Not that it’s Stanley Elkin’s fault that I have to think about his book on a day when I also have to think about Dan White—on a day when a lot of people besides myself have no choice but to topple into keen memories of utter carnage: the real-life version of Elkin’s last judgment.
Back in November, when Dan White executed George Moscone and Harvey Milk, it seemed that every opinion-maker in the country went out of his way to make it very clear that these killings had no connection to the Guyana massacres that still hung like a hologram over the city where Jim Jones came to power. No connection. As if there were no reason to think that, because Moscone and Milk had been longtime supporters and protectors of Jim Jones, they thus became easier to kill themselves, should a political enemy be looking for justification for killing them. As if there were no reason to think that, because for days murder and assassination were less stories in the paper than something you had to breathe, horror dogging your footsteps as if God had put agents on your tail, murder and assassination thus became more likely all around. As if there were no reason to think that, because in their perversity and totality the Jonestown atrocities really were unthinkable, because rational expectations had been shattered, the book could not be easily closed.
Dan White’s crimes took place on more than one level, and on one level, he was acting out the expectations many shared, but couldn’t, didn’t dare to, focus. When the news hit that Moscone and Milk had been murdered, and that White had murdered them, people were shocked, but in a peculiar way. They had not expected—no one could have—precisely this conclusion to what, in the previous days, they had lived through. It was not that they had expected no conclusion at all. Rather, they had expected the connection to be more logical.
Still, people desperately needed to return to a world hounded by rational expectations and rational procedures, and the murders White committed made that return possible: we would have a trial. We could not have a trial for Jim Jones, because he was dead, certainly, but also because we do not have laws capable of touching his crimes. Thus, there was a trial for the City Hall murders, the high point of which surely came when Dan White’s attorney told the jury that his client could not be guilty of murder, because good people—fine people from fine backgrounds—just don’t kill people in cold blood,” and Dan White, though “depressed,” was a man with “fine background.”
The attorney told the jury that Dan White, who carried a gun to City Hall, who sneaked into the building through a window so as to avoid the metal detector at the main entrance, who shot Moscone twice, who then kneeled and shot him twice more in the head to make sure that he was dead, who then reloaded his gun and did the same to Milk as he had done to Moscone, was, because of his fine background, constitutionally incapable of acting with malice aforethought, which is to say of committing first-degree murder. The judge, who in his charge to the jury stated that a defendant’s good character and background might be used to determine if he was capable of acting with malice, bought some of this argument. The jury bought all of it and, as Dan White’s attorney had requested, convicted Dan White on two counts of voluntary manslaughter, for which he will serve a few years, after which he can look forward to cops buying him drinks for the rest of his life.
There was, after this verdict was announced, a riot in San Francisco. It was a serious riot. It is said now, by those officials who have spoken, that the riot was the worst sort of tribute to Moscone and Milk, that it was not what they would have wanted, that it solved nothing, that it only made matters worse, that it could not be tolerated.
The voice that says these things is a reasonable voice, but it is the same voice that denied any connection between Jonestown and Dan White; and while I would likely say the same thing were I a public official, I am not, and can thus say that this is a false voice: what it says is not true. A riot on the night Dan White was excused his crimes was the only proper response. City Hall was not, it is true, a proper target, but there were no proper targets. As a public symbol, City Hall can and perhaps should absorb the damage it received, which itself was a symbol of the damage the verdict on Dan White did to public memory. That verdict forced us to experience again what we experienced last November, to go over all of it, detail by detail. As that verdict forced us to do this, it mocked the horror that was remembered, and mocked the process of remembering itself. It was the last act, of a piece with the rest of the story, a verdict that meant to trivialize what we went through—in the words of a juror, “to put it all behind us”—a trivialization that only a public riot could begin to counter.
If in different times, then, I could feel less unappreciative of a book like Stanley Elkin’s, I still hope that I would never find such a book satisfying. Today, I thought about work with blood in it—John Irving’s The World According to Garp, Chaplin’s City Lights, and I played Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” over and over again. That book, that movie and that song made real a world in which the sort of things I’ve been writing about happen, in which they must be considered, in which crime and betrayal, endlessly compounded are not made to seem any less than they are. That book, that movie and that song are, each of them, the knife that cuts the pain from your heart, and the knife that leaves a scar as it does so. And that is where art and life, on their good days, meet.
Rolling Stone, July 12, 1979