Some magazines have an identity problem, and some don’t. The
New York Review of Books
doesn’t, as you may have noticed. It’s relentlessly highbrow, which is how we like it. For the most part. But every once in a while, a little bit of pop culture creeps in, hooray, and then the editors do their best to hide it. In the February 14 issue, for example, there’s an ebullient review of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, among a million other of his books, by the always bubbling and boiling John Leonard. But the cover gives no hint that this amusement lurks within. Instead, it plugs yet another review of yet another book on Anthony Blunt (Blunt and Kim Philby are to NYRB what the Beatles are to
: no issue complete without at least one mention, even if it has to be in the personals); a searing legal indictment of Bush’s military tribunal “concept” by Aryeh Neier, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch; and, smack in the center, a piece by John Updike on Gustav Klimt in New York, the exhibit at the new Neue Galerie on Museum Row in New York.
Updike’s review is fine, but it gives me the feeling, again, that there are two sides to the man: Updike the great writer, and Updike the whiny curmudgeon who hangs out in New York, goes on taxing trips to China and believes he heard the twin towers “tinkle” to the ground from his vantage point in Brooklyn. Thus the Klimt review begins with a litany of complaints about traffic flow at the museum and the placement of the bookstore and gift shop on the ground floor (where else would they be?), with the brave Updike thrusting forward like a great beaky bird through the plebes. “As stated,” he writes, “the café, with windows on Fifth Avenue, was thriving; in my haste to get to the art I missed the bookstore and ‘design shop.'”
I’m glad the King review is there as a counterweight to the difficult walk amid the gifts and the latte drinkers and the Austrian furnishings, but it shouldn’t be a secret kept from newsstand buyers. Leonard’s encompassing review includes the funny and instructive story of King buying a table at the National Book Awards for himself and John Grisham (among others), who will never be invited or granted such a prize by what Leonard, borrowing a fine word from King, calls “those shit-weasels, the anal-retentive literary establishment.” Not at the table, and not on the cover.