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Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer

William O'Rourke

Publication Year: 2012

William O'Rourke's singular view of American life over the past 40 years shines forth in these short essays on subjects personal, political, and literary, which reveal a man of keen intellect and wide-ranging interests. They embrace everything from the state of the nation after 9/11 to the author's encounter with rap, from the masterminds of political makeovers to the rich variety of contemporary American writing. His reviews illuminate both the books themselves and the times in which we live, and his personal reflections engage even the most fearful events with a special humor and gentle pathos. Readers will find this richly rewarding volume difficult to put down.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Break Away Books

Frontispiece, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-x


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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. xv-xxv

The first confession I have to make is that Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer is misnamed. Technically, I haven’t been a freelancer all these years; I’ve been a moonlighter. Since 1974, I have been employed by one institution of higher learning or another. Mea culpa.
But, in the world of words, moonlighter hasn’t been much used, if at all, when it comes to those who write for the public prints. That...

part one

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Here's Mine

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pp. 1-16

I was home in South Bend, Indiana, in my attic office, working on a novel involving coal miners, set against the backdrop of the 1984–85 National Union of Miners strike in England. The phone rang and it was Eric Sandeen, the oldest child of my friends, Eileen and Ernie Sandeen. Eric, a professor of American Studies at the University of Wyoming, was in town to go to the Notre Dame-University of Southern California...

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Richard Elman

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pp. 17-20

“Richard Elman, Novelist, Poet and Teacher, is Dead at 63,” I read in the New York Times of January 2. My wife and child and I had just returned from a Christmas trip to California and there was a message on our phone answering machine from Richard’s daughter, which had portended as much. He was in the hospital and things were bad. . . . I hadn’t called her back yet, to hear what I thought must be terrible news....

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Grace Paley

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pp. 21-22

Grace Paley’s opening lines in her story “Wants” would always echo in my mind when I would see her walking up to me on Sixth Avenue, “Hello, my life.” I was a young writer then, residing in Milligan Place around the corner from Grace and her husband Robert Nichols’ apartment on Eleventh street. Donald Barthelme lived across the street from her building. Stanley Kunitz’s townhouse was a block away....

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My Rap Problems- and Yours?

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pp. 23-26

First off, I am an OAF, an older American father. I’ve considered creating an organization, OAFS USA, but I decided I didn’t want to spend a lot of time with geezers like myself. I got married late, in my early forties; back then, my wife-to-be kept pointing out that less than ten percent of men had never been married by age forty. She is an economist, a fan of numbers. A few years after we were married we...

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Arming Yourself for the Outdoors

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pp. 27-29

Having a national parks’ gun-toting provision slapped onto credit card reform legislation isn’t as odd as it might seem. It’s all in the name of freedom. When credit cards went viral over the last three decades they turned individuals into mini-Feds. Anyone could be Alan Greenspan and print money! It’s refreshing to have the money supply be set by your next-door neighbor. Counterfeiting took a big hit when printing...

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Two Midwest Meditations

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pp. 30-41

On the day in 1983 I flew to my high school class’s twentieth reunion in Kansas City, Missouri, three members of my generation were convicted in Goshen, New York, on multiple counts of murder and robbery. Two of them were part of the hardest-core of the white student revolutionary groups of the sixties, remnants of the Weather Underground (an offshoot of SDS); they, along with a few others, including black-nationalist confederates, had taken to “expropriating”...

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Dear Dad

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pp. 42-45

I am struck by the fact that this may be the first time in my fifty-two years of life I have written “Dear Dad,” addressed only you in a letter, not both you and mom, father and mother, parents. “Dear Folks.” I have used that one a lot, not that I have written so many letters all these years....

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Confessions of a Guilty Freelancer

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pp. 46-67

For nearly five years I was a weekly columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. My beat was national politics. For the last three years I appeared in the Sunday paper, the token liberal in the commentary section, there to offer some imperfect balance to a decidedly conservative shipload of pundits. In early September 2005 my column was rather unceremoniously dropped....

part two

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pp. 68-70

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Extreme Makeover: TV Home Improvement from Carter to Bush II

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pp. 71-100

In the mid-1980s, I was sitting in the living room of the first house I ever owned, watching the television show, This Old House, on PBS. Bob Vila was doing a rehab project on Cape Cod. As he would, on occasion, he took a side trip to view other real estate (Vila more often went to factories to see how house products, windows, etc., were made). He went to a home in Hyannis, on the Cape, with a view of the bay. In...

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Five Male chroniclers of Bill Clinton and His World: Christopher Hitchens, Michael Isikoff, Andrew Morton, George Stephanopoulos, Bob Woodward

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pp. 101-118

There are blow jobs, and then there are blow jobs. The volumes at hand deal with both figurative, and literal, examples of the genre. And they manage to range over, as well as map, the landscape of what is loosely called print journalism in book form. They reveal not just hidden agendas, but the transformation journalism has undergone at the end of the twentieth century....

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9/11: What We Saw

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pp. 119-124

Since writing my first television-laden campaign book (Campaign America ’96: The View From the Couch) I have avoided the vice of early morning TV. I listen to the radio, which has become, by default, the generally preferred intellectual medium, providing more information per minute more densely, stripped as it is of the crutch of visual images. But, unfortunately, some visual images are the story....

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Blue & Red America Post September 11th

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pp. 125-132

Shortly after the November 7th, 2000 election, I wrote a commentary for the Chicago Sun-Times that began:

The cliffhanger 2000 election reveals not only a divided government, but a nation divided in a specific way. Looking at the various colored maps of the United States showing states won and lost, it is clear that George W.’s America is Yahoo Nation (not the dot com...

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Virginia Tech

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pp. 133-135

Like so many writers of my generation, I have spent a lot of time in classrooms, teaching creative writing – in my case, over thirty years. I don’t have many rules, being a child of the sixties, but I do have one, at least for undergraduates. In my fiction writing classes, the first day, I tell them my one and only rule: I don’t want them to write about anyone they wouldn’t spend five minutes alone with in a room....

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pp. 136-138

Back in the day, Don Imus’s radio show was local flavor on the New York City-area radio dial. Its appeal was an acquired taste, one of those programs where you could eavesdrop on what seems like personal conversation. It was that you’re-one-of-the-bunch, a part of the in-crowd, atmosphere: listen to the I-Man talk to his friends, and you became one of the friends....

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Susan Braudy: Family Circle

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pp. 139-145

We can’t pick our parents, but it is even more perilous to pick your biographer. Susan Braudy was an unlucky choice, though Jean and Leonard Boudin did not pick her: she volunteered. Leonard Boudin had died by then, and Jean Boudin was, as usual, more generous than leery. Since I once was part of the Boudins’ “Circle,” I am not inclined to be so generous....

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Joe Conason: Big Lies

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pp. 146-149

It is now a truism that there is no liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh broadcasting progressive commentary across the radio airwaves; at least, no liberal with Limbaugh’s vast, national audience. Likewise, in the world of books, there is no liberal Limbaugh, or, for that matter, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, or the half-dozen other right-wing polemical authors of the last decade whose anti-Clinton,...

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Daniel Ellsberg: Secrets

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pp. 150-153

The history of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement has been written in layers, often through autobiography. In Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg adds an important, compelling contribution. Its focus, not unsurprisingly, is on what Ellsberg saw and did during the sixties and early seventies, though bits and pieces of what others were doing can be glimpsed throughout. After nearly thirty years, the whole story is finally getting out....

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John Frohnmayer: Leaving Town Alive

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pp. 154-158

John Frohnmayer, George Bush’s pick, in 1989, for head of the National Endowment for the Arts, a job Frohnmayer kept for the most turbulent two and a half years in the endowment’s near 30-year history, hadn’t voted for the man who selected him. Frohnmayer, a lifelong Republican, couldn’t vote for “a ticket that included Dan Quayle,” he writes in...

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Dick Morris: Off With Their Heads

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pp. 159-163

Once again, Dick Morris is attempting to rain on Bill and Hillary Clinton’s parade. The tabloid revelations about Morris’s dalliance with a forty-something prostitute helped dampen the mood of the 1996 Democratic convention and, since Clinton left office and Hillary joined the Senate, Morris has been giving them raspberries, under the guise of doing commentary, at FOX News....

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Kevin Phillips: American Dynasty (1)

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pp. 164-169

Well, it’s officially the presidential campaign year, and Kevin Phillips has set a high water mark for any other Bush books appearing in 2004 with the publication of American Dynasty. Given its relevance and revelations, no other work is likely to surpass it.
Kevin Phillips is no bomb-thrower, no hot-headed upstart out to make a reputation by means of an inflammatory exposé, but a seasoned,...

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Kevin Phillips: American Theocracy (2)

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pp. 170-173

Kevin Phillips tells us he has been “studying and writing about the emerging Republican presidential coalition for half a century.” He calls his last three books – Wealth and Democracy (2002), which concentrated on how democracies are stressed when income gaps widen, American Dynasty (2004), his dissection and exploration of the Bush...

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Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose: Bushwacked

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pp. 174-177

Molly Ivins, depending on how you look at it, has had the good luck to be in the right place at the right time – in Texas, that is. She, and her sidekick, Lou Dubose, have been able to chronicle the life and career of the forty-third president from the ground up. But, had Al Gore been the favorite candidate of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, this book wouldn’t exist....

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Robert B. Reich: Reason

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pp. 178-181

A presidential campaign year has become, for political books, what Christmas is for toys: a time to sell, when everyone is prepared to buy more than usual. This extended campaign season has been good for the Democrats’s side, producing a number of best sellers: Kevin Phillips’s American Dynasty, Molly Ivins & Lou Dubose’s Bushwacked, as well as insider-fueled books such as Richard...

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David McCullough: John Adams

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pp. 182-186

Of American historians, David McCullough is the most gifted and accomplished storyteller. Throughout his long and distinguished career, he has written books about great achievements of engineering: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, monumental endeavors which take learning, courage, and the labor of many hands. In his latest book, John Adams, he writes about the making of America, an abstraction that became real, took on shape, produced a government...

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Edmund Morris: Theodore Rex

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pp. 187-191

Throughout the 555 riveting pages of action-packed narrative of Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris’s long awaited sequel to his Pulitzer-Prize-winning volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt(1979), one can feel the sense of relief and zest Morris had returning to Teddy Roosevelt as a subject after the morass of conflicting emotions and literary hesitations he displayed in Dutch, his 1999 “memoir” of Ronald Reagan....

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Steve Neal: Happy Days Are Here Again

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pp. 192-196

Steve Neal’s posthumously published history of the 1932 Democratic convention is a public service and a parting gift. Neal leaves the nation and his city with a valuable document, pertinent to the times – given the two political presidential conventions to come this summer – and to the city he loved, detailing the role Chicago played in the beginning of FDR’s road to the presidency....

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Amanda Smith: Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy

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pp. 197-201

Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, was, for the Baby Boom generation, a silent man. He was the quiet, proud father behind his son, John F. Kennedy, at the 1961 inauguration. Then, by the year’s end, an old man struck dumb by a stroke, which incapacitated him until his death in 1969. I can never remember hearing his voice....

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John A. Farrell: Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century

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pp. 202-207

John A. Farrell’s new biography of Tip O’Neill shares more than a passing similarity with another Farrell’s work, James T. Farrell’s multi-volume novel, Studs Lonigan, which detailed in gritty, street-wise prose, the wasted life and dissipated times of William (Studs) Lonigan, a lower-middle-class Irish-Catholic Chicagoan, from 1910 to the early 1930s....

part three

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pp. 208-210

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Raymond Carver: Hemingway Without Money

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pp. 211-218

In November, 1993, I published a review of three books, all related to Raymond Carver, in my local hometown paper, the South Bend Tribune. In another context, I once claimed that reviews were eulogies for books no one reads, but that remark, like most, is never entirely true. In Carver’s case, there will be, has been, an audience for Short Cuts; but for the majority of books, you can count on only one attentive...

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Michael Ryan: Secret Life

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pp. 219-223

It is a strange fact of the nineties that publishing a confessional memoir, detailing subjects that the author considers “degrading” and “shameful,” is a good career move. Michael Ryan’s Secret Life is a very nineties product, insofar as it charts a conversion experience, and life of victimhood, that was caused by a defining event (in his case, molestation by a neighbor) that occurred when the author was five years old,...

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Philip Graham: How to Read an Unwritten Language

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pp. 224-227

Michael Kirby, the narrator of Philip Graham’s intriguing first novel, is a devoted storyteller – as is the author, whose previous volumes are a collection of short stories, The Art of the Knock, and a work of nonfiction, Parallel World. “I’ve always felt that the secret life is available,” Michael begins, “whether on the chipped and lipsticked rim of a coffee cup or in a crumpled tissue’s faint smell of sex, in the smudgy fingerprints...

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Tim O'Brien: In the Lake of the Woods

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pp. 256-231

Tim O’Brien is one of his generation’s most deservedly acclaimed authors. O’Brien’s writing career has recorded both hits, Going After Cacciato (1978), The Things They Carried (1990) and peculiar misses, Northern Lights (1975), The Nuclear Age (1985) – his novels set in America having alternated with, and fared less well than, books that use Vietnam as their subject....

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Peter Dexter: The Paperboy

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pp. 232-235

Peter Dexter, the National Book Award winner for his 1988 novel, Paris Trout, is a no chapter author. His four previous novels (God’s Pocket, Deadwood, Paris Trout, Brotherly Love) and now, The Paperboy, are all rapidly unspooling texts, their scenes, long and short, broken only by the briefest gap of white space (and, in the new novel’s case, an addition of a tiny typographical decoration, a square) – just space enough...

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John Updike: The Afterlife and Other Stories

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pp. 236-239

When speculation is offered on which white male American fiction writer might next be awarded the Nobel Prize, John Updike’s name usually comes up. The Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, who died in 1986, never received one because of his politics (or, more exactly, his country’s politics). One wonders, what would be denying Updike the honor? (Norman Mailer, perhaps, who also impatiently waits in the...

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John McGahern and Colm Tóibín: Collected Stories, The Heather Blazing

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pp. 240-244

On the heels of William Trevor’s Collected Stories, Ireland sends us another: John McGahern’s. That has something to do with the age of both writers (Trevor was born in 1928, McGahern in 1934), but it is also due to the Irish affinity for the modern short story. The daddy of them all, James Joyce’s brief 1914 collection, Dubliners2, has spawned generation upon generation of short stories in this country, as well as in Ireland....

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Jim Crace: Signals of Distress

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pp. 245-248

Jim Crace’s new novel, his fourth, Signals of Distress, takes a step backward in time from his 1991 novel, Arcadia, from the twentieth century to the nineteenth. Arcadia was anachronistic in many ways, a quasi-allegorical tale of life and death, as well as a rich depiction of twentieth-century English commerce and culture, written in a style that seemed at odds with its more contemporary subjects. An award-winning English...

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Robert Olen Butler: They Whisper

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pp. 249-252

Robert Olen Butler’s literary career illuminates a number of salient facts about our late-twentieth-century world of writing. Butler published six novels between 1981 and 1989, but it took his remarkable 1992 collection of short stories, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize, to make the literary world truly take note....

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Richard Ford: Independence Day

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pp. 253-257

Richard Ford’s brilliant, engrossing new novel, Independence Day, is, according to its publisher “the long-awaited sequel” to Ford’s 1986 novel, The Sportswriter, though that novel did not seem to cry out for, or promise, a sequel. The new novel, Independence Day, most assuredly, does. The Sportswriter was one of the few successful attempts to “break out” a literary writer, give him a larger audience immediately, and this was...

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Harvey Jacobs: American Goliath

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pp. 258-266

Satire often has two faces: one is Swiftian – savage – the other is Thurberesque – lovable. Among famous contemporary satirists, one might think of the face of, say, Andy Rooney, or, less well-known, the author at hand, novelist Harvey Jacobs. The Swiftian sort of satire is scalding: it wants to burn what it satirizes from off the face of the earth. The Thurber sort, the Andy Rooney sort, couldn’t live without what it makes fun of, since it needs the material for its own humor, amusement....

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Thomas Keneally: American Scoundrel

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pp. 267-270

Thomas Keneally likes to write about rogues with hearts of gold, bounders who do well by their fellow citizens in times of great crisis. Keneally’s Booker-Prize-winning novel, Schindler’s Ark, which became the basis of the film Schindler’s List, made this clear. His rollicking, captivating new book, American Scoundrel, focuses on Daniel Sickles, the indefatigable son of corrupt Tammany Hall, who was notorious when young, and whose fame only grew greater as he lived to a very ripe old...

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John L'Heureux: The Miracle

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pp. 271-277

John L’Heureux is a member of an endangered species. He was born in 1934 and has been a fairly prolific writer throughout his life. His first book was a volume of poems, Quick as Dandelions, published in 1964. Sixteen other books have followed, mainly fiction. L’Heureux was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1965, and he left the order in 1971. Those dates, more or less, mirror the time span in his new novel, The Miracle.

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Toby Olson and Ellen Akins: At Sea, Public Life

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pp. 278-281

These two novels demonstrate two levels of ambition: One, Public Life, gears up; and the other, At Sea, gears down.
Widely praised young writer Ellen Akins, now living in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, leaps upon a very large stage in her third novel, Public Life. It is replete with social issues and full of national and international intrigue, all explored through the private life and career of Ann Matter, media adviser to Henry Anderson – a U.S. presidential candidate who wins the race....

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Pinckney Benedict: Dogs of God

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pp. 282-286

First novels, traditionally, are sensitive reads – more than vaguely autobiographical, saddled with protagonists who bear a shouting distance resemblance to the authors. This first novel, by the young, gifted short-story-writer, Pinckney Benedict, recipient of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, among other prizes, could be one of the first of a trend initiated by a new generation of twenty-something male writers (Benedict was born in 1964). The new trend is to skip over the sensitive...

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Rick Bass: Platte River

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pp. 287-291

Rick Bass’s Platte River is a collection of three longish stories – not novellas, as the publisher claims – which have been previously published in the Mississippi River, the Quarterly, and the Paris Review. For what those three quarterlies cost, they are now available in a single volume, handsomely produced by Seymour Lawrence....

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Michael Stephens: The Brooklyn Book of the Dead

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pp. 292-295

A handful of years ago, novelist Mary Gordon published a piece in the New York Times Book Review lamenting what she calculated as the small number (actually none, excepting herself) of Irish-American novelists among her contemporaries.
Letters to the editor followed, citing a couple dozen Irish-American writers of fiction born around, or after, 1945 that she had overlooked. One of the most prominent, on the longer, more generous list,...

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Graham Swift: Last Orders

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pp. 296-303

The title of the English writer Graham Swift’s new novel, his sixth, Last Orders, echoes moodily down a number of different dark paths. It has three meanings, at least. The first is the novel’s inert, diseased protagonist’s (butcher Jack Arthur Dodds, whose cremated remains are delivered on the novel’s first page and disposed of on the last) last death-bed request, his final orders, to hurl his ashes into the sea; the...

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Bob Shacochis: Swimming in the Volcano

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pp. 304-307

Bob Shacochis has been regarded as his generation’s expatriate chronicler of the Caribbean ever since his American Book Award-winning collection of short stories, Easy in the Island, was published in 1985. Another strong collection, The Next New World, followed, but Shacochis’s many fans have been impatiently awaiting the appearance of his long-promised first novel. That novel is Swimming in the Volcano, and I am happy to report that it fulfills one’s highest expectations....

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Willie Morris: New York Days

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pp. 308-311

American journalism during the 1960s and early 1970s enjoyed a golden period. Willie Morris’s valuable new memoir, New York Days, captures that time of literary fecundity, before it withered under the pitiless glare of television, and was smothered by the creeping vines of VCRs.
One often overlooked reason for that flowering of nonfiction was the redoing of obscenity laws in the 1950s and the early 1960s – thanks...

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Forward to the Past: The SLF Album

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pp. 312-324

A full history of literary festivals and readings has yet to be written, but with her book, The SLF Album: An Informal History of Notre Dame’s Sophomore Literary Festival 1967–1996, Linda DeCicco contributes one small portion. And I expect a complete study to be written one day, since there now seems to be an appetite in the academy for this sort of historical work. See, for instance: Gerald Graff, Professing Literature (1987); Andrew Levy, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (1993); and D. G. Myers, The Elephants Teach (1996)....

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Andrew Levy: The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story

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pp. 325-330

The first prose one encounters in Andrew Levy’s study of the culture and commerce of the American short story is an anonymous description, part jacket copy, part abstract, of the book: “Since 1980, the American short story has undergone a renaissance of sorts. . . .” The rest of the paragraph is more factual than analytical, but it brought to mind some recent remarks of Tobias Wolff (found in his “Introduction” to...


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pp. 331-332


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pp. 333-354

About the Author

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pp. 355-356

E-ISBN-13: 9780253001856
E-ISBN-10: 0253001854
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253001818

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Break Away Books