For some authors, it’s always personal¯history and the human condition combining to be about, mostly, them. James Carroll, for instance. Perhaps it’s a kind of paranoia: In Constantine’s Sword , Carroll seemed to think that the whole history of Christianity was a conspiracy to produce the anti-Semitism that justified his abandoning the priesthood. Or perhaps it’s self-promotion: In An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us , Carroll proudly names, as the high point of his life, the moment he embarrassed his father by preaching against the Vietnam War to a congregation of his father’s military friends. Or maybe it’s just an inability to stand outside the self: In his latest book, House of War , Carroll seems to read the history of the Pentagon as a personal affront¯even while describing the hours he spent there as a boy in "the largest playhouse in the world," while his father, an air force officer, worked at building the "American Empire."
Michael Tomasky, editor of the American Prospect , gave the book an interesting review in the New York Times on Sunday. Tomasky makes a few desultory gestures toward the required Bush-hatred, but the review is, in the end, quite negative: "Dean Acheson, who pushed Truman to enunciate the doctrine, feared the moral consequence of inaction. Carroll rebukes the moral consequence of the action. Are there any grounds on which these two moral schemas can agree? It’s a question we’ll have to find answers for as the present administration leaves the stage, and as its failed moral certainty yields to more nuanced conversations. Carroll doesn’t do nuance . . . . House of War should be read and taken seriously by those who will disagree with its argument and who are too sure of the righteousness of their views. One can’t help wishing at the same time that Carroll were a little less sure of the righteousness of his."
There’s something about self-absorption that always seems to come out this way, and that line¯"Carroll doesn’t do nuance"¯will probably be the man’s epitaph. It’s sad, really, for James Carroll could always write well: He had genuine talent, but it seems to have added up to very little.
Michael Tomasky’s review aside, haven’t the book reviews in the New York Times gotten more and more annoying? There’s something so mechanical about the counterintuitiveness with which the newspaper’s reviews are assigned. The notion of picking someone inappropriate as the reviewer starts out as clever, but it quickly descends into a mere automatic trick of taking a book and getting the most opposite person the editors know to review it¯particularly when the universe of people the editors know is so small.
Take, for example, Ana Marie Cox’s review of Katha Pollitt’s new book, Virginity or Death! Cox writes reasonably well: "There’s a certain preserved-in-amber quality to some of the thinking here. For example, Pollitt herself confesses that the opinions that underpinned her most controversial column¯against displaying American flags after 9/11¯were formed during the Vietnam War; she despairs that her pro-flag daughter cannot see ‘the connection between waving the flag and bombing ordinary people half a world away.’ I’m not sure if she’s right about that, but it’s significant that Pollitt would see the world outside her window through a scrim of 30-year-old lefty rhetoric. She simply rejects the argument that the meaning of the flag (like the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was composed by a 19th-century socialist) might change." As Glenn Reynolds points out , that rhetoric is actually forty years old, but Cox catches something of the Pollitt problem.
At the same time, there’s no sense in the review that the reviewer’s job is to stand outside the fray of feminisms and describe the battlefield. Cox understands, correctly, that her job is only to be the counter-principle to Pollitt, and so the review is nothing more than another instance of the battle.
The same impulse produces my old acquaintance Norah Vincent’s review of Seminary Boy by John Cornwell. The book is, by most accounts (I haven’t yet read it), an interesting report on the author’s Catholicism as a child and a seminarian¯not, apparently, the kind of rage against the Church that produced from Cornwell the diatribe of Hitler’s Pope . And, for Vincent, that’s exactly the problem: A self-described "recovering Catholic," she’s outraged that the book doesn’t go far enough in demolishing the faith. After reading the book, she concludes: "There is nothing surprising or enlightening here¯just run-of-the-mill Catholic misery." For Vincent, it all comes down to sex¯about which Christianity is wrong, no matter what it does. When the seminary boys, mewed up together, manifest homoeroticism, that’s a sign for Vincent of the creepiness of the Catholic Church¯which, by the way, is to be condemned for its refusal to bless homosexuality. This isn’t serious book reviewing. It’s treating the life of ideas and prose as a ping-pong game: The author serves up a book, and the reviewer tries to smash it back.
In addition to which :
Father Richard John Neuhaus ventures into the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Wednesday, July 5, for a talk and book signing at Barnes & Noble. That is at 2289 Broadway at 82nd Street, beginning at 7pm. The book is Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth . He says he would be pleased to see you there. For information, call 212 362-8835.
Of course we must work, and work assiduously, for better understanding of Islam and with Islam. But that better understanding begins with a relentlessly honest appreciation of the obstacles to anything like peaceful coexistence. Helping us to make that beginning is the great contribution of “Islam and Us” by George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia. “Islam and Us” is among the compelling and informative articles in the June/July issue of First Things . Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?