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September 21, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The book, Hands Across America (Pocket: $7.95), is a non-book in the same sense that the stunt itself was a non-event. Last May, at the urging of various corporate sponsors and celebrity boosters and professional hypesters, somewhat fewer than 6 million people joined hands in fits and starts across the nation in a 15-minute exercise that was supposed to raise money (and consciousness) for the hungry and the homeless in America. Now we have a hasty little scrapbook of snapshots and sentimental anecdotes whose profits, we are informed on the cover, "will be used to combat hunger and homeless in the USA." Exactly how Hands Across America will accomplish its worthy goal is not explained, but then--as the book cheerfully demonstrates--the whole enterprise was never much more than a publicity gimmick, albeit a heroic one worthy of Christo and the Guinness Book of World Records.

Ken Kragen, the music industry mogul who created both USA for Africa and Hands Across America, invokes the moral authority of Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy and even Albert Schweitzer to justify what he describes as a "mega-event" ("It planted new seeds of hope in millions of Americans"), but there is nothing whatsoever in the book or the event that addresses the ancient and intractable problem of hunger and homelessness, or suggests as much as one practical idea for doing away with them. Rather, "Hands Across America" is an exercise in self-congratulation and feeling good about oneself for doing something easy and fun: "Hands never pretended to have all the answers," writes Los Angeles journalist Joe Morgenstern in one of a series of short dispatches on the massive organizational efforts that preceded the 15-minute media event. "It was a party in the form of a human chain . . . a hand-holding, song-singing, street-crowding, road-lining, bridge-spanning, mountain-climbing, soul-stirring show of support for America's hungry and homeless."

In reality, "Hands Across America" is a manifestation of the peculiarly American mania for instant (and therefore mostly ersatz) quasi-religious spectacle. Kragen carps about the press coverage ("I had been worried that the media might bury us before we even had a chance to succeed"), but the reality is that "Hands Across America" was "engineered to be driven by the media," as Morgenstern writes. From the outset, it was a press agent's fantasy: What if millions of people joined hands in an unbroken line from coast to coast? In the end, the focus of "Hands Across America" is less on hunger and homelessness than on the success or failure of the gimmick itself: "There were of course gaps in the line," Kragen writes apologetically. "But the physical link-up wasn't the most important part. We made the one connection that really counted: the connection with the issues of hunger and homelessness in America."

The Serpent Beguiled Me and I Ate: A Heavenly Diet for Saints and Sinners (Doubleday: $8.95) by Edward J. Dumke treats a different kind of hunger--the compulsive overeating that plagues about 80 million Americans. Of course, there is no lack of hype and gimmickry in dieting and weight reduction, but "The Serpent Beguiled Me" is one diet book that explores the most intimate reasons for overeating, and suggests an approach to eating that addresses our deepest spiritual needs. Indeed, "The Serpent Beguiled Me" may be the only diet book which, in the words of its author, is based on "an understanding over four thousand years of religious tradition."

"Food and the process of eating put us in touch with feelings and forces that dwell at the very root of our psychospiritual experience," writes Dumke, an Episcopal priest. "To understand the psychological power of food is to understand its religious significance. When you learn to understand what food and eating mean in your life, you will have taken the first and indispensable step toward controlling your diet."

Dumke points out that the partaking of food is not only a fundamental biological need but also a pervasive spiritual metaphor for communion with the sacred, for the expression of love, for unity with the family and the community, for the sealing of covenants, for strength and knowledge and sacrifice. "Ceremonial meals provide a union between man and God," Dumke points out. "They are a means of taking God into our lives, of incorporated eternity and history into the present moment."

But food itself, as Dumke emphasizes, is not sacred, although the very act of dieting tends to make it so. "Dieting has become a new religion in American culture, and each new diet becomes a new cult with a new promise for salvation," he writes. "Most . . . are not only silly but outright dangerous to our mental, physical and spiritual health." The only diet that works, Dumke argues, is one based on the free will that was bestowed upon us by our Creator.

"The Serpent Beguiled Me" is dressed up in the familiar garb of self-help books: short bursts of prose punctuated with quizzes, tips, menus, and so on. Dumke suggests specific regimens ("The Daniel Diet," "The Stress Diet") and consciousness-raising exercises, including a memorable one that rings all the changes on eating an apple: "Bite it, slice it, peel it, chew it, smell the pulp, meditate on the core. What is the core? What and where is your core? How do you visualize your soul?" But Dumke's exceptional book is graced with authentic spiritual revelation and an uncompromising integrity that offers comfort but no glib answers: "Claiming the gift of power given to you in creation is above all a courageous undertaking," he writes. "Courage is simply the attempt to face those forces that we recognize as dangerous, difficult and painful."

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