Category Fiction

The Allure of Autocracy: Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”

“France has been defeated, and despite the propaganda and confusion of recent months, it is now obvious that England is losing the war. (Audience cheers loudly.) I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England regardless of how much assistance we send. That is why the America First Committee has been formed.”

That’s from a speech in Manhattan by American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh in 1940, arguing passionately against American intervention in World War II. Lindbergh’s staunch isolationism was hardly an aberration in American life at the time. Much of the country was torn about how to respond to Hitler’s German war machine that was devouring much of Europe, the massive oceans on either side of our continent making gauzy dreams of remaining above the fray more inviting than almost any other country could afford to be.

In his 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,”

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A Halloween Tribute to Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”

“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,” wrote T.S. Eliot in a poem that was not about Halloween but maybe should have been. (It might have helped lighten Eliot’s mood.) Eliot was writing more about the encounter with non-being, rather than the relatively jocular invitation to explore the dark side of human nature via America’s second most commercially prosperous holiday (trailing only Christmas in economic activity.)

Sure, Halloween is rampantly commercialized and mostly a bonanza for the candy companies and costume stores. But it also reflects a rich tradition of human beings who are not only aware of the shadow side of life, but welcome it. Even though it takes the mostly light-hearted form of costume parties, house decorations and candy for the kids.

Halloween is a chance for our alteregos to get a little attention. To take a walk on the wild side.

Spending a lot of time on the East Co...

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“Death of a Salesman”: Parable for Our Times

My tattered, second-hand copy of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” on my shelf now nearly half a century, shows a cover price of 95 cents. One might be tempted to view that as emblematic and perfect for a now hoary mid-20th century period piece, almost quaint in its portrayal of desperate lives crushed by the weight of an outmoded American dream.

But the play is a period piece only in the way that “Othello” and “The Cherry Orchard” are, which is to say, the “period” it encompasses spans pretty much all of human existence, or at least that in which people have wrestled with matters of conscience and communication, purpose, honesty and authenticity.

Of particular note for our own era is its devastating portrayal of the wages of deception.

Willy Loman, the beleaguered salesman of the title, lives nearly his entire life as a matter of expediency...

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Philippe Petit’s Art of the High Wire, and the Artworks It Inspired

At root, we go to art, whatever its form, to be changed. To alter our perception, to see something new or something we have seen before in a new way, to contemplate the mysterious, the beautiful, the joyous, the awful, the searing.

The best art upends our world, shatters our assumptions, pierces our ignorance and venality. It inspires question upon question, wonder upon wonderment, and as it does so, it assaults us physically—roiling our stomachs, fluttering our hearts, goosebumping our necks, disturbing our sleep.

All art aspires to these things if it is to be worthy of its name.

In this post, I want to discuss three related works of art that in my estimation accomplish all—or at least a good deal—of the above.

1. Tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s unparalleled 138-foot traverse between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York City in 1974.
2...

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John Steinbeck’s Muddled View of Sunsets

Of course I was moved by The Grapes of Wrath, though I think East of Eden was a superior novel.

And Of Mice and Men? Who wasn’t reduced to blubbering at Lenny’s sorry fate? I sure was!

So this post is not to impugn the renowned and honorable John Steinbeck, champion of the dispossessed and travel companion of a dog named Charlie, among other estimable virtues.

It is only to hold up the fact, in graphic detail pertaining to one short sentence of Steinbeck’s prose, that writers don’t always get it right, that they most always benefit from conscientious editing, and that sometimes, even writers as gifted as Steinbeck, rewarded for their talents and toil by being assigned accomplished and decently paid editors, can fail and then be failed by those editors as well.

To such a degree, as a matter of fact, that the following kind of sentence can occasionally sneak past the sentries guarding against ambigui...

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