By John Wilson
Since this is a bookish chronicle, we should begin by honoring the great poet Czeslaw Milosz, who died several days ago at the age of ninety-three. We will say more about him and his life and work in the weeks to come.
Thanks much for your responses to the first two parts of this roundup. Clearly many of our readers enjoy such reports, fragmentary and subjective as they may be, and would like to see more. We'll work on that.
One among the many pitfalls that await anyone compiling such lists is the ever-present danger of prefabricated language. A few days ago on the preeminent gatekeeper website, Arts & Letters Daily, I came across an article on "reviewerese." The author, Tom Payne, is new to me, but I will start to keep an eye out for his byline. Here is how he begins: "When did you last come across the words 'coruscating' or 'magisterial'? It's unlikely to have been in a holiday brochure or a recipe. Surely it was on the back of a book or in a book review." Payne provides a handy list of words and phrases favored by reviewers and blurbists. I laughed throughout, but some of the laughter was self-directed. Here was our old friend "darkly comic (cf wickedly funny)." Arrgh! These formulas insinuate themselves like a virus. Not to mention penetrating insights and searingly honest and steeped in scholarship, and that standby, the workmanlike biography. All I can do is resolve to redouble my vigilance—and keep Payne's list handy.
In the September/October issue of B&C, I mention the poet Charles Simic's encounter with "Protestant evangelicals" in the American South, as reported in the August 12 issue of the New York Review of Books. While Simic's account is intended for the horrified delectation of the enlightened ("If evangelicals haven't gone around smashing tv sets and computers," Simic explains, "it is because they recognize their power to spread their message"), a very different sort of encounter can be found in Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, by James M. Ault, Jr., forthcoming in September from Knopf. Ault, who began this project as an outsider in every way, actually took the trouble to come to know and understand the people he was writing about, and their faith. Look for a review of Ault's book in our November/December issue.
Also coming in September, and soon to be reviewed in this space, is Philip Jenkins' new book, Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality (Oxford Univ. Press). Characteristically lucid and provocative, this is a book not only for those with an interest in things Native American (or ostensibly Native) but also for students of contemporary American religion—and for anyone attuned to the ironies of American history.
Speaking of provocative ironies, don't miss Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, just out from Doubleday. (Imagine a wrinkle in time that would allow McGrath's book to slide onto a shelf of New Arrivals in the Sixties, cheek by jowl with Altizer & Co.) A few months down the road, look for a B&C review of this book along with one forthcoming from Yale University Press, Michael Buckley's Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism.
Another contender for the year-end Top Ten is a novel that was written more than 30 years ago but has only now been published: Ira Foxglove, by Thomas McMahon (Brook Street Press). McMahon, who died in 1999 at the age of 55 from complications after routine surgery, was a scientist with an endowed chair at Harvard University, but also a marvelously idiosyncratic novelist. To the three novels published during his lifetime (reissued last fall by the University of Chicago Press) we can now add a fourth. I'm reviewing Ira Foxglove elsewhere, and here I'll simply urge you to check it out to see if it's your cup of tea, too.
And then there are the Bad Books, those that are already contenders for The Worst Book of the Year. Please remember the rules—that to be considered in this category, a book must be taken seriously, at least in some respectable quarters: mere junk doesn't count. Two books are in the lead at the moment. The first, currently the subject of considerable publicity, is The Cave of John The Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery That Has Redefined Christian History, by Shimon Gibson (Doubleday). I could quote from the book, which is in the Robert Ludlum school of scholarship, but I think the subtitle is sufficient. Somewhere, perhaps, a budding Christopher Buckley will be inspired to exquisite parody by this volume and others of its ilk, and for that we'll be in Shimon Gibson's debt.
Now for the second candidate. When he is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad. … We're speaking, of course, of Philip Roth, very good in The Human Stain but off the rails in his latest novel, The Plot Against America, due in October from Houghton Mifflin. The premise is an alternative America in which Lindbergh trounced FDR in the 1940 presidential election. Lindbergh's agenda is not only isolationist but also anti-Semitic, and for American Jews things turn ugly fast. When I read this book in galleys, I kept thinking I was missing something, beyond what appeared to be a leaden and—for me—never faintly plausible parable. (Is that the dark figure of Ashcroft hovering in the background?) The whole book felt terribly forced. Had Roth been so enraged by the state of the nation that his characteristically acute literary judgment deserted him? I will be very interested to hear what the reviewers have to say.