Don't Quit Your Day Job
Our nation has a long and lamentable history of entertainers turning to a life of politics. But it's essential to remember that the treacherous road linking art and politics runs both ways. Politicians also wield their clout to ill effect, producing projects that we can love only for their purity of kitsch. -- Tim Dickinson
Jesus' Love Is Like a River Janice Kapp Perry with lyrics by Orrin Hatch. Prime Recordings, 1998. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) writes the songs that make a few fringe dwellers sing. His lyrics on this touching album, and especially those of "Many Different Roads," a tribute to Lady Di and Mother Teresa, reveal a softer side to this unsmiling conservative standard-bearer.
The Double Man By William S. Cohen and Gary Hart. New York: William Morrow, 1985. 348 pages. Out of print. Republican William Cohen (of secretary of defense fame) and Democrat Gary Hart (of Monkey Business infamy) collaborated across the aisle on this novel of political intrigue, but set a poor precedent for artistic bipartisanship. The novel's moderate New England senator is a sympathetic but unfathomably dull hero -- the real fun lies in guessing who wrote what. Cohen, author of two uncelebrated volumes of poetry, was surely the creative force behind the "neuron exchanger" -- a secret weapon designed "to alter the brain patterns of [our] enemies so as to make them totally benign and nonthreatening." And it's almost too easy to attribute the following to poor Hart: "Her lips parted as they sought his.... At that moment, if the flames had leaped out to consume them, they might not have noticed. Or cared."
Night Launch By Jake Garn and Stephen Paul Cohen. New York: William Morrow, 1989. 285 pages. Out of print. His weeklong shuttle mission prompted then-Sen. Jake Garn's weightless thriller Night Launch. Garn admitted to the Washington Post that Stephen Paul Cohen "did 99 percent of the actual writing"; Garn pulled rank only to scuttle the book's zero-gravity sex scenes. "It wasn't just that I am a Mormon senator from Utah and may be prudish," Garn said. "Astronauts...are good people and professionals."
Mackerel by Moonlight By William F. Weld. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. 240 pages. $23. Former Mass. Gov. William Weld's noir style is clearly influenced by the dialogue of B movies. The tough-talking narrator bandies about mystifyingly terse witticisms ("Jerry was pure plutonium, and I still wanted to have kids"), and mangled clichés ("They turned around like deer in the headlights. Deer who had also been shot").
1945 By Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. Riverdale, N.Y.: Baen Books, 1995. 400 pages. $24. It's 1945: Nazi Germany has conquered Europe without ever having declared war on America, and the two superpowers rule the globe. The premise is clever, the execution laughable. As a reviewer for the Palm Beach Post summed up: "The book is a hoot. But you can hoot only so long...before remembering that you have a life and 1945 is retarding it."
The Rum Diary: The Long Lost Novel By Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. 224 pages. $24. Time passes strangely for journalists and businessmen, two categories of hustlers who spend a lot of time together. Constantly predicting or postmorteming "events" and "results," they willfully ignore the enormous gaps between lived experience and the narration of it. This book is based on Thompson's experiences as a reporter in Puerto Rico in the late '50s and early '60s, was written mostly in the '60s, and was never fully published until now. So it's fitting that for the novel's characters, time passes in picaresque fits and starts. Full of brutal sarcasm and earnest philosophizing, Rum Diary focuses on the liars and "degenerates" who sell dupes on myths of progress and objectivity while pocketing fat fees and swilling rum out of paper cups. -- T.D.
Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science By Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. New York: Picador USA, 1998. 320 pages. $23. NYU physics professor Alan Sokal stirred up the world of postmodern philosophy in 1996 by publishing in a reputable cultural studies journal an elaborate parody of how the journal's leading intellectuals -- mostly French -- tend to write about concepts from the physical sciences that they understand loosely at best. In this book, Sokal and theoretical physicist Jean Bricmont provide detailed reasons for the disdain that prompted Sokal's parody; the book also reprints that piece and discusses reactions to it. A committed leftist, Sokal is distressed that some commentators took the affair as a skirmish in the right-vs.-left culture war; Sokal's satire stemmed from a belief that the corrosive skepticism and sloppiness of the postmodernists poison political engagement. As an exposure of intellectual fraud, the book is brutal; as a reformulation of a leftist approach to the social sciences, it is only a beginning. -- B.D.
Gates of Eden By Ethan Coen. New York: Rob Weisbach Books, 1998. 261 pages. $24. When Feeny, a cop down in bunco division, calls someone "subtle," he means "a classy thinka." Throughout this collection of obsessive, scatological stories, Ethan Coen reveals thinking that is not merely classy but deviously inventive. This won't be news to fans of Ethan's work with his brother Joel, a series of films including Blood Simple, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski. As in those movies, Coen swerves from note-perfect homages to classic Hollywood film noir to hilarious reinterpretations and gross-out gags. Coen's characters are stuck in a world of gangsters and detectives but haven't got a handle on the rules. Several stories depart from this mold, presenting psychological snapshots of deteriorating families instead of broken schemes. Infidelity, Jewish tradition, and alienation haunt various fathers and sons as they stare down their failures. All of the stories churn with dark thoughts and exploit the comic power of bodily functions. -- J.A.
Teatro Willie Nelson. Island Records, 1998. It's an oft-remarked irony that throughout all the troubles he's had and hard living he's done, Willie Nelson's voice has only grown more sweet. True, there's a rough edge to it now, but that roughness gives a certain maturity to country songs that would sound like lies coming from anyone else. On Teatro, Nelson's voice takes center stage amid a soundscape whose varied textures echo Nelson's own honey-and-fire growl. New and old songs are presented in Latino-Caribbean arrangements -- a kind of laconic Tejano/Cuban swing -- and are backed by musicians playing everything from bass harmonica to slide guitar. It's a rich but never crowded sound, and it completely transforms such Nelson standards as "Three Days" (written in 1962, recorded by everyone from k.d. lang to Faron Young). Teatro isn't just a new Willie Nelson album -- it is a Willie Nelson we've never heard before. -- A.M.C.
The Boy with the Arab Strap Belle and Sebastian. Matador, 1998. More a maturation than a departure from the fey, catchy folk the band used on its 1997 indie fave LP If You're Feeling Sinister, Belle and Sebastian's second proper full-length album is rollicking yet sweet, filled with acoustic strumming and hand claps aplenty. The songs, ornamented with keyboards and strings, have a more confident presentation than the group's previous efforts. The multiple vocalists and broader stylistic range (from lo-fi trip-hop to barbed folk-rock) add variety to the record, but the eight-person band comes off best when bandleader Stuart Murdoch's soft voice and folk-pop instincts are front and center. -- I.C.
The Pace Is Glacial Seam. Touch and Go, 1998. Despite the title's allusion to slow, frigid music, Seam's fourth album is more akin to a warm, sleepless summer night spent watching glimmering, distant stars. Forsaking the loud staccato squalls of sharp, buzzing guitar that stuck out on earlier records, Glacial keeps mostly to quieter streets. Simple, ringing guitar hooks and a slow-tempo rhythm section pad Sooyoung Park's heartfelt whisper -- evoking nothing so much as a quiet, confessional conversation between intimates. -- I.C.
Wild Man Blues Barbara Kopple. 103 minutes. New Line Home Video, 1998. Filmmaker Barbara Kopple is best known for her sympathetic but unsentimental documentary about labor strife in Appalachia, Harlan County, U.S.A. -- a setting so far away from the luxury hotels of this film as to suggest that Kopple has sold out, or at least is angling for a stint at "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." But as this merciless (and, it's true, at times mirthless) documentary about Woody Allen shows, Kopple has the same eyes that she's always had. Here, the European tour of Woody Allen's jazz band (itself a telling indulgence) becomes the stage for a man whose sensitivity emerges as selfishness. The carefully crafted, sweetly neurotic "Woody Allen character" from his movies disintegrates into a whining, not-so-sweetly-neurotic control freak. Allen complains about everything, from hotel bathrooms to laundry services -- Soon-Yi Previn's ability to tolerate his kvetching must be the reason he allows her (and only her) to overrule his needling. When, during the film's final scene, Allen pronounces a lunch with Previn and his parents to be "the lunch from hell," you half-think he deserves it. -- A.M.C.
The Spanish Prisoner David Mamet. 110 minutes. Sony Pictures Classics, 1998. In this cerebral thriller about a stolen science formula, Mamet leaves behind dirty pool halls, junk shops, and real estate offices for the high life: sunny resorts, gorgeous Manhattan homes, and exclusive restaurants. These crooks are better looking, nattier, and -- on the surface -- a whole lot nicer than the usual denizens of Mamet's underworld, but their plans feed on the same dark urges. Like his own masters of deception, Mamet makes us think exactly what he wants us to at every moment of this tight, labyrinthine con. Not a word is wasted, and though we might like to think we're too smart to be taken for a ride, Mamet proves that movies are the best kind of con: They take advantage of our credulity, entertaining us in return. -- A.J.D.
Reviews by John Aboud, Ian Connelly, Ana Marie Cox, Adam J. Davidson, Brian Doherty, and Tom Dowe.