Undercover: Mad Bombers, Lunatics, Victims, and Exiles (01/15/76)

The Doonesbury Chronicles by G.B. Trudeau (Holt, Rinehart and Winston paperback, $6.95). Trudeau, who when he gets to heaven will likely be battling it out with George Herriman (creator of Krazy Kat) for the cloud awarded to the best newspaper comic strip artist in the history of Western Civilization (the truth is, they’ll probably collaborate), has much to answer for as regards this oversized collection. I admit it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read all year; that it made me teary-eyed as well as laugh out loud (a Pentagon spokesman providing a rationale for new bombing raids on Hanoi: “Well, why not? You know? I mean, what the heck”); and that 572 strips, Sunday color spreads included, is a fair deal for the money. But what about Marvelous Mark’s run-in with Frank Rizzo? His lunch with Kissinger at McDonald’s? Nixon’s trial resignation speech (“I come to you tonight, dying as I am of terminal illness…”)? I could go on in protest of Trudeau’s callous omission of my favorites, but unfortunately my favorites include most of what he does. (In the interest of critical credibility, I will add that the Gladys Knight strip is truly witless.)

Oh, well, go buy the book. And imagine what wonders await us, with Reagan in the race.

The Politics of Rape: The Victim’s Perspective by Diana H. Russell (Stein & Day paperback, $3.95). Forget the main title; the subtitle is the accurate description of this collection of extensively detailed and widely divergent interviews with rape victims—a striking contrast to the snippets of personal testimony offered in so many works on the subject. Included are accounts concerning the rape of an elderly woman, a first-person voice rarely heard; of a wife by her husband; the rape of a light-skinned black woman by a black man (who apparently used her as a surrogate for white women); of a white radical by a black man; of a child by her father; and many more. There are as well interviews with two rapists, one of which—concerning a man who essentially prosecutes his own case and recalls with incredulity the obsequious treatment he received from the cops who arrested him—is a revelation. Virtually ignored when first published in hardback last year, and framed by a lucid, tough-minded analysis by Russell, this is probably the best introduction to rape now in print.

Leave it to PSmith by P.G. Wodehouse (Vintage paperback, $1.95). The British may not know how to pronounce “raunchy” but they sure know how to say “marvelous,” Bob Dylan once opined. That may be a good epitaph for P.G. Wodehouse, who died early this year after making his name and fortune with tales of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves the Butler, and other seigneurs and survivors of the British class system at its most rarefied. I’d forgotten how funny his books are (Vintage has just reissued three, Penguin six, all at $1.95 a throw); Leave It to Psmith, a 1924 intrigue with a typically illuminating preface by Wilfrid Sheed, concerns an absurdly likable con man passing himself off as a poet at Blandings Castle, where Lord Emsworth, one of England’s more pointless peers, holds court when he can remember which room he left his head in. “His lordship was no novice in the symptoms of insanity,” writes Wodehouse, explicating a bit of plot. “Several of his best friends were residing in those palatial establishments set in pleasant parks and surrounded by high walls with broken bottles on them, to which the wealthy and aristocratic are wont to retire when the strain of modern life becomes too great. And one of his uncles by marriage, who believed that he was a loaf of bread, had made the first public statement on the matter in the smoking-room of this very castle. What Lord Emsworth did not know about lunatics was not worth knowing.”

What Wodehouse did not know about satire is not worth knowing either, one would guess. Anyone wasting his time with the National Lampoon when Wodehouse is available has every right to feel ashamed.

Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play by Carlene Hatcher Polite (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $8.95). I never thought I’d say, “This book was written in two days flat and reads like it,” and mean it as a compliment, but the voice of this short novel is so sure that such praise seems not only correct but necessary. The story concerns a day in the life of Abyssinia and Black Will, two black American exiles in Paris, as they confront the queer death of their friend Sister X trying, by talking, raging, hating, loving, signifying, blaspheming, to hold on to the life they recognized in Sister X and thus keep themselves alive. One feels great exhilaration (and sometimes equal impatience) as Polite experiments with her language, driving her characters through the book; sometimes the writing misses and sometimes it hits very hard “Vanity had long ago split,” Polite says simply of Abyssinia as she is seen by Black Will. “Nothing about her looked alive anymore.”

And here are Black Will and Abyssinia trying to dream their way out of the trap Polite has set for her victims of foul play: “Grits and the Rainbowe. The Rainbowe was supposedly the name of the first ship to be officially, whitefully recorded as ‘that’ slave ship which brought the first boatload of us directly to America, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave… The SS Black Will shall use slavemasters’ blood as engine fuel. The great white mother will fiutterkick as the fantail. A deadweight racist fascist pig will be dropped as anchor. The child to whom ‘they’ have passed on their ideology will be strapped to the hull.

“All aboard. All ashore who’s going ashore. Toot toot toot toot.”

Rolling Stone, January 15, 1976

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