Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 13, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
New Jersey, Taking Heat, Spenser the Hero, and Snobs
For the past week I've been flying or driving from city to city and state to
state, scribbling in copies of my new books. For the life of me I can't figure out
why people who won't even dogear the corner of a page to mark their place
want a total stranger to write graffiti on the title page ... but my publisher tells
me that I must continue to do it.
One benefit, though, is that I see parts of the country I'd never otherwise
Then again, that's also one of the drawbacks.
For instance, did you know that the State of New Jersey has seceded
from the union?
It's true. The saddest thing is that nobody notices -- except people
trying to drive from New York City to Philadelphia.
If you drive through New Jersey, you are funneled onto a couple of toll
roads, which you cannot exit without paying a fine. You never actually see any
sign of why the state's nickname is "The Garden State." It is as if they have
judged you unworthy to see the paradisaical splendor of their own private
But since their goal seems to be to get you through and out of New
Jersey without actually staining their sacred soil with your dandruff, why do
they make it so ludicrously hard to get to Philadelphia?
The worst is what they do with I-95.
All the other interstate highways at least pretend to be continuous. If
you get on I-40 in Wilmington NC and drive west, you will eventually end up in
California. But if you catch I-95 in Massachusetts and drive "south" (which in
Interstate-speech means "mostly west" in this case), with the intent of ending
up in Philadelphia, which has I-95 passing right through it, you will eventually
find yourself either heading west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, bound for
Ohio, or you'll catch I-95 in Delaware, way south of Philadelphia.
Even if you follow the signs in New Jersey that promise to deliver you to
Philadelphia, you'll end up on Highway 1, without a single sign telling you how
to get to I-95.
Why are the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania permitted to create
this ludicrous discontinuity in the course of I-95? In fact there's a relatively
painless route from New Jersey onto US-13, which links you quite soon to I-95
and the fastest route into Philadelphia -- but not one sign in Jersey or PA even
hints at this happy outcome.
It's an infuriating situation. American travelers have a right to expect
that by following an interstate's signage they'll be led, without help of a
roadmap, from one end to the other of the highway.
But that's what New Jersey is for -- to annoy anyone who dares to violate
its space without intending to stay there. Jersey punishes you for daring not to
regard them as your destination.
The ironic result is that driving through New Jersey is such an
infuriating, ugly, disgusting (if you eat at their tollroad way stations) experience
that you vow never, ever to return to New Jersey, not even to gamble away your
money at some casino in Atlantic city.
The conclusion is obvious: Pennsylvania should have an Atlantic
seacoast right where the Delaware River is. Global warming, how long before
you raise the sea level sufficiently to free us from New Jersey's blockade of
Ari Fleischer was President Bush's first press secretary, and he lasted
for more than half of the first term. He only quit because he got married and
soon realized he wanted to have a family and a life. But during his years of
service, I admired him greatly for his absolute unflappability.
No matter how outrageous the questions, no matter how insistent and
rude the questioner, he answered calmly and honestly.
If he couldn't answer because the information was not to be revealed --
like, for instance, military strategy and tactics -- he said quite candidly that he
was not going to answer and why. He never pretended to answer.
The result was that even though the press was often frustrated at their
inability to get a rise out of him or to wheedle backdoor information from him,
they also knew that he was a good, honest man who served both the President
and the nation well.
Now Fleischer has written a book, Taking Heat, about his years in the
White House. It's a rare glimpse inside the workings of the White House under
President W -- and he explains why it's rare. Right at the outset, White House
Chief of Staff Andrew Card (no known relation to me) laid it out for the whole
staff: You're all here to serve the President. You're not to divide up into teams;
there are to be no rivalries inside this White House.
Then he proceeded to take his own advice. Andrew Card and most of the
other top White House staffers are absolutely committed to the President, not
to advancing their own careers.
One result is that Andrew Card is the most invisible chief of staff in
memory. You never hear news stories about him. You almost never hear him
being quoted. Unheard of!
It's because, like most other White House staffers under Bush, he rarely
returns reporters' phone calls. Instead, he simply directs them to ask their
questions of the press office.
The press used to howl that Bush had "clamped down." But what it
really meant was that most staffers had work to do, not axes to grind, and
therefore they had no interest in buddying up with the press. They were busy
and talking to reporters was somebody else's job.
What a refreshing idea.
What emerges in Taking Heat is a picture of a White House that is
exceptionally well-managed. It's no accident: George W. Bush is the first MBA
ever to be President, and it happens that he's also an extraordinarily good
He's loyal to his employees; he knows them and cares about them and
treats them well. He goads them to make sure he hears all points of view. He
does not encourage rivalry and competition among them. He surrounds
himself with people who are widely regarded as being smarter than he is, and
values the ideas of those who are better-informed (as his advisers inevitably
are; the President can't be an expert on everything).
The result is an extraordinary level of loyalty within the White House.
The exceptions are surprising because of their rarity.
What makes this book more than a love-fest for the President is Ari
Fleischer himself. Fleischer believes deeply in a free press; he is also an astute
analyst of why the press has been serving the public rather badly, at least in
the public's own estimation.
He cries out for diversity, not because it will promote "fairness," but
because it is far more likely to prevent humiliations like the propagandistic
false reports that have bedeviled the media during the Bush years.
He believes that democracy depends on having a free, well-informed
press that is nobody's toady; but the press also needs to be honest, diverse,
and self-critical as it copes with the stresses of modern 24-hour-a-day
More than any other book I've read, Fleischer's is an even-handed,
accurate, fair-minded assessment of the modern media. Conservatives need to
read it in order to lighten up on some of the far-fetched conspiracy theories
that abound on the Right; progressives need to read it in order to understand
why the Truth is not their exclusive province and why so many Americans are
so deeply resentful of the major news media.
It's a conciliatory book. Too bad that we don't live in conciliatory times.
Robert B. Parker's Cold Service is a Spenser novel, and a pivotal one.
Hawk, Spenser's Tonto (you know, the companion who does all the really
messy work without demanding much in return), is almost killed when he
takes three bullets in the back while protecting a bookie. The result is that the
bookie and most of his family are killed by the Ukrainian mob, and when Hawk
recovers, he is determined to set things straight -- according to his own code.
Spenser is also determined to help him. The trouble is that Hawk's code
doesn't include a tabu against cold-blooded murder. Spenser's, however, does.
It's a fascinating book as Spenser treads a fine line -- and as we
gradually realize that Hawk is shaping events so that Spenser never has to
At times, however, Spenser, Hawk, and Susan Silverman (Spenser's
common-law wife) are way too aware of the almost mythic status of these two
warriors. It's as if Silverman were discussing Achilles and Ajax -- with Achilles
and Ajax. "Yes, we're heroes, able to accomplish deeds far beyond the normal
mortal ken ..."
Oddly enough, though, the ground has been prepared for this. In a way,
Parker is really discussing "The Hero in Literature," and in a far more
compelling way than if this book were a scholarly monograph. We know that
Parker knows what he's doing as a writer -- not just because he can do it, but
also because he can talk about it with piercing clarity.
So yes, do read Cold Service as an adventure/mystery novel; but think
about it also as an analysis of what we hunger for and admire in our fictional
heroes -- even though we would not necessarily want to share our lives with
such people in the real world.
I'm sick of serial-killer mystery novels. I think I o.d.ed on John
Sandford; or maybe it was Patricia Cornwell's ad absurdum, ad nauseum books
in which serial killers had it in for the state medical examiner of Virginia.
So when Lawrence Block's new novel All the Flowers Are Dying
turned out to be another "let's plumb the depths of the serial killer's mind"
book, I sighed a little.
I should have trusted Block more.
Because his serial killer character really is interesting without ever, ever
being made attractive or admirable (a constant danger in this genre); and as we
watch him move closer and closer to hero Matthew Scudder and his wife and
their friends, the story makes more, not less, sense.
The result is an exceptionally good mystery/thriller, with some real
emotional jolts along the way and an absolutely satisfying conclusion.
Julian Fellowes is the author of the novel Gosford Park; he is also an
accomplished English actor. So when I had a chance to listen to his
performance of his own novel Snobs as an Audio Renaissance book on cd, I
The result was better than I hoped. I could listen to Fellowes all day
reading anyone's book. But I can't imagine many actors who could do a better
job of capturing the nuances of speech, so that the characters express exactly
the degree of scorn or need or deception or candor that Fellowes, as author,
Most of the time, when an author reads his own book the result is
disastrous. Writers are rarely good readers, especially of their own work, at
least partly because they have no idea which parts need clarifying through
emphasis or emotion; it's all clear to the author.
But when Fellowes reads this story of a social climber who finds she
doesn't want the prize fish after she landed it -- or, rather, married it -- it
stands up and sings. We even like the most repulsive characters in the book,
because Fellowes makes them so real ... and so engagingly awful.
The book is worth reading silently to yourself, of course. But why read
the script, when you can hear the performance? This is one that I recommend
most heartily in audio form.
I must also add that the audio version of Ari Fleischer's book, Taking
Heat, is also read by the author -- and Fleischer is not an actor or even a
particularly good reader. However, his book was also worth listening to on cd,
because his simple reading gave it a kind of purity. Just as when he was
fielding reporter's questions, he speaks with candor and modesty. He does not
seem to regard himself as the star of his own story. That is as appropriate for
his book as Fellowes's upper-crust performance is for his.