The Golden West, by Daniel Fuchs (Black Sparrow). Daniel Fuchs, who died in 1993, at the age of eighty-four, won the accolade few authors wish for: “writer’s writer.” Although he was hailed by Sean O’Casey, Irving Howe, Mordecai Richler, William Maxwell (his editor at The New Yorker), and John Updike (who has written a considered and characteristically impish introduction to this book), the reading public neglected Fuchs until the reissue, decades after its 1930s publication, of his so-called Williamsburg Trilogy, a series of novels portraying immigrant Jewish life during the Depression, which anticipated the work of Malamud and Bellow. Those novels when first published didn’t come close to paying the bills (Fuchs made his living as a “permanent substitute teacher” in Brooklyn), so in 1937, like many other praised but impoverished East Coast writers, he went to Hollywood to write for the movies. Unlike most of his fellow New York literary types, he took to the work, becoming a successful though far from A-list screenwriter (he scripted the film-noir classics Criss Cross and Panic in the Streets, and won an Oscar in 1955 for Love Me or Leave Me). Also unlike his fellows, he understood and admired moviemaking, and he loved the landscape, climate, flora, and way of life in Los Angeles—and he never left. There, in “the immense, brilliantly clean sunshine that hovered over everything,” this son of the Williamsburg ghetto delighted in, to quote Updike, “the uncanny cleanliness and health of his growing, tanned children.” Fuchs’s fictional and nonfictional depictions of Los Angeles and the movie business (written from the 1930s through the late 1980s, mostly for The New Yorker and Commentary) have been assembled with great care and unusual intelligence in this collection. His appraisals are at once lyrical and hard: his ingenuous relish of the jasmine, orange blossoms, and honeysuckle in the soft air of a winter’s night in Beverly Hills never diminished, even as he dissected the narcissistic desperation at the heart of the Hollywood enterprise (see especially the title story and his far less successful novella portraying the crack-up of a screen goddess, West of the Rockies, also included here). His scrutiny of Hollywood is as acute as that of Fitzgerald, West, Odets, and Mailer, but unlike those embittered writers who merely sojourned on the coast, Fuchs matter-of-factly, almost ruminatively, took in the “shiny living” and the casual betrayals (“The things that went on, the thieving and conniving. You lived with it”). Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? remains the best fictional treatment of the movie business by an insider, but no writer has better conveyed the workaday life of the studios in their heyday, and most important, no writer has more fully revealed the craftsmanship and professionalism—along with the colossal complexity and the torment—of moviemaking. Fuchs grasped that the best creative work in America from the 1930s through the early 1950s was done for the movies. And those same producers he reveals to be thugs were, he also reveals, geniuses and committed artists. Creating works designed to engage and transport an audience “was a tantalizing, almost constantly frustrating pursuit, and the movie people gave themselves over to it with a tenacity that amounted to a kind of devotion.” That very pursuit, Fuchs suggests throughout these works, largely accounted for the frenzy and despair he coolly depicts.
California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown, by Ethan Rarick (California). Governors Earl Warren and Pat Brown were the great political figures of California’s ebullient era—from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s—when the state consolidated its position as an economic colossus and emerged as the nation’s dominant social and cultural trendsetter. More than the soberly effective Warren, the expansive, glad-handing Brown, who held office from 1959 to 1967, personified the sense of limitless possibility that animated the California boom. Around the start of Brown’s second term California surpassed New York as the country’s most populous state. That event not only shifted the nation’s political balance; it also seemed to augur an ever-expanding tax base. Brown’s governorship would be defined by exhilarating if headlong growth and free spending: during his tenure the state’s population increased by a third, and its budget tripled. He instituted or expanded a host of ambitious social programs. He presided over the burgeoning of the state’s higher-education system, already the envy of the world, adding four new colleges and three new universities. He built a thousand miles of freeways. He pushed through the largest state public-works project in American history: the 500-mile network of reservoirs, pumping stations, canals, pipes, and aqueducts that carry almost two billion gallons of water daily from northern California to the south. This sometimes excruciatingly detailed chronicle of Brown’s political history admiringly describes the infrastructure and programs, but omits analysis of their ultimate costs (of which Brown’s son, Jerry, California’s governor in a period of diminished expectations and heightened environmental awareness, would be acutely aware). But Rarick is strong on the intrigues and political battles that shaped Brown’s career. Brown ran against three of the most powerful politicians of his time: to become governor he trounced William F. Knowland, the leader of the Senate Republicans (and thereby quashed Knowland’s presidential ambitions); he defeated Richard Nixon in 1962 (a humiliation that prompted Nixon’s remark to reporters “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore”); and he was driven out by Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming victory in 1966 (which signaled the end of California’s era of opulent euphoria and launched the conservative counter-revolution nationwide). Brown’s social and political formula—essentially, spend a lot and good things will happen—now seems somewhat crude and unimaginative. But it’s uplifting (if not exactly inspiring) in a state where slashed budgets and dysfunctional public institutions now characterize public life. What is inspiring, though, is the spirit of the time and place in which Brown humanely governed. California’s glorious run, the product of economic and social forces beyond Sacramento’s control, promised and delivered a better life for ordinary people than they could have enjoyed in any other place at any other time in history. Politically Brown embodied the vivacity and sweetness of that brief good life—”the swimming pools and backyard barbecues, the school yards teeming with healthy children, the suburban tracts and freeways, the whole Ozzie and Harriet splendor of it all” (to quote Kevin Starr’s evocation). For this reader, Rarick’s unintentionally nostalgic account confirms what longtime residents of this most forward-looking state in the Union know in their bones: the Golden State’s best days are behind it.
The Singapore Grip, by J. G. Farrell (NYRB Books). In 1979 a freak wave swept the Booker Prize—winning writer J. G. Farrell out to sea; his body was found a month later. In his brief life he’d written what would be, along with Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, the most complex and ambitious series of historical novels to emerge from Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. The novels of the Empire Trilogy were set during three different assaults on British rule: Troubles during the IRA’s brutal guerrilla war in 1919—1921; The Siege of Krishnapur during the Indian Mutiny of 1857; and this novel (long out of print and just reissued) in the years leading up to and during the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore. In all three tales of violence and calamity Farrell juxtaposed an Austenean comedy of manners with slapstick and gallows humor, and punctuated the whole with absurdist scenes. The past is famously a foreign country, and in Krishnapur, for which he won the Booker, and The Singapore Grip, Farrell’s extraordinarily dense and fascinating detail couples with a subtle rendering of his characters’ alien mentalities. Although Krishnapur is his most finely balanced book, The Singapore Grip (the term variously denotes a tropical disease, a rattan suitcase, a secret handshake, a special hairpin, the vaginal contractions that were a specialty of the city’s prostitutes, and the British economic hold on Southeast Asia) is his broadest canvas and most elaborate work. Ramifying from an account of the relationship between the two British partners of a Singapore commercial firm, the 572-page novel takes readers on leisurely tours of, for instance, the nightlife of Singapore (then perhaps the world’s most cosmopolitan city); the rubber plantations (with their exploited work force of Chinese, Indians, and Malays); and the Britons’ intricate social world (characterized by the cloying ennui and bitter jealousies engendered by a willfully self-contained community). But all the while it tells a story of great narrative intensity: the shocking and relentless Japanese advance that sent British and Australian troops and their vacillating commanders scurrying down the Malay Peninsula, culminating in what Churchill called “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” Singapore’s fate was sealed almost at the start of the invasion, and Farrell matchlessly conveys the dull terror of incipient disaster that seized that rich, modern, but isolated and artificial metropolis. For decades its fall maintained a profound hold on the British imagination, resulting in scores of detailed and atmospheric memoirs and histories. None convey that event with the drama and complexity of this novel.
In the past decade or so academics have hailed the works of Farrell and Scott as forerunners of “post-colonialist” fiction. I’d therefore dreaded a loopy and pretentious preface. But readers would have been far better off with that than with the perfunctory and irrelevant introduction that the poet Derek Mahon, a friend of Farrell’s, provides. Uneven introductions are all one can really criticize in NYRB Books’ otherwise superbly selected series of reissues.
The Survivor, by John F. Harris (Random House). Better accounts of the Clinton presidency will be written, but for now this is the best. Historical assessments of presidential administrations follow a drearily predictable pattern. First come the briefs for and against, then the partial, padded, and self-serving memoirs (those concerning Clinton’s reign, including the ones written by the former president and First Lady, aren’t better or worse than the usual lot, but they’re especially cringe-inducing). The reading public, if it’s particularly unlucky, will also be treated to a treacly quasi-official history of the Sorensenian or Schlesingerian variety. All these products are, of course, forms of special pleading, and all are therefore more or less dishonest. And journalists’ instant histories, for their part, either reflect the agendas of their sources or read like an assemblage of old Newsweek stories. Harris, who covered the Clinton White House for The Washington Post, has larger ambitions. True, he obviously has nicely placed sources, and they’ve dished him some B-plus dirt (meaning gossip that’s contrary to the official story and often embarrassing to the former president, although is now of merely historical interest). But he judiciously uses that gossip to elucidate significant policy or political decisions, or to show how that administration was hobbled by scandals of its own making (or by cover-ups, stonewalling, or prevarications concerning same). Harris, in short, has written a responsible, honest, tough, and—best of all—considered assessment of Clinton’s presidency that will endear him to neither Clinton’s enthusiastic supporters nor his vitriolic detractors. Undeniably, the administration lurched from indignity to indignity, which meant that it was usually operating defensively and that Clinton’s governing was often marked by passivity and drift. But Harris convincingly limns a defining and enduring (and Wall Street—friendly) Clinton ideology: “a mild but innovative brand of liberalism that favored economic growth over redistribution, insisted that government pay its way rather than rely on budget deficits, and embraced free trade rather than taking refuge in protectionism.” To be sure, Harris demonstrates that Clinton (almost certainly to a greater extent than his successor) appreciated the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, but he also demonstrates that Clinton’s anxiety that his motives would be held suspect prevented him from adequately meeting that threat. And indeed, “he had followed a pattern of limited disclosure, evasive or false public explanations, and shabby personal conduct,” so his “presumption of suspicion was far from unreasonable.” In this crucial way, Harris concludes, Clinton failed to conduct a responsible presidency. And in this as in so many other ways, Clinton proved himself, to borrow from Fitzgerald, a man of vast carelessness, who ruinously made the personal political and left it to others to clean up the mess he made.
Carry Me Back, by Steven Deyle (Oxford). John Randolph of Roanoke, a slaveholder and a great orator, was once asked who he thought was the finest speaker of his day. “The greatest orator I ever heard,” he replied, “was a woman. She was a slave and a mother and her rostrum was the auction block.” The domestic slave trade was the worst feature of the greatest crime in American history. Confronted with its horrors (the forced separation of husbands from wives and of parents from children), even the loudest defenders of slavery grew silent, or squirmed, or deceived themselves and others—or pressed to reform it radically. The most perceptive historians insist, correctly, that slaveholders felt no guilt about the peculiar institution, save for this one aspect (Mary Boykin Chestnut told an English visitor as they passed a slave auction in Charleston, “If you can stand that, no other Southern thing need choke you”). The trade baldly contradicted the belief on which antebellum slavery rested: namely, that the master’s relation to the slave was a paternalist one, based on reciprocal duties and obligations. Thus the trade imperiled slaveholders’ image of themselves, as well as the image they needed desperately to believe that their slaves had of them. (The intense day-to-day contact between slave and slaveholder—they often worked side by side, ate together, and worshipped in the same church—created particularly entangled relationships between them.) Surprisingly, for a long time scholars neglected this crucial facet of American slavery. In fact, the standard work on the subject, written in 1931, wasn’t in essential ways superseded until the 1990s. The past fifteen years, though, has seen a flood of scholarship. Much of that work has been narrow (determining the number of local and interregional slave sales and the latter’s role in the westward movement of slaves—among history’s largest coerced migrations—has proved particularly thorny), but it’s been necessary in order to reveal the trade’s ubiquity and its centrality in ensuring the smooth functioning of the South’s capital and labor markets. Deyle, on the other hand, takes a broad view. Even more important, he approaches the subject with nuance. He elucidates how a paternalist ethos mitigated and in other ways influenced the substance and style of the trade. (He assesses, for instance, the ample evidence of masters who, true to their paternalist principles, refused to separate families or reunited them, often at great financial loss. He fails, however, to analyze fully state lawmakers’ attempts to regulate the trade, along with the practical consequences of such efforts.) But he also explicates how the trade exposed the contradiction at the heart of slavery: “the clash between the desire to achieve economic benefit at the expense of others and the paternalistic obligation to look after one’s charges.” And he reveals the ways in which desire routinely beat out a sense of duty. Indeed, what’s most disturbing about this fine book—by far the best work to date on the subject—is its depiction of the weakness of men who thought themselves upright, and of how easily and casually equivocation and self-delusion permitted enormities.