This Week's Reads

Kevin Phillips, Timothy Egan, Dale Peck, and Andy Greenwald.


By Kevin Phillips (Viking, $25.95) Books predicting the next political watershed are a dime a dozen, but one writer who has a high batting average in the genre is political analyst, columnist, and NPR commentator Kevin Phillips. In prior books, he's shed light on important trends including middle-class voter disenchantment; the "Red" and "Blue" state divide of the 2000 electoral map; and the alarming concentration of political power in the hands of the wealthy. One of the most interesting things about Phillips, aside from how often correct and earnest he is, is that he's a traditional, establishment conservative. At least he was. It's not so much that his politics have changed, but that this onetime Nixon campaign aide has witnessed the center of American politics shift so far to the right that he now finds himself ensconced on the left. Scary to think that the Nixon-Eisenhower Republicans of one era are on the fringes of mainstream politics today, especially as both parties promote massive tax cuts, embrace globalization, tolerate huge deficits, and relish a strong-arm foreign policy. Indeed, Bill Clinton's declaration that the era of big government is over seems to have given impetus to the extremist idea that government itself is barely justifiableunless it helps the rich. But traditional conservatives didn't question the need for government; they warned about being held hostage to corporate interests (Teddy Roosevelt) and the military establishment (Ike); pushed strongly for lower- and middle-class entitlements (Nixon); and strongly defended civil liberties (Goldwater). Forget about the menace of creeping Canadian socialism. These ideas are now the "radical" notions in the Bush II era, as Phillips foresaw before most of us. His latest book takes a surprisingly hard swing at the presidents Bush, senior and junior. Dynasty is not simply another exercise in Molly Ivins-esque Bush bashing, but an outgrowth of Phillips' longtime concerns that our republic is falling prey to the fusion of money, power, and entitlementa danger our founding fathers anticipated. He attempts to explain how the Bush dynasty embodies the very worst aspects of this trend. For three generations, the family has devoted itself to making money (investment banking, oil) and fusing private interests (cronyism) with public ones (especially in the intelligence arena). Grandpa traded with the Nazis; Poppy headed the CIA; and Dubya is now entrenching family interests at home while ruthlessly expanding markets abroad. Tax cuts for the wealthy and eliminating the inheritance tax are not initiatives to curry trickle-down favor with the electorate. Instead, they benefit the wealthy ruling-class cabal that increasingly runs the place. In case I didn't emphasize this enough, this case is being made by a onetime Republican. America, Phillips argues, has long been warned about the volatility of a gulf between rich and poor, and the corrupting power of aristocracies. Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison must be spinning in their graves as their beloved small-R republican experiment is reversed by the Bushes. Dynasty does read a bit as if written on the flyideas are repeated, and historical analogies are mismatched (Bush senior is compared with William Howard Taft, while Dubya is likened to Britain's Charles II). Phillips' thesis could be more methodicallyand even more dispassionatelyargued. But it is also important to listen to a conservative argue, forcefully and more convincingly than many liberals, that there are real dangers lurking in the Bush dynasty. (And let's not forget Gov. Jeb, biding his time in Florida until 2008.) If an establishment guy like Phillips is becoming unhinged at the prospect of four more years, we should all pay attentionand question who is genuinely out of the political mainstream. KNUTE BERGER Kevin Phillips will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 15; and at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-652-4255, $10-15), 8:00 p.m. Fri., Jan. 16. THE WINEMAKER'S DAUGHTER

By Timothy Egan (Knopf, $24.95) Every good journalist probably has at least one bad novel in him, and Seattle-based New York Times writer Timothy Egan meets quota with his very first effort. He's previously shared a Pulitzer for his Times reporting, but no such accolades will greet the thoroughly clumsy, clunky Daughter, which can't make up its mind whether to be an eco-screed, Nancy Drew mystery, cookbook, Norman Maclean nature paean, Crichton-style thriller, or echt Under the Tuscan Sun travelogue. It's a novel about water rights, which sounds unpromising unless you remember that Chinatown is a movie about water rights. Of course, that flick, however convoluted, has great characters, while characterization and dialogue remain beyond Egan's grasp. ("Oh, sweet mud sharks," exclaims a supposedly colorful commercial fisherman making a great haul; I don't care if, in Egan's actual reporting experience, fishermen really say that kind of thingyou don't have to write it down.) Still, Daughter is a satisfactory page-turner, since you look forward to each eye-rollingly bad plot turn, conveniently discovered clue, and melodramatic outburst. It keeps moving, like the mighty Columbia, like the salmon spawning in it, like intrepid Seattle architectural preservationist Brunella Cartolano, raised on a vineyard in Eastern Washington and now pitted against evil developers, Gatesian software barons, unscrupulous Indian casino builders, and mysterious water-rights rustlersall of them encroaching upon the winery of her aged papa, Angelo. Another thing father and daughter are against: bad wine. But stupid, status-obsessed yuppies want bad wine, or at least overwatered, oversweetened, and subsequently overrated bad wine, which widowed Angelo makes the mistake of producing during a drought year. (This hinges on some shady irrigation practices; for Egan, improper management of natural resources is a mortal sin.) The vintage is acclaimed even as Angelo's neighbors are being bought out by unseen agents, bringing bidders for the family vineyard and returning his two sons (one good, one bad, with all the subtlety of East of Edenno, less). Hydro intrigue swirls around them, while the boundlessly vivacious yet curiously under-described Brunella has her choice of lovers: a rich, pallid geek; a surly, saturnine Indian working for the U.S. Forest Service; and a studly yet sensitive Montana schoolteacher/smoke jumper/fly fisherman (gee, wonder where that's going?). Like the Cartolano clan, Egan is against bad wine; he's also against Indian casinos, water waste, sprawl, minivans, strip malls, redneck lynch mobs, obesity, and bad cooking. That's another surprise to Daughterthat the author is such a foodie. Its pages feel sprinkled with sage, but sage that's first been squeezed beneath the fingers for maximum culinary effect, as we learn during one of many (too many) kitchen passages. Egan is a goading gourmet. On the other side of the ledger, good cooking, regular exercise, and vigorous outdoor sex make for virtuous peoplepeople like Brunella, who asks a friend who's lost his job, "Are you reading any poetry?" Wouldn't the classified ads make more sense? How does Egan, the evident oenophile, finally tell the fit vintage from the foul? "A good wine tells a story," goes the refrain. A good book tells a coherent one. BRIAN MILLER Timothy Egan will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Fri., Jan. 16; and at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 7 p.m. Wed., Jan. 21. WHAT WE LOST

By Dale Peck (Houghton Mifflin, $23) If you're an ambitious young gunslinger in the cultural critics' corral, don't be fair and balanced. Your best career bet is to let fly a fusillade that fills a legend full of lead. Blow 'em right out of the literary canon! Mimi Kramer made it to The New Yorker by bashing shows so notoriously she was actually banned from Broadway previews. Jonathan Franzen's fury over his underappreciated novels erupted in a long Harper's screed against the overappreciated big names in modern fiction; instantly, he was better known, and then he wrote The Corrections and became a big name himself. The more recent example of this trend is Dale Peck, previously an obscure novelist who got famous by butchering sacred cows for The New Republic. His assaults on "incomprehensible" Faulkner, "sterile" Nabokov, "just plain stupid" DeLillo, Rick Moody, "the worst writer of his generation," Dickens, "the worst writer to plague the English language," Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Franzen, and most rival writers today ("a bunch of pussies") won him a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine. (His collected criticism, Hatchet Jobs, comes out in May.) Weirdly, Lost is like James Wolcott's The Catsitters, a meekly sweet novel by a critic noted for bloodthirstiness. Peck's book is a fact-based account of his alcoholic father's childhood. The hero, Dale Peck Sr., grows up in a '50s Long Island household so horrifying you'd call it Dickensian (though Peck Jr. doesn't). The little boy shares sardinelike sleeping arrangements with motley half-siblings in rooms separated by sheets hung from the ceiling. His wicked harpy of a mom beats her kids with a metal-tipped rubber hose and tells Dale Sr. that he's fated to turn out just like his drunken, turpenhydrate addict of a dad. Then the lad gets a reprieve with his uncle in upstate New York. Honest farm work makes a muscled, moral man of Daleuntil Mom inexplicably drags him back down south years later. Those Peck has previously panned will have their revenge on this book, but Lost is merely middling. Its vivid Dickensian gargoyles, idyllic passages of pastoral lyricism, and lovely verbal music are compromised by clumsy prose, inept exposition, and punchless plotting. Nifty, sensitive metaphors alternate with howlers. A denouement about a lost half-brother (also named Dale Peck) goes off like a damp firecracker. Peck aspires to the celestial poignance of Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms but only achieves the lesser literary foothills scaled by some of the childhood-haunted work of James Agee and Thomas Wolfe. Peck has written a novel he can be proud of. But pretty much everyone he trashes makes him look dinky. TIM APPELO NOTHING FEELS GOOD: PUNK ROCK, TEENAGERS, AND EMO

By Andy Greenwald (St. Martin's Press, $14.95) When a critic is said to write like a fan, it's usually meant as an insult the implication of a critic unable to step back from the subject and view it in a more considered way than the webmaster of a tribute page. But the best thing about Brooklyn writer Andy Greenwald's first book is how nimbly it rides the gap between overview and identification. Maybe that's because the community Greenwald examines in Nothing is as nebulous as the term it surrounds: "emo," a punk-rock derivation that often conflates introspection with melodrama. Greenwald never quite reaches a succinct definition for the word, but that's part of the point: For him, as well as the artists and especially fans he chronicles, emo feels like adolescence itself, a turbulent state of becoming, suited to tempestuous pronouncements and semipublic fuckups on the way to figuring out who you are. Which is one reason the pulled-from-diary lyrics and online journaling resonate so deeply for the style's fansand, not coincidentally, make grown adults wince if not retch. While there's plenty of excellent historical background and reportage, particularly on Dashboard Confessional, the best-known emo act, Nothing is at its best when Greenwald deals with the music's fans. One affecting portrait concerns a quartet of suburban New Jersey boys who idolize Dashboard's Chris Carrabba (Greenwald likens their tight-knit, intense friendship to that of a rock band). Equally good is the book-ending e-mail interview with a young girl in a small town; the music, she avers, got her through harrowing times almost single-handedly. Greenwald takes their problems as seriously as the kids themselves do, and his empathetic reach makes Nothing essential reading for anyone interested in adolescence and how music works in peoples' daily lives. MICHAELANGELO MATOS

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow