In the good old days, political journalists were often brighter than the politicians they covered. Today it's a wash.
Maybe this is why Trail Fever by Michael Lewis (Knopf, $25 hard) proves exceptional. Held to the higher standards of that bygone era, the author scores -- with a humorous take on politics, refreshingly malice-free.
Assuming the role of outsider, Lewis -- who contributes regularly to The New York Times Magazine and The New Republic -- follows candidates, strategists, debates and conventions, compiling his observations in the form of a personal journal of the 1996 campaign trail. Awestruck at times, he rebounds with incisive wit and a conversational tone. He admits freely that he "wants to like everyone" along the way; he proves it by profiling Pat Buchanan with odd reverence.
On the trail, Lewis notes differences between the candidates' public and private personae. Bob Dole tires of his own beliefs, and often stops "speaking" and starts "reciting." For a veteran politician, Buchanan is totally incapable of communicating with children. In conversation, Phil Gramm looks women right in the chest, and lacks the gift for seeming interested in what other people have to say. Steve Forbes is a mutant, whose deep unease with his own brief candidacy is misinterpreted by the Perot-esque political masses as the reluctance of a Washington Outsider.
Lewis is there, when the MTV "Choose or Lose" bus rolls into a campaign stop in Seattle. "[The idea embodies] the semiotics of the Sixties -- a bus! -- but the spirit couldn't be further removed. It's content free, a kind of idealism about idealism."
All this and much more takes place en route to the inevitable Clinton re-election, while the specter of our made-for-television commander in chief hovers overhead, "like a hot-air balloon with a large smiley-face painted on its side." In one of many high moments in this book, Al Gore returns a call to the bewildered author and during the conversation, actually manages to work in a plug for a book of Clinton speeches, Between Hope and History.
Recognizing the "nobility of failure," Trail Fever is drawn ultimately to the Backrunners -- the candidates who from the start have no realistic chance but cannot help themselves, cannot stay out of the race. Just as Lewis achieved with Wall Street in his bestseller, Liar's Poker, he breaks down a complex topic into humorous, and human, terms. Implicitly we gain sympathy for a man like black moralist Alan Keyes, witnessing the candidate's eloquence... as well as his propensity for losing his cool.
Atop the "hopeless cause" list is self-made mogul Morry "The Grizz" Taylor. Taylor's doomed-from-the-outset presidential candidacy casts him like a Monty Python character -- Graham Chapman's prototypical American businessman: all bluster and testosterone, serious but inadvertently hilarious. Some of Trail Fever's best moments occur when Taylor does or says, well, just about anything. At one point, he inexplicably dresses down an audience of schoolchildren, reducing some of them to quivering, simpering blobs. "Can I have some?" asks a kid down front after Morry produces a fat roll of bills during the talk. "It's mine!" booms Morry. Why on earth anyone running for anything would do as The Grizz does is painfully funny.
Half of us don't even vote, and many who do cast our votes almost in embarrassment. Cynical, chatty, and self-conscious, Trail Fever reminds us it's still better to laugh along with the mediocrity of politicians, rather than turn up our noses at the political process. -- Stuart Wade
Kerouac: kicks joy darkness
In recent years, spoken word collections by Beat poets have become hipper than ever before (though I would hesitate to suggest that Beat ever experienced "the awkward age"). Allen Ginsberg's Rhino boxset Holy Soul Jelly Roll provided some of the best renderings of the poet/activist's beautiful career, Burroughs continues to be everywhere (including recordings with Kurt Cobain and Tom Waits), and Kerouac himself received much post-life praise in a boxset that included a memorable taping with show host Steve Allen.
A new CD release, Kerouac: kicks joy darkness (Rykodisc, $15.99), interprets the revered hipster's words set to music or what might be better encompassed as sounds. It features, among others, current icons Johnny Depp, Michael Stipe, and Juliana Hatfield, as well as old Beat luminaries like Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and City Lights bookstore owner and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
In this new recording, the words chosen sometimes are as confusing as the ones who choose to read them; most are excerpts from bigger pieces. Take for example, "Dream: Us kids swim off a gray pier..." read by Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. You would think that anyone who could sing "falling in love is hard on the knees" with conviction could pull off more than a "hand me that, I'll read it" working of Kerouac's spontaneous prose. It was said that Kerouac wrote his novel The Subterraneans in two weeks with one draft. The over-intellectualized Eddie Vedder's contribution is Kerouac's poem "Hymn," read at a speed that would never be categorized as stream-of-consciousness or even good. Joe Strummer clouds Kerouac's voice on "MacDougal Street Blues" with techno sounds. And others, like unfunny funny-man Richard Lewis' forced feeding of "America's New Trinity of Love: Dean, Brando, Presley," need no explanation.
There are those that make it all worthwhile, though: Hunter S. Thompson's reading followed by an original piece might have had Kerouac scratching his head and smiling. It wouldn't be surprising if the father of the Beat Generation thought his friends (Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and Burroughs) did right by him. Jim Carroll, of whom Kerouac, shortly before his death in 1969, said, "At 13 years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89% of the novelists working today," is joined by Sonic Youth's Lee Renaldo (associate producer of the tribute), for a eccentric and intoxicating working of the poem "Woman."
Of the new generation, only Stipe, Hatfield, and Depp seem to have gotten it. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe gives Kerouac's words a chance to talk on "My Gang," Juliana Hatfield finds the humor in "Silly Goofball Pomes," and Johnny Depp, who still spends too much money buying Kerouac memorabilia, gives an inspired, if not Gibby Haynes-influenced, reading from the novel
Visions of Cody.
"The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America... a vision gleaned from the way we heard the word beat spoken on the street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown-city-night of postwar America...." That's what Kerouac meant. -- Jeremy Reed