Undercover: Please Mr. Postman, or Return to Sender (05/15/80)

I am suffering from reader’s block. Last night I got stuck twice: first on a collection of Sara Davidson’s articles (she tells us she likes to be pushed around when she’s fucking, but she never asks herself why, so who cares?), then on a promising novel based on The Harder They Come. Today’s mail brings an even ten books, and I tear off the cardboard with high hopes.

First book: The Euro-killers. “Wolfgang Herm, wealthy and brilliant creator of the multinational EUREAC, disappears on the eve of the fulfillment of a project that threatens one of the last patches of wilderness in the coastal fens of Northern Europe…” Oh, right, the dread EUREAC. But who wants to look up fen in the dictionary? Despite the unusual box picture on the jacket, a pass.

Second: Lost Country Life. “How English country folk lived, worked, threshed, rolled fleece…” Not, as we used to say, relevant, but so classy looking I wash my hands before throwing it in the reject pile and putting on the Pretenders.

Third: The Habit of Being—Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Sentence glimpsed at random, from a note to one Father McCown: “I am reading a book called The Eclipse of God by the Jewish theologian, Martin Buber. These boys have a lot to offer us.” These boys?

Fourth: The Return of Eva Peron, in which V.S. Naipaul reports on nihilism and folly in the third (or, in his catchy phrase, “half-made”) world. I’ve never liked Naipaul’s novels, but I read this book. A mistake: once you get past Naipaul’s smugness there’s nothing left but his shallowness. It’s not that he’s wholly wrong about the sadomasochistic nostalgia of Peronism or the pathetic and vicious’ career of Michael X (media hero of Sixties London, later executed for murders committed in his native Trinidad, where Naipaul, a Londoner, was also born), but there’s more passion, more desire to really understand, in an Amnesty International report on the current Argentine regime—and while AI’s press isn’t as fancy as Naipaul’s, it’s got more muscle. Naipaul (who based his novel Guerrillas on the Michael X case) seems most interested in convincing us nothing can surprise him: he sees easily through everyone’s motives, shows you why everyone’s a fake, but unlike Ishmael Reed, who often does the same thing, Naipaul is never for a minute implicated in the stories he’s telling, and the facile glosses of his analysis (“To Jarnal, an American,” he writes, “salesman’s prose came naturally”) can be appalling. Naipaul’s third-world background isn’t just a visa here: its a cover. I put on the Melodians’ new Pre-meditation—if Sam Cooke had been Jamaican he might have made this record—and get back to work.

Fifth: The Sending. After forty years, Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male remains the definitive chase thriller, and Hostage: London, written only a couple of years ago, is the best terrorist fiction I’ve read and I’ve read a lot of it. But Household is also capable of definitive tiresomeness, and this number, Stephen King title and all, is about spooks and a hero named Alfgif. Damn.

Sixth: Good Companions. Animal book by “a real Lady Thoreau,” says Cleveland Amory, noted animal saver. But who’s going to save us from Cleveland Amory?

Seventh: Caged. At last, a real Zebra Killer—he kills zebras! What’ll they think of next?

Eighth: Creator. Mad scientist attempts to “re-create his adored late wife by implanting her clone in a loving but reluctant (what do women want?) nineteen-year-old nymphomaniac, and…” On the back cover, the bearded, psychobiologist author, microscope at his side, gives us the fish-eye; copy says this opus “marks the debut of a major new American novelist.” Or the cloning of any of several hundred minor old ones. I put on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors.

Ninth: Evidence. Dark-night-of-the-soul mystery about a near-lunatic Detroit reporter (always wired for sound, he tapes even the most casual conversations, because tapes “are real”) investigating the murder of his best friend—a bisexual colleague into piss and bondage. A graphic sex scene on page four of a mystery is a bad sign, but I keep on, more or less in the manner of one who can’t summon the will to turn off the TV. Author John Weisman, a former Detroit newsman himself, overwrites terribly; he won’t let his hero stop pouring expensive wines into the well of loneliness. I finished this book—to avoid finishing another article.

Tenth: Goin’ Home: a Black Family Returns South. With a day’s communing with literature behind me and Public Image on the turntable, I’m not in the mood for uplift. I smother my guilt in John Lydon’s rants about the fratricide of man and the infanticide of God, and realize that tomorrow will be the first day of the rest of my life.


Rolling Stone, May 15, 1980


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