NOT TO MUSCLE in on a subject ably treated elsewhere (“The Politics of Blood ” page 102), but when it comes to the season for presents, books rightfully should I known as the gift that keeps on giving. I still have a copy of Huckleberry Finn, a gift from my eighth Christmas, and every time I reopen its yellowing pages I remember that first wondrous trip down the Mississippi-and marvel at how much Mark Twain has learned since then. Books do furnish a room, but better than that, books furnish a mind with something more durable than the daily headlines and the trivia of television For the reader in your life, then, some worthwhile books from 1984. Give, and your gift may renew itself for years to come.
The Kennedys: An American Drama by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (Summit Books, $21.95)
Of the making of Kennedy books there seems no end, although if two authors were ever close to writing finis beneath the Kennedy saga, Collier and Horowitz are very close indeed. Their second multigenera-tional study of an American dynasty (following The Rockefellers) does have its flaws, which stand out because there are so few of them. They retrace some much-trodden ground at tedious length, or so it seems to a veteran Kennedy-watcher. We hear once again of the “stand-in” mentality that led John Kennedy to “replace” his brother, Joe, who was killed in the war; Bobby to replace the slain president; and Teddy to try, fitfully, to take up the mantle of Camelot after his fallen brothers. But Collier and Horowitz are as powerless as a string of writers before them to fill in the odd lacunae in JFK’s life: How and why did he change from the idling young Congressman who loved to toss a football around the office to the tough-minded president who stood eyeball-to-eyeball with Khruschev during the missile crisis? And they are perhaps too ready to accept the myth of Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch as Svengali. Whenever JFK takes some quantum jump toward power, the authors are likely to explain it away as more of the senior Kennedy’s back-room machinations, often without quoting any source as proof.
But these are small matters when seen in the context of this duo’s achievement. Like no writers before them, Collier and Horowitz have rubbed away the mythic glow of the Kennedys to reveal this fascinating, all-too-human clan. Theirs is not an effort of mere debunking, however. (A cynic might add that following the trenchant work of Garry Wills in The Kennedy Imprisonment, there is little left to debunk.) By stressing the generational linkages (and lack thereof) that shaped the Kennedy family and their fete, the authors give us this American family as we have not seen it before.
“The Kennedy family has become a sort of Manichaean battleground where the first casualty is truth.” That line, a comment on the problems the authors had in interviewing the older Kennedys, introduces a key theme of the book. The Kennedy image, we are told, and the drive for power that depended on that image remaining pristine, overrode all other concerns in the family. The Kennedys are painted as a family driven outward into the world-into politics-to escape the demons within them. Dominated by politics as a way of proving self-worth, the Kennedys jettison the “losers” of the family when they threaten to become political liabilities: the mentally deficient Rosemary, whisked away to a convent and described in family hagiography as “shy and retiring,” never retarded; and the pathetic David, Robert’s son, who never recovered from watching his father killed on television when he was 13. (David died of a drug overdose shortly after this book was published.) For the authors, the political metaphor is all-encompassing: When Bobby Jr., Joseph and other young Kennedys began vandalizing property and staging gross “accidents” in the streets of Hyannisport (“You’ve killed a Kennedy!” they would shout at shocked motorists), they were told by their elders that they were alienating the people of the town. Fifteen-year-old Bobby snapped back: “them. They tried to keep Grandpa from buying a place here and never wanted us. We never got a vote from them.”
The Kennedys: An American Drama is most illuminating about the career of Robert F. Kennedy, especially in explaining his almost fanatical hatred of organized crime. Collier and Horowitz portray RFK as the real conscience of the family, a devoted husband and father who shunned the philandering that came so easily to John and Teddy. They make plain Bobby’s anguish upon learning (from the FBI) that President Kennedy was having an affair with Judith Campbell, who was also the mistress of Mafia boss Sam Giancana. Such knowledge gave J. Edgar Hoover power over the Kennedys and thwarted Bobby, who as attorney general had hoped to fire Hoover and hire a more liberal-and malleable-FBI director.
The authors gloss over the well-known events during which the Kennedys’ destiny intertwined with that of the nation. The Cuban missile crisis gets three pages, the assassinations scarcely more. Chappaquidick is almost ignored. Instead, they tell a story the television cameras never brought us, and the result is just what we have needed: a mostly objective account of a family whose own passions and will to power led them to greatness and to destruction. This book ends in a kind of hiatus; the older Kennedys are either dead, withdrawn, or, in the case of Teddy, no longer interested in ultimate power at any cost. The younger Kennedys and their in-laws (called “the lost boys” by the authors) now face their thirties, having inherited the Kennedy name but not the aura of Camelot. “They can’t make it happen anymore,” a bitter Bobby Shriver says. “That’s what’s changed, and we might as well admit it.” According to one’s politics, that is either a blessing or a curse. But nobody can deny that the Kennedys are actors in an American drama, an American tragedy.
Partners by Veronica Geng. (Harper & Row, $13.95.)
Veronica Geng’s humor is like a subtler, more thoughtful version of the old Laugh-In show. Ifs not all good, but there’s so much of it coming at you so fast that you easily forget the bad stuff and laugh at the good. The chuckles start with “Report From Your Congressman,” a wondrous send-up of those tedious “Letters from Washington” we all get. Geng exaggerates-but not by much- the efforts of a do-nothing legislator to inflate his importance and hang on at the public trough. She produces a masterful parody of sonorous nonsense:
I want you to know how firmly I have urged you to support me, and how deeply I appreciate the authority you have vested in me to exceed my authority. As your Representative, I played a cameo role in last year’s Legislative Session, during which a substantial number of new laws were enacted under or near my sponsorship or with my vigorous opposition.
Among the Rep’s other achievements, he proudly reports a phone call to the Bureau des Elections in Paris, in which he asked whether the French government intended to hold “full, free and democratic” elections in the near future. The puff is accompanied by a picture of the congressman with officials of the Bell Telephone company, which placed the call.
Geng has the mind of the natural humorist, meaning that she makes odd juxtapositions and connections between the sublime and the ridiculous that the rest of us might miss. Take “James at an Awkward Age,” for instance. Remember the old television series James at 16? Geng imagines Henry James, the mandarin stylist famous for his murky prose, in a typical suburban high school:
Minny: Anyway, see, could you help me maybe study on Saturday, you know, night?
James: Would it be a, then, kept date? I mean, the charm of the thing half residing in the thing itself s having been determined in advance, and in consequence, all intentionally and easily and without precipitant hassle, or bummer, taking finally, in fact, place?
To be sure, some of Geng’s work reflects its place of origin in the rarefied atmosphere of The New Yorker, the in-grouper’s in-magazine. Some of these sketches are obviously intended to be satires (“Partners,” or “Buon Giorno, Big Shot”), but perhaps they are meant for Manhattanites only. In the main, though, Geng’s ear is sound for the small absurdities of the Eighties. Besides psycho- and politico-babble, she understands the foibles of the consumer society, tossing off little barbs like “Gulf and West-em University Press” and her pop-music guide to Watergate, in which Tricky Dick’s last waltz is replayed like a discography, with the fate of the Watergate 500 traced through albums such as Nixon, Dean and Haldeman: the Benefit Concert and Nixon and Dean: The Dean Farewell Tour. (“You want soulful resignation, they’ve got soulful resignation.”) Geng’s madness is given method by her overarching theme of partnership. However we differ on the surface, she is saying, we helplessly join together to form the odd mosaic of our time.
Organized Crimes by Nicholas von Hoffman. (Harper & Row, $14.95.)
Is it a compliment or a curse to say that a book “deserves to be a movie”? Depends. But bet on seeing this popular columnist’s first novel translated to the screen in short order. How can Hollywood resist? Set in Chicago when the Capone mob ruled, Organized Crimes blends the slapstick and the somber in a mélange just made for the silver screen: Little Guy (Allan Archibald, a college student writing a master’s thesis on organized crime) falls in with Big Thugs (like “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, a veteran of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) and schlemiel that he is, falls into an affair with McGurn’s friendly wife. He’s also seeing a fellow student, Irena, whose feelings for him are more than skin deep. Much of the book’s appeal comes from that most Hollywooden device of placing our fictional heroes smack-dab in the middle of real-life, scary events such as the mob’s assassination of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. That toddlin’ town, Chicago, now enjoys yet another scribe to sing its praises and embellish its tawdry history. See you at the movies.
The Dixie Association by Donald Hays. (Simon & Schuster, $16.95.)
Yes, we’ve praised this book before, and we’re glad to do it again. It was our early pick for baseball book of the year, and now that it’s survived the playoffs, we’re here to cheer once more. The Dixie Association is a life-crammed, funny and wise novel about a raunchy hodgepodge of a minor league baseball team and the one season they put it all together. If you’re buying a Christmas book for a baseball lover, this is the one but it would be a great read for someone who didn’t know first base from left field. Hays’ book is about baseball the way Moby Dick is about whaling. The games happen, batting averages rise and fall, but this brilliant first novel is really a paean to the undying spirit of rebellion that created this country. Picture a team managed by Lefty Marks, a one-armed socialist and commune-ist whose star players are Bullet Bob Turner, an alcoholic knuckleballer; Genghis Mohammed Jr., a fanatical Black Muslim with a fiendish curve ball; a couple of Cubans on loan from Castro; the enigmatic, silent Eversole, the team’s best pitcher; and sundry other oddballs, fading veterans and wild men of various stripes. The narrator is Hog Durham, ex-con and first baseman, who must worry about his parole officer as well as enemy pitchers. But in spite of this lineup, the author manages much more than farce. What Hog Durham says of Eversole’s perfect game might be said of this near-perfect book: “It was pure baseball, pure art, and changed nothing but that one night, when a man’s right arm delivered us all for a while from ourselves and the mean world made by men who, in the name of God and money, conspired to keep us at one another’s throats.” With this book, Donald Hays joins baseball’s literary Hall of Fame.
Enderby’s Dark Lady by Anthony Burgess. (McGraw-Hill, $14.95.)
It happened to Sherlock Holmes, and now it’s happened to another popular protagonist of English fiction: Enderby, Burgess’s fictional stand-in who (we thought) met his demise in The Clockwork Testament. Wrong, faithful reader. Enderby’s back for a fourth time to carry the banner of his creator against the outrages of modern culture, especially the disregard of the masses for colorful-or at least precise-language. The prolific Burgess, who has made no secret of his disdain for we former-colonists, dispatches his born-again hero to Indiana, circa 1976, with a script for a musical based on Shakespeare’s life. Somehow this is intended to celebrate America’s bicentennial, though just how is never made clear. But then, neither is Enderby’s miraculous resurrection ever explained. And who cares? The results are hilarious and thought-provoking. The cast of the musical is wildly incompetent and lurches toward disaster from the first day of rehearsals until the fiasco of opening night. Along the way, En-derby falls in love with a torch singer who plays Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady (she’s black). They’re hopelessly incompatible, but Enderby’s comic, pathetic wooing is just one reason why his revival was a good idea.
The Temptation To Do Good by Peter F. Drucker. (Harper & Row, $14.50.)
How appropriate that this novel would appear in a political year riven by church-state conflicts, during which politicians sparred over the insinuation of the state into matters of faith-and faith into matters of state. Peter Drucker, one of the most lucid philosophers of business (no, that’s not an oxymoron), knows corporate structure as few others do, and that knowledge gives strength to this novel. Yet Drucker’s tale is not set in a company, but in the mythical St. Jerome University, practically the creation of one Father Zimmerman, who has fought to give his school an intellectual integrity second to none. Over the years he has bested numerous critics who sought to subordinate learning to dogma. Zimmerman’s troubles begin when he fires a teacher who is long on faith but short on classroom skills; the teacher’s wife spreads vicious rumors that Zimmerman is sleeping with his assistant and becoming partial to Jews and Protestants on the faculty. It is here that Drucker’s corporate acumen serves him well; he depicts the ensuing power struggle as more akin to a hostile takeover of an oil company than a dispute over a man’s integrity and a university’s mission.
Budding Prospects: A Pastoral by T. Cor-aghessan Boyle. (Viking, $16.95.)
One of the real pleasures of reading is tracking the development into maturity of a rich young talent like Boyle, whose first two books (Water Music and Descent of Man) both had ample doses of the right stuff. The bursting energy of Boyle’s prose, perhaps restrained by the brevity of his earlier works, now has room to crackle in this modern pastoral, which bears about as much resemblance to the traditional pastoral as the protagonist’s original well-laid scheme (a lucrative marijuana-growing business) does to the bizarre events that doom the enterprise. Between drinking and sampling the crop with a crew of bawdy hangers-on, and battling pot-loving bears, vicious state troopers and reactionary neighbors, the would-be entrepreneurs never bring their pipe dreams to reality or their crop to fruition. But they do have megafun along the way, and so does the reader.