Daniel Pinkwater's The Education of Robert Nifkin (1998) • Michael Muhammed Knight's Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey through Islamic America (2006) • Sarah & Rebekah Maysles's Grey Gardens (2009)
This is a really odd combination of books, but if you let books near each other, they establish a dialog, no matter how superficially dissimilar.
The Pinkwater has been in a glass-doored book case in our bedroom probably for a decade, and I picked it out last night to read to Peter. In this household, we regard Pinkwater as a a genius, and he even came to David's birthday party once here, a long time ago. The book is set in the 1950s, roughly contemporaneous with when Pinkwater went to high school. For Pinkwater's sake, I hope it's not too autobiographical, even if it does have that flavor. It is written in the form of a college admission essay in answer to the question "Characterize in essay form, your high-school experience. you may use additional sheets as needed." It starts out along the lines of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and ends up in the literary territory of Lenanora Carrington's surrealist novel The Hearing Trumpet.
Nifkin's immigrant parents are casually unpleasant to him. His father's primary concern seems to be that if he is to smoke, he should smoke cigars, not cigarettes, and his mother is a terrible cook who is desperately concerned that he might be recruited by communists or maybe homosexuals:
"Just remember, those Reds are always looking for a simpleminded kid like you, without any friends. If anyone starts being nice to you, it's safe to assume they're trying to recruit you for the Party."
"Okay, Mom." (p. 69)
Nifkin's teachers at high school are amazing characatures: The gym teacher is a sadist. His homeroom teacher is most concerned with learning whether anyone at the school is distributing communist propaganda or pornography. His English teacher is a rabid anti-semite who is also terribly concerned about communism. The biology teacher talks nonsense to herself or perhaps to someone only she can see. And the history teacher is a bitter man who wants everyone to know he could be making three times as much in industry. Nifkin joins the ROTC to avoid the sadistic gym teacher. Sergeant Gunter, The ROTC teacher, is a communist who reads Karl Marx to the ROTC students and is eventually arrested.
The book gets weirder from there: our hero ceases going to school after the arrest of Sergeant Gunter. He avoids being sent to reform school by getting his parents to send him to a strange private school in the ancestral mansion of a robber baron run by a pair of sweet older ladies and their beatnick friends.
David brought me home both Blue-Eyed Devil and Grey Gardens last night when he came back from NYC. I think he brought me the former because someone had characterized me as a "blue-eyed devil" in a recent blog post (for the record, my eyes are hazel, thank you) and the later because of my fascination with the psychological meaning of architecture.
The Guardian quote on the back of Blue-Eyed Devil characterizes Michael Muhammad Knight as "the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature." Knight is a white guy in his 20s who converted to Islam as a teenager. The book is Knight's odyssey in search of the truth about W. D. Fard, founder of the Nation of Islam. From the NYT:
The man who founded the Nation in 1930, W. D. Fard, spread the message that American blacks belonged to a lost Muslim tribe and were superior to the “white, blue-eyed devils” in their midst. Under Mr. Fard’s successor, Elijah Muhammad, the Nation flourished in the 1960s amid the civil rights struggle and the emergence of a black-separatist movement.
Knight, by his own account is the son of an abusive schizophrenic white-supremacist father. The description of his early childhood reads like something out of Joel Steinberg's trial for the murder of his adopted daughter. The author didn't speak until age four, several years after he and mother escaped from his father. Knight is mostly homeless, living in his car as he pursues the phantom of W. D. Fard who disappeared in 1933. He has many strange adventures and talks to many people with even stranger theories about Fard.
As the book ends, Knight interviews Malcolm Shabazz in prison. Shabazz, grandson of Malcolm X, was diagnosed schizophrenic at age 12. While living with his grandmother, he set fire to the house, burning his grandmother so badly that she died after three weeks in critical condition. The final paragraph of Knight's book reads:
Malcolm Shabazz had quoted Ho Chi Minh as saying that when prison gates are opened, the real dragon flies out. And he told me that the race goes not to the swift but to those who can endure until the end. I think he's living his grandfather's life all over again. Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala. Some cry tears, and some cry blood. (p. 214)
I have not read all of the Knight book. I found it hard to take at times. On the one hand, I wanted to know what Knight found out on his search, and yet he so clearly and repeatedly brands himself as an unreliable narrator, that sometimes I found the crazy conversations he got into with narrators much more unreliable than himself hard to take. Also, because he is a white guy seeking encounters with black Muslims, he repeatedly opens himself to black racism. (Though usually, people try to be nice and tend to open conversations by trying to introduce him to the basics of Islam, assuming that he has walked into a mosque out of naive post 9/11 curiosity.) I'll read more later.
Also, reading the parts about his childhood and adolescence, I found Knight's and Nifkin's fathers running together in my head, as though these were somehow accounts of the same person, told from different angles. (Pinkwater's book begins, "My father was a son-of-a-bitch from Eastern Europe.")
And so: Grey Gardens. This book is a lavishly produced coffee-table book published by Free News Projects and priced at $45.00. It comes with an audio CD. It is about archetypal crazy cat-ladies, beautiful socialites turned recluses, retreating into mansion and trust funds. Somewhere in there one of the Edies claims that the most cats she's ever had was 300, and that she took excellent care of them all.
This book, which is connected to the 1974 documentary of the same name and to an HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lang concerns two women, mother and daughter: Edie Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Ewing Beale, Jr., the aunt and cousin respectively of Jackie Kennedy.
They lived in a sea-side mansion in the Hamptons, purchased in the 20s, which fell into disrepair and got filled up with ancestral possessions and other things. When in the 1970s the health department held raids, Jackie Kennedy, and her sister Lee Radizwill put up the money to save the house from further decay. The documentary about the two women and their house was released in 1976 and is an example of cinema vérité.
The book is interesting, but I suspect it would mean more if I had seen one or more of the movies. While it does contain a lot of information, the imagery of the book corresponds to meanings I find elusive, which probably relate to the original film.
As someone married to a collector personality-type in a house he spent several decades stuffing with possessions before I came along, I cringe at the mention of attics filled with old paintings and valuable antiques given over to a pack of 30 raccoons (fed on Wonderbread and honey).
While I am willing to entertain the idea that these are fascinating women whom have recognized the emptiness of their upper-class heritage, I think that if I'd visited them, I would have found their irresponsibility in taking care of what they had in the house inexcusable. I have seen vast economically untenable mansions in the Adirondacks suffering this sort of fate, and already know how horrified I am at people who can't be bothered to replace a broken window pane in a room with a hand-painted mural on the wall (now scaled by mildew).
Do I want to be drawn into the pathology of their story?
In the Pinkwater novel, women like this who run an eccentric school save Robert Nifkin from the harsh realities of high school. Are benevolent eccentric old women with mansions and trust funds a fantasy of liberation? Or are they prisoners of what was given them for being beautiful in the right place at the right time? And who is more psychologically healthy? The Edies? Or Michael Knight? Or do damaged narrators like Knight deserve the Robert Nifkin solution: to be taken in by beautiful reclusive ex-socialites who take in strays and have plenty of rooms to spare? I suspect that Knight is not looking for that kind of salvation.
Epilogue: Grey Gardens was bought in 1979 by journalist Sally Quinn and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.