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The old, weird America

Hubert's Freaks The Rare-Book Dealer, The Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus Gregory Gibson Harcourt: 274 pp., $24

April 27, 2008|Ben Ehrenreich | Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."

Trying hard to tie these strands together -- to make of these divergent worlds a single story -- Gibson sometimes overreaches. Langmuir barely survived a car wreck on the day of Arbus' death He and Lucas shared the same birthday and the same initials. And of Langmuir's unearthing of Arbus' photos, Gibson muses, "Could it be that he had been given these discoveries in order to reunite Charlie and Diane? Was his very being the mystical vessel in which this union was to be accomplished?"

Um, no. And no. Arbus would likely have prickled at these notions. "What I'm trying to describe is that it's impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else's," she once said of her photos. "That somebody else's tragedy is not the same as your own."

But Gibson wants to keep things tidy. He goes out of his way to defend Arbus from the critical assaults of Susan Sontag, who, not entirely unfairly, called the photographer a "supertourist," dipping underground and collecting disturbing trinkets for the audience back home. His reasoning is less than rigorous -- he dismisses Sontag as catty. ("[I]t seems likely that Sontag considered Arbus a rival for ascendancy in the hip and glamorous zone that marked the intersection of pop culture and high culture.") But he does get what Sontag missed: that Arbus' images of freaks are anything but freakish. Her midgets and hermaphrodites gaze at the camera with warmth and generosity. Many of her shots of "normals," on the other hand, are positively deranged. Misery and suspicion twist their faces. Only the freaks look anything like human.

Such partisanship gives Gibson room to enlist Arbus -- as well as Lucas and Langmuir -- in the service of "the old, weird America." The term was coined by the rock critic Greil Marcus to refer to the land of myth, violence and transcendence described in early American folk music. But Gibson uses the phrase with convenient vagueness to refer to "that mystical alternative republic" that "at once inspires and explains the strangeness of our daily lives."

Sounds glorious. But Gibson's story is about an even more venerable American tradition:.buying low, selling high, finding something valuable others didn't know they had. Lucas' papers and Langmuir's Arbus prints were sold this month for an undisclosed sum by a New York auction house, which had estimated their worth at between $1.8 and $2.5 million. The old, weird America is selling better than ever. *

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