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November 01, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Writing in Restaurants, David Mamet (Penguin: $6.95). In David Mamet's ideal scenario of cultural life in America, theater reveals the human soul, mirrors the unconscious and studies our natural growth and decay; all the stage is our world. Not surprisingly, we fall short, and, in this book, Mamet, drawing authority from his 1984 Pulitzer Prize for play writing, attempts to target the reasons why. He reproves culture for being "morally bankrupt," art for censoring and controlling rather than creating and, of course, TV for catering to "the lowest of the low in human experience." Yet however brash Mamet might sound, this is not a predictable highbrow assault on popular culture. Mamet is not out to denigrate bad taste; what depresses him is no taste: blandness in comedy that fails to evoke "the tenuousness of our social state," in drama that skirts the issue of death, and in a growing national apathy that eviscerates great emotions from life: "Every reiteration of the idea that there is no drama in modern life, there is only dramatization, that there is no tragedy, there is only unexplained misfortune, debases us."

Institutions supporting this detached attitude bear the brunt of his criticism; President's Day, for example, is described as "a bastard amalgamation of two distinct and spontaneously created national rituals," devoid of festivity, faith, mourning. Conversely, Mamet celebrates the Super Bowl ("true to our national love of invidious comparison") and the Oscars ("fascinating, refreshing . . . the Big Bar Mitzvah") as reflections of genuine human feeling. Mamet's staccato sentences sometimes hide his subtle reasoning. In one chapter, for instance, he says that ours is an "evil time," for we do not wish to "examine our unhappiness," while in another he says we are "destroying ourselves by accepting our unhappiness." These ideas are only contradictory on the surface, however, for in the larger context of the book, Mamet's point--that we can examine our unhappiness without sinking into it--becomes clear. In asking us to look inward (and in asking playwrights to stimulate introspection), Mamet recalls Freud, "The only way to forget is to remember."

Cooper's Creek: The Opening of Australia, Alan Moorehead (Atlantic Monthly Press: $7.95). We tend to show little interest in those who lose in a competition between humans, but, when someone is up against the forces of nature, we seem to prefer defeat. Perhaps in watching them fail to conquer a stormy sea, icy frontier or, as in these pages, a scorched and silent plain deep in the Australian Outback, we are reminded of our place. As Alan Moorehead points out in the conclusion to this 1963 book, were the leaders of this expedition to have succeeded, they would have remained rather minor figures, but, with their failure, they were lifted to "another and higher plane, one might even say a state of grace." In describing the explorers' attempt in 1860 to cross the continent from south to north, Moorehead, a British journalist who died in 1983, could have let the spirit of the story sag like the Outback's beefwood trees under the blood-red sun.

Instead, he's made the journey mythical by focusing on human perseverance, particularly that of romantic and energetic Robert Burke, the expedition's leader, and William John Wills, his bookish, systematic second-in-command. Appropriate for a tragedy, this book begins with high hopes. White settlers arrived in southeastern Australia in 1788 and found arable land and then, in 1851, gold. The resulting frenzy created a "new man," Moorehead writes, a materialist speculator as hardy as the original settlers, but more irreverent and independent. When the gold supply waned, these new men looked elsewhere for economic opportunity. Burke and Wills found it in the possibility of linking a telegraph line from England and Southeast Asia to Australia's northern coast, allowing southern Australians to communicate with England in a few hours instead of four months. Mangrove swamps prevented Burke and Wills from reaching the north coast and sharing Cortez' vision of a leaden sea, but, in Moorehead's hands, their expedition remains mystical rather than disheartening, "a cult of bareness and asceticism."

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