In this post I’ll be reviewing three books:  Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig, My Grandfather’s Son by Clarence Thomas and Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg.  A novel, a memoir and a right-wing screed–who says there’s no variety here?  Not you, not after today, you don’t!


Rhett Butler’s People, Donald McCaigCall me sentimental, call me a drooling simpleton, but I love me some Gone with the Wind.  It’s been a guilty pleasure of mine since I first read it in the sixth grade.  Mostly I feel guilty because it’s a romanticized portrayal of the antebellum South (and a fairly sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan), but, you know, if you can get past all that slavery and lynching stuff, it’s a really good story.  Okay, I’m the worst person who ever lived.  So sue me.  Or join me for the next paragraph.  Either way.

I’m not one of those folks who thought GWTW needed a sequel, but I’m just enough of a sucker to take one when it’s offered.  I read the first authorized (by Margaret Mitchell’s estate) sequel, Scarlett, and it was…ah, how do I put it…dumb?  It was dumb.  It might have been a good story if it had been about some other characters–but then again, the fact that it was about Scarlett O’Hara was probably its only point of real interest, so never mind. 

McCaig’s book is not really a sequel so much as “the other side of the story.”  It begins with Rhett Butler’s childhood, recounts the main events of GWTW from Rhett’s point of view, and then offers us a more satisfying resolution to the Greatest Love Story Ever Told®–assuming that you want a resolution to that story.  I think I appreciated McCaig’s writing style more than I did Alexandra Ripley’s; the book reads more like an epic than a romance, and it covers more undiscovered character-development territory by getting into Rhett Butler’s head and not so much into Scarlett’s. 

I thought the early chapters about Rhett’s family background and formative years were very engaging.  One might be tempted to roll one’s eyes at the extent to which Rhett Butler has been made more palatable for 21st-century consumption–but then again, it’s not entirely unbelievable.  He was a man ahead of his time in the original story.  So whatever.  Rehabilitate away, Mr. McCaig! 

What was disappointing was the way so many of the pivotal events in GWTW are just glossed over or alluded to without commentary.  This is not a story that stands on its own; it relies a little too much sometimes on your knowledge about the original story.  You have to buy into the Rhett-Scarlett relationship at the outset because McCaig’s development thereof consists of a few very well-written paragraphs and a whole lot of nothing in between.  There are times when one would really like to be inside Rhett Butler’s head, but instead we are inside some other random character’s head, and Rhett is just as much a mystery as he ever was.  To his credit, McCaig takes great pains not to rewrite Mitchell’s scenes, but I suspect that if he’d been writing about his own characters, there might have been a little more substance to certain portions of the story.

That said, I liked the ending quite a bit.  Believable and not stupid, just the way I like it.


My Grandfather’s Son, Clarence ThomasI vividly recall my reaction to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill debacle of yore.  I was a freshman in college, a raving liberal lunatic, and I still could not get my head around why we were putting Clarence Thomas on trial for allegedly making boorish comments about a Coke can in the presence of ladies once upon a time.  My thought was that he was either qualified to be on the Supreme Court or he wasn’t.  What this Long John Silver business was about, I did not know nor care.  Of course, I thought what they did to Bob Packwood was unseemly as well, so what did I know? 

Anyway, I didn’t watch the hearings or follow them too closely because it all seemed so freaking trivial.  Little did I know that seventeen years later I would be riveted by the Clarence Thomas story, as told in this delightful memoir! 

Okay, “delightful” may not be the most accurate term, but it is engaging nonetheless.  You’re going to think “engaging” is the only word I have for books I like, but let’s face it, it may be the only requirement that I have.  The first part of the book is devoted to Thomas’s formative years.  He was born to a single mother in rural Georgia during the Jim Crow era.  His first several years were spent in abject poverty.  Eventually his mother sent Thomas and his brother to live with her parents, who raised the two boys to adulthood.

I believe the book jacket describes the memoir as “candid and revealing,” and it is that.  Several times while reading, I thought, “Gee, he’s being awfully candid here.”  Thomas is not afraid to reveal unflattering facts about himself.  He talks about his financial problems, his disillusionment (and eventual reconciliation) with Catholicism, his struggle with alcoholism, and his failed marriage.  He also talks about his strained relationship with the man who raised him, but the overall theme of the book is that his strict upbringing and the simple values–hard work, responsibility, optimism–instilled in his childhood shaped him into the man he is today.

The last portion of the book gives a detailed account of the confirmation hearings following his nomination to the Supreme Court.  He’s still sore about that one, in case you were wondering.  Some other reviewers (like how I lump myself in with real reviewers?) have pointedly said that Thomas does not come off as bitter.  I’d say he doesn’t come off as bitter, exactly–but he clearly harbors a lingering outrage.  Of course, he denies all of Hill’s accusations, as he always has.  He had described it as a “high-tech lynching,” a term which at the time seemed to me a little over-the-top.  But looking at it from Thomas’s point of view here, I get it.  I get his years of frustration with society telling him what he, as a black man, was supposed to be and how he was supposed to think.  However, he seems very much at peace with himself now.  And who wouldn’t be, with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court?  What’s the Man gonna do now, fire him?

Anyway, you shouldn’t think you know Clarence Thomas until you read this book.  Obviously, if you don’t want to know him, you’re under no obligation.  But you might want to get your hands on a copy just so you can check out his wicked ‘fro from the 1970’s.  Word.


Liberal Fascism, Jonah GoldbergSo how many of us were taught that communism was an extreme left-wing ideology and fascism was an extreme right-wing ideology?  That one went so far to the left and the other so far to the right that they ended up meeting together in a circle, and that was why they appeared to have so much in common when in fact they were opposites?  Well, forget that jacked-up primer on fascism.  The reason fascism and communism appear to have so much in common is because they do have so much in common:  they are both authoritarian socialist ideologies.  But wait, it gets better.

In his meticulously researched and documented book, Goldberg shows how fascism arose from the same intellectual wellspring as American progressivism, i.e. the Progressive movement at the turn of the century, and how contemporary American liberalism can trace its roots directly back to its fascist origins. 

 

Yes, it is offensive—but only if you consider “fascist” a dirty word.  Prior to World War II fascism was just the latest and greatest Progressive trend.  Progressivism pretty much monopolized Western politics, and Mussolini’s fascism was hailed as a bold and largely successful progressive experiment.  “Totalitarianism” did not originate as a boot-on-the-face concept; Mussolini coined to word to express the value of a coherent, fully-integrated society which transcends the boundaries of public and private.  From the fascist perspective there is no aspect of the citizen’s life in which the state is not properly involved.  The point of government is to create a utopia for its people; the government is granted extensive powers for the sake of the greater good.

 

Fascism has a deserved reputation for militarism, which is another reason it tends to be associated with the right-wing these days.  But in fascism militarism is a means to a socialist end; it is all about mobilization.  Militarism is organized, and it provides a framework in which citizens are willing to sacrifice a few personal freedoms for the greater national good.  Fascists are on a never-ending quest for what William James called the “moral equivalent of war”—a cause great enough to convince people to put aside their petty individualism and personal liberties for the sake of peace, prosperity and security.  Think of the War on Poverty.  And yes, also the War on Drugs. 

 

If there’s a more incendiary book cover out there than that of Liberal Fascism, I’m not sure what it would be.  But this smiley-face with the Hitler mustache is also brilliant—because believe it or not, Goldberg’s point is not that today’s progressives are evil crackpots pushing us down the slippery slope to concentration camps and other assorted horrors–on the contrary, this kinder, gentler fascism has become mainstream American politics as we know it–but unless we understand how fascism informs our current political climate, we will not know how to prevent excesses (much less be vigilant in doing so).  We are all fascists now, insofar as we embrace progressivism.  (Among Republicans, this is called “compassionate conservatism.”)  And it’s not necessarily an entirely bad thing—so long as we’re aware of it.  So we don’t, you know, go all 1984 like fascists are wont to do. 

 

The striking thing about fascism is that it does not claim to be revolutionary in the sense that communism does.  It aims to find a “middle way” or “third way,” between right and left, stressing national unity over political debate.  Unity is very important to fascism, for obvious reasons.  It seeks to “get beyond politics as usual” and get results that will make meaningful differences in people’s lives.  Sound familiar?  Take-home message:  if you’re going to be paranoid about fascism coming to America, keep your eyes on the mushy middle.  America is said to be deeply divided these days, and division can be frustrating and tiresome, but this book suggests (to me) that so long as we are divided, we are probably also free.  Put that in your Medicare Part D and smoke it. 

 

Other interesting-tidbits-a propos-of-nothing that can be gleaned from this book:  Mussolini thought Hitler was kind of a loser; Margaret Sanger hated abortion; and Jonah Goldberg shops at New Seasons market.  Who knew?


Well, that does it for this edition of Mad’s book club.  Join us next time when we shall be reviewing Peyton Place, Sammy Davis Jr.’s Yes I Can and and the new, fully-illustrated and annotated Mein Kampf.  Until then, gentle readers, adieu.

Advertisements