This Week's Reads

Alan Hollinghurst, David Rees, and Thomas Frank

The Line of Beauty

By Alan Hollinghurst (Bloomsbury, $24.95) With his three previous novels, Alan Hollinghurst earned a reputation as an exacting writer with a gift for portraying the search for love, sex, and beauty. With his fourth —just announced as the winner of Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize—he lambastes these desires in a tale that is plangent and funny, and perfectly written. Set between the English elections of 1983 and 1987, Beauty concerns Nick Guest, a 21-year-old Oxford graduate who accepts the invitation to move into the posh Notting Hill mansion of his former classmate, Toby Fedden, and his family. In addition to being Nick's fantasy love interest, Toby is also the son of a Tory MP at a time when the conservatives are sweeping to power. This living arrangement is made rather awkward byNick's blossoming as a young gay man in London. He finds a black lover and takes to calling Toby's sister "darling." The Feddens attempt to seem enlightened, and Nick does his very best to keep his private behavior out of view. The pressure and fizz of all this social collusion makes Beauty an intoxicating read. Nothing escapes Hollinghurst's awareness, especially when it occurs inside Nick's head. When the Feddens return from their country home in France, Nick is briefly lulled into believing he's a part of their family. Hollinghurst writes: "Their return marked the end of his custodianship, and his real pleasure in seeing them again was stained with a kind of sadness he associated with adolescence, sadness of time flying and missed opportunities. He was keen for a word of gratitude to ease the mysterious ache." But he is not one of the Fedden family. As Nick evolves from a virgin naïf to a coke-addled party boy with a millionaire Lebanese boyfriend, Beauty becomes less a study in class than in how those on the margins of Thatcherite London were tainted by that period's ecstatic vacuity. (Indeed, Nick even finds himself dancing at a party with Maggie herself.) Without stooping to caricature, Beauty recalls Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh's scurrilous satire of frantic party people oblivious to the gathering storm clouds of World War II. While Waugh had wars as his bookends, Hollinghurst has elections. Both are observed from the perspective of outsiders at first overcome by, then disgusted with, the glamorous society to which they're given entrée. Throughout, Nick remains obsessed with style, beauty, and fabulous sex. It takes a delicate hand to poke fun at such fetishization while being (genuinely) stylish as a writer, but Hollinghurst pulls it off. Each sentence rings as perfect and true as a Schubert sonata. But Hollinghurst isn't jeering at his protagonist or belittling an inferior aesthetic. Even as Beauty dives toward its crushing finale, and AIDS puts an end to Nick's impetuous sexuality, Hollinghurst retains a wincing affection for his protagonist. Nick is simply caught up in a moment larger than himself and reaches for beauty as one does a life buoy. Over the course of this beautiful and very funny novel, Nick learns how that instinct can also lead to drowning. JOHN FREEMAN Get Your War On II

By David Rees (Riverhead, $12) A cursory scan of the funny pages yields exactly one comic strip with a snarling antiwar conscience: Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks. Yet a cursory scan of the Boondocks canon yields exactly no characters who ponder the following: "Fuckin' Freedom Fries??? OK, I have a question—is the War on Terrorism over? Because I sure as hell want to know that ALL THE TERRORISTS IN THE WORLD HAVE BEEN CAPTURED before legislators actually take the time to rename their GODDAMN CAFETERIA FOOD!" Such is the withering id of David Rees, the raconteur behind clip-art cult classics My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable and My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable. As uproarious and groundbreaking as those minimalist collections are, it's obvious why his Get Your War On series of comic strips— often reprinted in the suddenly revitalized Rolling Stone—will go down as his legacy. Although profane bluster is their stock in trade, Rees' interchangeable office-drone facsimiles occasionally drop their ironic facades and eloquently voice real-world fears about America's increasingly hypocritical and grotesque foreign-policy rhetoric. Dating from late September of 2002 to early July of this year, GYWO II satirizes every Middle East misstep from the onset of "Operation: Enduring Our Freedom to Bomb the Living Fuck Out of You" to the Ahmad Chalabi/Judith Miller scandal in which The New York Times "bravely chose to believe in Iraqi intelligence when others didn't have the courage to dream." The strip is light on topical exposition, heavy on sardonic, abstract analysis. North Korea is visually represented by an exuberant CEO sporting the country's geographic outline as its head, and Rees slyly introduces a few incompetently sketched and plotted GYWOs as a damning parallel to Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the Iraqi conflict. As usual, all of the book's profits will be donated to Afghan land mine relief; for all his foul-mouthed fatalism, Rees is more difference maker than Dilbert clone. ANDREW BONAZELLI What's the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

By Thomas Frank (Metropolitan, $24) Why should we care about Kansas and its six inevitably red electoral votes? By the time you read this, the presidential election will either be decided or destined for court snarls lasting till Christmas. Native Kansan and editor of The Baffler Thomas Frank argues that the state is a bellwether for the nation: "Politically, Kansas is what the marketing boys call an 'early adopter,' a state where the various ideological nostrums of the day—from Free Love to Prohibition, utopian communism to the John Birch Society—were embraced quickly and ardently." According to convention, Kansas is also a barometer for the average, the blue-collar masses, Reagan's silent majority—a received wisdom that conservative talking heads and politicians repeat as gospel. Using the state as a microcosm, Frank describes "the Great Backlash" among those left behind economically and eager for an explanation why prosperity doesn't trickle down. He attempts to determine what transformed Kansas—once comparatively populist and progressive, even a leader for abortion rights and women's suffrage—into a state that produces things like Bob Dole, derelict-farm-machinery art that decries the atrocities of the EPA, and shortsighted free-market hallucinations of selling off its national parks and freeway systems to the highest bidders. Essentially, the Great Backlash is the idea that the common man is economically and socially oppressed by some nebulous, all-powerful liberal elite. Not surprisingly, said "latte-sipping, Volvo- driving" elite is only disparaged in cultural—not class—terms. The common man is authentic, humble, and victimized; the liberal elite is effete, bossy, and self-important. While it's tempting to think of this divide as a red-and-blue state schism, Frank actually spends a number of pages dispelling that oversimplification: "[The] idea appeared to many in the media to be a scientific validation of this familiar stereotype, and before long it was a standard element of the media's pop-sociology repertoire." On a cultural level, however, Frank reminds us that backlash purveyors like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and George W. Bush have more in common with this supposed liberal elite than with the common folk they purport to represent. Yet these backlashers claim that liberal ideas—social programs, environmental protection, labor rights, government mediation in economic affairs—result in oppressively higher taxes on the working class. And their solutions—unfettered capitalism, smaller government, lower taxes—have brought economic ruin to Kansas' working class, according to Frank. He also lays some blame on the Dems. Starting around the time Clinton's New Democrats embraced the WTO and free trade (siding with the Republican camp), farmers, factory workers, and rust-belt types lost the last of the traditional protections from FDR and the New Deal, leaving them with nothing but values to cling to. Meanwhile, the Great Backlash successfully hides its economic agenda, which favors the already wealthy donor class, with the pro-life crusade, gun rights, opposition to gay marriage, and other social issues. (To these conservative rallying cries, of course, the War on Terror has recently been added.) Thus, much of working-class Kansas has swung even farther right than the state's moderate Republicans. Apart from economics, Frank maintains that the goal of the Great Backlash "is not to win cultural battles, but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic of backlash culture." But the ultimate impossibility in our divided electorate of realizing backlash goals—from privatizing everything to overturning Roe v. Wade—excuses its figureheads from ever tangibly benefiting their followers. If he falls short of 270 electoral votes, at least Bush won't be able to ask Kansas to go through four more years on faith. GRANT BRISSEY

 
comments powered by Disqus