Undercover: A coat he borrowed from James Dean (08/23/79)

The title of Chuck Kinder‘s novel, The Silver Ghost (Harcourt, 256 pp, $8.95), refers to the car that did in James Dean. In 1959, high-schooler Jimbo Stark is so self-conscious—hung up on the man (he calls himself Captain Rebel without a Cause on the Road, for good measure) he imagines that his girlfriend’s brother’s rebuilt silver Porsche may actually be the One: the Grail of the Fifties.

Kinder’s book is about the sweetness of myth and the devastation myths can bring to those who buy them. Myths allow Jimbo Stark to break away from the sordid lives of his parents, from his confused (and pregnant) girlfriend and from his small town, but myths can’t set him free from those things. He suspects this, knows it in his bones and betrays it in his almost hysterical pursuit of his image of himself, but he won’t allow himself to accept it It’s not just that he doesn’t have anything besides the world his myths offer him: he doesn’t want anything else.

Kinder is most touching in his ability to convey the way in which Fifties teenagers bought the gooey myths as readily as they did the tough ones: they were as sure they could solve real problems with the happy ending of A Summer Place as they were that they could assume the persona James Dean created in East of Eden. When Jimbo Stark does finally make it onto the road, he’s prepared for anything and capable of understanding nothing. So, clinging to the existential moment claimed by Camus’ Meursault when he blankly shoots the Arab, Jimbo “acts.” He misses the point that Meursault achieved a sense of self only by completely disassociating himself from his actions and his desires. A mind rooted in Hollywood myths cannot hold paradox.

Jimbo Stark is an irritating, ingratiating character, half-hero and half-fool. Most people who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties, or who watched the movies he did, lived some of his life. Thus it’s almost impossible not to root for him, but root for him to do what? The main action of The Silver Ghost ends uncertainly in 1960; in an epilogue, Jimbo Stark turns up again, years later, killing one more day in a bar on the edges of a San Francisco slum. It is unlikely that The Silver Ghost is meant to be taken as his memory of what once happened to him; it is unlikely that his memory would be so clear.

Starburn: The Story of Jenni Love, a novel by Rosalyn Drexler (Simon and Schuster, 204 pp., $9,95). This is a work of fiction about punk rock. It comes with a seven-year-old pic of Ms. D. on the back, presumably because she don’t look so punky no more. But she writes almost as good as the Dead Boys used to back before they got their option dropped.

With Hitler in New York and Other Stories, by Richard Grayson (Taplinger, 160 pp., $795). Where avant-garde fiction goes when it turns into stand-up comedy. Great parody of Knopf’s “A Note on the Type” page, though.

Testimony and Demeanor, stories by John Casey (Knopf, 207 pp., $8.95). Where New Yorker fiction goes when it turns to stone.

Rebirth of the Salesman: Tales of the Song & Dance 70’s, by Ron Rosenbaum (Delta, 258 pp., $4.95 paperback). Rosenbaum has from time to time been referred to as “Dostoevskian,” but there’s no more evidence of such inner fire in this collection of pop-cult pieces (done for the Village Voice, Esquire, More and New York) than there was in his recent cute thriller, Murder at Elaine’s. What Rosenbaum does offer is a vivid style, a fast eye and a slick finish: you come away with the impression that you need think no more about that. But since the theme here is that of the con man—someone whose role in life is to sell what he does not have or what does not exist, be he an undercover agent selling a false identity to radicals or a doper selling endless variants of the last big score to himself—a little thought goes a long way. And I will always treasure Rosenbaum’s slightly shell-shocked account of an interview with Troy Donahue, who in 1971 was promoting his lead role in Sweet Savior, a film based on Charles Manson:

Troy gets back on the subject of Charles Manson and begins explaining how Manson either was or wasn’t just like Hitler. “So I said to David Frost, I said, ‘Did Hitler do it’ I mean did he? He didn’t. Man, Hitler didn’t do it. You know what I mean?’ And Frost looks at me and says, `He didn’t do it?’ And I said, ‘No man, he didn’t do it, did he?’ It blew Frost’s mind. All he could say was, ‘He didn’t do it?'”

Troy looks at me. “But the thing is he really did do it. Can you dig it? He did do it”

“Do what?” I asked.

Why can’t Kurt Vonnegut write like that?

Rolling Stone, August 23, 1979

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s