A journalist's edgy enthusiasmsI tend to measure all literary journalists against Joseph Mitchell, who was a literary journalist before anyone and certainly any self-respecting journalist ever thought of putting the two words together. This is no more fair than measuring a novelist against Mark Twain or Henry James, I concede, but when you find your rock in the firmament you tend to cling to it.
Ron Rosenbaum, I'm happy to say while mixing my metaphors, is more than fit to touch the hem of Mitchell's garment. Their writing differs, of course. Mitchell sinks more completely, almost with abandon, into his subjects, and Rosenbaum, though he doubtless would deny it, sometimes writes with a sense of knowingness edging into mockery that is foreign to The Master. But all in all, Rosenbaum's collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms, is a worthy bookshelf companion to Mitchell's McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and Joe Gould's Secret.
Rosenbaum prefers the term "narrative nonfiction" to literary journalism, which, as he correctly says, sounds too highfalutin. In a foreword, filmmaker Errol Morris himself something of a narrative nonfictionist nails Rosenbaum pretty squarely by describing his "grand scheme . . . to squash grand schemes, to defeat our natural tendency to retreat into easy answers and bogus explanations." Morris refers to Rosenbaum's metaphor of "the lost safe-deposit box" a device that Rosenbaum used in his Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil "a metaphor for truth that exists but may be beyond our grasp."Well, truth, schmooth sometimes you just want to have fun. One of the book's chief pleasures is learning about all sorts of quirky ideas and the oddball characters who believe in them.
There is, for instance, the Rev. Willard Fuller, a dental faith healer with the inspiring message, "The Lord's out there fillin' teeth!" Indeed he is, and the good news is that he doesn't require an actual laying on of hands to fill cavities, straighten crooked teeth, or grow new ones. It seems the Lord also works through the U.
Then there's Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, much more high-profile and prosperous than the Rev. Fuller but, in his own way, no less deranged. Asserting that he documents what he calls, without a scintilla of irony, the "passion for privacy" of the rich and famous, Leach grows indignant when Rosenbaum suggests that Lifestyles could be considered "porn for the wealth-obsessed."Not deranged, but certainly monomaniacal, is Ralph Waldo Emerson III in his quest to unseat Charlie Douglass, the King of Canned Laughter, with "real" canned laughter. Trouble is, he's too good. His canned laughter does sound more natural than Douglass's, but the networks don't like it because it's too different from Douglass's more artificial-sounding laughs, which audiences have grown used to.
And deranged on an empyrean scale are the scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or at least many of them. In fact, there appears to have been some sort of Curse of the Scrolls that has driven a disproportionate number of scholars to drink, depression, or religious dementia. Those who weren't crazy were consumed by ambition or a Fred C. Dobbs-like passion for secrecy. "The Riddle of the Scrolls" is one of the best pieces in the book. In it, Rosenbaum gives a brief rundown of the loony crusades to find the Ark of the Covenant and thereby forcibly bring on the Messiah, Judgment Day, or some other calamitous cosmic event satisfying to the souls of moonstruck religionists of various stripes. But in the course of his research, I wish he had learned that it is the Book of Revelation, not Revelations.
This is not just a litany of wackos, far from it. All sorts of people and topics are covered, from Mr. Whipple of "don't squeeze the Charmin" fame to Yale's Skull and Bones society. He gives a nice appreciation of Ben Hecht, one of the first Americans to raise his voice about the Holocaust when it was happening, and one of Murray Kempton, "our Gibbon.""The Catcher in the Driveway" is another superior piece that stands out from an excellent bunch. It is about not just his attempt to find J.
D. Salinger's home, and Salinger himself, if possible, but about explaining the meaning of Salinger's isolation and silence and "the compelling seductiveness of the silence." In the latter goal, at least, he succeeds.
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.