Posts from May 2008

May 21st, 2008

In the Penny Press!

A slightly belated look at the Penny Press here at Stevereads, where we’ve been slightly distracted of late. For instance, we’re only just now getting to last week’s TLS, which had its usual bounty of great stuff and one ominous little note, in Morris Dickstein’s review of Richard Cook’s new Alfred Kazin biography. Dickstein’s piece (oh calm yourself, Beepy) is very good, but it opens with a few declarations that bear refuting:

Literary journalism is usually as perishable as the paper it’s printed on. In times past, the most commanding reviewers might see their work collected in books. Now the general audience for literary essays seems to have disappeared, along with many newspapers and magazines that once published them.
Well, yes and no, right? If Dickstein really believed what he wrote, he wouldn’t be writing literary essays for the TLS, now would he? And besides, his dire predictions fail to take into account the very medium in whose warm glow you’re right this moment bathing: the Internet is, of course, where the ‘general audience’ for literary essays has migrated, and that ‘paper it’s printed on’ reference already feels slightly old-fashioned, doesn’t it? Print had its long golden age, as did steam and whale-oil, and in another generation even the most obstinate holdouts to paper-and-ink reading will have been won over by some innovation or other that soothes their old-fashioned nerves (we here at Stevereads, for instance, got an absolutely frightening amount of use out of our old manual typewriter – indeed, it sits within easy view whenever we write, even to this day – but the homely little detail that won us over to computers was the backspace … the ability to magically undo any and all typing mistakes without the torturous necessity of white-out or retyping, like a gift from Heaven! After that, we kept pecking away on our mechanical typewriter for a while out of misplaced sentimentality, but after a while, we saw how pointless that was and stopped). Dickstein’s lament is not only premature but misplaced, as the meticulous, wonderfully written prose over at Open Letters (among many other such places, although it’s the best of them) shows ever month on the 1st.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t an abundance of good prose still in the print world! Take the latest issue of Esquire, for instance. Not only does it have a really good, really intense short story titled “Nightstand” by Daniel Woodrell, about a man who wakes to find a stranger standing at the foot of his bed, kills the stranger, and then watches his life change as a result, in disturbing ways the reader won’t see coming. It’s always a pleasure when Esquire’s fiction excels, and “Nightstand” is the best thing they’ve published so far this year.

Then there’s Mark Warren’s little insert (oh calm down, Beepy) “Cracking the Code,” part of a longer feature on racism in America. Warren very amusingly posits there’s a code for how public figures talk about racism, and of course he has one particular public figure in mind:

Of course, you’ve got to be careful when administering the code visually, because there’s a much higher probability that it’ll backfire, and you’ll be the one looking like a douchebag. Case in point: Earlier this year, the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton released a picture of Barack Obama, taken a couple of years ago when the senator was visiting Kenya. In the picture, Obama, who was gamely playing along by donning local garb, is wearing a turban and wrapped in a bedsheet over his khakis and polo shirt. Senator Clinton’s people just put the picture out there, for our consideration, and there it hung in the air, like a fart. They of course couldn’t say “Look, he really is a Muslim, and a foreigner, and lookee, he’s so black!” So they said nothing, until the Obama campaign responded, essentially, “What the hell?” Whereupon Clinton’s campaign manager attacked Senator Obama for being divisive. Awkward.

Trenchant stuff, especially considering the fact that as of this writing Candidate Clinton has just won a brace of Racist State Primaries and instead of being ashamed, instead of quietly shushing up the whole thing (like the way every Presidential candidate who gets the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan – and for a hundred years, somebody’s got that endorsement in every race), she’s trumpeted it as a sign the system still works, as a measure of the validity of her campaign.

It won’t matter in the end, obviously. Barring an assassin’s bullet (something Candidate Clinton is all but visibly relying on, which will end up being the least savory detail of her 2008 run), its pretty likely Senator Obama will be the Democrat who get their ass handed to them in the general election against the madman McCain. But it speaks in eloquent counterpoint to Obama’s now famous speech on race relations in this country.

Obama is also the focus of Charles Pierce’s ferocious, intelligent piece “The Cynic and Senator Obama,” which takes as its organizing motif the idea that there’s a segment of the smarter American voting public that still refuses to believe in Obama, to believe that he’s hitting a genuine nerve in a broad spectrum of people – that he is, in other words, answering a need of some kind (it’s worth noting that this isn’t exclusively a good thing, needs being weak, after all). Pierce strikes an unashamedly partisan note throughout:

Someone will have to measure the wreckage. Someone will have to walk through the ruins. Someone will have to count the cost. More than anything else, the presidential election ongoing is – or, as a right, ought to be – about ending an era of complicity. There is no point anymore in blaming George Bush or the men he hired or the party he represented or the conservative movement that energized that party for what has happened to this country in the past seven years. They were all merely the vehicles through whom the fear and lassitude and the neglect and the dry rot that had been afflicting the democratic structures for decades came to a dramatic and disastrous crescendo. The Bill of Rights had been rendered a nullity by degrees long before a passel of apparatchik hired lawyers found in its text enough gray space to allow a fecklessly incompetent president to command that torture be carried out in the country’s name. The war powers of the Congress had been deeded wholesale to the executive long before Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and a passel of think-tank cowboys found within them the right of a fecklessly incompetent president to make war unilaterally on anyone, anywhere, forever. The war in Iraq is the powerful bastard child of the Iran-Contra scandal, which went unpunished.
In the article, the Cynic fights hard to retain his cynicism and in the end remains unconvinced by Obama and any of his various messages, but the prose is bracing throughout.

(in an associated point, John Richardson turns in a piece titled “Is This Man a Monster?” about former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, the author of the infamous ‘torture memos’ that will forever guarantee President George W. Bush a place, however dark, in history. Richardson’s title question, about an innocent-faced, career-minded creature who conceived the memorandum that are this country’s darkest moments embodied, can be answered with a simple ‘yes,’ but that doesn’t make his article any the less compelling)

And surely for readers everywhere, the highlight of this particular issue of Esquire was its one-page interview with legendary author Gore Vidal. Those of us who’ve loved Vidal’s work in the past have been universally troubled in the present, where our author has seemed to lose his way a bit. His latest memoir, Point to Point Navigation, was touching but ultimately saddening, something akin to the world’s longest death notice.

There’s something of that tone in Mike Sager’s brief interview here, but it’s delivered with more fire and wit. And the quips flow like Chianti:

I’ve developed a total loathing for McCain, conceited little asshole. And he thinks he’s wonderful. I mean, you can just tell, this little simper of self-love that he does all the time. You just want to kick him. For a writer, memory is everything. But then you have to test it; how good is it, really? Whether it’s wrong or not, I’m beyond caring. It is what it is. As Norman Mailer would say, “It’s existential.” He went to his grave without knowing what that word meant.

But the troublingly mortuary note is still struck here as well, as in this little revelation:

There was more of a flow to my output of writing in the past, certainly. Having no contemporaries left means you cannot say, “Well, so-and-so will like this,” which you do when you’re younger. You realize there is no so-and-so anymore. You are your own so-and-so. There is a bleak side to it.

Well, yes, there is a bleak side to it, but fortunately this is a problem with an easy solution, and we here at Stevereads offer it to Mr. Vidal free of charge, in complete confidence as to its efficacy because we’ve repeatedly tested it ourselves: make young friends! Find new so-and-so’s! Not only is it invigorating, but it keeps you on your toes, stops you from thinking you have all the answers (stops you, essentially, from masturbating in public). The English Department of any handy university could provide you with such new blood, or, failing that, we’re sure the boys and girls over at Open Letters would be happy to volunteer! Merely click on the link and drop them a line!

Over in the Atlantic, there are two standout pieces this month, and neither one is by Christopher Hitchens (although he does write a lovely essay about Saki)! The first is called “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” and it’s written by “Professor X” (as in anonymous, not as in mutant) – and reading the piece, you can see why its author would want to remain anonymous: the thing is a bracing wake-up call about the over-proliferation of college students in this country, and the drastic failures of the pre-college educational system – first by utterly failing to prepare them for higher learning, and second by simultaneously filling their heads with the desirability of that goal.

Professor X is the guy standing between that goal and reality, as he ruefully writes:

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it – try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades. For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of the work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less college.

The fault here, of course, lies not in the laudable goal of sending everybody to college; it lies with the criminally substandard state into which Americans have allowed their grade schools and high schools to fall. We here at Stevereads know a dozen teachers at such levels, and all of them routinely spend their own money on supplies, offer up their own time for private tutoring, try their best to reach classes sometimes numbering in the 30s, and doing all of this with virtually no support from local communities and businesses, despite the fact that such support is certainly in their long-term best interests. The reason Professor X is dealing with so many barely literate, intellectually incurious students in college is because they were allowed to pass that way out of high school. His despair at being the guy who hands out the failing grades is a visible symptom of a much more widespread rot.

Of course, none of it might ultimately matter, if the second Atlantic article turns out to be true. Gregg Easterbrook turns in a curiously flat piece about the end of life on Earth, as a result of a catastrophic meteor-collision. His piece, “The Sky is Falling,” has some fascinating details lodged in a scattershot general approach (there’s a long digression on the feasibility of building a lunar base that any first-year editor should have yanked out of the piece), and the star of the show is 99942 Apophis, our darling girl:

Right now, astronomers are nervously tracking 99942 Apophis, an asteroid with a slight chance of striking Earth in April 2036. Apophis is also small by asteroid standards, perhaps 300 meters across, but it could hit with about 60,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb – enough to destroy an area the size of France.

That destruction would only be the beginning, as all you fans of Armageddon can attest: following it would be shockwaves, tsunamis, earthquakes, and choking dust clouds. As Easterbrook puts it:

…the combination of shock waves and extreme heating at the point of impact generates nitric and nitrous acids, producing rain as corrosive as battery acid.


As some of you may know, we here at Stevereads aren’t terribly big fans of the human race (even though some of our best friends are humans). Mankind has proven itself to be a savage and spreading cancer across the face of the planet, a species whose defining action seems to be destruction. Diseases do little to cull the murderous herd, and wars are equally small-fry. A monstrous asteroid striking the planet would, it’s true, wipe out all non-human life … but if it also wiped out humanity, well, that would be a bargain even so. So we’ll be watching closely in 2036, with fingers crossed.

And in the meantime, we’ll be blogging. So there’s karma still in the world!

October 19th, 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.

October 18th, 2006

In the Penny Press! Crikey!

Since about 250 pages of the latest Atlantic Monthly are devoted to Joshua Green’s profile of Hillary Clinton, it seems only right to start off with that – and to note right away that Green comes off as … well, not to say ‘an asshole’ but certainly a CAD.

He spends the gigantic bulk of the article maintaining all the bells and whistles of journalistic objectivity – the hours logged with his subject, the tells-it-like-he-sees it descriptions, the wide-ranging secondary sources. For 249 of its pages, I was reading intently and learning something on every page.

Then I got to the last paragraph and uttered a ‘what the fuck?’ that I’m sure was also uttered in a certain breakfast-nook in Chappaqua:

Yet it is fair to wonder if Clinton learned the lesson of the health care disaster too well, whether she has so embraced caution and compromise that she can no longer judge what merits taking political risks. It is hard to square the brashly confident leader of health-care reform – willing to act on her deepest beliefs, intent on changing the political climate and not merely exploiting it – with the senator who recently went along with the vote to make flag-burning a crime. Today Clinton offers no big ideas, no evidence of bravery in the service of a larger ideal. Instead, her Senate record is an assemblage of many, many small gains. Her real accomplishment in the Senate has been to rehabilitate the image and political career of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Impressive though that has been in its particulars, it makes for a rather thin claim on the presidency. Senator Clinton has plenty to talk about, but she doesn’t have much to say.

Yeesh. I’m guessing somebody’s access-codes have been shredded …

The issue also features a heartfelt though somewhat scatter-brained tribute to YouTube written by Michael Hirschorn. Like so many writers who set out to describe just exactly what YouTube is revolutionizing and just exactly how it’s doing so, Hirschorn quickly loses his way and begins nattering (amazing how lenient we become toward this – nattering, but extremely well-paid nattering in a premium forum … the latter two qualities, you’d think, disqualifying the former; personally, off the top of my head, I can think of four people I know who could have written this piece better, ALL of whom would benefit immensely – personally and professionally – from having a piece published in the Atlantic).

Of course I, like everyone else, worship YouTube. I spend at least 30 minutes a day there, indulging in every stray whim of visual curiosity. College girls puking in plain view? You got it! Precision-flying plane slamming into a crowd of spectators? You got it! Surging ocean waves at sunset? You got it! Insane basset hound named Lucy having a fit right in front of the camera? You got it!

I’m not convinced that it spells the death-knell of anything, let along movies and tv, but nevertheless: I’m entranced. If I could figure out how to TRANSPLANT YouTube videos onto these posts (as even a casual glance at other blogs reveals EVERYBODY else knows how to do), I’d be treating you all to my latest finds practically every day. But alas, the last time I called up one of my young friends and asked him to give me step-by-step instructions on how to import something to my site, my phone’s battery died (and the sun came up) while he was still going strong.

So in the meantime, you’ll have to make do with typing ‘crazy cat’ and ‘crazy dog’ into YouTube yourselves! Endless hours of mindless fun!

Of course, there are those who would say that if you’re willing to plug yourself into YouTube, you’re one step closer to being willing to LIVE video games all the time. Lots of those people are quoted in Jonathan Rauch’s article on video games in this issue.

Much space is devoted to how COMPLEX video gaming technology is becoming, how the graphics and sound effects are becoming more and more lifelike all the time, how the interface of user-interaction is getting more and more complex all the time.

The piece concludes with this:

We can’t know where the quest to build interactive drama will lead, but we do know that the dramatist’s tools are the oldest and most potent of all emotional technologies. Sooner or later, drama will converge with the video game, the newest and most vibrant of all entertainment technologies. And then? Not long ago, I attended a stage performance of Aeschylus’ The Persians,’ the most ancient work of the dramatic literature. Even in translation and at a remove of 2,500 years, it left an audience of modern Americans feeling stunned and disembodied, as if the intervening millennia had disappeared. Wow, I heard myself think, if I could play that, I’d be so excited!

To put it mildly, there’s a lot wrong with this. We’ll pass over that bit about stage-plays being referred to as ‘entertainment technologies’ and focus on the central nub of the issue, the one I focus on with all the hundreds of video game addicts I know.

You know them too, I guarantee it. You’re statistically likely to BE one yourself. These are the young people who, when you ask them at work or school every morning what they did the evening before, sheepishly offer vague non-answers: ‘nothing,’ ‘not much,’ ‘stuff’ …. because the real answer, in each and every case, is: “I played video games from 6:30 pm until I passed out, between 2 and 4 am, fully clothed but unfed and unwashed.”

Some of these people might say this sordid little truth out loud once – it’d be good for an office chuckle. But none of them would ever say it as many times as it actually happens, because it happens every single time they have free time of any kind. 10 page papers with footnotes are written on the B line on the way to the class where they’re due, so that radioactive mushrooms can be detonated from 6:30 pm to 4:30 am.

Some of these addicts are intelligent young people, and some of them have in the past attempted to defend or even justify their addiction to me, on just the same grounds as the above ridiculous quote does: that video games AREN’T just passive thumb-exercises. That they have depth and worth and dramatic power and even (in one arguer’s disasterous case) LITERARY merit.

I realize nobody wants to admit when they’ve let something into their lives they can’t control, but this is just silly. Rauch here is being willfully blind to the gaping problems in his own assertions.

The reason his modern American audience was enraptured by ‘The Persians’ has nothing to do with ‘entertainment technology’ – it arose from the fact that Aeschylus, the play’s single, human author, used a combination of intellect, historical knowledge, intuition, and most of all poetic talent to craft a thing that would draw an audience in and work a deep impression on them.

But he didn’t specify WHICH impression, or which shades of different reactions each person would feel. I’m sure no two of Rauch’s fellow audience-members felt the EXACT SAME exhilaration over the performance – it would be altered by their seat-mates, their view of the stage, their knowledge of Athenian history, their experience of life and of theater. In other words, although everybody in the audience would be moved by the power of ‘The Persians,’ no two audience members would have seen the exact same play.

That’s literature’s central power: its ability to transform us, individually.

Nobody has ever been transformed by a video game (well, except for those few – their number grows every year – who, by playing literally non-stop, managed to transform themselves from living to dead), and nobody ever will be. And the reason is simple: video game users are entirely passive. All their possible interactions with their game are pre-programmed, and knowing this prevents them from CARING what their own reactions are to anything that happens.

While stage plays seem on the surface even less flexible (Hamlet never lives; Mary Tyrone never takes up jogging), Rauch could testify that in reality they’re far moreso – since when they’re done well they form an intensely interactive, intensely individual bond with each member of the audience, and audience that, through the strength of that bond, VERY MUCH cares about its own reactions.

All of which is already known to video game addicts – they weren’t advancing their argument in any kind of sincerity. They were just killing time until they can get back to their hand-controls.

Still, as irritating as I found this video game piece, I’m afraid top irritation honors for this issue go to the regular ‘Post Mortem’ feature, this time eulogizing ‘crocodile hunter’ Steve Irwin.

We here at Stevereads have little patience with the old nostrum about not speaking ill of the dead. We think it probably originated in the Middle Ages, when there was a good chance the dead would pop back out of the ground and SMACK your ill-talking pie-hole. But nowadays, thank to ‘C.S.I.’ our dead STAY dead, so we’re free to ill-talk our heads off.

And what’s the point of it anyway? It does a disservice to the truth to whitewash ANYTHING. If I were ever going to be dead, I’d like to think my friends would be frank about my shortcomings (and if me being dead was offered hypothetically, my having shortcomings is SO much moreso…), just like I’d want my enemies to at least grudgingly admit my good points.

That being said, some of you may already know what I think of this opportunistic blockhead Irwin.

But if you didn’t know, this post mortem, written in high priggish style by Mark Steyn, would take you on a guided tour of all my reasons.

Steyn takes the same line on Irwin that Irwin took on himself during his brief, unbearable tenure as something that could be passed off for a kind of sort of ‘naturalist.’

Irwin died of a stingray barb to his heart, as most of you know. Any guesses on how you get a stingray to barb you in the heart? Let me tell you, since my freakish little nature-boy Elmo never speaks on this blog: you pick one up and FUCK with it. Otherwise, you – and it – are perfectly safe.

Steyn quotes Irwin on the subject:

We can’t keep looking at wildlife on a long lens of a tripod. Then there’s this voice of God telling you about the cheetah kill. After 450,000 cheetah kills, it’s not entertaining anymore.

That’s Irwin in a nutshell: the pseudo-naturalist for the video game age. An adult cheetah accelerates to 70 mph in under seven seconds; its frontal cortex analyzes course-changes in its intended prey so fast that neuroscientists can’t tell you how the brain tissue in question can do it; the entire hunt takes roughly fifteen seconds from start to finish, and the smallest mishap can result in a broken leg for the cheetah, thus death. In the entire animal kingdom, just about three creatures rely on the adaptation of spectacular speed-bursts to secure their prey.

But is that ‘entertaining’ enough for the joystick generation? NOOOOOOO.

It makes matters worse, very much worse that Steyn decides to burnish Irwin by tarnishing somebody who does it right: believe it or not, David Attenborough comes in for a paragraph of trashing:

In the presence of animals, he lowers his voice to a breathy whisper … Sir David keeps his breathy whisper even when he’s back in the BBC studio doing the voice-over.

Well, OK, except: no he doesn’t. He keeps the ‘breathy whisper’ (note the sneer associated with feeling awe or reverence for the natural world … pshah! what’s this simp THINKING?) only when he’s doing voice-overs for on-site lines uttered in that whisper that didn’t come out clearly on tape – his actual in-studio voice-overs are all done in normal voice.

The differences, of course, go much deeper. Attenborough has studied birds and animals his entire life; all that Irwin knew about the animals he FUCKED with was what he hurriedly glimpsed on his cue cards.

I watched a program of his once – he was in India, and some local residents told him there was a 20-foot anaconda living in a nearby drainage ditch. And that was all it took: without further ado, while the cameras watched, Irwin walked over to the open brackish ditch and lept in – I remember thinking ‘the man is insane, literally insane – he has no idea if the anaconda is anywhere nearby, no idea if four or five actually poisonous snakes are in the ditch, no idea what skin-fungi he’ll pick up, some of them untreatable, some of them fatal. ‘

I remember asking myself: why on Earth would anybody DO such a stupid thing?

Subsequent viewings gave me my answer. The entire thing was about money – Irwin grabbed at ratings the way he grabbed at wildlife. It turns out he did both ineptly – TV sees no better nature-ratings than David Attenborough’s, and it’s a little unlikely that Sir David will ever die by a sea-snake up his ass.

A tragedy for Irwin’s wife and family, yes, and I suppose his viewers will miss him for the five minutes it takes to find another lunkhead adrenalin junkie to jump into drainage ditches.

But in my limited but valid brief as spokesman for at least a corner of the animal kingdom (the wonderful branch of canidae! One can’t help but notice that Irwin never decided to FUCK with any kind of wild dog; he might not have known much about wild exotica, but give the man credit: he could sense when he stood a good chance of being ripped apart like a fat rag-doll), I have to say: good riddance.

The immense marvels of the natural world – those who’ve survived the onslaught of humanity – aren’t here for the ratings-amusement of mankind. They are their own gorgeous, incommunicable worlds, and naturalists like David Attenborough understand that. Jackass croc-jumpers like Steve Irwin not only don’t but don’t WANT to.

So: the ‘crocodile hunter’ got a stingray barb in the heart. Great final-ever ratings stunt, but please: let’s have no others.