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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Review of the Emperor's General, by James Webb

 The Emperor's General, published in 1999 by Sen. Jim Webb is a great novel.  More on that, but first a few words about the Senator.

Jim Webb was on the podium, debating for the Democratic nomination for President a couple month's ago with Hillary, Bernie and the other guy.  I was hoping that all of the aspects of his amazing biography would override his obvious reluctance to submit himself to the US presidential process.  He grew up in a military family, went to the Navel Academy and lost a disputed boxing decision to a much bigger Ollie North for his class championship.  Then he went to Vietnam as a Marine officer, and won a Silver Star, and other medals, including two purple hearts. He got a Law degree from Georgetown, was Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, was an award winning journalist, wrote highly praised novels, turned Democrat and beat the once Republican Presidential hopeful George Allen for the Virginia Senate.   

There is even more, look him up.  I imagined him as the perfect populist candidate.  He didn't need to copy Bernie's policy direction of course, but he did need to focus on his 'Democratic' credentials, which if you look at his voting record in the Senate are real.  But, we are in a weird political times, and perhaps that trumps accomplishment and character. The last thing he said on the podium, before dropping out of the race was to imply how he had personally killed a Vietcong soldier in battle.  That wasn't going to sway Hillary and Bernie's voters, who should have been his target audience.  

But it highlights his other problem which is his consistent history of flipping off the powerful.  One example – when he was in the Senate, President Bush Jr. asked him about his son, who was serving in Iraq.  Webb told Bush in a very pointed way that that was between him and his son.  

All of that, all of his many accomplishments, pale in comparison to his talent to tell a story.  The Emperor's General is the best novel I have read in years.  On the surface, it is a history novel about Gen MacArthur and the last couple years of WW2 and six months into the occupation of Japan.  It deals primarily with one of the almost unknown chapters of the war, the trial, conviction and execution of Japanese General Yamanshita for war crimes in the Philippines.   It is told through the eyes of a young American Army Captain, Jay Marsh, who through a series of plausible and well crafted incidents, become a fly on the wall of MacArthur's deliberations and eventually becomes a player in the high level diplomatic game between MacArthur and the Japanese Emperor.

Marsh narrates and his story over-shadows the 'big story' without skipping any of the subtle details of MacArthur's maneuvers.  It is great history, explaining the larger significance of the Japanese occupation, while putting you on the ground, coming ashore with MacArthur as he validates his “I shall return” promise to the Philippines, as well as in Yokohama and Tokyo after the surrender.  The discriptions and the context that Webb presents will astonish you and give you a feel for the entire panorama of the time and place.   

But that is not why the Emperor's General is a truly great book.  Marsh is forced to leave the arms of a beautiful, trusting woman to enter into the highest levels of the Japanese Geisha world.  He loves  both women. This powerful and tender love story is  understated and tactile and seems so true. Jay is forced into unfaithfulness, by his duty,  an unfaithfulness most men would consider the highlight of their romantic life. Jay accepts the assignment, in fact makes the most of his sexual opportunity, all the while knowing it was destroying his one hope for happiness.  

It is unapologetically a man's story. Men don't get  many novels that explain the torments of the heart, particularly in a way that weaves it into the thrill of world-shaking ambition.   Webb – a smart, tough guy, who in real life told a feckless President to kiss off – will break your heart with this novel.    The historical gossip, the depiction of the real human side of near-mythical personalities – (like Emperor Hirohito) – all of that is delicious reading, but it all stands down in the presence of a great and painful love story.

Webb  is a great writer, and ultimately that is a higher calling than politics

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Review of WF Buckley's Saving the Queen



I owe a debt of gratitude to William F. Buckley. He ranks high among the people who have influenced my intellectual development such as it is. Of course, this debt I owe, is mostly due to his show “Firing Line” which I started watching as an adolescent. <= There. That previous sentence. "Of course this..", notice the smug, unconsciously snobbish attitude. (what a smart boy I must have been to watch Firing Line!) Buckley brought that attitude to all of his work, both on camera and on the printed page, and perhaps it affected me, probably more deeply than I know.

For example, the introductory music to Firing Line, Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #2, which repeated on each weekly session, was my first introduction to classical music. I don't think he influenced my politics all that much, although perhaps he gave me some tools with which to think about it. But he probably did make me a snob. Hearing the music week after week, allowed me to really think about other works of music in the same way. And I started holding a pencil up to my face when I talked to people too. And all that was just from the show's introduction, before anyone said anything.

There was an adolescent quality to Buckley, (WFB) a giddy delight in gently tormenting people with his wit that appealed to teenage boys such as myself. His Bradford Oakes, novels, adventures of a young WFB doppelganger recruited into the CIA from Yale in the early 50s, were really almost Hardy Boy adventures. Saving the Queen, which has an outrageous premise as its hook, (and I won't tell you what it is and don't Google it – save it if you are going to read it.) brings back that delight he seemed to have in reviling in the travails of youth.

Saving the Queen is the introduction of Bradford Oakes, the first of ten novels about the war hero and son of Charles Lindbergh's very best friend. Oakes is a tongue in cheek version of WFB himself. The fictional Oakes, a former student at an exclusive English school for boys, had a profligate mother who was divorced from his rich father, an aviation executive and dare devil pilot.

In the story, Oakes praises the real Buckley, notable WFB's first published work “God and Man at Yale”. It is an interesting attempt to break the fourth wall, bringing reality into the fiction, but it also displays why Buckley just wasn't cut out to be more than a mildly entertaining fiction writer: he is clearly winking at his audience, going for the cheap laugh. But that in itself makes his fiction bearable because his stories seem to have to no other self-awareness within themselves. Oakes never has any doubt about his place in the upper-class world he was born into. He doesn't have any friends except for, as his mother calls them, PLUs, People Like Us. He can't escape his need for his characters to engage in right-wing polemics, justifying McCarthyism and political paranoia of the 1950s. The story - someone close to the young Queen of England, (the fictional Caroline, a cousin of the recently deceased Elizabeth II) is feeding the Soviets technical information about the Hydrogen Bomb. The young Queen is bright and unhappy in her role as a symbolic ruler of Britannia, and takes it out on the Prime Minister by questioning him incessantly about the real state of Britain’s defenses, (How many Nuclear Weapons do we have? What is their mega-tonnage?) Oakes is inserted into London's society by the CIA and becomes acquainted with her Majesty and somewhat woodenly solves the problem. I'll leave you to decide what I mean by woodenly.

Buckley is perhaps trying to write a contrary-mirror satire of John LeCarre spy novels, a writer to whom he has elsewhere shown his disdain. Buckley didn't like the moral ambivalence in The Spy who Came in From the Cold or Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. The West was 100% right to do anything to protect ourselves against Soviet dominion. Since his hero never has any moral doubts, his fiction doesn't really breath.

Buckley is no prig. His alter ego hero Oakes gets laid and drunk with regularity. He has a proper girl back home who he secretly sleeps with, and his prostitutes, (mostly French of course) are happy-go-lucky girls who enjoy their work and live under the dominion of a wise and caring madam. There is no darkness in their lives, at least as far as Oakes is concerned.

In the end, the novel is dated and silly, wrapped up too neatly to take seriously. The premise is brilliant, but in my opinion, he flubs it.

I walked next to William F. Buckley in an airport once, and we chatted, and he was very friendly and engaging. It was in the late 70s and I had very long hair, but I told him I loved Firing Line and always read his columns. He laughed and told me, looking at my hair and sensing my leftwardness I suppose, that I wasn't reading them with the correct attitude.

If you read a summary of his ideas today they are shockingly out of synch with even modern conservative principles. He supported white supremacy and was very homophobic. But then he came out for the legalization of marijuna in 1965, and strongly condemned Bush the Dumber's war in Iraq in his last years. And he argued fairly and entertainingly and explored ideas rather than just positions, and people who disagreed with him had a full opportunity to prevail if they could. And sometimes, when watching him, I think fair-minded people would agree they did prevail and he accepted it. Think about FOX News today. They could learn a lot re-watching old Firing Line shows.

But Saving the Queen is a curiosity for those like myself who were drawn into Buckley's world and want to relive it a little and soak up Buckley's elegant pomposity. But it is not great fiction.