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He Pledges Allegiance to No Party

Books: A basher of the left and right alike, Michael Lind delights in turning sacred cows into filet mignon.

September 19, 1996|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Michael Lind is the kind of guy everyone can dislike. Republicans ridicule him because not long ago he was one of them and now loudly says the conservative movement is dragging the nation toward plutocratic ruin. Democrats dismiss Lind--when he's not bad-mouthing conservatives--because he says the party has betrayed its great history by becoming the slave of multicultural trendiness.

East Coast sophisticates can dislike Lind because he has a Texas-sized disdain for the Washington and Manhattan elites; middlebrow America can dislike him because of his rarefied tastes. The academic community can scorn him, well, because he scorns them. A contrarian's contrarian, Lind delights in turning sacred cows into filet mignon.

"If there's an enormous discrepancy between reality and the conventional wisdom, that's what public intellectuals should expose," he said over lunch recently, around the corner from his Upper Eastside apartment. "I ask myself, 'What would George Orwell be doing?' He spent half his time attacking the left and half attacking the right."

Lind is the Elvis Costello of American letters: prodigiously productive, protean in talent and slashing in wit. In the past few years, in addition to breaking noisily with the right, he has raced through jobs at several of the more serious magazines in the country, written, in his spare time, two highly praised political books, a juicy Washington novel and, for good measure, a 6,000-line epic poem about the Alamo scheduled to be published next year.

"It's not like I'm making discoveries in fusion physics," said Lind, 34, whose boyish mop of dirty blond hair tops a face of gerbil cheeks. "Shakespeare wrote two, three plays a year in his spare time. If you're an academic novelist you have to pretend to be working harder than you really are. It shouldn't take you 10 years to write a novel."

It took Lind, he says, three months to dash off "Powertown," which has just been published. While the genre usually focuses on Washington's political-journalistic mandarins, Lind's novel takes a more Balzac-like view of the city: There is a power-mongering gay lobbyist; his slacker boyfriend, the feckless son of a black civil rights advocate-turned-politician who spends his days booking blowhards for NPR; a clueless downsized congressional aide who stumbles into the editorship of a New Republic-like magazine. The only likable characters are an African American gangbanger, his working-class uncle and a Salvadoran maid, who all meet awful ends while the other characters claw their various ways to happiness.

Lind's publisher, HarperCollins, is hyping the book as grand satire in the tradition of Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987). "More, alas," sighed GQ, "like a Duraflame weeny roast." The reviews, so far, have been scathing, which Lind waves away. "If it were someone I respected, I might be devastated."

In his political books he talks of the necessity of radically upending the current political order; the same thing needs to be done, he insists, in literature. Memoirs, suburban coming-of-age stories, free verse--he'll have none of it. "It all has to be overthrown," he said. Lind has the same disdain for the New York literary world ("In New York, people assume if you're a writer your parents paid your way through college and you went off on a grand tour to Majorca afterward") that he has for Washington, and talks of someday moving back home to Texas.

"Michael is unique and interesting in that his vision of history and politics has no contemporary vehicle. He has no political home," noted Adam Bellow, the editorial director of the Free Press, which publishes Lind's political tomes. "The question is, is it better to be consistent or is it nobler to subject your convictions to criticism and have second thoughts?"

Lind grew up in Austin, where his father is an assistant attorney general, his mother a teacher. He went through the honors program at the University of Texas in three years, spent summers driving a forklift and borrowed money after graduation in 1982 to get a master's degree in international relations at Yale.

Suddenly, the young liberal Democrat found himself branded a virtual fascist for his moderate political leanings. After President Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada, Lind's fellow students reflexively poured into the campus quad to protest. "It was just assumed that the U.S. was wrong," Lind recalled. "I began to think, 'I don't know, maybe I'm a neocon because everyone says I'm a reactionary.' "

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