Saturday, June 17, 2017

Book Review: Radio On by Sarah Vowell

Recent I picked up Radio On by Sarah Vowell, NPR impresario and hipster historian. In 1995 Vowell decided to keep a journal on her radio listening habits and record her observations, offering reflections on one of the least written about mediums.  Radio On offers a nervy trip back to 1995, replete with foreshadowing of what was to come.

Vowell listened to a wide range of what is now called terrestrial radio: FM Rock, AM Talk Radio, and tons of NPR. Many figures from 1995 appear; some are gone, and some are still around.  The death of Kurt Cobain was still raw in that year and his ghost looms heavily over the book.  Vowell wrote of Cobain as the conscious of the early 1990s:

It was a relief to know someone like him that was on the radio, part of American public life. . . To some of the people who grieve him, Kurt Cobain was a great artist, to others he was the medicine man of the rock and roll tribe, but, finally, he was simply a friend (5-6).

Vowell relates much on what she admires and detests about America. For 1995 saw a resurgence of the right (many more to come), in 1994 the GOP won both houses of congress back after 50 years out of power.  Once in power they gleefully acted as the wrecking crew to Bill Clinton's liberal agenda. Newt Gingrich gets much of Vowell's vitriol, along with crony Rush Limbaugh who dominated the air waves. Rhetoric from the right in 1995 has many echoes for today, fanaticism over gun rights topping the list.  The Oklahoma City bombing revealed how much some on the right despised their society, the Unabomber (extreme left) also entered the cultural parlance.

It's always fun to hear the young go after a sacred cow and few do it better that Vowell. Deadheads are almost as annoying as Rush's legion of dittoheads, chastising her peers for being trapped in the amber of counterculture nostalgia. She prefers P.J. Harvey to Alanis Morisette, ambivalent towards Courtney Love. She writes of her exhaustion with male voices dominating the discourse on music, most of pop  culture for that matter:

I seem to have spent my whole life listening to boys talk about music. And sometimes, no matter how smart or untrivial or meaningful the boy might be, the sheer aesthetic presence of a masculine voice engaged in record talk can get on my nerves (168).

The rise of the internet looms as well, still more of a novelty in 1995.  At one point Vowell ponders the possibilities, in the future everyone can be their own radio station, predicting the rise of podcasts.  The absence of social media makes itself known: in order to communicate people still had to call each other or write notes.  Seems much longer than 20 years.

Perhaps its the mid 90s milieu and all the talk of REM, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana it got me thinking of David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest would be published the next year (probably because the film The End of the Tour takes place at roughly the same time.)  I imagine Wallace and Vowell running into each other and she being annoyed with his writing style and obsessions with tennis and the pursuit of happiness. But Wallace did listen to Nirvana while writing so maybe they would talk about Cobain. Past is prologue, and the 90s were a prologue decade.

But back to radio, Vowell is fairly critical of NPR for being too middle of the road, in other words out of touch. Well someone listened at NPR, Vowell herself became a fixture of This American Life. Since the 90s radio hasn't changed much, mostly zombie radio these days. Satellite radio does excellent work, but with a price. And consumers can access music in myriads of different ways - that's a good thing.

Vowell's at her best when writing about patriotism in a time when conservatives act like they own it, she relates her patriotism more in the spirit of Neil Young (nothing like a Canadian to be the exemplar of good citizenry). Not without surprise, religion and national identity would preoccupy her future writing. 

Vowell channels the spirit of a perceptive road novel - from a specific time and place.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: Buckley and Mailer: The DIfficult Friendship That Shaped The Sixties

The 2015 book Buckley and Mailer by Kevin Schultz examines the friendship/rivalry between novelist Norman Mailer and Conservative writer William F. Buckley.  Both were consummate critics of the prevailing liberalism of the decade, Mailer critiqued from the Left and Buckley from the Right. On September 22, 1962 they held a debate in New York City and became friends afterwards, corresponding throughout the decade.  As their cultural influence waned the deep fissures within American they tried to transcend became ever more apparent.

With privileged backgrounds and Ivy League Educations, both spoke with a suave self-assurance.  Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead, based on his own experiences in the Philippines during the Second World War, established him as new voice in America literature.  His 1959 book Advertisements For Myself helped launched New Journalism, a style that made the writer a part of their own story.

Buckley also came to a prominence through a book, God and Man At Yale , a satiric look at the modern university.  In 1955 he founded National Review, which became the bible of the Conservative Movement.  Like Mailer, Buckley felt stagnated by the Eisenhower years and worried about the direction of the country.

Their debate was promoted as the “forceful philosopher of THE NEW CONSERVATISM . . . AGAINST . . . America’s angry young man and Leading Radical” (17).  The debate proved a jocular affair with both men finding common ground in their fears about technology threatening the individual. Buckley’s conservatism looked to the past for wisdom and guidance on how to move forward – read the “Great Books” and champion Judeo-Christian values as the path to Enlightenment.  Mailer evangelized for a new individuality that would reward creativity and advocated for a new value system to unlock the shackles of the past.

Both took the controversies of the decade head on. Mailer covered the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco that nominated Barry Goldwater and detected a whiff of Fascism.  Johnson’s landslide win over Goldwater failed to produce a consensus.  The left and right were drifting further apart. LBJ’s escalation of the war in Vietnam would fuel the New Left – and energize Mailer.

Schultz credits Buckley with driving out the wacko right wing groups such as the John Birch Society and the KKK.  His long running talk show Firing Line looks more like a placid cocktail party than the predictable rage at Fox News. As time went on Buckley’s aristocratic view of politics alienated him from the forces that would  shape modern conservatism – white working class resentment.

As well educated white men there views on race and gender betrayed their privilege.   Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro” expressed his admiration for black culture, specifically the sexual openness that terrified middle class whites. James Baldwin, a friend of Mailer’s, called out the racism of the article because of its simplistic view of black culture.  Buckley opposed the Civil Rights Movement and his statements on race are now outmoded, sometimes painfully racist.  In 1965 Baldwin humiliated Buckley at the Oxford Union debate they held.

Mailer’s reputation as a male chauvinist also put him in opposition to Women’s Liberation. In 1971 Mailer debated a group of feminists including Susan Sontag and Germaine Greer and came off as clownish. In a later essay, Greer dismissed Mailer as aging and no longer relevant – echoing the Boomer animus towards Mailer.

Mailer continued to write in the 1960s, writing an experimental novel An American Dream, and two works of non-fiction about protests he participated in Armies of the Night and Miami and The Siege of Chicago.  Realizing film was poised to displace literature Mailer made several experimental movies. In 1968 he ran for mayor of New York City with Jimmy Breslin in a splendidly Quixotic campaign that pledged to make NYC the 51st state.

Today literature lacks anyone approaching the panache of Mailer, while conservatism reduced itself to angry bloggers, talk radio rants, and Fox News (with a few exceptions – National Review soldiers on more weary than ever in the Trump era). Our fragmented culture tends to separate people into something resembling tribes, a development that would appall both Mailer and Buckley.

Reading the book, one can understand their flaws and yet appreciate their willingness to jump into the maelstrom of ideas.  Schultz paints a panoramic portrait of the 1960s that deeply resonates for the current moment.