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August 03, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

Miami and the Siege of Chicago

Norman Mailer

New York Review Books: 224 pp., $14.95 paper

In 1968 Norman Mailer covered the political conventions for Harper's. These were the glory days of literary journalism, when Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote and William S. Burroughs stepped into the ring to ensure, as Mailer wrote, that there would be "no history without nuance." It was a precarious time in America: "The country was in a throe, a species of eschatological heave. . . . Left-wing demons, white and Black, working to inflame the conservative heart of America, while Right-wing devils exacerbated Blacks and drove the mind of the New Left and liberal middle class into prides of hopeless position. And the country roaring like a bull in its wounds, coughing like a sick lung in the smog."

In his introduction, Frank Rich writes that the best of the subjective New Journalism pieces were those not swamped by self-indulgence. Mailer gets pretty purple sometimes -- he writes in the third person but, to his credit, does not romanticize "the reporter." Rather the reporter, in a possibly unpremeditated sleight of hand, becomes the reader, Joe Everyman. Many times in the course of his reporting Mailer writes that he has failed the reader, America, himself; he feels, like the rest of the country, at a loss. But when he is on the ground, recording the weather, the feeling in the air, he puts television to shame.

Mailer's take on Miami in August infuses his take on the state of the Republican Party: "[T]he sensation of breathing, then living, was not unlike being obliged to make love to a 300-pound woman who has decided to get on top. Got it? You could not dominate a thing. That uprooted jungle had to be screaming beneath."

At the Democratic convention in Chicago, Mailer is less in control, more often overwhelmed by the violence in the streets: "[T]he Democratic Party had here broken in two before the eyes of a nation like Melville's whale charging right out of the sea. A great stillness rose up from the street through all the small noise of clubbing and cries, small sirens, sigh of loaded arrest vans as off they pulled."

Reading "Nixon in Miami" and "The Siege of Chicago" gives us front-row seats to what has seemed, looking back, like the geologic moment in which the Democrats were separated from America. We watch the reporter cling increasingly to the dubious life raft of cynicism. "If politics was property," he writes in the end, "a convention was a massive auction, and your bid had to reach the floor in time."


A Journey to the End of the Russian Empire

Anton Chekhov

Penguin Great Journeys: 112 pp., $10 paper

Icouldn't resist this little book, a beautiful new edition of Chekhov's account of his travels to the Far Eastern island of Sakhalin, between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan. The writer was 30, the year was 1890; Chekhov felt like passing a few months working "off the cuff," writing "not for glory but for money." "There seems no end to the journey," he wrote while traveling through Siberia, "but I am experiencing and feeling a lot. I've battled with rivers in flood, with cold, unbelievable quagmires, hunger and lack of sleep. . . . Experiences you couldn't buy in Moscow for a million roubles. You should come to Siberia!" he wrote to his brother, Alexander. "Get the courts to exile you here."


Boyhood Days

Rabindranath Tagore

Puffin Books/Penguin: 144 pp., $9 paper

"The SCULPTOR who created me began his handiwork with Bengali clay," wrote the Nobel Prize-winning author Rabindranath Tagore in this memory of his boyhood in Calcutta (or as he calls it, Kolkata), written in 1940, a year before his death. (This edition includes a lovely, approachable set of appendices on the author's life and a glossary.) Until 1878, when he went to England at the age of 17, most of Tagore's life took place inside the family compound, a veritable village of gardeners and goldsmiths and nannies and cooks. He was home-schooled, though most of his education, he writes, came from reading and talking to people. Long hours were spent imagining: "The day was not a close-knit mesh, but more like a loose net with spacious gaps and openings." Pleasures, like the theater, were fewer and farther between and more memorable: "Nowadays, people seem suddenly more mature, in every respect, than those who belonged to those earlier times. Those days, everyone, old or young, was youthful at heart."

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