The four blondes of the title are the sort who would be welcome in the VIP rooms of downtown clubs, and Bushnell tells their stories in self-contained chapters: the book is essentially a collection of four novellas. It's aimed at those for whom this scene exercises a cheap fascination, and its effect is not at all unlike that of pornography: the reader is titillated and even encouraged to feel "daring," but in the end is left empty and somewhat depressed. At times Four Blondes reads like a bitter satire, and Bushnell scores some trenchant hits -- as when, for instance, she summarizes the vacuous ambitions of a journalistic Manhattan couple: "If James had written an important, influential book by now, they would have access to more important, influential people. They would be more important, influential people." Her depiction of Janey, a model and would-be screenwriter (naturally), who regularly endures a painful and humiliating sex act to please her producer boyfriend (with whom she is pathetically in love, but whom she also sees as a vehicle to satisfy her ambition), is as nuanced as it is desolate. But Bushnell's hard voice too often turns gushy; ultimately, she's infatuated with this world, and therefore glamorizes it. Her bleak and dispiriting comedy of manners is enough to make one a puritan.
-- Benjamin Schwarz
Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in the Land of No Alternatives
by Greil Marcus.
Holt, 248 pages, $25.00.
If you are a skeptic about the interaction of pop culture with Larger Events, this is a book you ought to try on. Marcus has collected and revised, with the happy advantage of hindsight, eight years' worth of his vigorous columns and reviews of pop records and videos, written from 1992 to 2000, to assess what the posthumous presence of Elvis, and the racking insights of such influential successors as Bob and Jakob Dylan, Sinéad O'Connor, and Kurt Cobain, have wrought on the first President of these United States to have grown up with roots deep in the pop world, the first chief executive to have blown tenor sax in public. "Pop," Marcus persuasively suggests, "is a form of public life." His book (salted and peppered with pop names) reads like a long riff on the undercurrents of the Clinton years and is given heavily to the drawing of morals. Yet like a car slightly out of control, it bumps en route into a number of hard truths about the nature of political consent and consensus.
-- Peter Davison
Recent books by Atlantic authors:
Facing the Congo, by Jeffrey Tayler. Ruminator Books, 282 pages, $27.00. This book grew out of "Vessel of Last Resort," a travel piece in the September, 1996, Atlantic.
Breathing Room, by Peter Davison. Knopf, 80 pages, $23.00. Several poems in this collection first appeared in The Atlantic.
The Eighth Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar, by Peter Tyson. William Morrow/HarperCollins, 400 pages, $27.50. Portions of this book appeared, in somewhat different form, in the January, 1996, Atlantic.