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Mary McCarthy would have turned 90 on June 21, a fact that is itself astonishing to those who remember her flagrant youth, when her sharp style made her the most feared and forthright writer in New York. 


I am writing this review in the midst of a Chicago heat wave, almost
exactly seven years after the heat disaster that killed nearly 800
people in the city. The Chicago Tribune's multicolored weather
page adorns the forecast with a special "excessive heat watch"
symbol--an exclamation point lodged in a red circle--newscasters
earnestly tell us to stay inside and take it easy, and veteran black
radio deejay Herb Kent, the Kool Gent, chats on-air about liquor and
caffeinated drinks being dehydrating and the need to drink lots of "good
old H2O."

I remember the 1995 disaster well, but for me personally it was a period
of intensive work on my last book, cooped up indoors 24/7, with roaring
air-conditioning, punctuated by horrified reading of the
Tribune's coverage of rolling city power outages and the growing
spectacle of hundreds of heat-related deaths, with the bodies piling up
and overwhelming the city morgue's capacity. Suspicious of the
Tribune because of its long history of rightist and racist
slants, I scrutinized the stories to see if the city was, as usual,
shortchanging its black South and West sides on services, but couldn't
figure anything out. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, a young Chicago
native, was out of the country during the disaster, but has since then
more than made up for lost time. His Heat Wave is a trenchant,
multilayered and well-written social autopsy of the disaster.

Since finishing Heat Wave, I've been obsessively asking friends,
neighbors, students and colleagues if they were in town in July 1995,
and if so, what they remember. Most of my middle-class interlocutors
were as insulated as I was, in cooled rooms, and only vaguely remember
the period because of media coverage. But many younger people, who were
then living on student or first-job budgets, told tales of extreme
misery and multiple palliative strategies--double bills at
air-conditioned theaters, plunging into Lake Michigan every possible
nonworking hour, bunking with better-off friends and relatives, long
drives in cars with AC and, of course, all the old tricks with cold
water, towels and fans. One conservative young woman described her
sudden comprehension, lying sweaty and wretched in her sweltering apartment, listening to neighbors' AC compressors turning on, of the ressentiment and violence of some inner-city dwellers.

In fact, Klinenberg explains, aside from some vigilante actions against
city workers sent to reseal the 3,000 open fire hydrants liberated by
kids, poor Chicagoans were far too enervated by the hot, wet blanket
enveloping the city to commit mayhem. The real criminals of the heat
crisis, Klinenberg makes clear, were the federal, state and local
officials who, in the words of Robert Scates, the bitter black
thirty-year veteran emergency medical services director, committed
"murder by public policy."

But first we need to come to terms with the epidemiological realities of
heat crises. Extreme heat, Klinenberg explains, tends not to be taken as
seriously as other weather and human disasters--hurricanes, floods,
earthquakes, blizzards, plane crashes. But "more people die in heat
waves than in all other extreme events combined," and the '95
crisis has "no equal in the record of US heat disasters." Because the
body's defenses "can take only about forty-eight hours of uninterrupted
exposure to such heat before they break down," Klinenberg observes, area
ambulance services and emergency rooms were soon overwhelmed, and at the
height of the catastrophe, half of Chicago's hospitals went on bypass
status--turned all new patients away. Most Chicagoans saw the grisly
televised scenes of emergency workers falling prostrate with heatstroke,
of police cars backed up clear around the block, waiting to deliver
cadavers to nine forty-eight-foot refrigerated trucks donated by a local
meatpacking firm when the morgue ran entirely out of body-storage space,
and heard and read about the record-breaking murderousness of the
disaster. But Klinenberg notes that only months after the catastrophe,
Chicagoans reacted to his queries with "detachment and disavowal." Not
only did they, and the press whose interpretations they were reflecting,
wish to relegate the disaster to a nonhappening but many, following
Mayor Richard Daley's lead, asserted that the death figures weren't
"really real," that "the massive mortality figures...had somehow been
fabricated, or that the deaths were simply not related to the heat."

Klinenberg took on the task of explicating what's "really real" with
extraordinary energy. He burrowed into public health and press
documents, did street-level fieldwork and police ride-alongs in poor
neighborhoods, interviewed every possible city, state and private agency
official, and many low-level service workers, and thoroughly engaged
local journalists on their hour-by-hour decision-making on the framing
and coverage of the breaking story. In domain after domain, across
institutions, he smashes home his key finding: "The geography of
vulnerability during the heat wave was hauntingly similar to the
everyday ecology of inequality." Heat disasters in general resonate less
with the general public because, unlike other sorts of disasters, they
leave property untouched and mostly affect the poor, the frail, the
nonwhite--whoever can't afford air-conditioning! The Chicago dead were
indeed largely the isolated, elderly and disproportionately black poor,
and the city rapidly turned its back on them.

But the everyday ecology of inequality is not a timeless phenomenon, and
Chicago is not Everycity. By the mid-1990s, the US economy had recovered
from the Reagan-Bush recession, the market was booming, urban street
crime was dropping and American media were hyping an urban renaissance.
Mayor Daley capitalized on these national trends with an ambitious
program of urban beautification and a massive public relations campaign,
suburbanites moved back downtown and tourism revived dramatically.
(Klinenberg doesn't mention the role of the 1990s spike in international
migration to Chicago, which brought much-needed quality and variety to
local restaurant fare, added exotic cuteness to tourist attractions and
provided a vast underpaid labor force for booming restaurants, hotels
and offices.) During the heat wave, the Daley administration was
particularly engaged in "gloss[ing] its image in preparation for the
Democratic National Convention of 1996"--felt as a crucial task, given
the debacle of the 1968 DNC event, when Daley's father was mayor, with
its globally reproduced images of Chicago's finest beating the shit out
of middle-class white kids and not a few journalists and Democratic
politicians. So it comes as little surprise that Daley viewed the heat
wave deaths primarily as "a potential public relations disaster," and
Chicago-watchers will not be too surprised to read that the city
administration both actively hindered appropriate relief efforts and put
most of its energy into an attempt to "spin its way out of the crisis."

God is in the details, though, and Klinenberg painstakingly lays out for
us both the structural and more proximate policies that led to the
disastrous Chicago mortality figures of July 1995. Most crucial is the
rise of neoliberalism, which Klinenberg rather oddly denominates
"reinvented government" and "the entrepreneurial state," in a narrow
sociological tradition, rather than connecting to abundant available
radical analyses of the phenomenon worldwide. No matter, he names the
key shifts: the state's growing divestment of social service
responsibilities; the outsourcing and simultaneous downsizing of the
remaining functions; the overarching capitalist managerial model of
lean, mean efficiency; and the new model of citizens as "active
consumers" of public goods, and too damned bad if they lack the
knowledge, capacity or energy to do so.

In the case of the heat wave, the crucial noxious brew involved
neoliberal policies with regard to low-cost housing, consumer energy use
and social service personnel. Since Reagan, the federal government has
been cutting back support for low-cost housing, and the public housing
crisis in Chicago was so acute that local activists were unwilling to
draw attention to the many code violations in single room occupancy
(SRO) hotel units--more than 18,000 rooms had been lost already--for
fear that they would "only embolden the political officials and real
estate developers who would prefer to convert the units into market-rate
family housing." As a result, many frail elderly people literally cooked
to death in illegal multiply subdivided "cattle sheds for human beings."

As well, the traditional down-on-its-luck SRO population had been
swollen since the 1970s with the mentally ill dumped onto urban housing
markets with the closure of government-operated asylums. Fragile
community connections were severed as SRO residents, afraid of the
"crazy folk," retreated from common spaces into their tiny rooms, making
it ever more likely that those sinking with heatstroke would fail to be
discovered until it was too late. In public housing, the Chicago Housing
Authority provided no air-conditioning even in common rooms, and in a
perverse interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the CHA
dumped youthful drug addicts, without rehab services, into
well-established senior housing all over the city. Crime in the projects
predictably skyrocketed, the collective caretaking bonds the residents
had built atrophied as the elderly retreated in terror into their
individual units; many lives were lost as a result.

Air-conditioning may be part of the overarching environmental crisis,
but it is a godsend in extreme heat, and for better or worse,
working-class and better-off Americans have organized their lives around
it in all parts of the country affected by high summer temperatures.
Inability to afford winter heating, much less summer air-conditioning,
is part of what Klinenberg labels the "everyday energy crisis" of the
poor. A 50 percent cutback in the federal low-income energy-assistance
program, combined with soaring utility rates, pinched the city of
Chicago so badly that it still closes down aid each year at the
beginning of the cold season, and provides no AC subsidies at all. The
poor elderly with whom Klinenberg visited were so fearful of excessive
energy bills that they even avoided using electric lights during the
day. In an extraordinary illustration of neoliberal cruelty, as the heat
wave deaths were still being counted, the US Senate initiated a vote to
end the energy program but settled on skimming off a mere hundred
million dollars. In the same session, Congress vastly expanded federal
support to insurance companies and homeowners who suffer property damage
due to disasters. The final fillip is the new "market model" utility
policy that punishes delinquent customers, even the desperately ill, by
cutting off not only electricity but water. Klinenberg notes
sardonically that this policy is simply not parallel to the money-making
efficiency of the car boot: "Water, unlike a car, is a resource that
people need to survive."

Chicago's specific demographic and spatial history greatly magnified the
final domain--social services--of murder by public policy. Klinenberg
demonstrates that the city, much to my surprise, has significantly
higher percentages than the American average both of single residents in
general and of elderly living alone. Of course, as he notes, living
alone and being without resources are two distinct states. But Chicago
lost 1 million people between 1950 and 1990, and for the elderly poor,
"aging in place" in neighborhoods devastated first by capital and then
by massive population flight--and then colonized by kids working in the
only industry left, drugs--is a recipe for dangerous isolation. Add
state cutbacks and outsourcing, and you have private agencies on
insanely low budgets sending outrageously overworked service providers
out to elderly poor clients no more than once a year--and even then, in
fear of the druggies, confining their visits to the early mornings.

North Lawndale is one such "bombed out" neighborhood, and Klinenberg's
star turn is a rigorous ethnographic and historical comparison of that
Southwest Side area with the contiguous Little Village. Both
neighborhoods were founded by Southeastern European immigrants and then
tipped minority in the postwar years, and both have similar poverty
levels and percentages of poor elderly--but North Lawndale had ten times
more heat wave deaths, proportionately, than its southern neighbor.
Scholars, politicians, social service people and even residents
themselves offered up "racial" explanations, as North Lawndale is black
while Little Village is Mexican: Latinos are used to hot weather, they
have close intergenerational families, they form tight communities, etc.
Klinenberg demolishes all these folk theories with hard facts and
careful logic (and not a little sarcasm--black Chicagoans with roots in
the Delta don't have close families and aren't used to hot weather?) and
forces us to consider variations in urban spatial ecology and their
consequences for city-dwellers' daily lives. After all, three Chicago
neighborhoods with the lowest per capita heat-wave death rates were
majority-black--but not "bombed out."

The key difference is human density. Little Village is both an
entrepôt for the vast Latino migration to Chicago and a safe haven
for Latinos gentrified out of other neighborhoods. As one resident said
of the neighborhood, "there is no such thing as an empty lot." High
populations maintain abundant local business, which in turn guarantees
lively street life and thus a safe and interesting public environment in
which the elderly can shop, exercise--and cool down in air-conditioned
stores during a heat wave. Even the "aging in place" whites left over
from Little Village's earlier incarnation fared well in the crisis.
Certainly Little Villagers have strong community bonds, especially
through the Catholic Church, but North Lawndale residents are organized
to a fare-thee-well too. Their church groups and block clubs, though,
simply cannot make up for abandoned buildings, empty lots and few

Klinenberg deals diligently but less successfully with three other
domains key to his story. He nails the Daley administration's
culpability in an hour-by-hour account of the unfolding disaster and
discusses the highly publicized failed snow removal that doomed the
1970s Bilandic administration, but he neglects to mention
African-American Harold Washington's brief but significant interim
mayoralty of the 1980s. Washington, after all, gained both national fame
and notoriety for trying to equalize city resources across rich and poor
neighborhoods, and that profoundly race-inflected inequality is the
fulcrum of Heat Wave's criticism of current city government. Some
of Klinenberg's heroes of the crisis, public health activist Quentin
Young and Sid Bild of Metro Seniors in Action, are actually white
veterans of the old Washington coalition. And we never really hear about
the Daley/developer deals that have stripped the city of affordable
housing, which are well documented in radical scholarship and
journalism. Similarly, Klinenberg does wonders with the sordid story of
the firefighter/paramedic feud--one reason for the city's belated response to the crisis--but doesn't really clue us in that racism is at the root of that
one too. Finally, he gives us terrific reporter's-eye insight into the
bureaucratic realities that determined the false coverage of the
breaking crisis at the Chicago Tribune, but never informs us of
the Trib's history of rightist ownership, the structures above
the heads of the city editors.

Klinenberg documents the local media's chastened post-'95
hyperresponsibility to advise the public on individual tactics to
mitigate heat danger, and lists the specific ongoing political
structures that will inevitably lead to more murder by public policy.
But he never quite adds these elements up to their sum total--the heat
disaster as an altogether predictable product of neoliberal capitalist
shift. Heat Wave connects the dots to tell us an important new
muckraking story but doesn't fully recognize the radical urban and
national political economy narrative already on the page.

Like life itself, good movies sometimes change the subject on you in
midparagraph. You think you're watching the story of an elderly man in
mourning, buoying himself up against grief and then realize he's started
to worry about younger women, who have such a distressing preference for
younger men. Or you settle down to enjoy a satire about the movie business, only to figure out that most of its characters, though peculiar to Los Angeles,
have little or nothing to do with filmmaking.

As you probably know by now, the not-quite-Hollywood story emerges in
Full Frontal, written by Coleman Hough and directed by Steven
Soderbergh. The elderly man's predicament is the subject of I'm Going
, written and directed by Manoel de Oliveira. It's not just the
coincidence of an August release that prompts me to put these films
together. Although one is a high-art meditation by a nonagenarian
Portuguese master, the other a sketchlike quickie by a pop-drenched
American, both films express a fascination with playacting: its evasions
and distortions, as well as its unforeseeable matchups with reality.
Despite the difference in provenance, the two pictures also tell us
something about the working conditions of today's more interesting

More on that later. Right now, I want to rush Michel Piccoli onto the
scene, so I can tell you how he first appears in I'm Going Home:
doddering at death's threshold and having the time of his life at it.

I'm Going Home casts Piccoli as Gilbert, a celebrated French
actor, who in the opening sequence is onstage in a production of
Ionesco's Exit the King--a role that calls for him to stumble
about in a cloak that looks like some kid's security blanket, thrown
over a grayish pair of thermal underwear. The figure he cuts is ancient,
palsied, pathetic; but when he turns his back to the audience to deliver
the play's final tirade, Gilbert chews and sucks and spits out his
words, roars and rasps and bellows and croons with the self-confidence
of a great actor working at full power. Without needing to show his
face, without even moving, Gilbert dominates his world.

Controlling it is another matter. While this opening sequence plays
out--Oliveira has the nerve to prolong it for an astonishing fifteen
minutes--three agents of mortality come calling for Gilbert. "I can't
hear you. Your words scare me," he protests from the stage, when the
dark messengers peep into the theater. At that, they withdraw; but they
don't retreat. Taking up positions in the wings, they wait to pronounce
their doom, while Gilbert, as king, seems to hold them off with a whine:
"I never had time." But once the applause sounds, he can no longer evade
the news; and so these fates in their business suits tell him that his
family has died in a car accident--wife, daughter and son-in-law, all at
once. Despite the close attention the camera has been paying to Gilbert,
we don't see him receive this blow. Oliveira discreetly allows the
information to reach him when he's out of the frame. Then Gilbert
clatters down a staircase and is gone.

The sight of his back disappearing through the stage door may remind us:
We haven't seen Gilbert until now, only his version of the king. It
takes another minute until we get our first look at the man himself, out
of costume and makeup; and the close-up reveals what we'd expect:
someone with the head of a glum Humpty-Dumpty. As the next sequence
starts, Gilbert is discovered staring at nothing, with a slight frown.
Yet almost at once, with only a small shift in camera setup, he is
utterly transformed: We now see he's posed behind the window of a cafe,
where he smiles and chats when the waiter comes by.

Under the weight of loss, it seems, Gilbert means to keep up his
urbanity. The next section of I'm Going Home shows how he does
it. He strolls the Paris streets, buys handsome new shoes, signs his
autograph for excited young women, plays Prospero in The Tempest
(where he ignores the smile of a fellow cast member, another young
woman). Doesn't he need companionship, his manager wants to know.
Gilbert rejects the question, perhaps more angrily than is needed. He
has his grandson, he says. He's content.

This is hubris, of course; and Gilbert will pay for it by accepting a
part in a film version of Joyce's Ulysses--a French-American
co-production that is impeccably high-minded and already foundering. In
a staggering refusal to act his age, he signs on for the role of Buck
Mulligan. In English. With three days till shooting starts. At first,
Oliveira spares us the sight of the result, just as he turned the camera
elsewhere when the terrible news was announced. Gilbert is owed that
much kindness. But the audience is owed the truth; so then we see
Gilbert struggle with ribald young Buck, only to have grief settle on
him finally like the cloak of a tattered king, ancient, palsied and

This is the second time in recent years that Oliveira has used theater
people as his characters for a story about age and loss. He did it
before in Journey to the Beginning of the World, with Marcello
Mastroianni as his surrogate; but that picture was sweeter, more rustic
and elegiac. Although I'm Going Home has some sugar of its own,
spun out of its deliberately touristic views of Paris, it comes much
closer to heartbreak. This is, at last, a movie about the impossibility
of imagining your way out of old age. It's a theme that Piccoli acts
with great beauty and sorrow; one that Oliveira directs with the
exquisite sureness a filmmaker may attain in the eighth decade of his

Distributed by Milestone Film and Video, I'm Going Home is
beginning a US theatrical run at Film Forum in New York.

The people in Full Frontal live in Los Angeles, and so their idea
of irredeemable old age is 40. The plot's conceit is that a producer who
is facing that awful birthday has invited all the other characters to
his party. Some are currently shooting a movie for him; others are
hangers-on, who nevertheless have contributed something of their lives
to his production. Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a wretched employee of
Los Angeles magazine, banged out the movie's screenplay in his
spare time. Carl's energetically aggrieved wife, Lee (Catherine Keener),
is meanwhile banging the movie's male lead.

The story of Lee and Carl is told as if it were a documentary, shot on
digital video with voiceover narration. These scenes generally look a
bit crummier than they might have. When Soderbergh shoots a tryst in a
hotel room, first making the lovers' bodies into a pulsing kaleidoscope,
then snapping the image into focus with a brutally unadorned close-up of
Keener, you see how magical he can be with video. Most of the time,
though, he doesn't want magic. The "real people" in Full Frontal
tend to look decomposed, even ghostly, in the buzzing light; whereas the
"movie characters" (played by Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood) inhabit
a schlock-cinema world that's as persuasive as it is preposterous, since
it's shot in sparklingly clear 35-millimeter.

It's good fun to watch how reality warps as it crosses into movie--to
see, for example, how Blair Underwood first embodies everything that
threatens Carl, then turns into his heroic fantasy double. But this is
only the first layer of playacting in Full Frontal. Lee, who
works as a corporate personnel officer, uses her exit interviews as a
form of psychodrama (one in which somebody gets fired, but no one is
cured). Her sister Linda (Mary McCormack) goes around town under an
assumed name (she's a masseuse) and makes online dates using a chat-room
identity. The producer, it turns out, is about to stage a real-life
imposture; and everybody has a more than casual interest in porn.

Considering how many fabulations abound in Full Frontal, you will
perhaps forgive Soderbergh for not savaging the lies of the movie
business, as some critics have assumed he should have done. He seems to
feel that the urge to satirize Hollywood is itself in need of
satirizing; and so he has one of his characters liken a movie mogul to
Hitler, not just in passing but onstage, in a theater production, so you
can judge whether such comparisons might be, shall we say, overstated.
This subplot of Full Frontal yields the film's funniest moments
(Nicky Katt's improvisatory turn as the Bel-Air Führer
outproduces The Producers); but it also underscores a point. The
real producer in Full Frontal (David Duchovny) is almost a blank.
So, too, are the movie-star characters, who may be the least interesting
figures in the picture.

The thick, complicated people in Full Frontal are office workers
and a veterinarian and Lee and Carl, who perhaps read too much of
themselves into the pretty void of the movies. Lee might be the ultimate
Catherine Keener role; what other actress could turn an inflatable globe
into the tool of a dominatrix, and really enjoy it, and simultaneously
be alarmed by her own craziness? Pierce, meanwhile, takes the role of
Carl as a gift, savoring every one of the man's screwups and continually
finding the decency that underlies them. Pierce is playing someone who
is derided for drinking his beer out of a glass. When he later removes a
frosted mug from the refrigerator and considers whether to use it,
Pierce makes that decision into just enough of a victory to save his

For some of Soderbergh's moralizing critics, though, this is not enough.
They complain that the director of Ocean's Eleven is being
pretentious by working fast and cheap. Perhaps these same critics have
not yet forgiven Roberto Rossellini for defiling his art with Ingrid
Bergman--or is it Bergman they can't forgive, for having left Hollywood
for Rossellini? I'm perpetually amazed at the way some people really
want big-money movies to be trashy (perhaps so they can be safely
sneered at), while imagining that small-budget filmmakers have a duty to
remain pure, and inconsequential. In the actual film world, though,
Oliveira casts John Malkovich in I'm Going Home, and Soderbergh
adopts a few Dogme 95 rules (just the ones he likes) to make Full
. That doesn't mean that Oliveira is a sellout or Soderbergh
a poseur. It just means that film culture continues to exist on the
art-house level, where a certain internationalism flourishes. That's a
good thing for filmmakers who choose to keep their eyes and minds open,
and it's a good thing for us moviegoers.

Otherwise, we'd all have to go home.

Short Takes: Merchant of uplift M. Night Shyamalan gives us his
latest message from Beyond in Signs, the story of a
self-defrocked Pennsylvania minister and his strangely geometric crops.
It seems that God has killed the minister's wife, then dispatched to
Earth a plague of carnivorous extraterrestrials, who trample the fields
and make screen doors creak; but all is well in the end, since these
events move the minister to reaffirm his faith. Untold millions carried
off so that one can be saved? I'd say God's methods are
inefficient--which might be why Mel Gibson has to waste all his deadpan
humor on an ultimately lifeless starring role. In its story and methods
no less than its setting, Signs is nothing but corn.

Blood Work documents the latest stage in Clint Eastwood's aging,
in which he collapses while chasing the bad guy and undergoes
heart-transplant surgery, yet still remains Clint enough to smooch with
the raven-haired babe. The story in which he accomplishes these feats
follows classic whodunit rules, which means that the murderer must be in
plain view throughout. Unfortunately, the screenplay, by Brian
Helgeland, supplies only one possible suspect. Even people who move
their lips while reading will figure out the solution before Clint gets
to it; which is strange, because he doesn't seem to have wasted much
time directing the picture. The actors knock around loose in the frame,
line readings fall into silence and the mind drifts back to In the
Line of Fire
, when Clint was feeling his age but hadn't yet checked
into intensive care.

Bob Dylan at Newport

Hot media news: Women want hard-hitting reports on issues that affect them.

Like Pop-Up Video--one of the many things the movie-industry left
never anticipated--ancillary factoids keep imposing themselves on Paul
Buhle and Dave Wagner's Radical Hollywood:

1. When the oft-dubbed "revolutionary" Lew Wasserman (longtime MCA mogul) died this past June 3, obit writers made the old archcapitalist
sound like he'd been the happy end of a Bolshevik dream--the man who
finally took the power away from the studios and gave it to the people
(OK, very rich, well-placed people).

2. Wasn't it Ronald Reagan--"FBI collaborator," the man deemed "too
dumb" for membership in Hollywood's CP of the 1930s and the star of the
blacklisted screenwriter Val Burton's last movie (Bedtime for
)--who helped decontrol the studios' ownership of movie
theaters, i.e., the means of distribution?

3. Showing that memory is fleeting even among the most
progressive-minded people, the Stockholm International Film Festival of
1997 jumped the gun on the Academy Awards and hosted a retrospective of
work by friendly witness Elia Kazan--its organizers claiming, quite
convincingly, that they were completely unaware of the then-raging (sort
of) Kazan Kontroversy.

4. Showing that memory is as tenacious as the ego it's attached to,
Hollywood Ten member Ring Lardner Jr., honoree of the
screenwriter-centric Nantucket Film Festival of 1998, still had the
energy to rail against the system--although the preponderance of his
outrage was not over his HUAC-imposed prison time but the liberties
Joseph Mankiewicz and Louis B. Mayer had taken fifty-odd years before
with his script for Woman of the Year.

If there are unwritten messages within Radical Hollywood, one
might be that artistic vanity and general cupidity are neither exclusive
nor native to a particular political persuasion, nor even the movie
industry itself. And that nothing ever changes. Current cinephiles fear
and loathe the fact that in today's movie business, "business" takes
precedence over "movies." But by 1933, after the bankruptcies of Fox,
Paramount and RKO, the money men had already taken over. (As the authors
write, "Bankers were good at firing studio workers...but were notably
untalented at making films." Make it "lawyers" and it might be 2002.)
Back in 1919, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary
Pickford organized the first independent-of-the-studios Hollywood movie
company, United Artists--the DreamWorks of its time. Last year's
threatened strike by the Writers Guild--which, together with the strike
threat by the Screen Actors Guild, is still affecting studio production
schedules--was largely about credits, because they translate into
salaries; in 1933, meeting secretly, Hollywood's leading screenwriters
(including such leftist lights as John Howard Lawson, John Bright,
Samuel Ornitz and Lester Cole) gathered to organize, largely over the
issue of credits, and for the same reason. Variety, Hollywood
"bible" and noted mangler of the English language, played the game with
the mobbed-up craft union IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical
Stage Employees) back in Depression-era Hollywood. It plays plenty of
games today.

And then (sigh) there's that oh-so-predictable outcry over pop cinema's
influence on/instigation of sociocriminal behavior--the knee-jerk
finger-pointing at Hollywood every time a Columbine happens (but never,
you may notice, a 9/11). This is hardly a newsflash either: The release
of such hard-nosed gangster thrillers as The Public Enemy,
Scarface and Little Caesar in the early 1930s helped lead
to the establishment of the Legion of Decency, the Production Code, the
Hays Office, the bluenosed rule of in-house censor Joseph Breen and
decades-long cultural prosperity for those who preferred their movie sex
infantilized and their view of America strained through fine mesh. How
the Christian right does long for those thrilling days of yesteryear.

The story of the left in Hollywood, in other words, is the story of
today in Hollywood; but if you're looking for correlations and parallels
you won't find many in Radical Hollywood. Not that parallels are
always what you need: As the blacklisted writer/director Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil, Body and Soul,
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) told interviewer David Walsh a few
months before his death in 1999, "In the old days, if something like
this [the Kazan Oscar] was going on, you'd make a few telephone calls,
you'd have a thousand people there. No more. Nobody believes in
anything, except in the finance capitalist." Did anyone in the whole of
Hollywood--or the entire United States Congress, for that matter--make a
peep of support for the recent and quite reasonable California appellate
court decision on the Pledge of Allegiance? If they did, it was drowned
out by the sound of scuttling feet, heading for the political lifeboats.

This last episode was certainly too late for inclusion or comment in
Radical Hollywood, but it points up both the stasis and mutation
in what we have to recognize, however reluctantly, as the cultural
capital of the country--and whose history is far more alive than this
book would imply. Encyclopedic in the most frightening sense, RH
is thorough and wide-ranging, and fairly exhaustive in ferreting out
every possible leftist association in any vaguely relevant movie
produced by Hollywood from the New Deal through the postwar Red Scare.
But the authors are also straitjacketed by their own theses: One, that
there was a leftist subtext imposed on many of the movies that
the right held in fear and contempt. (Who knew?) And two, that the
movies were simply superior during the more or less lefty days of

They may be right. "The content of films was better in 1943 than it is
in 1953," Hollywood Ten-ster Dalton Trumbo is quoted as saying, and the
authors contend that "any reasonable calculation" would confirm what
Trumbo says. But reasonable calculation has nothing to do with the very
subjective business of judging art. One might as well reduce the entire
argument to a single question: What do you prefer? Movies with the
left-leaning Humphrey Bogart? Or movies with Ronald Reagan? It may not
seem to be a contest. But it wouldn't be an example of the scientific
process, either.

Despite their tabloidy subtitle--"the untold story behind America's
favorite movies"--Buhle and Wagner don't dabble much in the anecdote,
gossip or movie-set story that would have lubricated their prose or
perhaps even parted their sea of subordinate clauses. Still, famous
names abound. "As FBI reports suggested," Lucille Ball, Katharine
Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Danny
Kaye, Fredric March, Bette Davis, Lloyd Bridges, John Garfield, Anne
Revere, Larry Parks (The Jolson Story), the wives of March and
Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck's fiancée--to say nothing of the
scores of writers Buhle and Wagner profile and analyze, or their more
loosely affiliated or merely sympathetic directors and stars--were all
in or close to the Communist Party. Why? For one thing, the authors say,
because these were the people of 1930s and '40s Los Angeles who were
smarter, consequently more liberal, and enjoying a more egalitarian and
humanistic worldview than their constipatedly conservative counterparts.
But it was, they point out, also a result of Hollywood's (and America's)
bigotry and its effect on social life: The comically titled West Side
Writing and Asthma Club, an ostensibly nonpolitical alternative for Jews
barred from Los Angeles's beach clubs and marginalized in the better
restaurants, became a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment (which, of course,
made it politically suspect). Eventually, through the Asthma Club, even
one of the world's leading, albeit largely apolitical, Marxists
(Groucho) could channel donations to the Popular Front.

That the Communist Party in Hollywood was largely a "social agency," as
the authors call it, was what helped make the McCarthy-era hearings and
HUAC roundups so wide-ranging and terrifying, even if, after the
Hitler-Stalin Pact, the LA branch of the party "had died...but simply
not known it," as the exiled Carl Foreman (High Noon) put it. How
such screenwriters, who are Buhle and Wagner's principal subjects,
maintained their political principles while clawing their way up the
studio ladders is something left amorphous. Lardner, ever aware of the
contradictions in being a high-priced proletarian, said in his
autobiography I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (his famous response
to J. Parnell Thomas about why he wouldn't name names) that he picketed
Warner Bros. when Mussolini's son came calling, and told David O.
Selznick not to make Gone With the Wind because it was pro-Klan.
But he was an artist, too, a hungry one, and a man who knew the siren
song of fame and fortune never quite harmonized with "The

The authors exhibit a weakness for locating leftist content and
associations where they need to and and shoehorning certain movies into
their theses (their view of Universal's horror catalogue as anti-Wall
Street seems particularly windy). But by the time Radical
gets to the era of film noir--which they call "arguably
the only fully realized American 'art film' genre"--it feels as if the
rest of the book has been prologue. Clearly, the authors know and love
the period and what it did to American cinema in the aftermath of World
War II--countering the forced fairy tale of Hollywood with a new, frank,
sexually liberated, sexually sophisticated, sexually metaphorical take
on the dark view of postwar, postnuclear existence (although, strangely,
Radical Hollywood never analyzes noir via the A-bomb, despite the
celebrated apocalyptic imagery of such genre classics as Robert
Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly). That noir also refashioned the
traditional portrayals of the sexes--at a time when, the authors point
out, the country's postwar recovery and strength were being
propagandized as dependent on the American male and his renewed sense of
self--made it one of the most important cultural developments of the
twentieth century, if not the nation's entire cultural history. No
wonder it fell victim to the strangling effects of creeping McCarthyism.

Radical Hollywood, whether or not it's "the untold story behind
America's favorite movies," certainly puts a new spin on those films,
especially for those already familiar with them--readers who,
unfortunately, will be those most distracted by the authors' rather
habitual way with the errant fact. Some are trivial: Edward G. Robinson
didn't say "Mother of God..." at the end of Little Caesar; he
said "Mother of Mercy," as any schoolchild knows (any schoolchild,
granted, with an unnatural obsession with movies). William Randolph
Hearst may have "attributed the 'subversive' label to anything that
smacked of egalitarian liberalism," but he didn't do it in the pages of
the Los Angeles Times, because he never owned the Los Angeles
. In assessing the populist perspective of Destry Rides
, Buhle and Wagner seem oblivious to the fact that James
Stewart's character is the son of the more famous Destry. The
famously Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (director of the
leftist-written Casablanca, among many others) is identified at
one point as a "German refugee." John Wayne's "first major screen role"
wasn't in 1938's Pals of the Saddle, but Raoul Walsh's 1930
The Big Trail. Warner Bros.' "self-serving prologue" at the
beginning of The Public Enemy may have been self-serving--it
mentions the social impact of the studio's own PE and Little
while omitting UA's Scarface--but it wasn't on the
original 1931 print; it was added for a re-release several years later.

Jean Renoir's The Southerner marked William Faulkner's "only
notable screenplay contribution"? How about The Big Sleep?
Mildred Pierce? And let's not forget To Have and Have Not,
in which he rewrote Hemingway, by all reports to their mutual delight.
And Katharine Hepburn didn't lose the "box-office poison" appellation
after Holiday but after The Philadelphia Story, whose film
rights she bought because she knew it would remake her career.

But let's imagine this litany of errors is itself a metaphor for the
intrinsic unreality of the left in Hollywood. It's a subject that Buhle
and Wagner have attacked with energy and all the right intentions; the
reader may wish that he or she were given a bit more reason to stick
with the book through its thicker moments, but there's no denying the
authors' enthusiasm, erudition and engaging way of summarizing plot
lines and associations. Still, it's a weird tale they're telling. As
they relate early on, Polonsky recounted in his later years that one of
the oft-discussed issues among the Hollywood left wing was what, in
fact, they were all doing there. Should they be in Hollywood, making pap
and trying to inject it with a social conscience? Or secede from the
union and create film art independently? As Polonsky put it, the answer
was simple: "Filmmaking in the major studios is the prime way that film
art exists." And so it was. And is. And unfortunately--thanks to an
American indie movement that has lost its lure for youth, a dissipated
market for the once-hip foreign film and a general tendency toward
divorce between American art and American politics--so it is likely to

I don't know if it's some childhood image left over from Victory at
or from a book of pictures my uncle brought back from the
service, but when I think about the war in the Pacific, I see pink
cumulus clouds piled high, one upon another, on the decks of aircraft
carriers. It's not the iconic image of violent battle that usually represents the war, but my imagination seems to be
telling me that the iconic images aren't the whole story, that serenity
and beauty coexisted alongside the bloodshed and were a large part of
the day-to-day reality of the war.

It's for similar reasons that I think the nitty-gritty details of life
near Ground Zero as presented in one of the first theatrical responses
to 9/11, comic monologist Reno's Rebel Without a Pause, appeal to
me so. They provide relief from the media's iconic packaging, which has
been beamed at us ever since the attack on the Trade Towers and the
(rarely mentioned) Pentagon attack.

With a deluge of energy, Reno, who lived near the towers from 1981,
relates what it was like in lower Manhattan "that gorgeous day." She
recreates the clicking sound, like the noise an old machine gun would
make, that was the sound of the floors collapsing into one another. She
exhibits dismay at the total absence of Conelrad and the Emergency
Defense System. ("Maybe this wasn't enough of an emergency.") She
tells a story about finding her ATM emptied out at 9 am and the bank
refusing to open its doors so customers could get their money.

But mostly it's the human reactions to catastrophe that are so
wonderful, so wildly hilarious. The rumors that the terrorists are holed
up with machetes in a macrobiotic restaurant on Prince Street; people
rushing home to have their televisions validate what they'd just seen
with their own eyes; and what Reno calls the "hierarchical bragging
rights of pain and knowledge"--New Yorkers one-upping each other over
what they knew and what they'd suffered.

Reno's warnings about changes in constitutional protections make for a
very disturbing second half of her monologue, though she herself doesn't
seem to fear the new spy agency powers: She gives voice to her every
political thought, no matter how out there it is. She points out how
cheaply reporters have been won over by chummy Don Rumsfeld, and she
contemplates Henry Kissinger being arrested for war crimes. Reno even
suggests that Florida be allowed to float down to Uruguay, "where all
the other fascists are."

She also reveals some interesting facts, like ones you find in this
magazine but not in the major media. For instance, Hamid Karzai, the new
president of Afghanistan, used to work for Unocal. And this from Frank
Lindh, who saw the show the night before I did: FBI agents treated his
son kindly because even they knew "he was a hapless kid."

After a while, I began feeling the tingle of what I hope was just my own
paranoia (although as I learned the last time--when Watergate lanced the
Nixonian pustule--paranoia can be a very accurate predictor of reality).
Reno talks about what is being done to our civil liberties in the
context of Christian fundamentalist influence on this Administration. At
342 pages, the USA Patriot Act, she suggests, wasn't written in the days
after 9/11, and the Padilla case has clearly crossed the line of
innocent until proven guilty. She builds a picture of how really
extremist the Bush people are and how far to the right the President has
taken the country. So far, in fact, that Colin Powell is the "Communist
of this Administration."

Such points may be made with laughter, but Reno brings a fierceness to
her criticisms and an urgency to her concerns about the current
Administration that we are only beginning to see in the big world, and
then over financial wheeler-dealering and privilege, not civil liberties
and constitutional guarantees.

You will walk away from Reno with a clear sense that the changes aren't
minor, and they won't fall only on bad guys and enemies. It's a real
turning point: Democracy is up for grabs.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe's free summer show, Mr. Smith Goes to
, likewise treats the aftermath of 9/11. In it,
Condoleezza Rice (Velina Brown) and Dick Cheney (Cheney lookalike Ed
Holmes) seek to sell the Bush presidency as an Administration that cares
about democracy, not profits, and so devise a plan to send 9/11
firefighter Jeff Smith (the always wonderful Michael Gene Sullivan) to
oversee the first free election in the Central Asian, formerly Soviet,
republic of Obscuristan. The winner of this contest is certain to be
warlord and privatizer Automaht Regurgitov (Victor Toman), since he is
the only candidate. That is, until the oppositionist Ralif Nadir (Amos
Glick) throws his hat into the ring, arguing that "people should vote
their hearts, not their fears." (Of course, had one or two percent of
Florida's Nader voters forsworn that advice, the Mime Troupe wouldn't
have a Bush Administration to satirize.)

(Or would they?)

Smith, who has been kept ignorant by outfits like SNN, the Selective
News Network, believes America wants freedom for everyone. He is,
however, disillusioned when it becomes clear that there is oil in
Obscuristan and that the Administration's real interest is that
Regurgitov win, since he will insure the atmosphere necessary for US
investment. Smith then sets out to prove that the ordinary American
doesn't want to screw Obscuristan over, and by the end of the day
rescues Nadir, who was kidnapped and branded a terrorist. He also helps
bring an SNN reporter and the US ambassador over to the side of a fair
shake for Obscuristan.

The Mime Troupe hits many of the right points: that energy sources are a
major factor in our involvement in Central Asia, for instance, and that
much of the weaponry in the area was originally supplied by the CIA. And
they raise questions about just how free our own elections are. Given
that, I was left pondering why Mr. Smith seemed so tepid and not
particularly funny compared with Rebel Without a Pause. It's
doubly strange given that the Mime Troupe brought in the usually very
funny monologist, independent filmmaker and former Nation intern
Josh Kornbluth (Red Diaper Baby and Haiku Tunnel) to help
write the script.

The difference is, I think, that Reno articulates things you hadn't
thought about, or says things you may have thought a lot about, but in
ways that create the old shock of recognition. As when she says, "The
people of Missouri were so worried about Ashcroft making decisions, they
voted for the dead guy."

There are moments like that in Mr. Smith. Barbara Bush (Ed Holmes
again, this time in a gray wig and pearls) explains the rules of the oil
game to George W., and the whole facade of her Betty Crockerdom smacks
right up against her tough capitalist intelligence. This is a Barbara
Bush who says, "Never send a member of the working class to do an
aristocrat's job." But such moments are rare. For the most part, the
Mime Troupe's most incisive statements, such as "Only an American would
confuse a fixed election with a real one" or "Welcome to democratic
nations like Saudi Arabia who protect human rights," simply restate our
perceptions or are so bitterly ironic that a lot of the laughter I heard
was sniggering.

Given that the source of the satire is Capra's populist classic, Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington
, I think the Mime Troupe missed a real
opportunity to have us question ourselves by asking, Who is Mr. Smith
and what is he about? In the mythos of Mime Troupe plays, the ordinary
American is decent and fair, and in every respect there's a lot of
daylight between him and the ruling class, and therefore between us and
what our government does in our name. The Mime Troupe believes that like
Jeff Smith, the ordinary American has been kept in ignorance by the
media, and that if he only knew what was really going on, he would rise
up and change things.

That conveniently ignores the fact that ordinary Americans are of many
minds, and that many of us do understand that our comfort is based on
the deprivation (and worse) of people in other parts of the world. So
then, you have to ask whether we feel we can't do anything about it or
whether we don't want to. How much is the ordinary American willing to
give up to see people elsewhere get a larger slice of the pie?

And what is the usefulness of a mythos of unquestioned fairness and
decency, and in this play, as in other Mime Troupe efforts, of a sellout
who regains her soul and of a decisive victory over the people's
enemies? It's positive, but does it send us out of the park feeling
hopeful and intent on action? Or do we feel that a lot of what we
witnessed was too simple and fantastic?

The appeal in Mr. Smith is ultimately to idealism, to looking out
for the other guy and doing the right thing. Reno, on the other hand,
talks about self-interest: that we are losing our rights and that some
of us were slaughtered. "The [US] government," she says, "created the
mujahedeen that came to my town and killed us." That seems a much
stronger motive for action.

Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan will be performed through Labor Day
in various Northern California locales (415-285-1717 or
Rebel Without a Pause played a week at the Brava Theater Center
in San Francisco in June and went on to an extended run at the Lion
Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.

If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he'd be charismatic,
funny and convert all the nonbelievers. He baits his readers with
serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion,
but he makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled,
that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can't
help but be captured by his prose.

That's largely why I took such pleasure in Life of Pi, Martel's
wonderful second novel, which playfully reworks the ancient sea voyage,
castaway themes of classics like Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Swift's
Gulliver's Travels, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient
, Melville's Moby-Dick and (in some of its more
fantastical aspects) Homer's The Odyssey, to explore the role of
religion in a highly physical world. What's more, it's a religious book
that makes sense to a nonreligious person. Although its themes are
serious and there are moments of awful graphic violence and bleak
despair, it is above all a book about life's absurdities that makes one
laugh out loud on almost every page, with its quirky juxtapositions,
comparisons, metaphors, Borgesian puzzles, postmodern games and a sense
of fun that reflects the hero's sensual enjoyment of the world. Although
Martel pays tribute to the past by using the typical castaway format
(episodic narrative, focus on details of survival, moments of shocking
violence and reflections on God and nature), his voice, and the fact
that his work is more fantastic, more scientifically sound and funnier
than that of his predecessors, infuses the genre with brilliant new
life. If this century produces a classic work of survival literature,
Martel's novel is surely a contender.

Life of Pi is the unlikely story of a 16-year-old Indian boy, Pi
Patel, adrift in a boat with a hungry tiger after the ship carrying his
zookeeper father, mother, brother and many animals sinks in the middle
of their journey from India to Canada. (It's the mid-1970s and Pi's
father decides to emigrate after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi starts
jailing her enemies and suspending civil liberties.) Pi is at once a
Hindu, Christian and Muslim (echoes of the pacific Mahatma Gandhi here)
who believes that all religions are about "love." But having grown up
among animals, he's also practical and grounded. Early in the book, his
three religious teachers meet, and Pi gets his "introduction to
interfaith dialogue," a big argument that ends only when he is asked for
his opinion. He quotes Gandhi, "All religions are true," adding, "I just
want to love God," which floors them all. Then he goes out with his
parents for ice cream. Most of the rest of the book is a challenge to
Pi's simple faith, as this sweet yet unsentimental hero experiences a
situation where, it would seem, survival is everything. Aside from the
detailed descriptions of hands-on survival techniques that almost rival
Ishmael's whaling lore in Moby-Dick, the book poses the
questions: Can faith survive in the face of doubt and suffering? Can the
love of God and one's fellows remain pure in an angry, violent world?

Despair sets in from the beginning. Not only does Pi lose his parents,
but he is facing life on the ocean wave with a tiger (named Richard
Parker), a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena. Pi watches them kill each
other, with Richard Parker finishing off the hyena. The boat is littered
with animal carcasses. As the days go by, Pi, a vegetarian, learns how
to kill with his bare hands, batter turtles to death and eat uncooked
flesh. He weeps. He is "dumb with pain and horror." But he survives,
marking his territory with his urine, as animals do, to keep Richard
Parker at bay, feeding him and finally teaching the tiger (by using a
whistle) that he, Pi, is master here.

It's true that his three faiths recede to a whisper on the boat. He
confesses that it is Richard Parker, and the practical matter of
avoiding being eaten by him, that gives him "purpose," even "peace" and
perhaps "wholeness," and thus keeps him alive. "If he died, I would be
left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.... He
pushed me to go on living." Pi keeps up with his religious rituals, but
he finds his faith wavering. In one funny scene, he yells out his
beliefs to make them more real. "I would touch the turban I had made
with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, 'THIS IS GOD'S
HAT!'" Then he points at Richard Parker and says, "THIS IS GOD'S CAT!"
The boat is "GOD'S ARK!" The sea, "GOD'S WIDE ACRES!" The sky, "GOD'S
EAR!" But, he says, "God's hat was always unravelling," and "God's ear
didn't seem to be listening."

You might say he's trying to persuade himself. But it's clear that he
continues to appreciate the beauty of the sea and sky, and the sparse
life around him, in which, as a Hindu, he sees his connection to God.
There are wonderful poetic descriptions of the fish around the boat as a
little city, of Richard Parker's beauty and of a dorado fish that, as it
dies, begins to "flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue,
green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its
surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death." Even
when his journey is "nothing but grief, ache and endurance," it is
"natural," he says, that he "should turn to God."

But religion is only one element of the book's exploration of faith.
Martel is also interested in the faith of his readers. He wants them to
believe his story. He has his narrator pose a larger, Keatsian "beauty
is truth" argument against the glorification of reason, "that fool's
gold for the bright." It's as if he were suggesting that storytelling is
a kind of religious experience because it helps us understand the world
in a more profound way than a just-the-facts approach (or by
implication, dogma, fundamentalism and literalism). Two passages that
some reviewers have picked out as the least convincing (for their lack
of literal accuracy!), I find illustrate Martel's attempt to show the
power of storytelling at its best. Fantastic, yes, but utterly
convincing. The first is Pi's encounter with a blind, cannibalistic
Frenchman whom Pi runs into at the exact moment he too has gone blind
for lack of nourishment. Their obsessive conversation about food is one
of the funniest and most farcical moments in the book. The second is
Pi's sojourn on a flesh-eating island, which is one of the most chilling
symbolic illustrations of evil I have read. (If the pious Swiss Family
Robinson finds utopia, the religious Pi finds dystopia!)

Good postmodernist that he is, Martel wants to use the very telling of
the tale--multiple narrators, a playful fairytale quality ("once upon a
time" and "happy ending" are mentioned in passing), realistically
presented events that may be hallucinations or simply made up--to push
at the limits of what's believable, yet still convince the reader of his
literary, not literal, veracity. He wants to prove that it's possible to
remain curious about and connected to the world, yet to accept that
there are always going to be aspects of life (and literature) that
remain mysterious.

Pi's doubts about his faith are mirrored by the seeds of doubt Martel
sows in the mind of the reader throughout the narrative. Every moment of
certainty is undercut by the potential for disbelief, and that's when
Martel seems to ask: Am I convincing you now? He sifts the story through
various narrators, beginning with an author-narrator that at first one
thinks is Martel himself but is only Martel-like, introducing the story
as if it were true. Martel has said in interviews that some of this
information is factually accurate. Like his narrator, he was trying to
write a novel about Portugal that wouldn't come alive when he got the
idea for Life of Pi on a trip to India. Martel also briefly
acknowledges his special debt to Brazilian Jewish writer Moacyr Scliar,
whose novella Max and the Cats also has a hero who survives the
sinking of a ship filled with zoo animals and spends days at sea in a
boat with a large cat, in this case a jaguar. Scliar's is the
mini-version that Martel fleshes out with more lyrical language and the
fruits of zoological research.

But there reality stops. There's the whiff of an old-fashioned quest or
allegorical tale in the introduction, for the Martel-like narrator first
learns the story from Francis Adirubasamy, a family friend of Pi's, who
tells him that Pi's story will make him "believe in God." And he plays
with the reader's sense of reality when he has Adirubasamy talk about Pi
as "the main character" whom the narrator proceeds to track down in
Canada. And just how believable is Pi? Now in his 40s, Pi apologizes for
his memory and tells the story as a series of out-of-sequence
events--jumping back and forth between his early childhood, his teenage
years and his time at sea. He can barely remember what his mother looks
like, but he appears able to recall whole conversations from his
childhood. He even asks the narrator to "tell my jumbled story in
exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less." (He does.)
One begins to wonder if Pi made up Richard Parker. Despite his knowledge
that people anthropomorphize animals because of their "obsession" with
putting themselves "at the centre of everything," Pi seems
disproportionately haunted by the fact that when the boat hits Mexico,
Richard Parker takes off without a backward glance. Perhaps the loss of
the tiger symbolizes the greater loss of his family, or of his own
innocence. Perhaps Pi invented the tiger to keep himself sane. The
reader is left to decide.

In a final test of the reader's faith in the narrative, Martel has Pi
tell an alternate, allegedly more believable version of the story at the
end--lacking not only Richard Parker but also the humor, poetry and
detail of the tiger story--to please a couple of doubting Japanese
shipping officials. He asks them which they think is the "better" story.
Of course, the tiger story is the finer, more thoughtful literary
creation and therefore (Martel suggests) has a truth more lasting than
the second, more journalistic version, with its "dry, yeastless

Even if one accepts the twists and turns of the narrative, one faces the
further challenge of tracking down clues hidden in a warren of allusions
for more definitive answers to questions about Pi's religious faith, and
whether the narrator (and the reader) will be persuaded of the story's
original premise that it will make one believe in God. That symbolism is
important in this book is made clear at first by the most obvious symbol
of Pi's name, self-chosen because it's the short version of his real
name Piscine (after a family friend's favorite Parisian swimming pool),
and he is inevitably called "Pissing" by classmates. Nothing could be
grittier. In contrast, Pi is like ¼, what mathematicians call an
"irrational number," that is, 3.14 if rounded off, but with endlessly
unfolding decimal places if carried out. Martel couples this mysterious
abstraction with a concrete image--"And so, in that Greek letter that
looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive,
irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe,
I found refuge"--to show that, as a boy, Pi is in harmony with things as
they are as well as with his sense of the unknowable.

That Pi's attitude to religion may have changed after his ordeal is
buried in the hidden symbolism hinted at by Pi's college studies in
religion and zoology, described on the opening page as if to emphasize
their importance as a key to the story. (This is after the lifeboat
comes to shore in Mexico, and Pi goes to Canada to start a new life.)
His specialties are the sixteenth-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria and
the sluggish three-toed sloth (symbol of the Trinity?) whose miraculous
capacity to stay alive, he says, "reminded me of God." (An echo of his
own survival, perhaps? A hint that God seems more elusive these days?)
More important, Luria's cabalistic ideas may hold the key to Pi's
experience at sea. His philosophy (Luria thought the secrets of the
universe lay in numbers) echoes the symbolism of ¼, and the formula
for figuring out the dimension of a circle and its radius (connecting
perimeter and center). Luria believed that God's light contracted from
the center of the universe, purging itself of evil elements, leaving an
empty space (a circle) in which human life developed. But God also sent
down a ray of light (like a radius) so that the few remaining divine
sparks could reconnect with Him. To achieve this fusion with God, and by
implication eliminate evil from the world, Luria believed, people must
live an ethical life. The original divine contraction is called
variously tzimtzum, zimzum or simsum. It's no
coincidence that Martel called the sinking ship Tsimtsum. Thus Pi at sea
was experiencing his own void (or withdrawal of God), in which elements
of evil fight with the instinct to do good. Richard Parker saved his
sanity, and Pi's goodness kept Richard Parker (and perhaps his own
faith) alive. By introducing this strain of mystical Jewish thought,
Martel not only further illustrates Pi's contention that all religions
are essentially the same in that they stem from love but he also uses
mysticism to underscore the profound ways in which literature can
present life's truths. Skeptics, however, might see Pi's study of Luria
as a move away from his earlier, purer faith toward a more structured
mysticism. That would explain his comment at the end of the book, when
he confesses his need for "the harmony of order."

Though one can read Life of Pi just for fun, trying to figure out
Pi's relationship to God makes one feel a bit like the castaway hero
wrestling slippery fish into his lifeboat for dinner. An idea twists and
turns, glittering and gleaming, slaps you in the face with its tail and
slips away. Did the story really happen? Does it make one believe in
God? What kind of God? Early on the narrator says, "This story has a
happy ending." But Pi also tells his interviewer, "I have nothing to say
of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it
is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful," which suggests
a man with at least some conflict on his mind. On the other hand, Martel
may also be suggesting that work is less important to Pi than God and
family--the narrator gives us glimpses of Pi's shrine-filled house and
his loving relationship with his wife, son and daughter. However, when
Pi is showing him family pictures, the narrator notes, "A smile every
time, but his eyes tell another story." I believe Martel's point is that
doubt inevitably accompanies faith. But the opposite explanation, that
after Pi's life-threatening experiences his faith is a mere prop for his
anxiety, might work just as well.

Does it matter that the answer to all questions in this novel is both
yes and no? One answer comes in the form of Pi's question moments after
the ship has sunk and he's sitting in the lifeboat, bewailing the loss
of his family and God's silence on the topic: "Why can't reason give
greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in
an answer? Why such a vast net if there's so little fish to catch?" And
that, of course, is the nature of faith. One can't argue it through, one
just believes. Faith in God (as the younger Pi sees it) "is an opening
up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love." It's also "hard to
love," Pi adds, when faced with adversity. The same might be true of a
good novel, as readers are taken to the edge of their understanding by
something new. If the reader lets go of preconceptions, the experience
can be liberating and exciting. Martel may be sowing seeds of
uncertainty about God, but there's no doubt that he restores one's faith
in literature.

More than thirty years ago, in an essay called "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim:
Some Reflections on the Cripple as Negro," I suggested that cripples
emulate the civil rights movement by focusing on political solutions to
the problems of living under difficult physical conditions. (It's a lost
battle, but I continue to prefer the term "cripple" to the bland "disabled.") The problems cripples faced seemed as much the result of our inability to
define our needs as they were the fault of a society quite willing to
live with its ignorance of those problems and quite willing not to see
us at all unless absolutely forced to. It wasn't until the late 1960s
that cripples began to believe that they had the right to demand that
America meet their needs.

Anyone who has spent significant time living with a serious physical
condition probably has had an experience similar to the following:
entering a restaurant with another person, he (or she) finds that the
waiter is addressing not him but the person he is with. He is a
category, and categories are simply assumed to be unable to take
responsibility even for something as minor as placing an order. Yet even
such infantilization can seem liberating if the cripple realizes that
the problem it bespeaks is political rather than psychological: One
infantilizes the other by assuming attitudes held by society at large.
And this process is something that the cripple, too, is encouraged to
do. Even Randolph Bourne, as tough a social critic as America ever
produced, looks inward in his famous essay "The Handicapped," published
back in 1911. Writing about other issues, Bourne understands that
political problems demand political solutions. But when it concerns the
cripple, among whose ranks he was numbered, he was curiously
inner-directed and soft.

The demand for the rights of cripples was already under way as I was
writing "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim." And while I would be happier without
much of the rhetoric of the Disability Rights Movement, to its credit,
it has helped change the consciousness of those who must confront the
world with physical disabilities. Both its success and its burgeoning
political potential seemed wishful thinking in 1969, when I still
dismissed its prospects. But that success was confirmed with the
enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Despite its
admitted weaknesses, few Congressional acts more deserve the term
"landmark legislation." The Americans With Disabilities Act promised
those forced to live with severe physical impairments the possibility of
legal if not functional equality. Its most profound accomplishment, even
allowing for the vagueness of definition that has come to haunt it, was
to accept the idea that cripples have the right to specific
accommodations that meet their employment needs. For a population
battling the indignities of permanent illness, its promise was
comparable to that of the Civil Rights Act for African-Americans in

Twelve years after its passage, that promise seems about to be swamped
by a legal system in which what constitutes a workplace disability is
undefined and perhaps undefinable. The confusion about what would seem
to be the most elementary of definitions--what is meant when we speak of
a disability--threatens to weaken if not make the act virtually useless.
The cripple's demand for rights still commands a good deal of public
interest and a degree of public sympathy. Yet the Americans With
Disabilities Act has not led to widespread political activity on behalf
of the nation's cripples. Their quest for equality is not only
threatened with that most severe of American sins, being relegated to
political unfashionability, but the question of what a disability is
shows few signs of being resolved in favor of those whom the act was
supposed to help. Recent Supreme Court rulings in which disability was
ill defined must be seen as setbacks for those who look to the judiciary
to enforce what the act called for, a policy of accessibility and
inclusiveness. The Court ruled in April by a 5-to-4 majority in US
Airways v. Barnett
that US Airways' seniority system took precedence
over the right of a disabled worker to transfer to a more suitable job.
In Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, the Court ruled
unanimously that the definition of disability must mean substantial
limitations on abilities "central to daily life," not just the job. And
the Court also unanimously held, in mid-June in Chevron U.S.A. v.
, that employers had the right to refuse to hire a worker
whose health they believed might be impaired by performing a particular

For this alone Ruth O'Brien's Crippled Justice is a welcome
addition to the literature on living with disability. A professor of
political science at the City University of New York, O'Brien approaches
her subject armed with an analytical perspective nurtured by her earlier
work. Her first book, Workers' Paradox: The Republican Origins of New
Deal Labor Policy, 1886-1935
, already reflected her interest in the
subject of workers' rights. Yet even academic inquiries can be rooted in
personal experience. "Had I not sustained what is now a ubiquitous
workplace injury," she writes, "a debilitating case of bilateral
tendinitis in my hands and forearms, I might never have explored the
development and implementation of...disability policy." Yet the focus of Crippled Justice is neither
personal nor anecdotal. It is a serious inquiry into the history of
public policy as that policy has affected large numbers of men and women
crippled by illness, accident or birth. As serious scholarship is
expected to be, it is factual and analytical. The past few decades have
witnessed a rich expansion of memoirs and essays by writers forced to
struggle with their own physical or mental deterioration, books that
depict what life is like for those who must live it with severe illness.
But the kind of political analysis O'Brien offers in Crippled
is what, I believe, cripples need now.

Analysis demands perspective, particularly when it begins in personal
experience. While bilateral tendinitis may not have the same sort of
consequences as, say, pushing through life in a wheelchair or trying to
earn a living as a blind person, the experience limited O'Brien's normal
ability to function. It turned her temporarily from normal to cripple.
And however temporary an experience, it was also sufficiently
dehumanizing to give her a strong sense of what life is like for those
forced to live with more severe conditions. The first discovery one
makes on entering the shadowy world of cripples is that one no longer
defines need, ability and ambition for oneself. The experience of living
with disability forced Ruth O'Brien to recognize that the cripple must
"struggle over the same issues that women and minorities battle." But
she also saw that the problems cripples faced were in some ways less
soluble and in others more mechanical than the problems of other groups.
Nothing would be more beneficial to cripples as a group than a fantasy
I've held for the past decade--a law that would make it mandatory for
every elected official in the country to live a single week each year as
a cripple.

If nothing else, that would show that the problems involved are as
political as they are psychological. And that is why I am grateful that
Crippled Justice restricts itself to the conditions cripples
confront in the workplace. To the writer, physical disability offers a
personal confrontation. And as is the case with writers, that
confrontation is about language. But what the cripple confronts in the
workplace, as O'Brien shows, are confrontations that have solutions. And
those solutions are political. What she tells us about the history of
disability policy in the workplace may not be as powerful or as dramatic
as, say, Andre Dubus writing about the changes that were imposed upon
his life by the sudden transition he underwent from being a normal man
to being wheelchair-bound. Nor does Crippled Justice offer us the
savage honesty of Harold Brodkey writing about his own impending death
from AIDS. O'Brien's focus is more mundane, which is to say that it is
more political: She is interested in the possibility of a meaningful
work life for those who lack the talent of a Dubus or a Brodkey.

We do not, of course, read memoirs and essays to create public policy
but to recreate individual lives. Yet if the experience of being forced
to live as a cripple is invariably personal, the reality of how
one lives that life is invariably political. I have no choice but to
accept being in a wheelchair. On the other hand, the New York through
which I push myself has any number of choices in how it reacts to my
need for that wheelchair. It is able to define how I live, what is now
subsumed under that horrendous phrase "quality of life," through the
public policy decisions it makes. Such seemingly trivial items as the
condition of the streets through which I push speak less eloquently but
more truthfully of what is or isn't possible for me than Dubus's essays
or my own essays or Nancy Mairs's essays. Public policy defines the
boundaries of the cripple's life. Mundane issues such as the condition
of the streets and the accessibility of restaurants and stores and
theaters (and how the Court defines disability) speak to the cripple's
ability to live with dignity.

The first half of Crippled Justice offers a historical overview
of the rehabilitation of the cripple in America. The ideas dominating
medical and social policy after the end of the Second World War in 1945
were largely formulated by two physicians, Dr. Howard Rusk and Dr. Henry
Kessler. (War may be unhealthy for children and other living things, but
it has done wonders for the fields of prosthetics and rehabilitation
medicine.) Rusk and Kessler are among the villains of the book, since,
along with Mary Switzer, the federal bureaucrat responsible for the
Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1954, they created models of
rehabilitation still largely followed today. From Freud and even more
from William Menninger, rehabilitation medicine was inspired to shift
its focus from the need to treat the cripple's physical symptoms to the
need to treat the whole person. And the models were psychological.
O'Brien describes "the deep strain of individualism in American
liberalism" as the source of the mistaken path rehabilitation medicine
took. Yet I am not convinced that individualism is so negative in the
life of the cripple. No one can overcome the effects of disability
through mere willpower or a well-developed work ethic--but a
well-developed sense of self helps if one is to be a "success" as a
cripple. One might even suggest that the successful cripple must combine
a free-market head with a socialist soul. Perhaps more than others do,
he needs to see himself as singular. After all, what else can account
for all those memoirs about the singularity of the experience of
disability? The best passage I know about living as a cripple--as moving
to me as Shylock's "Hath not a Jew" speech--wasn't written by a cripple
but by a healthy Saul Bellow at the height of his powers. Put into the
mouth of the poolroom entrepreneur in The Adventures of Augie
, its power derives from how it speaks for us cripples as it
speaks about Einhorn's aching sense of his individual quandary.

O'Brien is on more solid ground when writing about how Rusk and Kessler
expected the "sick" individual to "adjust" to what they viewed as a
"healthy" society. The cripple unable to make the adjustment was a
social and psychological problem. Even so, one can argue that the
individualism O'Brien finds irritating is the cripple's best chance to
find salvation. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff than turning
all problems into psychological barriers. At the same time, the desire
to get even with an unjust fate shouldn't be dismissed lightly.
Liberalism may have a lot to answer for where attitudes toward the
cripple are concerned, but excessive concern with individualism is not
the biggest item on that bill. Still, the psychologizing of disability
was a mistake for which we continue to pay a price. And it remains, I
believe, the source of the Court's restricted vision of workplace

The conditions cripples face in the workplace cannot be conquered by
their adjusting to normal society but by society making certain minor
but necessary adjustments to their problems. By the 1970s the
psychological definition of the cripple had already shown how limited it
was. But is it better to define the cripple legally? Despite its immense
promise, the Americans With Disabilities Act is, as O'Brien writes, "an
idiosyncratic body of law." Where once cripples had to convince the
world of their ability to meet standards set by normals, they are now
expected to meet thresholds of disability set by a Court that seems
oblivious to the obvious. When the issue is as clear-cut as it was in
the case of the golfer on the PGA Tour, Casey Martin, whose bone
deterioration made it impossible for him to walk the links although it
didn't prevent him from playing golf, the courts seem willing to allow
the spirit of the original act to serve as its definition. But even that
makes the judiciary our "modern-day experts of vocational rehabilitation
because of the idiosyncratic nature of disability." The Court has not
yet claimed the right to define whether an individual is or is not a
cripple. But by insisting on its right to define what constitutes
disability in the workplace, it has assumed the power of defining what
the consequences of being a cripple are. As far as work is
concerned, cripples "have gone from being subjects of medicine to
subjects of law." Whether this is an improvement over the psychologizing
of disability is certainly open to question. The conclusion of
Crippled Justice is not despairing but it is skeptical. And for
good reason. In a valuable study of workplace disability as both a
political and social issue, O'Brien has performed a service to anyone
interested in social justice. Unfortunately, recent Supreme Court
decisions threaten to make her skepticism the book's lasting legacy.
Whether defined by the judges or doctors, it seems to be the cripple's
fate to be defined as the other.

On its anniversary, two of its authors assess its relevance for today.


This week's Altercation includes reviews of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's tributes to music icons and the darkly comedic Broadway hit Hand To God.

April 23, 2015

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 4/21/15?

April 21, 2015

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson’s 10,000-word excoriation of Dr. Cornel West is highly personal. But there is a political fight thrumming beneath the surface.

April 20, 2015

The best live shows, audiobooks and Eric's funeral playlist: it's all inside today's Altercation.

April 14, 2015

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 4/9/15?

April 9, 2015

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 4/3/15?

April 3, 2015

MSNBC's Chris Hayes celebrates The Nation's 150th anniversary.

April 1, 2015

The best response to the new Daily Show host’s sexism would be to put more women in the writers’ room.

March 31, 2015

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 3/27/15?

March 27, 2015

Eric responds to his critics and reviews the best shows of the week in today's Altercation.

March 25, 2015