Our quintet of quality reviews this week includes Ruth Franklin on Stephen King’s If It Bleeds, Caleb Crain on David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie, Nicole Flattery on Blake Gopnik’s Warhol, Ben Ehrenreich on Mike Davis and Jon Wiener’s Set the Night on Fire, and Janessa Abrams on Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten.
“One night in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, I found myself jolted awake at 2 o’clock in the morning, shaking with adrenaline and dread. Avoiding the call of my Twitter feed, I dragged myself from bed and cast an eye over my to-be-read pile. But nothing seemed right for this moment of uncertainty verging on unreality. Even my old favorites now seemed to come from another world. They weren’t speaking to a mind-set recalibrated by the crisis … Then my eye fell upon If It Bleeds, the new collection of novellas by Stephen King … The straightforward cadences of King’s voice, paired with his signature sit-down-and-let-me-tell-you-a-story style, were immediately soothing. And the stories he was telling—about the seductions and corruptions of technology, the extremes of beauty and depravity in even the most ordinary life, the workings of a universe we can never entirely understand—were somehow exactly what I wanted to read right now … ‘The Life of Chuck’ is one of the oddest, most affecting stories I have read in a very long time. It’s a little disappointing, then, that the two remaining pieces in the volume feel more like retreads of conventional material … But I wouldn’t begrudge any reader refuge in familiar pleasures, least of all now … As sirens blare outside my Brooklyn window and the headlines grow more apocalyptic by the day, I might start working my way through King’s backlist. He’s good company in the dark.”
“On November 10, 1898, just after Election Day, white supremacists overthrew the city government of Wilmington, North Carolina, forcing the resignation of the mayor, the aldermen, and the chief of police. A mob of white people burned down the office of an African-American newspaper and killed an unknown number of black townspeople. An eyewitness believed that more than a hundred died, and a state guardsman recalled, ‘I nearly stepped on negroes laying in the street dead.’ In Wilmington’s Lie, a judicious and riveting new history of the coup, David Zucchino, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from apartheid-era South Africa, estimates the number of deaths at more than sixty … In Plato’s Republic, Socrates proposes the concept of the ‘noble lie’—a fable that, though untrue, could inspire citizens to virtue, and ‘make them care more for the city and each other.’ But what about the reverse—something all too true that might embolden bad actors to harm the state and their fellow-citizens? In Wilmington, the victory of racial prejudice over democratic principle and the rule of law was unnervingly complete. Within the lifetimes of those who experienced the coup, the arc of history that passed through Wilmington in 1898 didn’t bend toward anything close to justice … It’s all but impossible to reconstruct the sequence of the violence that followed, though Zucchino marshals the evidence expertly.”
–Caleb Crain on David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (The New Yorker)
“Blake Gopnik’s Warhol isn’t the most critical entry into an already extensive library about Warhol. Warhol is widely blamed for many of society’s present ills: celebrity culture, selfies, the vulgarism of the art market, the vacuousness of modern New York…Gopnik prefers a softer approach in his roving biography. Some of the most entertaining and lively sections of Warhol focus on the curious and deranged cast of misfits from his Factory—Viva, Candy Darling, Ondine, tragic Edie, all of them suspended forever in the fading silver decor … However, it’s in Gopnik’s assessment of Andy’s art that Warhol becomes truly alive and new. Gopnik, the former chief art critic for The Washington Post, treats Warhol’s work not as a mere addition to his celebrity, but the main show. In Gopnik’s assessment Warhol was a serious, consummate artist masquerading as a shallow gadabout … Still a new biography won’t change the bare facts of Warhol’s life. Everything was upended by two shots fired by a disgruntled Valerie Solanas; his work did become embarrassingly empty and commercial. The final picture that emerges from Warhol isn’t of a master manipulator, a perverse voyeur presiding over a decades-long orgy (Gopnik goes to lengths to dispel this particular rumour, detailing several of Warhol’s romantic relationships). The truth is, of course, sadder and less glamorous. One writer who witnessed the scene in the hospital after Warhol’s shooting asked, ‘How many tears, how many crocodiles?’…The Warhol that emerges from Gopnik’s book is far more human, more sensitive and gentler … Weighing in at a hefty 1000 pages, Gopnik’s careful, insightful biographyIn their introduction they classify—clearly the work of many years of detailed research—is for both the devout and the agnostic.”
“To its profit and enduring loss, there is probably no city in human history that has been more promiscuously imagined than Los Angeles. For the better part of the century, most of the planet’s population has seen some version of LA depicted in film and on television: a windblown dream of palm trees swaying within the same cliched confines. A blue-skied neverland of beauty, youth and pleasure alternates with a secret underbelly of corruption and sin in the dialectic of ‘sunshine and noir,’ first described by Mike Davis 30 years ago in City of Quartz, which remains the best book written about LA … Davis, who grew up in the industrial exurbs east of the city, has played a unique role in contemporary scholarship, emerging from outside the academy as a hard-eyed Marxist analyst of astonishing insight and range … In their introduction they classify Set the Night on Fire as a ‘movement history’—an attempt to gain ground in the battle for LA’s soul by rescuing the city’s past from the strategic amnesia and propagandistic whitewashing that the great LA poet Sesshu Foster calls the ‘poison alzheimer’s of the apartheid imagination’ … To their credit, Davis and Wiener do not attempt to squeeze those tumultuous years into a single frame. Their approach is encyclopedic rather than narrative. And at nearly 800 pages, Set the Night on Fire is frankly monumental…This broad sweep nonetheless circles back to one ‘issue of issues’: ‘the dynamic tectonics of racial segregation’ … If it lacks a single hero, Set the Night on Fire features one recurring villain: the Los Angeles Police Department. LA’s police make dramatic appearances in almost every chapter, clubbing peaceful protesters, brutalizing activists and killing so many black men, and with such absolute impunity, that Davis and Wiener’s claim that ‘the Manson gang were bit players compared to the forces of law and order’ ends up feeling more than fair … a vital primer in resistance, a gift to the future from the past.”
“Written with dark humor and a striking lack of sentimentality, these stories are vehicles for characters who each use tech to try to retrieve that which is irrevocably lost: the freedom of the pre-violated body, the child taken from the world prematurely, the normalcy that vanishes after the death of a loved one. Like episodes of Black Mirror, in which futuristic devices propel psychological unraveling, South’s stories explore tragedy as it flits uncomfortably between the digital and physical worlds … they also double as aching reminders of forms of human coping that aren’t currently possible … throughout the collection, South humanizes the compulsive behaviors associated with loss, eloquently rendering the experience of bereavement … South’s precise, morally unburdened prose allows ample room for an exploration of the limitations of caregiving and the oft-futile human desire to rescue others … a haunting reminder that grief, whether as a part of our current, sobering reality or as a constant condition of humanity, will thwart our attempts to control it.”