Wednesday, March 1, 2017

In Search of the Jewish Norman Mailer

Photo: Bob Peterson. 

I'm delighted to announce that my essay, "In Search of the Jewish Norman Mailer" is in the new issue of The Mailer Review. The piece is not accessible online yet, though it's listed in the table of contents.  You can always order a print copy if you're interested.  In the meantime, here's the abstract for the essay that appears in the issue:

"The recently published 'Selected Letters of Norman Mailer' traces the trajectory of a lifelong engagement with Mailer's Jewish identity, reminding us that Mailer indeed discussed Jewish issues in his novels, nonfiction, and many interviews. The letters offer us a fresh opportunity to look back upon some of that work and see the Jewish (and non-Jewish Mailer) that emerges. This essay examines important Jewish connections in Mailer's works."

For those of you who read my piece, enjoy.

Friday, February 10, 2017


Photo: Matt Nighswander / NBC News

Winter  Snowstorm,  New York

The snow is piled so
high on my windowsill that
I can't see if it's snowing.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Other Trump

Not Donald Trump, but TRUMP, the glossy 1957 humor magazine edited by Harvey Kurtzman for two issues before publisher Hugh Hefner pulled the plug on it, ostensibly for financial reasons ("I gave Harvey an unlimited budget... and he exceeded it") but also because Hef apparently had doubts about the magazine's prospects for success at the then-exorbitant price of fifty cents an issue. I just finished reading the recently published volume, THE COMPLETE TRUMP, edited and with invaluable annotations by Dennis Kitchen. I urge all fans of Kurtzman, Will Elder, Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee to get hold of this beautiful book. I confess that while the two issues are beautifully done, with color paintings and an elegant and sophisticated layout, they're just not as funny as Kurtzman's work on the early issues of MAD. It seems that he repressed some of his anarchic humor in a possibly misguided desire to be classy and upscale. Nonetheless, there are some real gems in this volume including a hilarious spoof of DEATH OF A SALESMAN by a young Mel Brooks. 

Kitchen has included drawings and layouts intended for the unpublished issue number #3 which suggests the future direction Kurtzman was planning to take the magazine in. One can see TRUMP as a kind of bridge between MAD and NATIONAL LAMPOON --not as groundbreaking as the first and not as raunchy and political as the second, but a valiant project that sadly never had the chance to really prove itself. This long overdue collection is a steal at $20.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Meeting Tom Wolfe

On Thursday evening, October 20, I saw the legendary Tom Wolfe speak at the Book Culture store on 81st and Columbus Avenue here in Manhattan. He was there to talk about his book, The Kingdom of Speech. A truly magical evening. He was resplendent in his trademark white suit and entered the bookstore  carrying a hand-carved cane with a painted wolf's head at the top.  At 85, Wolfe is a bit frail walking, but once he was seated and talking he showed the ebullience of someone half his age.

I had the privilege to to chat with him for about four or five minutes and he was friendly, funny and kind -- a real gentleman. He signed my copy of The Bonfire of the Vanities and shared some anecdotes about the writing of the book. (He said he knew the book would be a success when his typist got upset when he didn't bring any pages for her one day; she made it clear that her annoyance wasn't due to the loss of income but her impatience to find out what happened in the story next.)

I asked him if Noam Chomsky's linguistic theories and radical politics, which he discusses in his new book, are connected in some way. Wolfe didn't think so. He said that Chomsky absorbed his anarchist views politics from his Jewish grandparents, who had lived in Russia under the Tsar, who and was not very kind to the Jews, to put it mildly. Wolfe sees Chomsky's politics and linguistics concepts as entirely separate mental constructs, though he does believe both of them are entirely wrong.

It's interesting that during the Q & A following Wolfe's talk, not a single person in the educated, Upper West Side audience took issue with Wolfe's critique of evolution or Chomsky's notion of a "universal grammar" built into the brain. Perhaps they were intimidated by Wolfe or felt they were simply not knowledgable enough about either evolution or linguistics to challenge his opinion. But Wolfe made it very clear that he is not a Creationist. In fact, he admits he is not a believer at all, and is "without religion." He won't call himself an atheist, though, because he considers people who label themselves such are "putting on airs."

Just for the record, he doesn't believe in The Big Bang Theory, either.

He hinted that his next book may be about social status. Which all his books have been about to some extent, but it will be fascinating if he decides to tackle the subject head-on.

In any event, getting to see and talk to Tom Wolfe was a real kick, and now I have a signed copy of what is arguably his best book. I eagerly await the next one.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Edward Albee, R.I.P

Photo by Jerry Speier.  

I briefly met the great Edward Albee years ago when I was working at Doubleday. I knew that Albee would be showing up that day to discuss with my boss a collection of his best plays, personally selected and introduced by the playwright. I came up with some absurd excuse to walk into my boss's office and in the process say hi to Albee and then make a quick exit. (Later I had  the satisfaction of proofreading the text of  Albee's elegant introduction.)  Albee's own exit at age 88 is far too soon. He was one of the giants of the American theater.

The volume published by Doubleday's Fireside Theatre book club.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

High-Water Mark

Over the weekend I saw a film I can highly recommend to everyone here: David McKenzie's vastly entertaining Hell or High Water. At first it seems like another bank robbery film, a western that substitutes cars for horses, but Taylor Sheridan's script is intelligent, witty, and always couple of steps ahead of the audience. The deft performances by Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and the always welcome Jeff Bridges help make it a film where the action is always subordinated to the characters and their emotional development.  After a summer of over-plotted plodding blockbusters it's a pleasant surprise to see a stunning film that cost only 12 million dollars to make.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tom Wolfe Takes on Darwin and Noam Chomsky!

I read Tom Wolfe's new non-fiction book, The Kingdom of Speech, over the holiday weekend. A short but immensely entertaining and provocative volume. Wolfe spends half the book eviscerating Noam Chomsky, drawing on recent research by young linguists and anthropologists to toppple the Chomskyite notions of a "Universal Grammar" and an "LAD" (Language Acquisition Device), supposedly hardwired in the brain. Along the way Wolfe demolishes Chomsky's anarchist politics, which he sees as a sentimental hangover from Chomsky's roots in the East European shtetl as well as his boyhood crush on the Spanish anarchists who briefly took over Barcelona in the late 1930s. This contoversial book is going to upset a lot of people -- neo-Darwinists, orthodox Chomskyites, and much of the cultural and scientific establishment. But most of all it is a paean to the powers of human speech, which Wolfe sees as the most powerful and defining creation of the human race. In short, a delightful and highly stimulating way to spend Labor Day weekend. To say more would ruin your own reading pleasure.

Photo by Mark Seliger.