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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 see.

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 Eden.

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 America's highways?

*

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 manager.

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 reporting.

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 cross it.

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 took it.

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, intended.

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.


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