NEW YORK — Wry, rumpled, best-selling Joe McGinniss suddenly is an author without allies. Worse, he is being condemned by peers and crucified by literarists with careers mightier than his. Their words for his new work are consentient poison: avaricious slop, plagiaristic, journalistic histrionics, unadulterated junk, salacious, mean-spirited and novelistic landfill.
It was almost a surprise that McGinniss arrived here for interviews Wednesday. "Where should I be?" he asks. He tries a tease. "Maybe out having a literary discussion with Jonathan Yardley?"
Yardley is a Washington Post book critic. He read "The Last Brother," McGinniss' unauthorized biography of Teddy Kennedy, then fired a heart shot.
Yardley wrote that it is a genuinely embarrassing shoddy, slimy, meretricious, dishonest and unrelievedly rotten book. Also--in case there was any breath left in McGinniss--the worst book Yardley has reviewed in nearly three decades.
(On Thursday, the New York Times said it wasn't a bad book; it was an awful book. Time. Newsweek. U.S. News & World Report. The full firing squad has formed, its aim deadly.)
Yet here is rangy McGinniss, very much alive, fighting back in chinos and too-long shirt sleeves, Irish cocky and joking about meeting in his publisher's Manhattan conference room without windows: "They're afraid I'd jump out."
He points to litter left by earlier interviewers--his Evian, their plastic glasses, everybody's paper scraps--and a stack of his Kennedy books.
"They (reporters) come in here, say the book stinks, and throw it over there," McGinniss says. "I get more books that way." He's still joking.
Defensive humor--plus an alligator hide that was his advice from Arthur Miller and solid belief in the dank stories he airs--armors McGinniss, 50, against the rages his books stir. Usually among the people he writes about.
In 1968, he published his first volume, "The Selling of the President," an indecent expose of the hidden persuaders and advertising that helped Richard Nixon to the White House. It upset more Republicans than Barry Goldwater's defeat four years earlier.
There was "Fatal Vision."
It was the brutal saga of Green Beret physician Jeffrey MacDonald, now serving three life sentences for murdering his wife and two children. MacDonald filed a $15-million breach-of-contract suit against McGinniss, claiming the author betrayed their agreement to write an account portraying MacDonald's innocence. There was a hung jury in Los Angeles, then dismissal of the suit after McGinniss agreed to a $325,000 settlement.
Then came "Blind Faith," which told of the end of a Toms River, N.J., woman whose 1984 murder was arranged by her husband. McGinniss was censured, almost sued, for changing names and misrepresenting roles played by some sources.
Now comes "The Last Brother."
And within the recent trashing, believes McGinniss, is certainly the fury and, possibly, media retaliation engineered by the book's principal: Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy (D-Mass.).
"This has been a practice of theirs (the Kennedy family) over the years," McGinniss claims. He says a Boston Globe reporter recently wrote that the Kennedys " 'only had two approaches to journalists, either buying or demonizing them.'
"They didn't buy me."
Yet, McGinniss continues, it's not simply a case of shooting the messenger: "They want to . . . mutilate the body so badly that no other messenger is ever going to come down the pike."
"The Last Brother" was rushed into bookstores this week--the original release was October--in an unshrouded attempt to capitalize on four weeks of criticism bordering on mayhem.
In its kindest light, the book has been seen as little more than a 621-page rewrite of 74 other volumes on the Kennedys; a familiar narrative garnished only by the author's attempts to enter the mind and soul of Ted Kennedy during moments of crisis fringing on collapse between 1963 and 1969.
Black, turgid years indeed. They included the assassination of President Kennedy. Also the murder of Bobby Kennedy. Then Teddy Kennedy's plane crash, his drinking, his womanizing, his failed marriage and the drowning death of a young woman when the world learned the correct pronunciation of Kopechne and Chappaquidick. Except, at the time, Kennedy didn't know how to spell Kopechne in his handwritten police report.
In May, publishers Simon & Schuster circulated the first 127 pages of "The Last Brother" at an American Booksellers Assn. conference in Miami. They dealt with Teddy Kennedy's acts and reactions in the days after President Kennedy's assassination. On the copyright page was a single paragraph noting that "some thoughts and dialogue attributed to figures in this narrative were created by the author."