Undercover: Ballots and Bullets (04/20/78)

Brown, by Orville Schell (Ran­dom House, $10). Is Jerry Brown the first Transcendental Populist, or just the Coolest Politician of All Time? Schell lets you take your choice. His numerous “Conversations with Brown” mean to suggest that the man has a questing, deeply paradoxical intelligence, but inadvertently reveal he hasn’t much to say; still, following Brown into the ’76 primaries, around California and over to Japan, Schell quotes Brown’s flat wisecracks as if each were sure to lift us right out of time and space. Which is where we are with this book. To Schell, who writes in a casual, self-conscious manner—the literary equivalent of perfectly creased Levi’s—California history might as well not exist: he offers Brown as a manager of symbols who can make the past irrelevant, even though Brown can be better understood as an example of the traditional attraction of Californians to a politics of fantasy and revenge (see Upton Sinclair’s “End Poverty in California” campaign of the Thirties, Day of the Locust, Aimee Semple McPherson, Ronald Reagan, or the complete works of Randy Newman, Steely Dan and Warren Zevon). Brown sometimes appears to have translated this tradition into a novel combination of space migration and repressive social welfare programs, but Schell doesn’t seem worried—his perspective is so squishy you can’t tell if he’s publishing a book or angling for a job.

Dasher: The Roots and the Rising of Jimmy Carter, by James Wooten (Summit, $11.95). At first intriguing—Carter’s 19th-century forebears were a rough lot—this thins out quickly; nothing quite connects to anything else. Though Wooten has gathered a lot of stories illustrating Carter’s seemingly innate reserve and duplicity (could both have to do with Carter’s having consciously lived out the contradictions of the Deep South?), we’re given no solid context in which such characteristics make more than personal sense—no context in which they turn into politics. Interested in Carter as a product of racial upheaval, Wooten can’t analyze Southern racism; instead, he trots out code words (“madness,” “meanness” and “murderousness”) as if they actually explain something. The answer is still blowing in the wind.

Brothers in Blood: The International Terrorist Network, by Ovid Demaris (Scribners, $12.50). Despite its sexist title (ludicrous given the number of women involved in leftist terrorism), this big book is notable because it is often fair—particularly in its treatment of the Baader-Meinhof outfit. Demaris is outraged at the mindlessness and cruelty of their violence, but also at the facelessness and cruelty of the reprisals taken on them by the West German government. He shows in great detail how trials were rigged; short of the use of castor oil, the treatment the terrorists received in jail reminded me of that suffered by American POWs who fell into the hands of Red Chinese brainwashers during the Korean War. Demaris is the only writer, in fact, who has made me think there is anything to the official claim that Andreas Baader and three other convicted terrorists actually committed suicide after West German commandos broke up last year’s hijacking at Mogadishu—an action that was, conceivably, meant to ransom them. If Baader and the rest got the same “white torture” (denial of sleep and social intercourse, constant noise or total silence, harsh light, erratic or punitive medical treatment) after their convictions as before, their “suicides,” like that claimed for Ulrike Meinhof, become credible, at least as a way out.

Wie Alles Anfing/How it All Began: The Personal Account of a West German Urban Guerrilla, by Bommi Baumann (Pulp Press, $3.50 paperback). Baumann was a member of the June 2 Movement, a terrorist unit responsible for a number of bombings, one of which involved murder; he went underground in 1972. This political autobiography was first published in Germany in 1975; criminal charges were brought against its editors,and while they were acquitted in 1976, charges were reinstated in August of last year. Regrettably—because this could have been the first book to make sense of the West German terrorists—How It All Began is not worth repressing. Baumann, working class and a hippie at heart, thinks and writes in hip jargon; his mind holds only received ideas. Rock & roll, dope, vandalism, bombings, shoot-outs, the killing of a suspected informant, it all seems the same here: part prank, part serious anarchism, part desperate attempt to reify one’s own little world. Baumann writes as if he’s learned nothing from his years as a political actor, and we learn nothing—save perhaps that in the milieu of German terrorism there was nothing to learn, which cannot really be true. In its feeble wanderings, How It All Began shares something with Peter Handke’s most recent novels, A Moment of True Feeling and The Left-Handed Woman (the latter, which will be published as a book in June, ran in the New Yorker a few months ago): Baumann unconsciously and Handke very consciously are both writing about the necessary meaninglessness of action, and neither convinces me. The best thing about Baumann’s book is Daniel Cohn-Bendir’s appended protest against its censorship, and you can read it in the bookstore, standing up.

Current Events

Listening to Billie, by Alice Adams (Knopf, $7.95). The story of a woman finally coming into her own in middle age, this is one of those fictions that seems less to have been written about the present day than by it; if you’re even mildly tuned into embourgeoisement of feminism, Adams will offer you no surprises, only reassurance. That reassurance comes so cheaply you may question its worth—but such a question, unfortunately, is not the secret message here. And I wonder how many novels have been published in which the utterly sympathetic heroine shows off her peace of mind by forgetting her own birthday?

Rolling Stone, April 20, 1978

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