Praise is always welcome, but that’s especially true when it comes from someone who really knows what he is talking about. That’s why I’m especially pleased to have received admiring acknowledgments from Ben Cheever, himself a writer of critically acclaimed fiction and non-fiction (his latest book, Strides: Running Through History With An Unlikely Athlete, was published by Rodale on September 18th.) Ben is also the host of a television program called On Writing, and last week I was his guest. We spent a merry half-hour discussing The Coup, satire, politics, my complicated main character Godwin Pope, and, somehow, good and evil. Whew! Thanks, Ben–it was a lot of fun.
On a clammy, sweet Central Park Saturday evening, the New York Shakespeare Festival celebrated the 40th anniversary of he musical Hair with the first of a three performance revival. Many in the crowd that was well-mixed between genuine youths and paunchier, grayer veterans youths who were in their salad days when Hair was in its single digits wondered why Festival had decided to throw a three day party, rather than run the show for five or six weeks as one of its main summer offerings. The reason was soon apparent: Hair at 40 is thrilling but boring, exuberant but tedious, fresh but musty. You walk out humming the hit songs, and wondering how 1967, a year so seemingly clear in memory, can seem to have happened so very long ago.
One of the things that’s striking about the show is how poorly shock ages, and how very much this show must have depended on shock for its success. Saying cunnilingus onstage, imitating a hallucinogenic haze onstage, going buck naked onstage, seeing a show where all this happened onstage—these things must have marked one as quite the daring cultural pioneer in those days of yore. Now they are all quite commonplace, if not clichéd; indeed, a great corporate giant like HBO counts on being congratulated for boldly airing programs featuring nudity, profanity, and all sorts of wild behavior—plays from the Hair playbook updated and turned into lucrative home entertainment. Madonna built an enormously successful career by calculating how to take the spirit of rebellion and self-expression and turning it into cash. Sadly, when stripped of its power to shock, Hair is left being a largely bookless review and a collection of songs that for the most part bettered in lyrics and musicianship by whatever happens to be playing on your local Top 40 radio station at this very second. And that includes commercials.
However, the show’s very best songs are wonderful. Hearing the Fifth Dimension sing `Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In’’ a million times over the years cannot dilute the impact of the single soaring voice that opens the show with an almost majestic Aquarius. Later in the first act, the song Hair remains a comic joy—clever, funny, exuberant. In both songs, a splendid spirit of triumphalism joyfully explodes from the stage. In these moments, the show’s original spirit shines through, and one shares the sheer pleasure the show takes in being young, in discovering the world anew, in believing one has the power to change things.
And then there’s the show’s ending, in which the character of Claude, a sweet-tempered young man just starting to enjoy life, ends up as a casualty of war. It is unfortunately, as subtle as a brick. And yet affecting. Sobering. Anger-making. It’s sad to see this show and realize that the shock ends, the idealism ebbs, the triumphalism wanes, but the bodies and still pile up. As Sonny and Cher sang so sardonically in the same summer of love when Hair first appeared, “the beat goes on.’’
There are a lot of unexpected pleasures that come from publishing a book, chief among them the realization that you’re reaching people far far away. One such person is Philip Cu-Unjieng, the book (and apparently hair-styling) critic of the Philippine Star, out of Manila. After describing the excellent cut he received from RJ Decena at Reyes Haircutters, Philip reviewed The Coup, plus the latest efforts by GQ‘s eminent literary editor Thomas Mallon (Fellow Travelers) and my friend Larry Doyle (I Love You, Beth Cooper). I’m happy to report that he found all three “riveting.” The Coup, he says, “is an ingenious foray into Washington politics, the way Government and the Press use, abuse and misuse each other, and how Sex and Politics still make for a potent cocktail. There are laughs aplenty.” Thanks, Philip.
Sure, I’m a macho guy who watches the NFL and FX-TV, but like everybody, once in a while I need a god cry. Whenever I do, I head straight for Lifetime TV, or to its website LifetimeTV.com. There, to my surprise and delight, my former colleague at Playboy Patti Lamberti has written a wonderful review of The Coup, calling it a “clever political satire will help you focus on the funnier side of Washington politics.” Thank you, Patti. Now, will somebody please hand me a tissue?
I don’t think anything I’ve ever written has been compared to a pale ale before, but it turns out not to be unpleasant. Claire Ernsberger wrote this review in the Sullivan County [NY] Democrat :
THE COUP by Jamie Malanowski (Doubleday). This is excellent timing–a comic political thriller. The vice president thinks he ought to be president, and has worked out an elaborate, spectacularly complicated and clever scheme to create a scandal that will absolutely require the president to resign. Before we’re finished, this witty romp will have left almost nobody standing–not the White House, and certainly not the Washington press corps. If you’re good and sick of politics (with still a year of presidential campaigning facing us), clear your palate with a long cold draught of satire.
Thanks, Claire. If ever we meet, the drinks are on me.
Many thanks to Don Wilde for having me on his television program What’s Happening in Briarcliff. We spent a fast-moving half hour talking about The Coup, what’s it like to work at Playboy, the differences between writing for magazines and television, and other subjects. The best part of the experience was getting to know Don and his wife Margery, who seemed to have lived most eventful lives, with friends including William F. Buckley Jr., Robert Ludlum, Alan Alda and Hal Prince. Don spent most of his career as a creative director at BBDO, but he has also been a successful playwright, as well as a TV host, newspaper columnist and member of the village’s board of directors. I was certainly glad to meet him and Margery, and I look forward to seeing them again soon.