In 1981, using the Freedom of Information Act, UC Irvine professor Jon Wiener obtained 82 pages from the FBI’s file on John Lennon. Problem was, 199 pages were not released, and many of the “public” pages were totally or partially blacked out. Those documents turned up in Wiener’s 1983 Come Together: John Lennon in His Time. Wiener’s follow-up, Gimme Some Truth, is a documentary of, in his words, “a rock & roll Watergate,” chronicling the FBI’s Lennon–surveillance/harassment operation of the early ’70s, followed by decades of cover-up.
Wiener’s annotations on declassified documents capture the FBI at its Monty Pythonesque best. Agents printed a Lennon “wanted” poster though Lennon had, Wiener notes, “one of the most famous faces in the Western world.” But they put the wrong face on the poster. Possibly to clear up any confusion, a separate FBI memo manages to identify Lennon as “formerly with a group known as the Beatles.” On a more sinister note, another memo, initialed by J. Edgar Hoover himself, vows to “neutralize” Lennon.
The FBI’s paranoia is all pretty funny, in a sick way. But what’s most amazing is that there was ever a time when rock music was so vital, so relevant, that a single musician could provoke the authorities to such ridiculous lengths. Can anyone imagine a full-scale, two-year FBI surveillance of Fred Durst? Gimme Some Truth’s greatest value is as a document of an era when one man and his music had the power to change people’s minds.
BODEGA DREAMS | By ERNESTO QUIÑONEZ Vintage Books | 224 pages | $12 paperback
Just as a microscope finds a lush world in a drop of pond water, novelist Ernesto Quiñonez homes in on Spanish Harlem. Through Quiñonez’s eyes, his Puerto Rican neighborhood teems with personalities familiar yet unique, intrigues to rival Peyton Place, and a history layered with both optimism and oppression.
Chino is an artistic young college kid determined to better himself and move away, especially now that his wife is pregnant. But the tentacles of family and friends are impossible to unloose: Debts are owed, loyalties are sacred, blood is blood. It’s this tension, between Chino’s dreams and his perceived duty, that drives the first-person narrative through a hardboiled plot featuring the powerful local drug dealer Bodega. This onetime revolutionary is the unlikely hope of the neighborhood, an idealist who, via his crooked real estate dealings, plans to change East Harlem for the better by providing jobs and affordable housing.
As a thriller, Quiñonez’s overly complex scheme is hard to buy and pales in contrast to the characters themselves, each a mix of good and bad, holy and hellish. His flat, short sentences occasionally arc like broken live wires: “It was always easy to get into fights if you hated yourself . . . You lived in a place where vacant lots grew like wild grass does in Kansas.” Chino, despite living through more in a week than most of us do in a year, nonetheless remains in essence a sweet naïf. We want him to succeed and hope there’ll be a next installment.
SCAR VEGAS AND OTHER STORIES | By TOM PAINE | Harcourt Brace | 215 pages | $22 hardcover
The next time you find yourself wishing justice were meted out here on Earth, pick up Tom Paine’s Scar Vegas and Other Stories, a sharp and beautiful debut collection that addresses as many geopolitical and cultural outrages as can fit in 10 stories. And yet, for all the continents and humors and predicaments, Paine never clobbers us with social conscience; he is much too funny for that, presenting anarchist skate-rats, cross-dressing Marines and, in the title story, the sad, skinny white guy in Vegas you never notice, with equanimity and grace and such perfect pitch I am tempted to call him a decathlete of the genre.
No one “discovers” himself in these stories, which are refreshingly devoid of the usual confessions or cathartic moments. Instead, Paine creates characters who believe their identities to be bedrock, then throws on the metaphorical ton of bricks: The shipwrecked golden boy who’d confidently joked that “the world loved him” is rescued by Haitian refugees who view him as a prospective savior.
A former Marine who teaches writing at Middlebury, Paine carves plot with X-Acto skill. His characters never shed their morality, even when the paradigm they operate within threatens to shun them (or worse). Like Ken Saro-Wiwa, the executed Nigerian activist to whom Paine dedicates his book, they stand up for what they believe in, or rather, the one thing they cannot live without. Whether it’s lingerie, a dead baby or the inflated memory of lost love, the characters in Scar Vegas fall or rise clutching their chosen salvation.
PURE POETRY | By BINNIE KIRSHENBAUM | Simon & Schuster | 208 pages | $22 hardcover
Pure Poetry reads like a journal — full of candid, sexually brazen (if self-indulgent) ramblings from narrator Lila Moscowitz, a brassy pop-poet with hair the shade of “black cherry” from the bottle and a two-page spread in People magazine. (Comparing her gynecologist to her psychologist, Lila muses, “I’m quite fond of both these men, although I prefer it when the gynecologist does the probing.”) Infamous for her “smutty” sonnets, Lila is on deadline for a new collection over which she has writer’s block; gearing up for her dreaded 38th birthday, she dissects her troubled marital past with her cross-dressing shrink, Leon.
Comparisons to Fear of Flying are inevitable, and indeed Kirshenbaum seems to fancy herself a sort of modern-day Erica Jong. But a neurotic, wise-cracking Jewish-American beauty with a seemingly insatiable sexual appetite lacks the shock value it had when Isadora Wing first appeared in 1973. Much has changed since the glory days of the “zipless fuck.” In an era when most women now wear button-down jeans anyway (the Gap-less fuck?), Kirshenbaum sounds more like a hybrid of Tama Janowitz and Helen Fielding, and Lila, though at times endearing, is often just plain whiny.
At best, Pure Poetry is cute and mildly entertaining. But Kirshenbaum’s characters lack insight and depth. Even Lila’s own journey seems hackneyed; she’s just another beautiful, sassy and successful 30-ish New Yorker drowning in discontent — the stuff of Sex and the City. And the steady stream of raunchy one-liners eventually wears thin.
There’s a certain irony in William S. Burroughs’ Last Words, a collection of journal entries written during the final nine months of the author’s life. This has less to do with what the book contains than with its very existence, since Burroughs once defined language as a virus and urged his readers to “rub out the word.” In some sense, Burroughs’ entire career can be read as an attempt to do precisely that, from his experimental use of cut-ups — verbal collages that sought to break down the ordered circuitry of narrative in favor of something more intuitive — to his eventual shift from writing to painting, a medium in which words don’t figure at all. With Last Words, though, Burroughs returns to language as a way of summing up his existence and, in so doing, ends up highlighting the contradictions of silence as a literary technique.
Journals, of course, are nothing new in Burroughs’ oeuvre. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he kept a series of notebooks that blended pictures with notes on art and experience, to present a kaleidoscopic vision of his mind. Yet Last Words proves a far more hermetic effort, in which the layers of Burroughs’ intellect collapse on themselves in a kind of mental claustrophobia, making him a prisoner of his own ideas. He repeatedly returns to subjects that have long possessed him, from his recurrent rants against the War on Drugs to the “No glot. Clom Fliday” refrain he first used 40 years ago in Naked Lunch. The effect is less enlightening than deadening, as if we’re looking not at the process of personal discovery, but the reverse: a life as it runs down. To his credit, though, Burroughs understands this. “Thinking is not enough . . .,” he notes in the diary’s closing entry, written just two days before his death. “There is no final enough of wisdom, experience — any fucking thing.”