Sunday, March 23, 2008

All Politics is Personal

It was Tip O'Neill, the former Speaker of the House, who once said that all politics is local. With apologies to old Tip, I will go one step further. All politics is personal.

Whatever one's political preferences, who cannot admire Barack Obama's verve, spirit, and oratorical skills? But the words of his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who Obama has revered and trumpeted as his inspiration and spiritual advisor, make one shudder with embarrassment for the candidate even as he attempts to override, excuse, justify, and separate himself from the pastor's hateful rhetoric while avowing his solidarity with the Reverend.

As for me, my reaction is visceral, complicated, entangled with my life's experiences and, therefore, deeply personal, just as Obama's reaction was deeply personal. Of course, I am not running for President and my voice is a tiny whisper compared to his. But I treasure my one vote and my reaction means just as much to me as Obama's reaction means to him.

At the height of the Depression, my family was periodically dispossessed from our apartments and took refuge at my grandparents' house in Brownsville, Brooklyn. My father, a bookkeeper, was serially unemployed, and luckily my grandparents had at least one son who had the means to buy them a tiny detached house where family members economically squashed by the severity of the depression could take refuge.

Frankly, I never knew where the money came from to keep food on the table. I think my uncles might have contributed something, but I was certain that my dad would never have gone on the public dole, which was considered a disgrace. As a child during those times, I never had a sense of deprivation, nor can I remember anyone in the family whining about America's injustice and discrimination, despite the fact that anti-Semitism was rampant in those years and many doors were closed to Jewish employment and housing.

Such bigotry was considered a fact of life and far worse than the brutality and murderous pogroms of Eastern Europe that had driven my grandparents to immigrate to the United States. At least they were alive and free and there were, despite the discrimination, enough avenues of opportunity to assure their survival.

My grandparents had arrived penniless in America around the turn of the twentieth century and had lived here three decades before the depression hit. By then their family of six children had grown to eight, and their sons were slowly finding their way into mainstream America. I had little knowledge of their hardships and struggles and happily passed through infancy and pre-school days in the loving arms of my stay at home mother and dad in blissful ignorance of their economic troubles. When I entered P.S. 183 in Brownsville, we were living through yet another depression whiplash caused by my father’s layoff.

School days always began with the pledge of allegiance and in our weekly assemblies we began the proceedings with the "Star Spangled Banner" and a rendition of "America the Beautiful." We were taught to memorize such poems as "I Am An American" by Elias Lieberman and the last stanza of "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, and all of us knew it was featured on the façade of the Statue of Liberty. Later, when Kate Smith forever memorialized Irving Berlin’s great song "God Bless America", we were taught the words and would belt out the song at assembly with great heartfelt gusto. Hung on the classroom walls, if memory serves, was a picture of George Washington.

All this happened in the height of the depression, when many were unemployed and economically deprived, but somehow the hard times did not translate into any loss of faith in America or in the gospel of freedom, or anything to shatter our belief that our country was still the land of the greatest opportunity. Indeed, as part of the street lore for us kids was that in the throes of an argument you could bet that somewhere in the dialogue of contention were the words, "Oh yeah, well it's a free country and I can say whatever I want."

Sure there were lots of sour voices declaiming that America was the land of the bosses, who were called capitalist pigs, and there were many people marching through the streets carrying the Red Flag replete with hammer and sickle and roaring their protests. We were not what one might call today an activist family. We thought of ourselves as Americans, free citizens in a great land. Never did we question our commitment to our country. Yes, we were going through a bad patch and Franklin Roosevelt told us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself and we believed absolutely in that message. I still do.

While my world was in large part circumscribed and ghettoized by like folks, most of them Jewish, we were not immune to the world outside and ventured out, cautiously to other equally ghettoized neighborhoods, populated by immigrant Italian, Greek, Irish, Black, Chinese and other enclaves were people of like antecedents lived together in exclusive communities. As we moved about, cautiously dipping our psychic toes in these alien neighborhoods, we contemplated these strangers and they contemplated us. At times these contemplations became confrontations and we often retreated. Eventually these ethnic barriers receded somewhat and confrontation became tolerance and tolerance became, albeit grudgingly, acceptance.

At Brooklyn Tech, where I went to high school, every assembly began with "The Lord's Prayer." As a Jewish boy, I never felt uncomfortable reciting the Lord's Prayer. It was simply part of the curriculum and didn't in any way affect or intrude on the possession of my own religious and cultural certainties. I'm sure there were others who felt differently. Nor did it bother me in the least to sing "Silent Night" and other songs of Christian celebration. This was, after all, America and that meant that the flag covered all of us, whatever our race, creed or religion.

It is true that there was a sense of separation between religions and races, and it was appalling to us to see other people persecuted, reviled, and physically abused in America because of these differences. Such abuses were not part of the personal culture of my childhood, except as it was experienced as a Jew. This did not mean that it was completely out of our radar range.

We knew that Harlem was a place for Negroes with its own rich heritage, just as it was true for other ethnic populations throughout the city. Of course, the black and white gulf was wide in my youth. Although I went through all the phases of the New York City school system and later attended New York University, I cannot remember more than one or two black classmates. It was as if we lived on different planets.

But, alas, my father-in-law opened a Stetson Hat store in the heart of Harlem, which in an odd way began my insight into the soul of the Negro experience. No, it will not be within the clichéd expectation of the traditional attitude of guilt or pity for the many insults and terrible persecutions the black people have endured for years. What I saw on the occasions when I helped out in that store on 125th Street was something else, something bigger, something that transcended whatever I felt before or since.

The hat was an essential accoutrement of a finished gentleman in the days when I worked in the store. It defined a sense of completeness and dignity, and the black men who came into that store brought with them a solemn dignity, a sense of self-worth and elegance that was powerful and intimidating. These were men who held their heads high with an intrinsic pride in themselves that nothing on earth could possibly dismantle. As they looked in the mirror to see themselves in their hats, I could feel the power of their dignity and knew they had the pride and fortitude to stare down any slight that might come their way.

I felt certain that these men defined themselves as successful, assured, perhaps even superior, since they had weathered all the storms that had tried to thwart them and their ancestors along the way to this moment. It was a lot more than simply a hat that these men were buying and, I must admit, I felt small in their presence and, at the same time, admiration and respect. Believe me, I am not exaggerating my reaction. I felt it then and I feel it now and it will forever influence my attitude toward these people who had discovered the powerful weapon of dignity.

I know. I know. People will say I am romanticizing, ignoring the damaging realities of black persecution and years of cruel and debilitating treatment at the hands of an indifferent white culture. It is true that I do ignore traditional sociological assumptions. But I am moved by what my eyes saw and my heart told me and that is that human dignity trumps self-pity and the culture of victimhood.

These proud men in their wonderful hats spoke eons about the black experience. These hats were not made to be doffed to self-acclaimed superiority. Indeed, they were not there to be doffed to anyone. I am not an invisible man, their demeanor told me. I am a person, a somebody.

Of course, these reflections are purely personal (and political), but Reverend Wright's words have offended me so deeply that I am literally paralyzed by grief and embarrassment for Barack Obama. God Damned America, Wright preached to a cheering congregation. I am insulted, chagrined, and disappointed by Obama's reaction, and I have searched myself to the core to contemplate its meaning, and this essay is a modest attempt to explain it to myself and others who will take the time to read it. Yes, all politics is personal. It surely is.

Audacity means boldness and daring, not rationalization of the unacceptable.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Five Best: A novelist picks his favorite works about ambition, political or otherwise

By Edmund Morris
Random House, 1999

Edmund Morris, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for his life of Theodore Roosevelt, was for his next book given unusual access to Ronald Reagan. Morris later admitted that he was baffled by the president, and the result was this somewhat bizarre "biography." Reagan, I believe, was far more nuanced and subtle than the media ever grasped. Although Morris might have glimpsed the power and ambition behind the mask, I suspect that he knew he couldn't quite harvest the man's essence. Thus he attempted to get at the Reagan story in an unusual way, creating a kind of Greek chorus and introducing himself as a fictional character in the narrative. He was naturally excoriated by critics and the Reagan family, but even though Dutch may be dubious as a nonfiction work, it is insightful and deeply compelling.

Ten North Frederick
By John O'Hara
Random House, 1955

It never ceases to amaze me how much obscene enjoyment modern critics get out of pummeling the work of John O'Hara. In his day, O'Hara (1905-70) was the darling of the literati. His stories in The New Yorker were roundly praised, and understandably so: O'Hara's stories were some of the best in the language, and his novels, such as Butterfield 8 (1935) and From the Terrace (1958), still resonate. So does Ten North Frederick, a novel about political ambition thwarted, about the scandals and dark secrets of a political candidate and his family.

The David Story
Translation by Robert Alter
Norton, 1999

The Old Testament story of David remains one of the most powerful narratives of political ambition ever written. From David's arrival onstage as a teenager who kills and beheads Goliath to his political and romantic intrigues -- first as a musical favorite of King Saul, later as a hunted renegade and ruthless warrior and eventually as the undisputed king of Israel -- this story of a flawed, anointed golden boy makes most modern thrillers seem like a walk in the park. Robert Alter's translation is accessible, scholarly and appealing, regardless of whether you regard the story of David as divine revelation or merely a corking good yarn.

The Rise of Silas Lapham
By William Dean Howells

The title of The Rise of Silas Lapham is a supreme irony, since the novel actually deals with a self-made industrialist who slips from the high rung of success and power just as he attempts to enter the exclusive precincts of Boston's class-conscious and snobbish elite. The story is also a rich portrayal of a marriage in midlife and provides wonderful insights into the relationship of a devoted father to his two beloved daughters. The Rise of Silas Lapham is a testament to Howells's genius and an excellent place to start for anyone interested in discovering an author whose reputation has mysteriously lapsed but who was, in the dwindling days of the 19th century and the early days of the 20th, one of the most popular, respected and influential writers in America.

The Red and the Black
By Stendhal

One has to work hard and long to find a novel more perceptive about the complex nature of ambition than this book by the French author Henri Beyle, writing under the nom de plume Stendhal. Julien Sorel, of peasant origins, burning with post-Napoleonic hero worship, reaches for upward mobility through the favors of his two formidable mistresses, who help propel him to great heights of power and influence. When one of the women, obsessed with Sorel and inflamed with unrequited love, tries to topple him from his perch, he plots her murder. Like any great novel, The Red and the Black echoes down the years -- especially today, when political ambition rages among the red and the blue.

Mr. Adler's novels include The War of the Roses and Random Hearts. His latest, Funny Boys, will be published by Overlook later this month.

Friday, March 14, 2008

People are always asking me two questions (Part Two)

2. How did you get your first novel published?

Every published writer will tell a different story. Some will laud their agent for "recognizing their talent" and fighting for its publication. Others will cite a perceptive editor (perceptive in that he or she chose the writer's work for publication.) Some will cite contacts or connections and networking. In today's world where technology has made it almost respectable to self-publish, writers will tell other stories.

Here is my story.

I was over forty years old. I had a young family to support. My writing skills enabled me to set up my own Advertising and Public Relations agency in Washington D.C. I bought radio stations. I put a television station on the air in a small market, Hagerstown, Maryland. Yet, money aside, I considered myself a failure, a traitor to my calling.

I continued to write my novels and short stories before going to work, but I could not get them published. I was drowning in rejections. I could not get an agent. In "Part One" I talked about that quote from Macbeth about which seed would grow. Mine wasn't growing. I was fallow. Until.......

One day a man walked into my agency and asked if we promoted books. His name was John David Garcia, and he had written a philosophical treatise called The Moral Society. It was published by a small publisher in Philadelphia but was not being promoted. He asked if my agency promoted books. I said we promoted everything, although real estate was our forte.

He asked how much it would cost.

Talk about "eureka" moments. Like in the comics I saw the balloon rise above my head.

I told him that we would promote his book at no cost, providing his little publisher Whitman Press would publish my first novel which had been written years before. No advance required. He said he would check with the publisher. He came back with an answer: If the publisher liked it, he would publish it.

The publisher liked it. I was in paradise.

As for John David Garcia, my agency did promote his book, but with limited success. It was a book designed by John to, hopefully, change the world. It was brilliant, inspiring and offered a set of ethical and moral principles that would indeed create a better society. This was 1973 and John accurately predicted the burgeoning problems that society would face.

In many ways The Moral Society was a masterpiece. I later learned that John, a brilliant mathematician, had given up his breakthrough technology business to purse the ideal of making the world a "moral society." This was his dream and his calling. He was a technology pioneer and would have surely become a billionaire. Instead, he chose another path and pursued it obsessively to the day he died.

His arrival at my doorstep that day was the greatest stroke of luck that ever crossed my path. Although, in general, I do not believe in miracles, this episode gives me pause. John David Garcia's arrival in my life was my miracle.

The book was, indeed, published under the title "Options." In setting up my website,, and putting my books in other formats, I changed the title to Undertow. Options sounded too much like a financial how-to book.

"Options" was not promoted, not reviewed or adequately distributed. I undertook an author's tour at my own expense that was of little use except to stroke my ego. There were no books in the stores. From a sales point of view it was a disaster.

But I was a published author and that fact gave me a modicum of validation that made my pursuit of an agent and publisher that much more credible. My second novel, Banquet Before Dawn, was published by a large mainstream publisher, Putnam, now owned by a giant conglomerate. They published six of my novels at a time when publishing was still a cottage industry run by book lovers. The notion of "bigger is better" does not apply to the publishing business.

This was not meant to be a "how-to" or "advice to aspiring authors" material. I humbly offer readers a brief glance into my personal experience. The fact is that the business of novel writing is hazardous, difficult and frustrating. It is tied to reader and publisher's whims and attitudes at the time of publication. Note, I said business.

In an age of declining reading habits (and declining profits) where "genre" writing has gained greater respectability and now dominates best seller lists it is an increasingly hard row to hoe for a novelist who eschews genre writing and pursues a more generalist and mainstream approach.

Business aside, the ecstasy is still in the creation. Real writers know this. Thankfully, there will never be a shortage of them.

Monday, March 3, 2008

People are always asking me two questions (Part One)

People are always asking me two questions:

1. How and why did I become a writer?
2. How did I get my first novel published?

Although these questions appear, at first, to be simple and straightforward they are far more complex than they appear. Writers and readers are forewarned, my answers will satisfy few and probably lead to more and more questions. Nevertheless, after a lifetime in the writing game, I guess I should give the answers a college try.

1. How and why did I become a writer?

The term writer is enormously imprecise. I define myself primarily as a writer of the imagination, a story teller, a fantasizer. Some describe such work as "creative writing." My principal medium is the novel and the short story and, occasionally, the stage play, poetry and lyrics. Although I have been a journalist, reporter and essayist, these pursuits are peripheral to my main occupation.

One doesn't "become" my kind of writer. It is a calling, just as painters, sculptors, composers and others have been compelled to create in their mediums, my kind of writer knows in his gut early on that there is no way to thwart such a calling. Screenwriters call such obsessive scribblers, "real writers". I think they're on to something. Nor am I unique.

There are thousands, perhaps millions of us out there, all "called" to create our works of the imagination, invent characters, tell stories, construct parallel worlds in our minds, describe other lives and other places, perhaps offer our deepest personal and cherished insights, advice and ideas through this miraculous one-on-one human communication system.

At this moment these millions are hard at work plying their "creative" calling. You'll find them in thousands of College Creative Writing Classes, alone in kitchens, basements, attics, coffee shops, on park benches, wherever writing tools can be placed, all grinding away in their various languages, finding words to tell their "made-up" stories, fashion their parallel universes out of the rich soil of their imaginations.

They know who they are.

Above all, they want others to read their works, many others. They long to have their creative material distributed by publishers, validated by so-called critics, enjoy the applause of their peers, be lionized, saluted, admired and rewarded by fame and fortune. Believe me, I know the urges.

This said, I must confess that I haven't got a clue as to how fate conspired to provide me with such a calling. My mother was a great reader of novels. My father rarely read a book. I confess I was a hungry reader of fiction from the fairy tales of Grimm and Anderson to the myriad boy's adventure series of the day. I vividly recall my treks to the Stone Avenue library in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The journey took me through streets crowded with pushcarts and people, a lost world. At the library I went through shelves of adventure series such as The Boy Allies, Bomba the Jungle Boy, The Hardy Boys and on and on to children's classics and beyond.

But an avid reader does not a writer make. If I had the writer's bug, I didn't know it until I came face to face with my freshman English teacher at NYU, Dr. Don Wolfe. Yes, teachers do inspire. It is, indeed, a noble calling and a great teacher and mentor is a lifetime gift.

Dr. Wolfe would assign subjects for "compositions," essays and stories and would diligently read them and scratch pithy comments in the margins. He was a great proponent of "vivid imagery" and "strong language". Occasionally his comments used the magic word "excellent," balm to the soul of a seventeen year old.

He did not advise me to pursue a career in writing. I was certainly not a "star" student and I doubt that even Dr. Wolfe knew at the time how much he had changed my life. At the end of that first year in his class in Freshman English, I suspected that I had chosen a career. I did not know at the time that the career had me in its sights.

Another course I was pursuing at the time was "The European Novel" given by a Professor Ranney. We were assigned certain works of Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenieff, Anatole France, Thackeray and many others. I was a subway student riding the rails from my parents' apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to the Bronx campus of NYU.

The ride took about an hour and a half. It turned out to be the most glorious journeys of my youth. I wasn't on a subway train. My world was in London, Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Perhaps this is where I discovered the true power of the novel to transport the mind to other places and other times, to meet other people and involve oneself in their insights, suffering, joys, victories and defeats.

All the filmed images ever contrived, however spectacular, cannot, in my opinion, ever supplant the power of words to move, expand, penetrate and enrich the reality of the imagination.

It was after graduation at NYU that I discovered that Dr. Wolfe was teaching a creative writing class at The New School in Manhattan. I enrolled eagerly. At the time I was pursuing a career as Copy Boy at the New York Daily News, mostly night side, but that is another story.

My fellow students were a polyglot assembly of all ages, genders and colors, all burning with the desire to write fiction, tell their stories.

Each weekly session was devoted to reading our works. Dr. Wolfe would offer his critique and fellow students would offer theirs. It was a time of great ferment and uncertainty. World War 2 had ended just four years before and returning vets and others were trying to find their footing in the new post-war reality.

In my entire life, I doubt if I will ever find an assemblage of "real" writing talent as I found at The New School in those years. Mario Puzo was a classmate. William Styron was attending. But there were others who never became as well known. Indeed, many of them were never published beyond those books created under the auspices of The New School. Reading those short stories today, I am astounded by the display of pure writing talent.

Some of us would meet during the week to read our material to each other. We would meet in kitchens and living rooms and in cramped apartments, each of us burning to read our stories to each other. In our critiques we were always supportive, encouraging and collegial. There was no sense of competition. We knew exactly what was in each of our hearts and minds. We were pursuing our passion, our calling.

Those sessions both at The New School and in the rooms of fellow students were life-changing and momentous. Except for those writers who were later to become "famous," I have no idea what happened to the others who were, if not a greater talent than those mentioned, but certainly, to my mind, of equal caliber.

It fills me with great sadness when I read the marvelous stories contained in one of our anthologies published at the time. It was titled "Which Grain Will Grow," the title based on a quote from Macbeth "If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not then speak to me." I can only imagine the disappointments, rejections and defeats that must have plagued these fellow writers and forced many of them off the path of their true calling.

I was certainly the youngest of the group, 21 at the time, but I knew in those years that I had found my calling. All these years later I am still at it, pursuing the same schedule as I have for decades.

Where have all my fellow writer's gone? Are they alive? Are they still writing? I grieve for them and their dead dreams.

As I suggested earlier, I know this does not fully answer the question posed, but it does prove the old adage that it's not always talent that is the final arbiter in the game of life, it is luck..... as you will see.