Contents | October 2002

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The Atlantic Monthly | October 2002
 
Books & Critics
Books

Other Reviews

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Throwing Light on L.A.

Writing Los Angeles
edited by David L. Ulin
Library of America, 1000 pages, $40.00


he Library of America's most recent thematic anthology collects an astonishing range of writing on a complex, stunning, and chronically misinterpreted city. Here are the authors who helped to define the place, such as Carey McWilliams, Raymond Chandler, and Joan Didion, and, inevitably, here are those celebrated writers—Simone de Beauvoir, Evelyn Waugh, William Faulkner—who stayed in town just long enough and looked just deep enough to confirm and express their stale prejudices. But the editor, David L. Ulin, has also made unpredictable choices: M.F.K. Fisher's remembrance of a childhood outing across the San Gabriel Mountains to "a stream under the cottonwoods"; the architectural critic Reyner Banham's analysis of the Miracle Mile; James M. Cain's 1933 paean to Los Angeles's "common man," who "addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile" (sadly, Cain's Mildred Pierce, the great realistic novel of middle-class L.A., isn't excerpted here); Robert Towne's lyrical and romantic preface and postscript to his hardboiled screenplay for Chinatown, in which he eulogizes the city of his childhood, where "you could stand on the Palisades overlooking Portuguese Bend and have all the dry desert breeze at your back abruptly splashed with salt air from the sea crashing on the rocks and swirling tidepools a hundred feet below"; and the memoirist D. J. Waldie's rhapsody on Los Angeles's uncanny light (where, McWilliams says, "the charm of Southern California is largely to be found"), during an interview with the reporter Lawrence Weschler, in which Waldie ponders "the light, clear as stone-dry champagne, after a full day of rain." Waldie continues, "Everything in this light is somehow simultaneously particularized and idealized: each perfect, specific, ideal little tract house, one beside the next. And that's the light that breaks hearts in L.A." Exactly. —Benjamin Schwarz


Soul Searching

Redeeming the Dial
by Tona J. Hangen
University of North Carolina Press, 208 pages, $39.95


n tracing Christian evangelicals' use of radio to spread the gospel, Tona J. Hangen probes an important subject to which historians are devoting growing attention: the extraordinarily complicated relationship of evangelicals with popular American culture. Whereas scholars used to examine evangelism's tremendous resurgence in the mid-twentieth-century United States from the demand side (that is, they sought explanations in the public climate), Hangen and other historians are now looking at the supply side—the new, or newly packaged, cultural products that evangelicals offered to the market—and the movement's success could indeed be measured in commercial terms. By the early 1940s, for example, the fundamentalist Charles Fuller's Old Fashioned Revival Hour was the most popular show on radio.

Hangen clearly explicates the now largely forgotten story of radio evangelism, but she does not fully explore the contradiction posed when evangelism—a movement that was at once anti-modernist and populist—eagerly, subtly, and brilliantly assimilated the latest promotional techniques of mass communication and the style and idiom of popular entertainment to propagate the old-time religion. She is right to point to evangelism's embrace of modern media as an essential factor in its success, and she astutely analyzes the way in which popular culture was transformed by evangelism; but she doesn't adequately recognize that this relationship ran both ways—that evangelism itself was transformed by that embrace. Redeeming the Dial suggests a larger question about modern American life than the one Hangen examines: How is it that our increasingly commercial, optimistic, and hedonistic culture was able to absorb—to tame and assimilate on its own terms—such a countercultural force as evangelical Christianity? —Benjamin Schwarz


Barbarossa's Boy

Baudolino
by Umberto Eco
Harcourt, 528 pages, $27.00


emiotician, cultural critic, philosopher, essayist, and novelist, Umberto Eco is an intellectual heavyweight who can also, on occasion, be entertaining: The Name of the Rose (1983), for example, was a blockbuster best seller; Travels in Hyperreality (1986) was a diverting and remarkably persuasive dissection of a certain aspect of American culture. His newest novel, Baudolino, a large-scale and ambitious historical fantasy, falls short of these earlier books on the level of sheer entertainment—the humor is often ponderous, the narrative slow and convoluted—but it functions well enough as an insightful meditation on a strange and colorful historical moment with relevance to our own, perhaps equally strange, era.

Baudolino is a peasant boy, born in about 1140 in the Po Valley (Eco's native turf). At the age of thirteen he is adopted by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and for many years he accompanies Barbarossa as the Emperor attempts, in battle after bloody battle, to conquer and pacify the Italian cities. Baudolino is to be found wherever the action is: studying in Paris during the glory days of twelfth-century humanism; at Barbarossa's side during the Italian campaigns; in the early stages of the Third Crusade; at Constantinople when it falls to the marauding thugs of the Fourth Crusade, in 1204. A trickster and a teller of tall stories (one of literature's stock figures, from Odysseus on), Baudolino not only participates in history but alters it, playing a major role in the invention of some of the most potent myths of the Middle Ages: the Grail legend, the correspondence of Abélard and Héloïse, the mysterious Prester John. History, as we have to acknowledge, is no more than a generally accepted combination of facts, invention, propaganda, and wishful thinking, and Baudolino's career illustrates the ways in which history is created and authorized.

Eco is at his most effective, and amusing, when he shows us how fine the line is—if one exists at all—between religion and superstition; his twelfth century is a mirror for our time. Baudolino and his cronies carry on a brisk trade in saints' remains, dress three skeletons as the Magi, and create a shroud-of-Turin-like affair using a leper's winding-sheet; but of course such repulsive and dubious objects are still venerated today. Eco's Latins, Greeks, and others sound ridiculous as they bicker over slight differences in the liturgy or concepts of the Trinity; but such arcane matters continue to divide the Eastern and Western Churches at the start of the twenty-first century.

This is an effective novel of ideas but not really a very effective novel. One is always a little too conscious of Eco's intellectual agenda, and Baudolino is an archetype rather than a character, so the reader has nowhere to invest emotion. But the historical flavor is rich, and so are the ideas; for many, this will be enough. —Brooke Allen



Tough Sledding

The Navigator of New York
by Wayne Johnston
Doubleday, 496 pages, $27.95


any historical novels, perhaps most, focus on real-life, albeit dead, public figures who require the invention of minor characters to witness, narrate, and react to their erstwhile struttings. The Once Living push around the Made Up in a distinct star system. A bolder, sometimes less believable approach puts the actual personages and the fabrications on an even footing, allowing the latter to disrupt the résumés, share the beds, and confound the hearts of VIPs who thought they knew their own stories.

The Canadian novelist Wayne Johnston has been having a fine time lately with this tricky sort of marbling. In 1999 The Colony of Unrequited Dreams gave us the imaginary collision of Joe Smallwood, a real-life journalist-politician who became Newfoundland's provincial premier in the late 1940s, and Sheilagh Fielding, an alluring newspaper reporter whose only reality was the vivid one Johnston fashioned for her. Of course, south of Bangor most readers had never heard of Joe Smallwood, and one measure of Johnston's success was that that didn't matter: Smallwood and Fielding seemed equally vital.

Johnston has made things trickier still in his latest novel, which takes off from the great historical mess engendered by the competing claims of Robert Peary and Frederick Cook to have been first at the North Pole. Cook may now be regarded as polar exploration's Rosie Ruiz, a man who faked his way to the finish line, but at the turn of the century, long before mail fraud put him in Leavenworth, his claim was taken quite seriously.

The Navigator of New York (its title employs the term in Hakluyt's sense: "explorer") inserts the fictional young Devlin Stead into the Peary-Cook duel. Thought to be the son of Francis Stead, a feckless physician-explorer (also fictional) who deserted his family and disappeared from one of Peary's missions, young Devlin is raised, amid general pity, in St. John's, Newfoundland, by his Uncle Edward and Aunt Daphne. But some peculiar letters from Cook, Peary's colleague-turned-rival, eventually give Devlin a very different sense of his parentage, his mother's supposed suicide, and his future prospects. Before long he is setting out for Brooklyn to become Cook's protégé and, a bit later, his ally in the death struggle to reach the Pole.

Devlin has the time-honored appeal of the striving orphan or small-town isolate with a mysterious destiny: he's heir to David Copperfield, the recent heroes of Howard Norman, and, of course, Joe Smallwood. But Johnston, capable of fine psychological observation ("It seems to me that what is really self-knowledge is often mistaken for self-doubt"), has lit out across some very rough terrain this time. By that I mean not the Arctic—which he evokes more freshly than he does turn-of-the-century New York—but the twinned plot expanses of explorer rivalry and Devlin's origins. In one respect the two tales work together well. As Devlin reasons, "How completely discredited [Cook's] claim would be if it became known how we two were related." But the parental revelations are terribly complicated and layered: a good deal of recapping, and a Conradian sort of storytelling (quotations within quotations within someone else's first-person tale), occasionally wear down the reader and the writer. (For one stretch Johnston gives up and lets an omniscient voice take over from Devlin.) Some anachronistic diction ("oddball," "finalized," "father figure") and topography (the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials were finished years after Devlin visits them) don't help.

The North Pole, located beneath shifting ice, is a stranger, less certain destination than its land-covered Southern equivalent. As Devlin says, "This was something on which it was best not to dwell, for it gave rise to the sense that, more than moving, we were being moved, all but floating, helplessly and aimlessly caught up in some illusion on this seemingly fixed and solid surface." I admire Johnston for heading North instead of South in terms of novelistic ambition, and even if he has loaded too much on the sleds this time, he remains a fine imaginative captain. His backers ultimately get their money's worth, and I'd sign on with him again. —Thomas Mallon

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Recent books by Atlantic authors:

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Deep in the Heart of Dixie" (July 31, 2002)
Richard Rubin, author of Confederacy of Silence, talks about his time as a young reporter in Greenwood, Mississippi, and the disquieting mix of geniality and racism he found there.

Politics & Prose: "A Living, Breathing, Eternal City" (July 31, 2002)
A new book on Rome will help travelers there experience the city that Romans know. By Peter Davison

The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin, by Ellen Ruppel Shell. Atlantic Monthly Press. A portion of this book originally appeared as "New World Syndrome," in the June 2001 Atlantic.

Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South, by Richard Rubin. Simon & Schuster/Atria Books. Richard Rubin is the author of the Atlantic feature Special Collections.

A Thousand Bells at Noon: A Roman's Guide to the Secrets and Pleasures of His Native City, by G. Franco Romagnoli. Steerforth Italia. One of the essays in this collection first appeared as "Hard Times," in the September 1979 Atlantic.


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Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2002; New & Noteworthy; Volume 290, No. 3; 159-163.