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MICHAEL HERR : A Man of Few Words : What Is a Great American Writer Doing Holed Up in London, and Why Has He Been So Quiet All These Years?

April 15, 1990|PAUL CIOTTI

IT'S BEEN AN unusually cold, wet winter in England. A wild storm swept in one day off the North Atlantic, flooding the streets, snapping trees, blowing down houses and killing 50 people. And now, with another gale on the way, people are beginning to mutter about the greenhouse effect. Michael Herr is appalled. At this point in his life, he wants peace and stability--not primordial struggles with overstoked elements.

Peace and quiet are what he was seeking 10 years ago when he moved to London. Unfortunately, Herr says, what he also found was a stagnant, "xenophobic," "predefeated" society, "relentlessly looking in the rear-view mirror. There's no energy, no joy. The entropy is breathtaking.

"I'm sick of life in the city," he says. "I miss the can-do spirit and positive energy" of America.

So, is he planning to move back?

Hardly, says Herr. It's a family decision. "I'm totally outgunned."

WHEN HERR'S "Dispatches" was published in 1977, critics hailed it as "a classic," "the best book to have been written about the Vietnam War" and "the best personal journal about war, any war, that any writer has ever accomplished." The language was an intimate, subjective blend of rock 'n' roll, terror and the war's peculiar drugged absurdities. It's a book that earned him a lasting--even suffocating--reputation.

Offers of screenplay and book deals poured in. But instead of following "Dispatches" with another blockbuster, this writer of classic American prose and American dialect fled to England, going on to fashion what must be one of the strangest careers of a contemporary American writer. He refused to grant interviews. He gave up his once-compulsive world travels and became a dedicated homebody and family man, trading drugs for Gauloises and acid rock for Mozart. He let his leisurely output slow to such a glacial pace that it looked as though he had fallen off the literary radar screen, publishing only one book over the next 13 years--a collection of short profiles of celebrities to accompany a book of paintings ("The Big Room")--and collaborating on two movies (with Stanley Kubrick on "Full Metal Jacket" and with Francis Ford Coppola on "Apocalypse Now"). Now, in May, abandoning at last his deep identification with the '60s, he's coming out with a new book. Set mostly in the New York of the '30s and '40s, it is a meditation on celebrity titled "Walter Winchell."

"Three movies, three books," says Herr. "Not a massive output."

Well, it takes a long time, I offer.

"Well, for me it does. I have my own demented quality-control system. I just don't like to send something out with my name on it until I think it's great--to the despair of my family and my bank manager and my accountant."

Herr is sitting in the cozy conservatory of a small South Kensington hotel while a heavy rain drums on the glass panels overhead. He is casually dressed in khaki trousers and a tweed jacket, his beard undisciplined and his thinning reddish hair--he is 50 now--awry. He's easy to talk to: curious, anecdotal, empathetic. ("People have been telling me stories all my life that I swear they never told anyone else," he says. "I must have an open face.")

Most often he appears to be an erudite international man of letters, serious, well-read, friends with everybody from Salman Rushdie to Hunter Thompson. Yet, at other times, Herr will take a lung-withering drag on his cigarette and say something like, "I mean, you know, it was crazy, man ," and the slow, melancholy emphasis he puts into man makes him sound, just for a moment, like some aging hippie, bypassed by life and history. Then a second later he'll be talking about his childhood and seem like an all-American-boy English major who was so enthralled by Ernest Hemingway that he modeled his early life on him--only to discover, as Hemingway did, that celebrity can be a curse.

"The aftermath of the publication of 'Dispatches' was really heaven and hell," Herr says, sitting under the conservatory space heaters and reflecting on his own encounter with fame. "The reception couldn't have been better, frankly--it couldn't have been more wonderful. It totally changed my life. But it also blew my cover. It was great for a little while, but then I wanted to stop it, and you can't turn that tap off so easily, particularly in New York."

Friends of friends invited him to dinner. Strangers wanted to meet him. Once, Herr recalls, he got a phone call from a guy who said he was standing in a phone booth in Nebraska in the middle of the night. "I could hear the wind blowing. He hadn't read the book." The caller said, "Time magazine says this. What does this mean?" Herr reversed the question: "What do you think it means?" "Oh, ho! Now that you're rich and famous you don't want to talk to people like me."

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