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REVIEWING

My Brilliant Friend

By Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein

Europa Editions | 2015

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Elena Ferrante         

Book One: Childhood, Adolescence

While in a bookstore in Silver Lake (LA) recently I came across some books by an author of whom I had never heard—Elena Ferrante, a Neapolitan novelist. It was the book’s cover that attracted me—a photograph of newlyweds facing the sea, followed by three small girls in pink satin dresses.

From the praise on the book’s back cover, I felt this was a book I must read: “the truest evocation of a complex and lifelong friend between women I’d ever read,”—Emily Gould, author of Friendship; “Eleana Ferrante will blow you away,”—Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones; “compelling, visceral, and immediate…a riveting examination of power…the Neapolitan novels are a tour de force,”—Jennifer Gilmore, The Los Angeles Times; and, so on…

This was not faint praise. Indeed, these reviewers had not exaggerated. Reading My Brilliant Friend was one of the most intensely enjoyable reading experiences I’ve ever had, and I can add my own list of adjectives to describe it—addictive, engrossing, and compelling.

I hated for the book to end but I need not despair, for My Brilliant Friend is the first of four books, so I have three more to devour:

But, before I tell you about My Brilliant Friend, let me tell you something about its author, though, in truth, there is little to tell, because Eleana Ferrante is the pseudonym for a lady who was born in Naples in 1944, and who is considered Italy’s greatest living novelist. Naples is the setting for most of her work.

Naples is on the West Coast of Italy, called the Amalfi Coast, a city build on the mountainside and cupping the sea. Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii are nearby. It has a population of about a million and is the fourth largest urban economy in Italy—the Lonely Planet extolls its archeological treasures and food—the pizza, pasta, coffee, seafood, and pastries.

This the story of Lila and Elena. It begins in the 1950’s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. They live in an apartment complex, populated by various families. Lila is from the Cerullo family; her father Fernando is a shoemaker, as is her older brother Nino.

Elena Greco, the story’s narrator, is the daughter of a porter. Then there are the Carracis, the Pelusos, the Capuccios, the Sarratores, the Solaras, and Maestra Oliviero, the teacher.

I just like to let these names roll off my tongue.

Both of these girls are bright beyond the environment from which they have come. Elena is astonished by Lila’s verve, intelligence and at times malicious behavior.

“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment,” and, “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: It was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was bad.”

This incident from their childhood is emblematic of their friendship. While they were sitting on a grate leading to the dark basement of their building playing with their dolls, Lila flicks Elena’s doll into the basement; Elena says nothing; then she flicks Lila doll into the basement also.

Melina Cappuccio is the mad widow. After her husband dies, she has an affair with Donato Sarratore; after it ends she becomes even more unhinged, but her neighbors look out for her.

Here’s Elena’s description of what happens to her when she begins to become a woman:

“A period of unhappiness began. I got fat, and under the skin of my chest two hard shoots sprouted, hair flourished in my armpits and my pubis, I became sad and at the same time anxious. In school I worked harder than I ever had…I locked myself in the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, naked. I no longer knew who I was…My chest, meanwhile, became large and soft. I felt at the mercy of obscure forces acting inside my body. I was always agitated.”

What’s of particular interest is the way fate plays its hand in the lives of these two girls. Even though Lila may be the brighter of the two, she elects to quit school and help out in her father’s shoe repair store and at home; meanwhile, Elena continues her studies and advances in them, creating disparity between them. Yet, Elena always cares more for Lila than she does for any other person.

For a while Lila studied independently: “As we talked, she showed me proudly all the cards (library cards) she had, four: one her own, one for Rino, one for her father and one for her mother. With each she borrowed a book, so she could get four at once. She devoured them, and the following Sunday she brought them back and took four more.”

“School began again and right away I did well in all the subjects. I couldn’t wait for Lila to ask me to help her in Latin or anything else, and so, I think I studied not so much for school as for her.”

Lila develops late but when she does he become a slender woman of great beauty and intensity, and half the young men in the neighborhood are in love with her. Elena too is beautiful though not as striking as Lila. Marcello Solaras, whose family owns the bar-pastry shop, and thus can afford to drive a fancy car, courts Lila, but she settles her affections upon Stefano, the scion of the grocery store.

At the age of 16, while Elena is continuing her studies and is told by Lila to please continue for her sake too, Lila marries Stefano. I relished this passage from the description of her wedding:

“…when she left with her husband, then a huge fight would erupt, and it would be the start of hatreds lasting months, years, and offenses and insults that would involve husbands and sons, all with an obligation to prove to mothers and sisters and grandmothers that they knew how to be men…”

I’ve already ordered volume two of Elena Ferrante’s quadrilogy (my word)  and can hardly wait for it to arrive.



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REVIEWING

Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Ta-Nehisi Coates

A meditation on Hopelessness.,

There are many voices, genuine and bogus, that speak for African-Americans both to the black community and the white world. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 39-year-old national correspondent for The Atlantic, is now anointed as the preeminent literary spokesman on matters of race and culture in American media. Whether one likes it or not, Mr. Coates holds great influence in certain quarters for his body of work. His new offering, Between the World and Me is a national bestseller, helped, no doubt, by Coates’ being selected this year as one of the 24 “genius” recipients by the John David and Catherine T. Foundation.

Upon learning that he was picked for the prestigious award, Coates was stunned, responding, “When I first got the call from the MacArthur Foundation I was ecstatic.You know, if anybody even reads what I’m doing, that’s a great day.”

He received a prize of $625,000 over five years to further pursue his writing career.

With the success of his artful 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, Coates has collected several awards, including the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations.” The MacArthur officials spotlighted his writing as “a journalist interpreting complex and challenging issues around race and racism through the lens of personal experience and nuanced historical analysis.”  

What sets Coates’ work apart? What has made his last book a runaway bestseller? Why has the white literary world honored this black writer who has earned his keep by spitting in the face of those putting him on a pedestal?

Much has been made of the genesis of Between the World and Me, beginning with Coates’ great admiration of James Baldwin’s 1963 classic work, The Fire Next Time. If you remember, the Bard of Harlem started that literary landfall with his informative “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” It was a powerful summing-up of black youth and their place in Jim Crow America. Baldwin’s words carried hope and optimism amid the racial strife of the 1960’s. He warned of revolutionary courage in the midst of dangerous, legalized apartheid and stressed to his 15-year-old nephew  that he make wise choices to avoid a tragic future.

In Between the World, Coates paints a bleak, grim tomorrow for his son, Samori, in the supposed post-racial America. The writer wanted to revisit Baldwin’s themes in modern terms and yet give it a scholarly tone, teamed with a gangsta sensibility. He didn’t copy Baldwin’s work, which some critics compared to the redemptive sermons of the all-knowing pastor. Coates veers from the tried and true, giving his theories the swagger of DMX, the political savvy of Nas, and the rebellious verve of a Public Enemy.

His work is loaded with the presence of the firebrand Malcolm X, the man beloved by his father, Paul Coates, a former Black Panther and publisher of Black Classic Press, a company devoted to out-of-print black books. Coates absorbed Malcolm X’s teachings at an early age, and it shows in every chapter, as he informs his son that he must tread lightly in this nation that doesn’t treat black lives respectfully.

A civil war is occurring in many black communities. These are times of blood, sacrifice, and conflict in these forgotten neighborhoods.  Coates, who was raised in West Baltimore, knows this fact, and he’s afraid of the violence on the streets of the Hood. He’s also afraid of the police and what he sees as their bloodlust for young black men.

Still, he’s a survivor. Throughout Between the World and Me, there’s that chilling sense of fear, the dread that someone, either white or black could take the life of his son or himself or someone close to him. As long as the guns are coming into Northern and Midwestern cities through the Dixie pipeline, every day is a crap shoot, and Coates painfully knows this.

For one who doesn’t trust American-style education, Coates totally enjoyed his academic time at Howard University, which he entered at age 17. Soon, overwhelmed by studies and school, he dropped out of “Mecca,” his pet name for his beloved Howard, and fashioned a writing career, working for the Washington City Paper. Later, he wrote for such publications as The Village Voice and others, got involved in a romance, and fathered a child.

Fatherhood changed him. It made him realize he had a new responsibility and obligation in life. With the birth of his son, his fear of a violent death as a powerless black man consumed him. He wisely knew that many black lives have an expiration date, especially in besieged neighborhoods. He asks: how can you be free living in a black body when many young black men and women have a target on their backs. In his book, he expresses the fear and concern that every black parent feels whenever his child leaves the home.

“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession,” he writes, apologizing to the son that he cannot protect. “You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.”

Realizing how quickly a black life can end, Coates knows first-hand when a boy once pulled a gun on him but had second thoughts and didn’t shoot. He concludes that black lives do not matter, especially in the prime of youth. Also, he acknowledges being young and black can lead to errors, errors that can cost one’s life.

As Coates, the father, writes, “But you are human, and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell. You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn’t. Not all of us can be Jackie Robinson—not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson.”

Many black and white critics have singled out that Coates believes that democracy in America is a myth, a false dream. “Democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies – torture, theft, enslavement – are specimens of sin so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune.

For him, the social and cultural difference of whites and blacks trying to co-exist in America is as bad as it was under the tyranny of Jim Crow. Since there is a constant dark cloud of despair and violence hanging over his people, the rules of this democracy don’t apply to blacks.

“Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets. But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day.”

Unlike the golden dream of freedom espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Coates doesn’t believe in one person transforming the system or any moral correction of institutions that only want to save itself at all cost. According to Coates, America is a scam. “Historians conjured the Dream,” he states. “Hollywood fortified the Dream. Dreamers are the ones who continue to believe the lie at black people’s expense.”

Equality or total assimilation will never happen, Coates adds. “We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.”

A critic of President Obama’s sentimental, post-racial America, Coates insists there is nothing evil in “the destroyers, who are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” He further defines “the visceral experience of racism,” which destroys everything it touches, including young black bodies. The murder rate of black youth killing black youth astounds him.

Unlike most prominent black scribes, Coates doesn’t believe in God or Christianity. He has taken a lot of heat for that. There are no righteous Mahalia Jackson or T. D. Jakes moments in this book. All of that uplift and bright spark of hope are absent within these pages. “There’s a kind of optimism especially within Christianity about the world – about whose side God is on. Well, I didn’t have any of that in my background. I had physicality and chaos,” the writer told a New York Magazine reporter last July.

What I admire most about this work of Coates is his gonzo blend of history, poetry, romance, quotes, and traditional scorn through his journey of the bleak Baltimore streets, the Howard University academic magic, the teaching moments at the Civil War battlefields, the gritty, the South Side of Chicago, the abrupt brush with racism when he takes his son to the movies in Manhattan, and the transformative time in France. 

Any reader will get a lump in his throat when he reads about the tragic death of Prince Jones, a college friend of Coates, by an undercover cop from the Prince George’s County Police Department. This event enrages Coates, who sees the black officer’s shooting go unpunished. He lists a partial tally of the victims including Michael Brown, Travon Martin, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice. 

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that he’s doing is good or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”

Despite the doom and gloom of many of his themes, Coates still suggests his son to press forward with his life. “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…But don’t struggle for the Dreamers.”

Coates doesn’t have all of the answers in this slim, controversial book but he makes us ponder deeply on the convoluted questions of race and culture. He also benefits greatly from his surly, articulate turns of phrase.

I don’t agree with those who say he should shut up. I don’t agree with those who say he’s airing dirty laundry. I agree with any writer who can get himself heard in this storm of media static. Ride this gravy train as far as you can, Mr. Coates. Boldly have your say and speak some basic truths to those who need enlightenment.



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REVIEWING

ELAINE’S: The Rise of One of New York’s
Most Legendary Restaurants from Those Who Were There

By Amy Phillips Penn

Skyhorse Publishing | 2015 | 134 pages | $19.99

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Elaine Kaufman

“Elaine’s.”  One word.  One name.  But to this day it signifies a world gone by. 

In her new and tightly assembled book of reminiscences about Elaine, the legendary overlord of what used to be New York’s most esteemed watering hole, author Amy Phillips Penn (whose society columnist career began at the New York Post) has created a chronicle that offers evocative echoes of an era. 

It’s a small book with big heart, because the persona of Elaine is the main event.

That’s what makes the legend of Elaine’s (the place) loom so large.  Pun intended. Elaine herself was a huge woman who made being corpulent a badge of honor.  As the proprietor and all-around top gun whose restaurant and upscale bar complex served as a magnet for Manhattan’s glitterati for decades, she was a combination of a Mafia boss and a matriarchal godmother.  She didn’t preside.  She ruled.  Always.

From the mid-1960s until one decade ago, Elaine’s famous spot on the corner of 88th Street and Second Avenue served food that was satisfying but unremarkable, but nobody went there for the cuisine.   They went to see and be seen in turn.  One had to be green-lighted by Elaine to score a table there. 

And in the course of her first ten years as the ultimate arbiter of the Who’s Who that occupied her hallowed locale, Elaine’s generosity of spirit (she let tabs go unpaid for years and never made economics her priority), along with her brash New York ego and oftentimes abrasive, in-your-face, blunt style of speech, electrified the place.

One way or the other, she was the star of the show—more so than the Pulitzer-winning authors who assembled there or the striving, sometimes impecunious artists who won her over.  Not to mention the championship athletes, Broadway stars, Oscar winners and Nobel laureates who also yearned to be snapped by the paparazzi as part of the “In” crowd. 

From Joe Namath to Joseph Heller and every cultural comet from Woody Allen to Jackie O, they were there.  In her Preface to this volume, world-class columnist Liz Smith sums it up simply: “She couldn’t resist talented people . . . She had stars like Jackie Gleason, who vied for the privilege of serving drinks behind her bar.  She put her stamp on New York café’ life in an utterly focused career.”

Her full name was Elaine Kaufman, yet no last name was ever necessary.  On any given night, a mythic tale might result from a typical Elaine-style outburst.

Even the most high-profile celebrity photographers, whose pictures would be considered prize catches by other entrepreneurs, caught her wrath.  There’s one particularly telling tale written up in this book’s first chapter, and it speaks volumes:

“You’re too close to my front door,” she screamed at celebrity photographer Ron Galella, as she hurled a slew of garbage can lids at him.  Just one click and an East Side garbage can lid became famous, in a Warhol-esque way.

Transfer that kind of bold rhetoric and brazen behavior to the inside of Elaine’s as well as its immediate surroundings, and you have the essence of her mystique.

She was not just a maitre-d’, she was an enforcer; not just a manager, but a den mother for bruised egos and distressed high achievers, as well as a godmother dispensing sage advice about romance, career moves, and life at large to all who won her favor.  And nothing mattered more than her love for authentic personal bonds.

As one former habitué of Elaine’s summed up: “There was always a place for me because she made a special compensation for drunk writers or journalists.  She always had a good table for me.  She used to join us and put in her two cents—more than two cents, the whole dollar, mostly.” 

Needless to say, such “regulars” adored receiving her attention.  It validated them.

Perhaps that’s the most poignant aspect of this unique, riveting book.  Amy Phillips Penn chose wisely when deciding to present the brief, idiosyncratic testimonials of her contributors.  The short chapters make room for a medley of more than 30 varied and exceedingly readable tributes, the titles of which are illuminating.

Consider the range of emotions and the panoramic images (the book is loaded with marvelous photos) that abound as titles like these float by: “”When Elaine Socked Me” or “Elaine’s Empties the Stanley Cup” or “When Spinelli Met  Plimpton” and “How Elaine Became My Photo Agent.” 

Inevitably, readers also get “My Last Night at Elaine’s” and “The Era is Over.”

But it’s not a text that’s sentimental.  In a chapter that’s deftly called “Elaine’s Was Really Three Different Places,” former CNBC reporter Ash Bennington remarks: “People often talk about Elaine’s during the glory days—in the sixties, seventies, and eighties—but Elaine’s was magnificent until the moment Elaine died.  I started going to the restaurant regularly around 2006 . . . I got my first two writing jobs standing at the bar, though I still don’t really know how it happened.”

It happened because in the milieu created and sustained by the intensely loyal Elaine, whose demonstrative Mediterranean spirit filled the room, magic happened.

This richly illustrated little book (it’s a perfect gift) brings us a touch of that magic.


(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of novelist Mario Puzo.)



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REVIEWING

After You

By Jojo Moyes

Viking | 2015 | 352 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Jojo Moyes

Moving On

JoJo Moyes is a popular British author of women’s fiction with thirteen notches (novels) to her belt. She’s been a two-time winner of the Romantic Novelist’s Award, and Me Before You garnered a nomination for Book of the Year at the UK Galaxy Book Awards, going on to sell over three million copies worldwide.  The decision to resurrect the protagonist of that novel, Louisa Clark, was a no-brainer: Moye’s fans clamored for more.  And it’s easy to see why.

After You, the sequel to Me Before You, imagines the life of Louisa several years after the death of her true love, Will Traynor, a quadriplegic who ended his own life with a little help from his friends.   Ideally, the reader would read the first book first; however, I am happy to report that After You is strong enough to stand on its own.

Louisa, a working-class woman, seems to be fumbling around with no direction in her life. She hears Will’s voice in her head, tries to heed his advice, but she is paralyzed by inertia. Though only in her mid-twenties, she is apathetic to an extreme degree, willing herself to be satisfied with a truly ridiculous and somewhat demeaning job, a boss from hell, a bare unpainted apartment, no social life and no friends.  She is estranged from her once close-knit family.  Her only outlets seem to be hitting the booze after a day’s work or infrequently, the pub.  

A near fatal accident deposits her back in the arms of her family temporarily, but long enough for her to renew ties, and to begin to appreciate their loving support.  Because the circumstances of her accident have created doubts in the minds of her relatives as to her mental health, her dad requests that she enroll in a weekly bereavement group. 

The Moving On group becomes the vehicle for incremental change and the key to her recovery. The second factor that pushes her out of her funk is the discovery that Will Traynor has left behind something even he did not know about.  New people are introduced into Louisa’s life, shaking up her deadening routine, and forcing her to take on new roles and new responsibilities.  Ever a caregiver, Louisa drifts back into that role, but ultimately gains the strength to make the kind of decisions that will ensure she is taking care of herself first.  And yes, there is a new romance—talk about meeting cute!— with a very appealing specimen (in uniform).

Though the trajectory of the novel  may sound a bit uninspired, Moyes’ skill as a novelist lifts this story above its more melodramatic moments—particularly the two (!) near-fatal accidents in the story.  The character of Louisa is entirely believable as are her changes in perspective.  Because these changes do not happen overnight, instead occurring slowly as the novel unrolls, the reader is with Louisa all the way, silently nudging her to get out of her rut, take some chances, and live a little.  As she takes her first baby steps, the reader continues egging her on and cheering every small victory.

Characterization is Moyes’ strong point. Louisa emerges as a real person with problems in the real world, on her way to becoming a lost soul when events knock her out of the cocoon she’s built for herself.  The changes in her outlook do not seem to occur overnight. The reader starts fidgeting and getting impatient with her as she turns down opportunities for growth. At the moment that she finally takes a courageous first step to claiming back her life, the reader is more than ready to cheer her on and to let go.

The trajectories of the other characters are equally engrossing. The teenage character especially is sketched in a vivid, true-to-life fashion with dialogue and actions instantly recognizable and relatable. The members of Louisa’s immediate family provide some comic relief, imperfect as they are, and struggling themselves to mature into new roles. Her mother, the budding feminist, is a hoot, and her father, whose world is being turned upside down, is a lovable, befuddled pensioner. Growing up, relinquishing past habits and modes of living, moving on—the journey, Moyes implies, is never over.

After You is best consumed quickly, on your sofa, in your bathrobe with a hot mug of tea beside you, and if possible, your furry cat snuggled in close.  Unlike the proverbial après Chinese dinner sensation, an hour later the reader still feels that she has dined well.



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REVIEWING

DRINKING IN AMERICA: Our Secret History

By Susan Cheever

Twelve | 2015 | 258 pages | $28.00

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Susan Cheever

The name Susan Cheever signifies quickly (especially her last name) to anyone in love with postwar American literature.

She is, indeed, the daughter of short-story master, John Cheever. As such, she is also the trailblazing author of the memoir, Home before Dark (first published more than 30 years ago, when memoirs were neither much encouraged nor at all in vogue).  In one fell swoop, that deeply textured narrative confronted alcoholism, fathers, and family dynamics, and shocked some readers due to its confessional elements.

She has also written five novels, other memoirs, and notable biographies of Louisa May Alcott, E. E. Cummings, and Bill Wilson (the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).

With her new chronicle, Drinking in America, the author’s lifelong preoccupation with what alcohol does to human beings and how personal histories are affected by one’s drinking habits coalesces once again.  Only this time, it’s a national story.

The subtitle of Drinking in America is “Our Secret History.”  And that’s no lie.  In 14 smoothly written, well-researched, provocative pages, Susan Cheever makes the case that from its inception centuries ago to the recent epoch of fear and anxiety presided over by George W. Bush, alcohol abuse has had a major impact on the course of American history.

She notes that it’s a topic that has been largely taboo.  How right she is. 

Her narrative benefits from a strict chronological order, creating a dual storyline of America’s unfolding as a nation-building, conquest-oriented quest mixing personal independence with “manifest destiny,” all set against the chronic and sometimes embarrassing fact that along the way we’ve oftentimes been a nation of drunks.

In Chapter 1, Cheever sums up: “There are two strains of American belief about drinking: the one that holds our freedom to eat and drink as an essential liberty, and the other that hopes to limit our drinking through law for the good of the community. The one created a level of drunkenness in the 1830’s that shocked European visitors. The other instituted Prohibition in the 1920’s.  The one holds our right to drink the way we choose as sacred. The other tries to legislate drinking habits by age, hours of availability, open-container laws, and general disapproval.  All this began with the Pilgrims and the Puritans.”

Right there, from the very get-go, Cheever’s new book sets its course.  Her chapter titles alone remind us of the timeline of American history.  For example: “The Mayflower: A Good Creature of God” and “The American Revolution, the Taverns of the New World” are followed by “Paul Revere: ‘The British Are Coming!”

Then, of course, there are “Alexander Hamilton and the Whiskey Rebellion” and “John and Abigail Adams’s Sons and Grandsons.”

It is staggering to learn how horrendously the family of John Adams was afflicted by the perennial troubles induced through his heirs’ heavy drinking.  And such heavy imbibing is recorded and recapitulated with dozens of anecdotes and distressing revelations as the later chapters unfold: “”The Civil War” and “The American West” leading to “The End of the Nineteenth Century and the New Temperance Crusaders,” which, of course, lead to the chapter titled “Prohibition.”

From pacifying combat soldiers with dispensations of rum or whiskey to the rise of the Mafia in relation to the lunacies of Prohibition, our history is booze-filled.

Cheever is powerfully informative in her assessment of “The Writer’s Vice,” which makes Chapter 10 a miniature survey of the lives and legacies (often wrecked, in many ways tarnished) of an array of distinguished American authors, who somehow managed to create great works, despite their grievous alcohol abuse.

On this issue, Cheever is impressively forthright: “Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, and, more recently, Carver and Cheever.  By the time my father’s generation of writers started publishing in the years after World War II, being a writer almost always meant being a drunk.  My father embraced this personality with enthusiasm.  At the age of seventeen, he wrote a story entitled ‘Expelled,’ moved to New York from suburban Boston, and sold the story to the New Republic.”

As a demographic, generational phenomenon, Susan Cheever apprehends an era that was, quite routinely, sickening, but pitched as sophisticated (even now, if you measure by the popularity of “Mad Men”). 

She recounts with grim accuracy the all-American postwar literary landscape: “Even writers who were not alcoholics drank with abandon in the post-Prohibition world. The writer and New Yorker editor, William Maxwell, once told me that he got so drunk at a party at my parents’ that he realized, when he got out to his car, that he had literally forgotten how to drive. My father’s friend Jack Kahn wrote a memoir in which he mentioned in passing that he got up some mornings and vomited before brushing his teeth—he was amazed at the reaction he got. Not everyone was so hungover that they had to vomit in the mornings?  This discovery became the talk of the suburban party circuit. Who were these abstinent people? Thank God they were far away. Everyone in our world drank and drank until they couldn’t anymore.”

However, it wasn’t just like that in the world of Susan Cheever and her famous father (who died, after 1975, dried out for once and for all). 

The final chapters of Drinking in America present downright disturbing accounts of the devastating degree to which the Secret Service detail for JFK was sluggish at best and blatantly dysfunctional in Dallas on November 22, 1963, when the president was murdered by ambush in broad daylight.  A cadre of JFK’s Secret Service detail had been up partying until nearly dawn that day, violating their oaths in spades. 

Cheever is also insightful and astute about the degree to which Sen. Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting crusades were fueled by his self-destructive alcoholic mania. Similarly, President Richard Nixon’s exceedingly low tolerance for alcohol caused nothing but worries and frequent admonitions from his closest aides and advisors. Sometimes, orders given by Nixon in the middle of the night, with his mind disoriented by too many cocktails, would be ignored. As for the next day?  Nixon forgot his own orders.

The great value of Susan Cheever’s new book is that she impels us to face the sorry fact that the history of our society is soaked in alcohol.  This is a frightening story.

Drinking in America: Our Secret History is also a necessary and admirable book.


(M. J. Moore is a regular contributor to the Neworld Review.)



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