I first came across Joe Eszterhas in the early 1970s when the Baltimore Sun asked me to review his debut book, Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse. It was a spellbinding book and I gave it a terrific review. Shortly after that, Eszterhas dropped off the literary landscape (except for a book about the Kent State killings and a novel) and surfaced in Hollywood where he began a career as a screenwriter. In the nearly 30 years since, he has written 17 original screenplays (and doctored countless others), including the blockbuster psychological thriller Basic Instinct, which made actress Sharon Stone an overnight star.
Just when I had given up hope of ever seeing another book from Eszterhas (why should he spend his time on a 400-page book for dubious financial reward when he can easily collect a million dollars-plus for a 100-page movie script?), along comes a 415-page monster of a book titled American Rhapsody.
I won't keep you in suspense: It is the best book I have read in 10 years, maybe even longer. Using the research skills he learned as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, the ear for dialogue and dramatic structure he learned writing movie scripts, and the sense of right and wrong he developed during the head-busting 1960s, he has written an epic analysis of the past decade (the Bill Clinton years, for those of you who have been out of the universe) that is every bit as perverse as it is brilliant.
Writing in the tradition of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, who sometimes blend fact with fiction and personal observation, Eszterhas has given us a look at the decade we thought we knew, but didn't, if the truth be told. To his credit, he lets us know, by the use of bold typeface, whenever he delves into fiction and that is almost always to give voice to the "Twisted Little Man" who dwells deep inside his writer's psyche.
Eszterhas's irreverent take on the Clinton/ Monica scandal is shocking, mind-numbing and filled with explicit details that will make you squirm, as will his psychosexual explanation of Clinton's behavior while in office. No one of importance from the past decade escapes scrutiny, and that includes James Carville, Hillary Clinton, Larry Flynt, and Sharon Stone, to name a few. Richard Nixon even makes a cameo appearance, along with his "Monica."America has been lucky in that each decade has produced a writer who has been able to put his finger on the nation's pulse. This time it is Joe Eszterhas.
James L. Dickerson is the author of numerous books, including Goin' Back to Memphis and That's Alright, Elvis, both recently re-issued in paperback.