Books of 2017, #12 & #14: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, by William H. Patterson, Jr.

It was inevitable that I would read this two-part biography of Robert Heinlein.

Though my feelings about him are more complicated than when I was a teenager, to pretend that my exposure to Heinlein in those years didn’t have a profound effect on me would be dishonest in the extreme.

Reading the two fairly doorstop-like volumes, it’s hard not to see this as hagiography; one is left with the impression that Heinlein never seems to have done anything wrong:

Perhaps he was naive, but never foolish (as, say, when he plunged into a first marriage that seems like it must have been doomed from the start). Perhaps he was too accepting, but never unsupportive (as, say, he watched his second wife slide into alcoholism). Perhaps he was too clever for most readers, but never flat-out wrong (as with Farnham’s Freehold).

Maybe this would be easier to take if the book didn’t get relatively easily checked facts wrong—for instance, at one point Barry Goldwater is described as having supported the New Deal:
Certainly Goldwater’s voting record helped Heinlein to support him. It showed he had his heart in the right place—he had voted for the New Deal when it counted […]
It is to laugh.

That this is asserted in a chapter that also asserts that the Democratic Party had been infiltrated by “Leftists” (a thinly-veiled euphemism for “Communists”), which was pushing Heinlein—who had worked with Upton Sinclair’s campaign for Governor of California on an almost-socialist platform some thirty years earlier(!)—toward the “center”, represented by Goldwater, doesn’t pass the smell test. I swear, if I never hear another old white man trotting out that “I didn’t abandon the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party abandoned me,” line, it will be too soon.

At least he did the smart thing and passed on Dianetics.

What it comes down to, the thing that ultimately drove me away from his work, is the lack of humility. He is quite open that his work is meant to be at didactic in fuction. OK, that’s fine, but, if you’re going to purport to teach, you better have the right fucking answers, and this is a guy who was wrong again and again, constantly predicting the downfall of civilization, whether to Communism, or nuclear holocaust, or simply the encroachment of other less cultures in a less Western liberal mode.

It’s all a bit too much for a book with the subtitle “In Dialog with His Century”, because it comes off as much more of a monologue.

That said: I would prefer a world that had a more liberal bent—government that interceded when it could be effective, and stayed the fuck out of people’s business when it couldn’t. I suspect he and I would have had rather different ideas about when and how it could be effective, though.

Books of 2017, #8: Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, by Peter Ames Carlin

When I read about people whose work I admire, I am almost always reminded of the Buddhist admonishment, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”; which in this instance I think of as reminding us that the person is not the teaching or the product, and it lives independently of them.

To say that I admire Paul Simon is an understatement.

I’ve seen him perform three times: during the 1991 Born at the Right Time tour, in Birmingham, Alabama; in 2011, during the tour behind So Beautiful, So What; and then in 2014 during the On Stage Together tour with Sting. I haven’t seen anyone more than that, and although there’s a few other acts I’ve seen that many times—Concrete Blonde, King Crimson, Adrian Belew are the only ones I can think of right now—none of them hold quite the same place in my heart.

I have memories associated with his music—both as part of Simon and Garfunkle and as a solo act—that are so strong that when I listen to some tracks, it’s like being transported back in time. One of the first two albums I ever owned was his Greatest Hits, etc., and I still have it, though it probably hasn’t been played in 25 years. For that matter, I realized on my birthday last year marked exactly 30 since my parents had bought me Graceland.

So of course when I saw there was a biography of Paul Simon, especially one published just last year, I was going to read it; I didn’t consider it terribly dangerous, given that I already knew that he was an imperfect person—the truth is, his failures as an individual are well-documented; his tempestuous relationship with Art Garfunkle, his long but ultimately broken relationship with Carrie Fisher, questions of credit with Los Lobos and others.

If you look beyond, or perhaps just around, those imperfections, his life is fascinating; being a teenager at the beginning of rock and roll, finding a temporary niche in the folk movement, which parlayed into pop stardom, which led to an unexpected prominence in world music, which led to spectacular failure on Broadway.

The number of people he has worked with—whether their partnership panned out or not—the number of people he was associated with early in their careers, the number of people he got to know, the sheer breadth of his place in music, it’s all fairly breathtaking (I will note for at least one person’s benefit that there is a citation for The Real Frank Zappa Book, regarding one encounter between Frank Zapp and Simon & Garfunkle).

Anyway, Carlin strikes me as even-handed: while he’s unstinting in recording the places Simon seems all too willing to act without regard for his partners and collaborators—a pattern that starts at the very beginning and continues on to pretty much the present day—he leaves you wondering if the sort of drive it takes to excel in this field isn’t all too likely to lead one toward this sort of behavior; not excusing it, but explaining it.

Maybe you don’t actually need to kill the Buddha—maybe you just need to cross over to the other side of the road, and let him keep his distance.

Books of 2014, #2: Nicholson: A Biography, by Marc Eliot

Over the last few months, I’ve ended up reading a few biographies of entertainment figures. The best, hands down, was ?love’s Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove which I will recommend to anyone anytime.

Nicholson: A Biography doesn’t rise to that level—not by a long shot. I wonder if it’s because Jack Nicholson is simply not someone who will ever really let you in—certainly the patterns of his interpersonal relationship suggest that to be the case.

Still, the book isn’t helped by the fact that the text itself has some problems; it seems poorly copyedited, given that there’s at least one place where they misspell “Parramount”, and the voice seems to me to veer towards apologia at times.

It’s not devoid of interest—my awareness of Jack Nicholson was pretty superficial, so it’s not like I didn’t learn things hadn’t known before—but mostly I learned that Jack Nicholson isn’t someone I think I’d care to hang around with.