A zeitgeist not our own: two books

I’ve written more than once about how some books are very much a product of a specific time and lose their luster once the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, changes. Two examples follow. Both of them tackle themes that are still relevant, but they’re also very much creatures of the past.

THE UGLY AMERICAN by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick was a smash bestseller in the 1950s with its slashing critique of American foreign policy in the Cold War. While there is, technically, an ugly American guy in the book, the title seems part of the critique: regular Americans, according to the authors, should be our best representatives abroad but too many Americans abroad come off .. ugly.

The book is usually described as a novel about the fight against Communism in the fictitious Asian nation of Sarkhan, but that isn’t accurate. To make their point about how we’re fighting the Reds wrong, the authors also cover anticommunist efforts in Burma and Vietnam (any book which focuses on how America can help the French hang on to their colony dates itself) which tie in only marginally to the plot. One anti-communist priest, for example, fights communism in Burma, relocates to Sarkhan, and promptly disappears from the plot. A Burmese journalist appears for one chapter to lecture the U.S. press on how they screw up covering the Cold War in the Third World, then doesn’t appear again. The book does have a sort-of narrative spine but the authors are more concerned with the Western Union polemic.

The message behind the fiction is that where the USSR trains its diplomats to understand the culture, language and customs of Sarkhan and other countries, the US does not send its best and brightest. The ambassador can’t speak the language. His staff are more interested in the good pay and free booze that came with the job. Nobody mixes with the locals or tries to figure out what they need from Uncle Sam. Several characters do try to change things but they get distracted  by smoke and mirrors or the powers that be refuse to listen and fire them. Clueless glad-handers take their place. The literal ugly American, an engineer who’s actually doing good things for the Sarkhanese, remains one of the few beacons of hope.

Like I said, the issues haven’t gone away (as the NYT notes) and this is a more readable anti-communist book than I Led Three Lives. Even so. the Cold War focus and the random narrative structure haven’t aged well.

George R.R. Martin’s 1983 novel THE ARMAGEDDON RAG did not make it onto the bestseller list; in fact it was the worst seller among all his novels (I’m curious if the recent post-Game of Thrones reissue did any better). This may be because it’s only marginally specfic and the little bit that there is could have been excised without much change. That would have pissed me off if I’d bought it in 1983; heck, it pissed me off when I read it last month.

Protagonist Sandy is a former counterculture reporter and activist (he worked for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in ’68), now a successful novelist; however his sales are slumping, he’s increasingly frustrated with fiction and way behind deadline. A former friend offers him a gig for the once-edgy magazine they cofounded (since Sandy was forced out, it’s gone from being The Village Voice to People), reporting on the murder of rock promoter Jamie Lynch. Sandy takes the gig simply because Lynch promoted the legendary band Nazgul (inspired by LOTR) which set the 1960s on fire until a random, never-caught shooter gunned down their lead singer, “Hobbit.” It soon turns out Nazgul is in some fashion tied in with the murder: the killer cut out Lynch’s heart after stretching him on a Nazgul poster to catch the blood, playing one of their classic songs as he did. And it turns out Lynch’s contract with the band meant a reunion tour was impossible unless he okayed it … and now he’s dead …

The heart of the book isn’t the mystery or the supernatural threat that manifests way too late, but Sandy staring into his navel to figure out What Went Wrong. How could he and so many of his friends become middle-class sellouts? What happened to our dreams of revolution? And why is all the rock music since the Beatles broke up so sucky and commercial ? It’s very much of a piece with the films Big Chill and Return of the Secaucus Seven, which grapple with the same questions; the first wave of Boomers were approaching forty so it’s no surprise they started angsting over what they’d done with their life. Of course every generation gets a little nostalgic for its youth — “kids these days listen to sucky music!” is a cliche — but the Baby Boom version seems very much its own thing

I honestly couldn’t give a crap about Sandy and his friends and where their lives ended up, and whether they fulfilled their potential. They’re simply not interesting enough. I might have liked it better at the time it came out, but I wouldn’t bet on it — and the marginal fantasy element would still have left me feeling cheated.

#SFWApro. Covers by Alan Haemer (toP and David Swenson (bottom), all rights to images remain with current holder.

 

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