Roger Miller

It is all quite mad. In Them: Adventures with Extremists British journalist Jon Ronson follows a number of characters, including Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Syrian living in London, whose loudly stated goal is a holy war on Britain, the country that shelters him.Omar, who calls himself Osama bin Laden's man in London, stands around on street corners handing out leaflets and shouting things like "Be careful from homosexuality. It is not good for your tummy," though that is the least of his imprecations. It makes him sound winsome, which he is not. During the time Ronson spends with him (the late 1990s), Omar collects money for terrorist groups, calls for fatwas (death threats) against infidels and would gladly see Britain made into an Islamic nation by force.He lives off welfare money given him by the British government and cheerfully admits he uses British political and civil rights in order to try and destroy them. He gloats over American deaths on Sept. 11, and only when the government threatens to deport him does he begin to backpedal and squeal to Ronson that, of course, everyone knows he's just a clown and not to be taken seriously.Omar is among the more potentially dangerous loose cannons popping off in Ronson's entertaining and disquieting book about extremists in the United States and Europe. They are a varied lot, united in nothing yet sharing a common belief in a conspiracy of "Them," an elite group that rules the world by meeting in a secret room somewhere to decide such monumental issues as when to start wars, who gets elected president or prime minister, and how to control global financial systems.The only thing more startling than that is: Could the extremists be right? Ronson travels down byways both creepy and comical that make him doubt, if not his sanity, then the extremists' lunacy.Take, for instance, the Bilderberg Group, universally dismissed as every extremist's favorite fantasy. If it's a fantasy, then why does Denis Healey, retired British Labor cabinet minister, heartily hail its existence and its goals – including the desire to eliminate extremist groups?Is it benign? Then why all the sinister cloak – if – not – exactly – dagger stuff that Ronson and another fellow are subjected to when they try to scout out Bilderberg's annual meeting in Portugal and watch, open – mouthed, as cars carrying "many of the world's most powerful people" roll past them to a meeting that no one will admit is taking place?Or take David Icke, a former sports journalist in Britain who has given himself over to the task of warning about a conspiracy to create a New World Order, with the additional information that its leaders are genetically descended from 12 – foot lizards. If he is so loony, why do so many establishment groups go to such lengths to demonize him and cancel his appearances?Are "they" doing it? What do "they" have to fear? Well into his book, Ronson writes, "My rationality had suffered a tremendous blow, and I now no longer knew what was possible and what was not."Despite his confusion, the author continues his journeys, traveling from Ruby Ridge to an auction of Nicolae Ceausescu's shoes. Ronson finally ends up in the forests of northern California, where he sneaks into an opulently appointed sylvan glade to observe putative leaders of the New World Order at play: scores of well – known politicians and wealthy businessmen, sometimes naked, prancing about, urinating on trees, and attending the ritual burning of an owl image. Whether it's sinister or simply sophomoric, Ronson wonders: The Branch Davidians were a cult and this is not?It is all quite mad. "Thank God I don't believe in the secret rulers of the world," Ronson says. "Imagine what the secret rulers of the world might do to me if I did!"

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book editor and columnist, is a marketing writer in Wisconsin.

It is all quite mad. In Them: Adventures with Extremists British journalist Jon Ronson follows a number of characters, including Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Syrian living in London, whose loudly stated goal is a holy war on Britain, the country that shelters him.Omar, who calls himself Osama bin Laden's man in London, stands around on […]

There are allusions to the Salem witch trials in Daniel Akst's The Webster Chronicle, but the witch hunt it more precisely reflects is the McMartin Preschool case of the 1980s, in which operators of and teachers at a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were accused of ritual, satanic sexual abuse of children. Nowhere does the author make reference to that infamous case, but the events of his novel, which begin in November 1985, parallel it closely.

If you do not remember the McMartin case, that would fit in neatly with one of the lessons of this splendid and disturbing novel: lives that are cruelly and almost whimsically destroyed are then adding insult to injury quickly forgotten.

Some novels can be said to operate at a white-hot intensity of anger or rage. The Webster Chronicle operates at a sub-arctic level of loathing and disgust for the nearly universal venality it describes.

Chief agent of the loathing is Terry Mathers, an ex-big time newspaperman who edits the weekly Webster Chronicle in the college town of Webster (in, apparently, New York). Terry's wife, Abigail, from whom he is intermittently estranged, is publisher. Terry's father, Maury, is an overweening network television commentator who casts a shadow that Terry can't escape.

The spiral of venality and destruction begins with a spanking incident at the Alphabet Soup preschool in Webster. It shouldn't have happened, even if the boy who received the spanking was a nasty little piece of work, but it did, and from it spins a tornado of rumors and accusations and, ultimately, criminal charges. All, save the spanking, are utterly without foundation.

There are no white hats, except possibly for a fundamentalist preacher a surprise in itself, fundamentalist preachers, admirable or otherwise, being as rare in mainstream American novels as archbishops in Afghanistan.

Carefully, character by character, strand by strand, Akst weaves his rope of venality. Half the town uses the developing scandal for his or her own purposes. One woman uses it to deflect blame for her part in causing her daughter's death in an auto accident. Another woman wants to strike back at a disappointing life. A man falsely accuses his ex-wife to ruin her.

To the district attorney, the case is nothing but headlines that will help him win the governorship. To Terry's father, it's a chance to jump-start a flagging career. A child-abuse "expert" cares only about prevailing, no matter what the evidence or consequences.

The chief irony is that, away from the preschool, sexual abuse of children has been and is going on, all unnoticed. Adult sexual affairs flourish as the green bay tree, making Webster a kind of down-market Updike community.

Not even Terry escapes. First on one side of the issue, then on the other, he never redeems himself, but ends up, seemingly effortlessly and unwillingly, feathering his own nest out of the wreckage of the scandal.

The rope, eventually, hangs the persecuted preschool teachers. Their suffering, in prison and out, is terrible and goes totally unsuccored. One imprisoned woman's "sense of cosmic abandonment" stands for all. If you want to find a comparison to Salem, here would be the point.

Terry, however volitionless he appears, has more than a sneaking suspicion about what's at the bottom of it all. It is the decline of family life again, an issue that, for the modern novel, is about as unchic as a fundamentalist preacher. Yet it is a message as clear as if sent by Western Union. Terry had hoped that by moving to Webster he could keep his family from disintegrating the way his parents' had.

It didn't work. Even in Webster he and Abigail knew only "one or two still-married people." In the scandal's early stages, frazzled parents choose to ignore the rumors because they need the preschool so desperately.

"I think Webster s-sees its s-sins as child neglect, family dissolution, sexual obsession, lack of faith," concludes Terry, who suffers from stuttering.

One of the teachers, Emily, says upon getting out of prison, "I'm not worried. The world can't stay this bad forever." Oh, Emily.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

 

There are allusions to the Salem witch trials in Daniel Akst's The Webster Chronicle, but the witch hunt it more precisely reflects is the McMartin Preschool case of the 1980s, in which operators of and teachers at a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were accused of ritual, satanic sexual abuse of children. Nowhere does the […]

Like Mark Twain, I have a whole library of books not by Jane Austen. Though my knuckleheadedness in not being able to appreciate Ms. Austen is as incurable as it is inexcusable, I can appreciate the fanatical devotion of her admirers, because I feel almost the same way about Dawn Powell.

Just as the Janeites cannot understand why everyone doesn't fall under the spell of their adored one, so do I find it unfathomable that a Dawn Powell novel is not in the hands of every literate person in the country. Alas, the truth is that the coterie of Dawnites remains fairly small, despite periodic attempts to boost her.

The latest noble effort is by the Library of America, which has brought out a two-volume collection of her novels under the supervision of Tim Page, Powell's biographer and editor of her collected letters. The two new volumes are Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942 and Dawn Powell: Novels 1944-1962, each $35. Anyone seeking to discover one of the most twinkling wits and deftest satirists of 20th century America can find her here.

They will also discover one of the keenest chroniclers of Midwestern small-town life, because Powell's 15 novels (nine of which are included here) fall into two camps: Those set in Ohio (Powell's native state) in the early 20th century, and those set in the sophisticated Manhattan world of artists, writers and actors from the 1930s through the 1950s. Both are autobiographical, the former more heavily so.

While the Manhattan novels are unquestionably wittier urban pretensions and disputes seem to offer readier targets than rural the Ohio novels are far from being simple accounts of grim life on the late Middle Border. The human comedy is no less comical among the bumpkins than among the glitterati.

For instance, in My Home Is Far Away, probably the most directly autobiographical of all, the mother in a family dies, and three young girls are left to the untender mercies of their feckless father, a blustery, hail-fellow-well-met type who believes possessions can cure any woe, though he has neither possessions nor the gumption to acquire them.

The girls are bounced from pillar to post, from relative to relative, including their grandma, whose nurturing is less than fussy. Grandma has a brother, Wally, whose daughters and sons refused to take him in because, they claimed, he had turned Unitarian in his travels. Later, when one of the daughters breaks down and takes him in, she makes him sleep in the barn, where after not showing up for meals for a couple of days he is found dead, and the horses wouldn't touch the hay for days. When Midwestern provincials get to New York which journey, Edmund Wilson wrote, is Powell's essential theme they (and we) find life no less piquant. Angels on Toast is my favorite of the Manhattan novels, but A Time to Be Born is worth a special look because of the way in which characters can be traced to real personages familiar to Powell.

Like Angels, A Time to Be Born concerns a set of characters who use, and scramble over, each other to achieve their ends in life and love. It employs a catalog opening, a trademark of Powell's, in which she lists happenings, trends, things in the air, to set the scene.

The story line, too, is standard Powell, and in its basics is nothing more than feuding and fussing over men or, in a word, sex. (Compared to Powell women, Powell men seem more passive than predatory, though they rarely pass up goods on offer.) Men and women want women and men who want other men and women a constant mismatching, until everyone begins to wonder if his or her original choice was wrong.

The chief predatory female is Amanda Keeler Evans, supposedly based on Clare Boothe Luce, who uses her ruthless but somewhat dopey husband, a publishing magnate, to further her career. As in other Powell novels, other characters have real-life models, such as Andrew Callingham, a Hemingway figure.

In My Home, the girls' grandpa, an enthusiastic if undiscriminating reader, says, If books was anything like real life nobody'd want to waste time reading 'em. I'm afraid Powell is using grandpa to pull our leg. There's no time wasted in reading these and other highly lifelike novels collected here: Dance Night; Come Back to Sorrento; Turn, Magic Wheel; The Locusts Have No King; The Wicked Pavilion and The Golden Spur.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

 

Like Mark Twain, I have a whole library of books not by Jane Austen. Though my knuckleheadedness in not being able to appreciate Ms. Austen is as incurable as it is inexcusable, I can appreciate the fanatical devotion of her admirers, because I feel almost the same way about Dawn Powell. Just as the Janeites […]

Like Mark Twain, I have a whole library of books not by Jane Austen. Though my knuckleheadedness in not being able to appreciate Ms. Austen is as incurable as it is inexcusable, I can appreciate the fanatical devotion of her admirers, because I feel almost the same way about Dawn Powell.

Just as the Janeites cannot understand why everyone doesn't fall under the spell of their adored one, so do I find it unfathomable that a Dawn Powell novel is not in the hands of every literate person in the country. Alas, the truth is that the coterie of Dawnites remains fairly small, despite periodic attempts to boost her.

The latest noble effort is by the Library of America, which has brought out a two-volume collection of her novels under the supervision of Tim Page, Powell's biographer and editor of her collected letters. The two new volumes are Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942 and Dawn Powell: Novels 1944-1962, each $35. Anyone seeking to discover one of the most twinkling wits and deftest satirists of 20th century America can find her here.

They will also discover one of the keenest chroniclers of Midwestern small-town life, because Powell's 15 novels (nine of which are included here) fall into two camps: Those set in Ohio (Powell's native state) in the early 20th century, and those set in the sophisticated Manhattan world of artists, writers and actors from the 1930s through the 1950s. Both are autobiographical, the former more heavily so.

While the Manhattan novels are unquestionably wittier urban pretensions and disputes seem to offer readier targets than rural the Ohio novels are far from being simple accounts of grim life on the late Middle Border. The human comedy is no less comical among the bumpkins than among the glitterati.

For instance, in My Home Is Far Away, probably the most directly autobiographical of all, the mother in a family dies, and three young girls are left to the untender mercies of their feckless father, a blustery, hail-fellow-well-met type who believes possessions can cure any woe, though he has neither possessions nor the gumption to acquire them.

The girls are bounced from pillar to post, from relative to relative, including their grandma, whose nurturing is less than fussy. Grandma has a brother, Wally, whose daughters and sons refused to take him in because, they claimed, he had turned Unitarian in his travels. Later, when one of the daughters breaks down and takes him in, she makes him sleep in the barn, where after not showing up for meals for a couple of days he is found dead, and the horses wouldn't touch the hay for days. When Midwestern provincials get to New York which journey, Edmund Wilson wrote, is Powell's essential theme they (and we) find life no less piquant. Angels on Toast is my favorite of the Manhattan novels, but A Time to Be Born is worth a special look because of the way in which characters can be traced to real personages familiar to Powell.

Like Angels, A Time to Be Born concerns a set of characters who use, and scramble over, each other to achieve their ends in life and love. It employs a catalog opening, a trademark of Powell's, in which she lists happenings, trends, things in the air, to set the scene.

The story line, too, is standard Powell, and in its basics is nothing more than feuding and fussing over men or, in a word, sex. (Compared to Powell women, Powell men seem more passive than predatory, though they rarely pass up goods on offer.) Men and women want women and men who want other men and women a constant mismatching, until everyone begins to wonder if his or her original choice was wrong.

The chief predatory female is Amanda Keeler Evans, supposedly based on Clare Boothe Luce, who uses her ruthless but somewhat dopey husband, a publishing magnate, to further her career. As in other Powell novels, other characters have real-life models, such as Andrew Callingham, a Hemingway figure.

In My Home, the girls' grandpa, an enthusiastic if undiscriminating reader, says, If books was anything like real life nobody'd want to waste time reading 'em. I'm afraid Powell is using grandpa to pull our leg. There's no time wasted in reading these and other highly lifelike novels collected here: Dance Night; Come Back to Sorrento; Turn, Magic Wheel; The Locusts Have No King; The Wicked Pavilion and The Golden Spur.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

 

Like Mark Twain, I have a whole library of books not by Jane Austen. Though my knuckleheadedness in not being able to appreciate Ms. Austen is as incurable as it is inexcusable, I can appreciate the fanatical devotion of her admirers, because I feel almost the same way about Dawn Powell. Just as the Janeites […]

n the trail of A Cold Case As decent and democratic and objective as you think yourself to be and probably are, when you watched the movie A Few Good Men and heard Jack Nicholson as the tough Marine colonel shout, “You can't handle the truth!” you may have felt a small, silent, shameful twinge of agreement. We often want someone to make our problems go away without being told the truth about the messy, not-necessarily-legal ways they were dealt with.

An unspoken understanding of this nature forms part of the background of A Cold Case by Philip Gourevitch, whose previous book We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. Gourevitch has produced another potential award-winner in this slim account of the solving of a 27-year-old double murder in New York City.

In relating his part of the story to the author, Andy Rosenzweig, chief investigator for the Manhattan district attorney, acknowledges without noticeable bitterness this flexible standard toward truth on the part of the public. However, people who know Rosenzweig tell the author that it was a message from another movie High Noon, in which an upright lawman is abandoned by a spineless citizenry that has most influenced the investigator: This is a twilight world in which the two sides of the law are not always distinct and for which Rosenzweig, though an honorable cop, always felt an affinity.

To call the murder in question here an unsolved crime is not totally accurate: Everyone knew who shot and killed Richie Glennon and Pete McGinn on February 18, 1970, at McGinn's apartment after having tangled with the pair earlier in the evening at the restaurant McGinn owned. The murderer was Frankie Koehler, a man with an extensive criminal past, including an earlier homicide in 1945 when he was only 15 years old. After the slayings, Koehler simply disappeared.

Rosenzweig knew both victims and liked Glennon especially. He had not been in on the original investigation and was reminded of the case by a chance incident in January 1997. He began to look into it and discovered that somewhere along the line the case had been closed because Koehler had been presumed for no good reason, as it turns out dead.

Rosenzweig got permission to reopen the “cold case.” Gourevitch recounts some neat deduction and legwork until Koehler was tracked down in California, living under another name. The story has about it more than a whiff of Dashiell Hammett (a quotation from one of whose stories serves as an epigraph), the Hammett of the grim, relentless harshness of life.

It is not revealing too much to say that Koehler was captured on a return trip to New York, because half of the book is about Koehler's confession and defense. In some respects this is the most fascinating part of the story. In the videotaped confession, which Gourevitch says “has come to be regarded at the D.

A.'s office as one of the classic portraits of a criminal personality,” Koehler “is not confessing so much as taking credit for his crimes.” More than once Koehler speaks of his “desire to be understood not only as a murderer but also a sparer of life.” Koehler's attorney, Murray Richman, a mob lawyer who revels in his lowlife connections, is a piece of work himself. Richman likes criminals for their “simplicity” and believes that “murderers are the straightest guys in the world.” In a way, he makes the reader think of John Mortimer's British barrister, Horace Rumpole, who also has a fondness for his clients, except that Richman's criminal contacts are considerably more dangerous and less charming than Rumpole's “villains.” Koehler's defense consisted primarily of a war of nerves between Richman and the prosecutors, who were worried about the problems an old case presented. Richman held out for the lowest sentence he could get. As for Koehler, in the letters he wrote while being held on Rikers Island he “seemed to believe the lashes of his own conscience were all the punishment he needed.” When Gourevitch went to California to see where Koehler had lived, he found that the murderer was remembered fondly by those who had known him. When he went to visit Rosenzweig, who had retired to run a bookstore in Rhode Island 12 days before Koehler's sentencing, he found him working, unofficially, on another case.

The only thing wrong with this book is that it is over too quickly. We hunger to know even more about these intriguing characters.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

n the trail of A Cold Case As decent and democratic and objective as you think yourself to be and probably are, when you watched the movie A Few Good Men and heard Jack Nicholson as the tough Marine colonel shout, “You can't handle the truth!” you may have felt a small, silent, shameful twinge […]

sands through the hourglass If ol' Fred Nietzsche were around to review Simon Mawer's The Gospel of Judas, he'd probably say with a nod to fellow philosopher Yogi Berra “See? What'd I tell you? It's eternal recurrence all over again!” I don't mean to poke fun at Mawer's excellent novel, but merely to indicate that Nietzsche's notion of “eternal recurrence,” as commonly conceived, can profitably be used to view it. There may be other ways, but the book has about it a lot of what Nietzsche called the “eternal hourglass of existence” that is continually being “turned over and over and you with it, a mere grain of dust.” Further, in The Gospel of Judas, time is not linear, like the idea of time that has come down to us from Aristotle through Judeo-Christian teaching, but circular and cyclical, like Nietzsche's time. The novel shifts fluidly back and forth from World War II to the present day, and it definitely has much to do with Christianity.

Leo Newman is a Roman Catholic priest, British but living in Rome. A renowned scholar of biblical-era texts, he is summoned to Jerusalem to decipher a recently found scroll that appears to have been written by Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ. Leo quickly senses that the scroll is genuine and literally devastating to Christianity.

At this time Leo, who is apparently 50-ish, embarks on his first sexual affair. The woman, named Madeleine, is Catholic and the wife of a British diplomat. She is one element in the “potent sense of womanhood” that informs Leo's life. Indeed, the novel gives off a muted sensation of must more than that, of the ancient fear that women are not only sexual predators but the very occasion for sin.

A leitmotif of repetition and reflection accompanies the time/eternal recurrence theme. The Leo-Madeleine affair reflects the affair that the priest's mother, Gretchen, also a Catholic and the wife of a (German) diplomat, has with an Italian Jew named Francesco during World War II.

This leitmotif, in turn, is entwined with the book's and Leo's obsession with word origins and names. For instance, Yerushalem (Jerusalem), the author tells us, is not from shalom, the Hebrew for peace, but from the Canaanite god, Shalem.

While these explanations are a treat to come across, they amount to more than mere intellectualizing. Leo's working life is one of words “Had he always feared that as soon as he teased at the words that made up his faith, the whole fabric would unravel?” and, as he tells Madeleine at one of their first meetings, “In this business you always start with the name. Names always had meanings.” Darn right they did, and do. Madeleine is a form of Magdalene, Mary Magdalene, the reformed and repentant whore of the New Testament. So is Magda, an artist and whore with whom Leo later shares an apartment.

A priest of Christ who takes up with two women named for the woman who, aside from Mary, is most associated with Christ. As Leo works at translating the scroll, one of them, Madeleine, stands figuratively at his shoulder, just as “her namesake had been there at the discovery of the opened tomb.” All of this would be mere symbol-dropping and parading of knowledge if the author did not make it so much of a piece. Tightly constructed is not the right term; try seamless. Mawer, author of Mendel's Dwarf and several other novels, has produced tightly woven, brilliantly matching narrative threads that make up a splendid cloth. And for good measure, the scroll mystery adds a nice thriller element.

Like all good modern authors, Mawer lets us make of it what we will. “Was it here,” Leo wonders as he pores over the papyrus, “that the history of Christianity would finally come to an end?” The weight of the book's evidence would seem to point to one answer yes.

However, also like all good modern authors, Mawer's true concern is not the cosmic and infinite, but the immediate and human. The priest of Christ, not Christ, animates this book.

In the final pages we learn that toward the end of the war Gretchen has taken the name “Mrs. Newman” names, after all, always had meanings and that Leo, the child with which she is pregnant, is “a kind of resurrection.” He is also, you will discover, a kind of eternal recurrence.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

sands through the hourglass If ol' Fred Nietzsche were around to review Simon Mawer's The Gospel of Judas, he'd probably say with a nod to fellow philosopher Yogi Berra “See? What'd I tell you? It's eternal recurrence all over again!” I don't mean to poke fun at Mawer's excellent novel, but merely to indicate that […]

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