I don’t mean drugs, of course. Forget drugs. Adler, now 76, has always written as if she’s never taken a drug in her life—as if the fiercest, purest jinni of a mind-expanding molecule, upon approaching the crystal ramparts of her consciousness, would wither up in shame. Her reputation, in mid-2015, feels floaty and diffracted—quite Internet, really, in that it doesn’t completely scan, and it has an undertow. Some people adore her fiction: her two novels, Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark (1983), were reprinted to fresh accolades in 2013. Other people are just discovering her journalism. And you can’t help gawping at Richard Avedon’s rock-star beautiful ’70s photographs of her, like the one on the cover of After the Tall Timber—denim, range-measuring gaze, her famous thick braid hanging like a hunter’s trophy. A surplus of edge. She appears ready to saunter up to the cockpit, produce a pearl-handled pistolet, and suggest with ghostly good breeding that the pilot fly her to Tripoli. Which is actually how many of her peers see Renata Adler—as a zealot on a private mission of disruption. But we’ll get to that.
Adler is, before anything, old-school Manhattan highbrow—steeped in excellence, the clinkety-clink of cocktail glasses, acuity and charm, a lost age. When she joined The New Yorker in 1963, having studied at Bryn Mawr, the Sorbonne, and Harvard, her colleagues had names like Gardner Botsford and St. Clair McKelway. She was engaged for a time (gossip, but relevant) to Edmund Wilson’s son. She did not admire—“detested,” in fact—the sprawling and subjectivized New Journalism (Wolfe, Mailer, etc.). The vulgar fact of the writer-reporter’s existence, his blundering actuality, was not to be advertised, oh dear me no, but sublimated into immaculate syntax and telling detail. And yet, under that translucent superiority of style, there’s a hum, a glimmer, a threat—most un–New Yorker–ish—to Adler’s New Yorker pieces: the “scruffy, dazed, and twitching hen” in a Biafran marketplace, the woman who approaches G. Gordon Liddy in the street and says to him (“perfectly amiably”), “Death to the CIA.” She possessed a set of literary instincts not quite as canine as, say, Hunter S. Thompson’s—they lacked his snarl and drool, his hallucinatory hackles—but no less acute or telepathic, and in the end rather more dangerous.
“Situations simply do not yield to the most likely structures of the mind.” So observes, prophetically, the young-woman-in-the-city narrator of Speedboat. Adler’s own accomplishments would be serial and rather anomalous. In 1968, she became the chief film critic for The New York Times, succeeding the eminent stodge Bosley Crowther. Her withering superlatives enraged the filmmaking community: “the soundtrack … is among the most crudely exacerbating ever put on film”; “of an awfulness that bends the mind”; “the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” (That last one was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.) But her prose was invincible, her smaller judgments brilliantly piercing: Norman Mailer, she noted, in his three-tough-guys-shooting-the-shit improvisation, Wild 90, “looks more guarded than the most courtly formalist.” She quit after 14 months—wearied by deadlines, subeditors, the hasty, pulpy feeling of working for a newspaper—and went back to The New Yorker. In 1974 she began a gig as a speechwriter for the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Nixon impeachment inquiry. (What? Yup.) After that, she went to Yale Law School. In between, she published Speedboat, which one doesn’t so much read as throw open randomly, like the I Ching, to light upon some enigmatically barbed Girls-esque incident or an aphorism that could have come from her film reviews at The Times. “It is no accident that boredom and cruelty are great preoccupations in our time. They flourish in a single region of the mind.”