Express Reviews 

Book briefs for the month of February

THE BUSH DYSLEXICON:Observations on a National Disorder
By Mark Crispin Miller
W. W. Norton (2001), $24.95

If this book were a bumper sticker it would read, "My child is an honor student at Such-and-Such School -- and George W. Bush is a big dummy!"

Sure, W. is hardly the sharpest knife in Barbara's drawer, and even granting his newfound "stature" as Defender of the West he's still a piss-poor Charlemagne (who actually was illiterate). With such a target -- blithely brainless, proof positive of affirmative action for dim-witted rich kids, exhibiting behavior that sent others into Chapter 11 and jail -- one hungrily anticipates one of those fish/barrel situations.

Instead comes a prolonged shriek of meritocratic agony. Anyone familiar with Miller's acerbic writing on television and TV (as professor of "media ecology" at NYU, he insists on the distinction) will first of all notice a certain stylistic slippage. Losing his McLuhanite cool, fuming and sputtering, using stuffy phrases like "low-brow antics," he comes off as an unintended caricature of the sneering liberal academic -- one who seems embarrassed, no less, on behalf of Yale! Maybe a good tactic careerwise, but nothing that should concern us groundlings.

Al Gore's another stumbling block. Miller is still pissed off about Florida (and why not?) but is repeatedly forced to acknowledge that the "opponents" were mostly battling for turf on "the usual foot-wide consensus." If Miller isn't saying that Bush/Gore's mutually agreed-upon platform merely needed a more articulate champion, what is he saying? Hard to make out anything over the impotent stamping of feet, the ineffectual grinding of teeth.

Miller is excellent on W.'s made-for-TV ethereality, good at analyzing the free pass given Bush by an ass-kissing horse-race-mesmerized punditocracy, dead wrong in seeming to think Clinton faced "near-impeachment" (he was impeached) for a "private episode" (it's the perjury, stupid). But if we're talking fish, W. is Miller's One That Got Away. As professors have long written in the margins of student papers, "Not good enough. Try again."
--David Hill

Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class
By Thaddeus Russell
Alfred A. Knopf (2001), $26

As a kid, I once saw some writing on a wall alleging that someone whose name I've since forgotten was a "friend of Teamsters, gangsters, and racketeers." Made perfect sense to me -- and I was from a union family. As Thaddeus Russell's crisp, readable Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class recounts, that was a time when US Senate hearings had made International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) president Hoffa "widely viewed as one of the most dangerous men in America."

Some said that Hoffa's original Detroit union was known to seek recognition by blowing up a company's trucks. And inter-union rivalry in Detroit grew so intense that all 3,000 employees of a Chrysler plant once walked out to protest the firing of sixteen fellow United Auto Workers (UAW) for overturning a delivery truck driven by a Teamster.

Russell feels labor historians have slighted the import of the Teamsters in the labor upsurge of the 1930s and '40s because they would rather tell what they regard as the more inspiring stories of the IBT's leftish rival unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and he is particularly disdainful of UAW president Walter Reuther's sentiment that "[I]f the labor movement is not an instrument of social change, it is nothing." Russell argues a "market theory" of union-building -- growth "was caused not by 'the industrial democracy' they [the labor historians] endorse but by the compelling power of competition both within the IBT and from rival unions." And it is true that unions have steadily declined as a percentage of the American workforce ever since the CIO's 1955 merger with the older American Federation of Labor.

But, just as the market is silent on matters of ethics, so is Russell. He believes that the Detroit Hoffa-era Teamsters' freedom from radical influences makes them "an organic product of the American working class." In this dimension, Russell calls to mind another contemporary of Hoffa's -- Alfred E. Newman: When it comes to anything other than wages, hours, and working conditions, Russell has written something of a "What me worry?" labor history. Still, it's a good, solid analysis that Russell has written.
--Tom Gallagher

Carter Beats the Devil
By Glen David Gold
Hyperion (2001), $24.95

It is a remarkable feat for an author to write about magic so that the reader is not only marveling at stunts but enthralled by the writing. Gold has accomplished this crowd-pleasing combination in his irresistible first novel, Carter Beats the Devil. Set in the Bay Area of the 1920s, the novel treats us to, among other things, the spectacle of Carter, the great magician, walking his lion baby around Lake Merritt; a speakeasy in San Francisco nicknamed "the nose" because of its location right under police headquarters; and vivid glimpses of the Orpheum and Curran theaters in their heyday.

The book opens with President Harding's mysterious death immediately following his attendance at a San Francisco performance of Carter the Great. Right away we are given a dose of Gold's delightful prose: "Carter, who frequently had to size a man up in an instant, saw something more dismal. He remembered an unfortunate creature he'd seen in New Zealand: a parrot that had evolved with no natural enemies. Happy, colorful, it had lost the ability to fly and instead walked on the ground, fat and waddling slowly, with no sense that anyone could mean it ill."

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