Eleven Presidents: Promises vs. Results

It’s hard to be a good leader, and even harder to recognize good leaders. As a species we’re drawn by charisma and easily forget that many of the worst leaders throughout history have been charismatics. Our historians forget this too. Almost invariably, they tend to rate the U.S. presidents on the basis of their charisma and management style more than their actual policies. In his new book Ivan Eland focuses purely on policies. He assesses the presidents since World War I who either genuinely believed in, or claimed to be for, limiting the power of government — abroad (military restraint), at home (fiscal responsibility), and in upholding values of liberty. Of the seventeen presidents, eleven qualify for analysis:

The presidents who rate high or at least average are the following five:

(R) Warren Harding, 1921-1923
(R) Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929
(R) Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1961
(D) Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981
(D) Bill Clinton, 1993-2001

Those who rate poorly are the following three:

(R) Herbert Hoover, 1929-1933
(R) Richard Nixon, 1969-1974
(R) Gerald Ford, 1974-1977

Those who rate very badly are the following three:

(R) Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989
(R) George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993
(R) George W. Bush, 2001-2009

The following six are excluded from consideration. They rate very badly in Eland’s previous book. They are all Democrats, were blatantly for big government, and never seriously claimed as an objective to keep governmental power in check:

(D) Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921
(D) Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933-1945
(D) Harry Truman, 1945-1953
(D) John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963
(D) Lyndon Johnson, 1963-1969
(D) Barack Obama, 2009-2017

However much you agree with Eland’s good/bad assessments of the presidents (I happen to agree largely with him, though with reservations, as I explained here), the point is whether or not a president’s record matches his reputation. Eland’s book, in other words, is about the myth of the Republican image, the hypocrisy of Republican executives, and the surprising record of two Democrats — Carter and Clinton — who outshone all the Republican presidents after Eisenhower. I’ll go through each of the eleven presidents (and also Obama) and summarize Eland’s analysis. In the end, we’ll see that the five good or average presidents should be our inspiration if we are to have any hope of making America great again.

(D) Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921. Atrocious. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. I completely agree with Eland that Wilson was the worst president in U.S. history. All the graphic details are in his book Recarving Rushmore.

(R) Warren Harding, 1921-1923: Good. Everyone hates Harding, but our obsession with his sex life (which is irrelevant) and the minor greed of his underlings (which has been overblown) has completely overshadowed his tremendous impact on a war-ravaged economy, astute foreign policy, and sound liberty record. He returned the nation to peace, and negotiated one of the first multilateral arms limitation agreements (the Washington Naval Conference), aimed at reducing the number of battleships in the world. He put the federal government on a budget for the first time and set the conditions for the economic expansion of the Roaring Twenties. He established the Office of the Budget. He was an early advocate for civil rights, and addressed severe racial tensions fueled by World War I thanks to his racist predecessor Wilson. He supported anti-lynching laws. “Democracy is a lie,” he said, “without political equality for black citizens.” He freed hundreds of political prisoners, repairing the severe wounds wrought by the Espionage and Sedition acts of 1917 and 1918 under Woodrow Wilson which had been among the worst assaults on free speech. Harding does deserve censure for the behavior of his underlings in the Teapot affair, but not to the usual extent. Their bribes had to with venal greed, not the constitutional betrayals of Watergate in the Nixon years and the Iran-Contra scandal under Reagan. If not for the Teapot affair, the bad immigration law that he passed, and the fact that came out in favor of eugenics, he would have been an “excellent” president, not just a “good” one. But he was a damn good one, and the kind we sorely need today.

(R) Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929: Good. He was called “Silent Cal” for being a man of few words, and proof that being a good president doesn’t depend on charisma or oratory skills. He used restraint in foreign policy and stayed out of unneeded wars. He initiated a strategy of large tax and spending reductions to improve the economy. Harding had reduced the top income tax rate from 71% to 46%, but Coolidge’s three revenue acts in 1924, 1926 and 1928 brought it down to 25%. He continued Harding’s tight fiscal policy which kept the Roaring Twenties booming along, though he also pursued a liberal monetary policy (by expanding its supply) which contributed somewhat to the Great Depression after he left office. Quality of life improved hugely under Coolidge. As production costs declined for businesses and incomes rose for consumers, more people than ever were able to purchase goods that are common in households today — cars, indoor flush toilets, electricity. He is sometimes criticized by historians as a “do-nothing president”, yet it was precisely by making sure the government did less that Coolidge left room for citizens to do more. In this period, the rich, while paying at a lower rate, also paid a greater share of the income tax than they had under the higher rates. The middle class also prospered. He vocally opposed racism and supported anti-lynching legislation which led to the decline of the second KKK. He favored laws which limited the number of hours children could work. On whole, he was a very good president, and like Harding the kind we need in the 21st century.

  • Critical to note here is that the Harding-Coolidge period was one of the few times in Republican presidential history that the GOP presidents matched their limited government rhetoric with actual deeds. (p 7) The result was Roaring Twenties prosperity, peace at home, and the American citizens (primarily white males, at this time) enjoying liberties that had been crushed under Wilson. In clueless irony, Ronald Reagan put a photo of Coolidge in the Oval Office. Eland skewers him for it: “Reagan was certainly no match for either Harding or Coolidge in creating a favorable presidential model for those appreciating limited government in all aspects. If conservatives want a model for the presidency, it should be these two traditional conservatives, not a big-government conservative like Reagan who waged war (overtly and covertly) and ballooned budget deficits by cutting taxes while increasing government spending, and dangerously expanded executive power by unconstitutionally funding a secret war against a congressional prohibition.” (p 51)

(R) Herbert Hoover, 1929-1933: Poor. Eland rates Hoover as poor, not bad, and what saves him from the bottom category is his foreign policy record, which is the best of any president in the 20th and 21st centuries. He restricted U.S. military intervention abroad, brought American troops home, and reached an agreement with other nations to limit the building of warships. It’s worth noting that Hoover did great things prior to becoming president, most notably the campaign he launched during World War I that was without precedent in the history of warfare: a large-scale humanitarian effort to rescue a country (Belgium) from starvation, long before the U.S. had even entered the war. He created the Committee for the Relief of Belgium, which consumed years of his life, and he succeeded in pressuring diplomats, heads of state, and thousands of American and European citizens to donate and distribute food to starving Belgians. This sheds a certain light on his presidential legacy during the Great Depression. On the one hand he is known as a Nero Caesar (say the liberals) who refused to offer any relief as more and more destitute Americans crowded into shantytowns; on the other he is called (by the conservatives) a government activist who pushed an already demolished economy over the cliff, by taking unprecedented activist measures, such as signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff. That act raised tariffs to their highest level in American history, triggering a worldwide economic retaliation. His liberty record leaves much to be desired, as he violated privacy by ordering the Treasury Department to publish the names of taxpayers who got large tax refunds. Even worse, he zealously enforced Prohibition against the production and sale of alcohol.

  • Worth remembering is that prior to the Great Depression, American citizens didn’t expect their government to provide for their economic well being. (They expected their government to provide for their physical safety and freedoms.) Up until this time, the country had gotten along with little governmental interference in the economy; occasional recessions were overcome by allowing the market to naturally restore equilibrium as a matter of course (as Harding did after WWI). Hoover was the first president to try using governmental stimuli to spur the economy, but these Keynesian methods often make matters worse, as it did in this case. Contrary to the liberal wisdom today, Hoover did too much, rather than too little, and Eland is probably right that as a result, it was he who ended up turning a mundane business cycle recession into the Great Depression. (p 54)

(D) Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933-1945: Bad. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. I agree significantly with Eland’s assessment of FDR in Recarving Rushmore.

(D) Harry Truman, 1945-1953: Poor. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. I think Eland is too hard on Truman in Recarving Rushmore, which ranks him as one of the four worst presidents of all time. Truman was bad, but certainly not that bad. On my grading scale he is “poor”.

(R) Dwight Eisenhower, 1953-1961: Good. Thanks to his rigorous fiscal policies, he presided over two whole terms of prosperity and an economy with negligible inflation, which is something no 20th or 21st century president can boast for an eight year stretch. He limited government action abroad in foreign affairs. He realized that the price of winning the Korean War wasn’t worth it and thus ended it, saving many lives on both sides of a strategically unimportant conflict. Unlike Truman before him and the Cold War presidents after him, he did not overstate the Soviet threat. As a military man, he knew what the others did not: that the basis of military power is a thriving economy, which the Soviets never had. On six occasions, he rejected the unanimous opinion of his advisors to go to war: over the Korean armistice negotiations in 1953; Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954; the Quemoy and Matsu islands in the Strait of Formosa in 1955; the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; the Israeli, British, and French attack on Egypt in 1956; Berlin in 1959; and the downing of the U-2 spy plane in Sovet airspace in 1960. This needs massive underscoring, because presidents, absurdly, seldom get credit for avoiding wars. Eisenhower boasted that under his administration, not a single soldier had been lost, and for a military man that’s doubly impressive. Eisenhower was known for saying, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.” He warned famously against a military industrial complex (a permanent peacetime military) that would threaten human liberty, and has been proven a prophet. He did, however, rely on a lot of CIA covert action, which set a bad precedent for future Cold War presidents. His liberty record isn’t bad, but is somewhat marred by his refusal to publicly support the 1954 Supreme Court decision which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. He favored slow progress, so as not to provoke riots and lynchings.

  • Of all the post-Truman presidents to date, Eisenhower was one of only two presidents (the other being Bill Clinton) to reduce government spending as a proportion of U.S. economic output (called gross domestic product or GDP). He slashed the national debt down from 100% of GDP in 1953 to 60% of GDP in 1960. As Eland notes, this is the way to prosperity, not the federal stimulus plans of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. (p 81) Bailout strategies usually amount to band-aid measures at best, leading to worse results in the long run.

(D) John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963: Poor. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. Eland gives Kennedy a “bad” rating in Recarving Rushmore, but I say “poor”. For all his problems, Kennedy had redeeming moments.

(D) Lyndon Johnson, 1963-1969: Bad. Not analyzed, since he had neither interest nor pretensions in limiting government. I mostly agree with Eland’s assessment of Johnson in Recarving Rushmore.

(R) Richard Nixon, 1969-1974: Poor. Contrary to his Republican image, on the fiscal front Nixon was a flaming liberal — the last of this kind until Barack Obama. He gave elderly people an increase on social security benefits, and proposed universal medical insurance that provided even stronger coverage than Obama’s later Affordable Health Care Act. He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the war on cancer, and a federal subsidization of the arts. He forced car makers to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act, signed the Endangered Species Act, expanded national parks, and endorsed a self-determination plan for the Indian tribes, which changed the course that had driven Indians into poverty. In Eland’s view, these are all bad points, since he thinks they are actions which should be taken by the states rather than the federal government. I disagree and believe that Nixon isn’t as bad as his reputation suggests. But I do think Eland is right that some of Nixon’s federal spending was too unrestrained and ended up contributing to a problematic economy. Nixon’s actual record on foreign policy also runs counter to his war hawk image. Unlike the true Democratic war hawks Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, Nixon was much more dovish in easing tensions with communist powers. His visit to China not only resulted in improved relations with that country, but made the Soviets want friendly and peaceful relations with America. He tried to reduce the costs of the American empire by substituting U.S. assistance to countries battling communism instead of direct intervention with military forces. On the other hand, he should have ended the Vietnam War right away, but spent four years and 22,000 additional American lives (out of the 58,000 total between 1961-75) to get a peace settlement. And he escalated the war in other ways, by bombing Cambodia and supporting a Vietnamese invasion of Laos, each without Congressional approval. To his serious credit, he ended the draft, which had been in place since 1940, thereby removing the stain on a free society that forces people into a dangerous occupation for little pay. He also agreed to destroy U.S. biological and chemical weapons. Nixon’s legacy, of course, is Watergate: spying on his enemies (or perceived enemies) undermined American liberty through the use of illegal tricks, misuse of security agencies, and obstruction of justice in trying to cover up crimes. One of the worst things he did was launch the obscene war on drugs, which criminalizes non-violent addicts (who need help, not jail) while causing violent criminals to go on parole in order to make room in prison for the drug offenders.

(R) Gerald Ford, 1974-1977: Average. Eland rates him poor, but I think Ford is a classic average president. He had commendably restrained foreign policies. He engaged militarily overseas only a few times in minor ways, and for the most part resisted the counsel of his hawkish advisors. He maintained Nixon’s detente policy with China and the Soviet Union, and removed American support from the racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. On the downside, he increased defense spending, despite the end of the Vietnam War, and briefly attempted to get America re-involved in helping South Vietnam. He did about as much good as harm in trying to alleviate the bad economy in the war’s aftermath. He created government jobs to help the unemployment problem, arguably for better and worse. He kept most of Nixon’s programs going (for better and worse), but used his veto power to stop the creation of more given the bad economy (which is reasonable). Some of his vetoes were overridden, but on whole they did have the result of the lowest annual spending increases since Eisenhower.

  • Perceptions of the Nixon-Ford period are astonishing. Despite the stain of Cambodia (which granted is a heavy strike against Nixon), it was far less hawkish than the Democratic eras of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. In terms of foreign policy, Nixon limited the role of government in significant ways, with detente policies and by ending the draft. Ford continued in the way of restraint, and this is to the credit of both men. On the other hand — and again against common perception of him as a Republican — in terms of fiscal policies, Nixon was a big-government liberal, and signed massive amounts of federal legislation which helped the oppressed: the elderly, the Indians, and endangered species. This is also largely to his credit (Eland disagrees), though admittedly Nixon’s spending got out of hand. Nixon was no friend of liberty, however, given the constitutional violation of Watergate and his war on drugs that remains with us today. No one is ever going to call Nixon a good president, but there is enough to earn him a rating of “poor” over “bad”. (If we could strike off either Cambodia or the drug war from his list of faults, and then also Watergate, I would call him “average”, as I do Ford. If we could strike off all three, and then pretend his fiscal spending was only half as libertine as it was, he would have been “good”.)

(D) Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981: Good. Fiscally speaking, Nixon was the last liberal president until Obama, and Carter was the first conservative president since Coolidge. This despite the fact that Nixon has the conservative image, and Carter the liberal one. Carter was a monetary tight-ass in a climate of concern. He promoted individuals taking responsibility for themselves, pushed for reducing the federal deficit, and believed that welfare was bad for the family and work ethic. Ford left him a rather stagnate economy; Carter’s conservative policies led to the prosperity of the Reagan years (not Reagan’s policies, on which see below), and they would set the precedent for later tight-money policies that led to prosperity in the Clinton years. Carter was also the first president to take serious steps in limiting government in foreign policy since Eisenhower. He insisted that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing rare wisdom for a president of the post-World War II era. He avoided war in the Horn of Africa; he refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union; he got Congress to ratify an end to the neocolonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama; he criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship; he scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would zealously support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left); he finished normalizing relations with China, and terminated the U.S.-Taiwanese defense alliance (unlike George W. Bush who would later recklessly pledge to defend Taiwan from a nuclear attack, thereby putting American cities at risk). On the downside, Carter failed to successfully negotiate for the release of American hostages in Iran, though without negative long-term effects (U.S. policy in Iran was doomed to failure before Carter took office). His biggest blunder was overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and allowing his National Security Advisor to initiate the campaign which supported the mujaheddin in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — promoting, in other words, Islamism to fight Communist forces. Reagan would increase support for these jihadists on an insane level, but it began with Carter, and these U.S. funded Islamists would go on to spawn al-Qaeda. On whole, this record is extremely impressive. He also created the Departments of Energy and Education, which are minuses for Eland, but solid pluses for me. For the cause of liberty, he supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which ensured that women were treated equally (though the amendment failed), pardoned those who avoided the draft during Vietnam, spoke out against apartheid in South Africa, and avoided the post-World War II tendency of presidents to support anti-Communist dictatorships that committed human rights violations. Carter was in fact the best president of the 20th and 21st centuries, in my opinion. He gets high scores in all categories pertaining to the limits of governmental power — fiscal management, foreign policy, and liberty.

  • Carter’s most important act, as Eland says, was appointing Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve. (p 155) Carter’s advisors warned him that this appointment would cost him the re-election, but Carter courageously did so anyway, saying that he would rather lose it because of Volcker’s tight money policies than carry inflation to the next generation. Carter’s principled stand as a budget-hawk — his priority was lowering inflation, not reducing unemployment — indeed cost him the support of many Democrats, and in this sense he was like the tenth president John Tyler, who had the integrity to oppose his own Whig party which also lost him the second term.

(R) Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989: Bad. Eland’s chapter on Reagan should be required reading for all those who idolize him. Like the Democrats’ hero FDR, Reagan was a charismatic who masked his policies with rhetoric. Rhetoric is what people tend to believe, and so when he talked the talk of small government, his conservative constituency believed him. But his conservative fiscal image is a myth. He was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton, and spent loads, not least on defense and his Star Wars program. He gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. Tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), government borrowing has to increase, or the government has to print money to cause inflation. Also, because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting only the rich. The ones responsible for ’80s prosperity were the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker under Carter, and Alan Greenspan under Reagan — who sucked inflation out of the system with tight-ass money policies. Greenspan was appointed by Reagan but didn’t follow his lead; he followed the tight policies of Volcker his predecessor. In foreign affairs Reagan was a complete hawk. He reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets, with his anti-Soviet policies and massive defense buildup. He raised the specter of nuclear war. The idea that he won the Cold War is another myth. The reason the Soviet empire collapsed was because of its poor economic performance and over-extending itself in other countries. Reagan launched needless and harmful missions elsewhere, sending forces to Lebanon, invading Grenada, and attacking Libya — all without congressional approval. He then went to Grenada in a silly “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover, when there was in fact no viable threat in that region at all. Then he picked the fight with Gaddafi in Libya, creating a new enemy for no good reason. Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as the Islamic jihadists whom Reagan zealously supported so that they would fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Out of that manipulative mess would step a very pissed-off Osama Bin Laden. The Iran-Contra scandal was even worse than Watergate. Reagan sold heavy weapons at high prices to a state sponsor of Islamic terrorism, Iran, in order to ransom hostages held in Lebanon. This was not only criminal but stupid — since it just led to the taking of more hostages — and it also made Reagan a hypocrite since he had said he never negotiated with terrorists. Reagan then used the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua in their war against the Marxist Sandinista government. All of this was in criminal violation of the arms embargo against Iran and the Arms Export Control Act, and only Congress can appropriate money for government activities in any case. Reagan usurped Congress’ power of the purse in order to continue a secret war even after he was told by Congress to end it. He escalated the war on drugs even worse than Nixon. The one good thing he did has been swept under the rug by his fans: signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to almost 3 million illegal aliens — the largest amnesty ever granted to hard working immigrants who spur economic growth. In sum, Reagan was an incompetent, leftist-hating, war-hungry failure, fiscally irresponsible, with pseudo concerns about liberty. And he was the first of a new dynasty of Republicans that began a long slide to where the GOP is today: in shambles.

  • To reiterate, Eland’s chapter on Reagan should be read by all his followers. It debunks all the myths which have enshrined Reagan as a near demigod in the minds of those who think he was actually anything like Harding or Coolidge. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point on taxes needs special underscoring. Harding, Coolidge, and Reagan all cut taxes, but only Harding and Coolidge also cut federal spending, without which tax cuts are meaningless and fraudulent. Of all post-World War II Republican presidents, Reagan ended up having the least annual net tax cuts as a percentage of U.S. economic output (called gross domestic product or GDP). He simply raised taxes in less conspicuous portions of the government revenue stream, giving major tax increases in all but two years of an eight-year presidency. (p 257) I marvel at “conservatives” who make taxes their single-voting issue, but are then very easily duped by sly, unobtrusive tax increases and government spending as a portion of GDP.

(R) George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993: Bad. Because of Reagan’s unruly spending as a percentage of GDP, federal budget deficits ballooned to ungodly levels that would be superseded only under George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It was left to the elder Bush to clean up Reagan’s mess, which he didn’t do very well (though to be fair, like Obama who was left with George W.’s mess, it was impossible for him to work wonders overnight), and ended up presiding over the recession of 1990-91. Setting a horrible precedent for both his son and Obama, he approved the largest federal bailout in American history, costing the government $300 billion over ten years. He should have followed the free market approach, at least to a degree, of letting savings and loans banks to go broke and allow the economy to right itself as a matter of course. But the elder Bush’s greatest failure of all was refusing to return America to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (as Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), yet Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason, and most reprehensibly went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War, he left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. We are still today reaping the consequences of Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East.

  • Eland astutely observes that while the elder Bush had the reputation for being a wimp, he was actually even more aggressive in using the military than Reagan and landed consequences more calamitous. His war against Iraq was an overnight success, but a long-term disaster: it led to a permanent U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, a jihad campaign against America by Osama bin Laden, a second (and even more outrageous) war in Iraq by Bush’s son, and the resulting creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq which morphed into the even worse Islamic State. “Historians always give presidents credit for winning wars but never ask if the conflicts could have been avoided, or whether a long line of horrible consequences is worth the mesmerizing short-term military triumph.” (p 242)

(D) Bill Clinton, 1993-2001: Average. Clinton is one of two Democrats in the 20th and 21st centuries (the other being Carter) who aimed for small government, and he delivered on this better than any Republicans save Harding and Coolidge. He even beat Eisenhower in this regard. He cut per capita federal spending, and turned a budget deficit from the Reagan/Bush era into surplus. If this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013; but the Bush and Obama administrations killed this streak with their nation-building wars in the Middle-East. Like Harding (continued by Coolidge) and Eisenhower, Clinton spurred a decade of economic growth with a policy of governmental austerity, which confounded the Keynesian advocates. Keynesian strategies of governmental spending (used later by Bush and Obama) are always artificial and yield short-term prosperity at best. Clinton worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, which lowered taxes for people just above poverty line which encouraged them to keep working instead of going on welfare. Unemployment was the lowest in thirty years. He created AmeriCorps, a domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps involving young people in community service across the nation. For all of this, Clinton would be classified a “good” or even “excellent” president, but his record on foreign policy was a mixed bag. He usually kept military efforts under control and was reluctant to use ground troops after the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. (The case of Somalia was probably the one legitimately humanitarian U.S. military intervention in the last century, so Clinton can actually be forgiven for that endeavor.) He needlessly intervened in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti. He got lucky with North Korea, when he threatened war against Kim Il Sung, and former president Jimmy Carter had to smooth things over and get Kim to freeze his nuclear program. He pounded al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, taking steps to kill Osama Bin Laden but not persisting enough, though certainly doing more than George W. Bush later did. His liberty record wasn’t always the best. He wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military, but had to compromise with the silly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented the military from rooting out gays but required gays to stay in the closet. Worse was his signing the Defense of Marriage Act, which stalled progress on gay marriage.

  • Clinton defies easy categorization because he was excellent in some ways, okay in other ways, and leaving much to be desired in still others. He could be astonishingly ass-backwards, for example in his scheme to give the tobacco industry some immunity from class action lawsuits in exchange for more strict anti-smoking regulation. Smoking is an individual decision (though a stupid one), and thus the government should minimize regulating it. Tobacco companies, on the other hand, are businesses which should face liability for damage their product does to people. But for his small-government reign of prosperity, he deserves the immense credit that Eland gives him.

(R) George W. Bush, 2001-2009: Atrocious. During his 2000 campaign, the younger Bush claimed to be for small government by — wait for it — criticizing Clinton’s nation-building wars. His own wars ended up making Clinton look like a pacifist. Bush invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old family scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) As for his economic and spending policies, they were hideous (opposite those of Clinton) and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism. On top of that, he used a bailout which made the economy even worse in the longer run. His liberty record is downright obscene. He tried expanding the powers of the presidency in the mold of Caesar presidents like Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, and Truman. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions. He was an atrocious president in every way, and in my opinion the second worst in U.S. history after Woodrow Wilson.

(D) Barack Obama, 2009-2017: Bad. As one of the six Democrats who had neither interest nor pretensions to small government, Obama is not analyzed in Eleven Presidents. I am going to cover him anyway, because he was so close to George W. Bush in many of the relevant policies, that it’s instructive to see how the Democratic and Republican parties have become virtually indistinguishable in the 21st century. People loved Obama because he was a charismatic, but his actual policies were very bad. In Recarving Rushmore, Eland rightly calls him a barely improved version of George W. Bush in matters of foreign affairs. Both presidents attacked countries for no good reason, escalated needless wars, and got vast numbers of American soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain. Like Bush, Obama waged these wars under the illusion that America could bring democracy to the Middle East by removing dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this in toppling Saddam, and Obama thought it when he helped bring down Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya. The result was anarchy in Libya, instability in Egypt, and the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups who are much worse than the supplanted dictators. Obama was even worse than Bush on the subject of Islamism, for he ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. He also expanded, rather than reduced, Bush’s 9/11 drone wars, ramping them up in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. On the plus side he succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden, but what he should have done at that point was declare the war on terror over, end the drone wars, and return America to a long-overdue policy of restraint. Obama did none of these things. He deserves credit, however, for resisting strong pressures from American war hawks, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue aggressive policies with Iran and Syria. The Affordable Health Care Act was his huge positive achievement (Eland disagrees), and it goes some way in redressing Obama’s complete failure over two terms to address the plight of the middle class, for which reason Donald Trump was elected. His stimulus package was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it was a fiscal monster like all Keynesian packages, but it did reduce unemployment in the short term. Basically Obama was stuck with cleaning up Dubya’s fiscal mess, like the elder Bush had to do after Reagan; a torpedoed economy can’t be cured overnight. Obama’s liberty record isn’t good. He continued Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. He was just as bad as Bush in killing people overseas without Congressional approval of hostilities, and in using domestic surveillance of American citizens without warrants. He deserves credit, however, for stopping the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA. He also got the military to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, just as he ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts, both of which had treated gays as second-class citizens. On the other hand, he did nothing against the drug war, which is beyond reprehensible for an African American president, especially given the increased demands at this time for legalization.

  • In sum, the presidencies of Bush and Obama show a dire need for chief executives in the mold of Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, Carter, and (the fiscal, not foreign policy) Clinton. If we’re ever again going to enjoy eras of prosperity at home, peace with our neighbors abroad, and a climate where individual liberties and freedoms are valued, then these five presidents who severely limited government should be our inspiration. We now have Donald Trump, who believes the government should serve his every narcissistic whim. He may yet do the impossible — by supplanting Woodrow Wilson as the worst president of all time. Let’s hope there’s even a mess left to clean up.

 

 

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God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers

Philip Esler’s recent top-notch project falls into the category of “elegant arguments demolishing empty theories”. Other examples of this “genre” would include The Stars Will Fall From Heaven, by Edward Adams, which annihilates Tom Wright’s dogma that ancient Jews did not believe the world would come to a literal end; and The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, by Dario Fernandez-Morera, which easily disproves the politically correct myth that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic rule in medieval Spain. Esler takes on the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-36), for which the dominant stream interprets heaven in terms of the Jerusalem temple. He finds no basis for this at all. When Israelite authors around this time wished to present heaven as a temple, they did exactly that. In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice and the Testament of Levi, heaven is the temple, God is in the holy of holies, and the angels are priests who sing God’s praises and offer fragrant sacrifices. One looks in vain to find any of these elements in I Enoch 1-36. Yet scholars see them anyway.

God’s Court and Courtiers in the Book of the Watchers is, then, a shot across the bow of a considerable body of scholarship. Its thesis is that heaven is understood in terms of a royal court, in which the king (God) is surrounded by his courtiers (the angels). While some scholars make occasional references to the Enochic heaven as a court, the idea is never taken that seriously, and it’s way eclipsed by the supposed idea that heaven is a temple in which the angels are understood to be priests instead of courtiers. Esler refutes that as follows.

Angelic duties. The duties assigned to the angels in I Enoch 20 have nothing to do with a cult or temple. Uriel is in charge of the world and Tarterus; Raphael is in charge of the spirits of men; Reuel is tasked with taking vengeance on the world of the luminaries; Michael is chrage of the good ones among the people; Sariel deals with spirits who sin; Gabriel is responsible for Paradise, the serpents, and the cherubim; and Remiel is in charge of those who rise. All of these duties are reminiscent of the military or administrative duties assigned to the courtiers of earthy monarchies. (pp 61-62)

Angelic access rights. By the traditional view, the angels are a priesthood who have access rights to God as the Jerusalem priesthood did. This isn’t true. The God of I Enoch 1-36 is a monarch like Louis XIV and Persian kings like Deioces, and the angels have access rights to him in the way that royal courtiers did in the French and Near Eastern courts. Angels like Michael, Sariel, Raphael, and Gabriel are behaving like courtiers when they address God to complain about what the Watchers are doing on earth, and asking God what should be done. “This is very different from the temple of Jerusalem, the inner sanctuary of which was only entered once a year, and then only by the high priest on the Day of Atonement.” (p 70)

Angelic mediation. Received wisdom tells us that the angels are a priesthood whose function is to hear the prayers of victims of the devastation on earth being wreaked by the Giants, and to ask God to intercede for these victims; likewise, Enoch the scribe serves a priestly role, as he writes out the appeal of the Watchers, who want forgiveness from God. The problem with this view is that it assumes the Israelites directed their prayers to God through priests, rather than praying to God directly. This isn’t true. Private prayer and the temple cult happily co-existed with one another, without any involvement by priests in the peoples’ prayers. When priests did engage in intercessory acts, it was primarily through offering sacrifice, which is entirely absent in I Enoch 1-36. On the other hand, courtiers always played an intercessory role between the king and his subjects, and this is how the mediating role of the angels should be understood: they are courtiers to the divine monarch. (pp 73-74)

The Fall of the Watchers: Their “Defilement”. By the traditional view, the marriage of the Watchers to human women reflects a concern with illegitimate priestly marriages going on in the Judaism during the time I Enoch 1-36 was written. Priests were to marry only the virgins of other priests, or at least women from priestly families, and many of them were not doing so. But the problem with the Watchers’ marriages is not their choice of wives, but the fact that they are marrying at all. Human beings need marriage for procreation, but the Watchers are angels (spirits) for whom marriage is inappropriate, period. The Watchers’ “defilement” (impurity) is the result of the boundary transgression involved in spirits having sex with flesh and blood. There is no need, or textual warrant, to import the more limited notion of priestly holiness into the issue. (pp 80-88)

The Fall of the Watchers: Their “Great Sin”. By the traditional view, the “great sin” (I Enoch 6:3) of the Watchers was sex between forbidden degrees (between species), which is intended as an indictment on the Jerusalem priesthood for their sexual relations with non-priestly families. But the proper understanding of the Watchers’ great sin is not priestly impurity, but courtly rebellion. Esler describes various courtly rebellions in the Achaemenid kingdom under Darius the Great and in the Hellenistic kingdoms of the late third century BC, and notes the two kinds of rebellion, one being armed insurrection, the second being open defiance or resistance to an authority or controlling power. The Watchers were engaged in the second kind of rebellion. They were not attempting to bring down God’s rule and supplant it with a new one, but rather to go against his rules and defy the accepted ways of behaving. Their “great sin”, namely, was that: (1) They abandoned their station in heaven where they belong (I Enoch 15:3). This is the most important point. They deserted their post, which in a royal court is a fundamental dereliction of duty and in most cases treason. (2) Then they defiled themselves on earth, by fucking human women, when they have no business fucking at all (as explained in the above point). The image evoked is not of non-priestly women of another caste; the image is more like women who inhabit towns and cities that are captured by a rebelling army, and who are then raped as a matter of course. As a result of these spirit-human unions, the Giants were born (I Enoch 7:2), who grew to slaughter and devour humankind, as well as animal-kind. It’s worth citing the graphic details:

The Giants devoured the labor of all the sons of human being, so that the human beings were not able to supply them. And the Giants assailed the human beings and devoured them. And they began to sin against birds and beasts and creeping things and the fish, and to devour one another’s flesh. And they drank the blood. (I Enoch 7:3-5)

This again evokes the rampage of an invading army (led by a courtier rebelling against his king, for example) to lay waste to those subjugated and take over and eat their food supply. Finally, the Watchers also (3) taught the women sorcery, and charms, and knowledge skills (I Enoch 7:1, 8:1-3), which means they brought knowledge to earth that should have stayed in heaven (I Enoch 9:6), which (again) blurs the divinely established boundary between heaven and earth, and (again) evokes the boundary between royal courts and the masses; what courtiers knew as members of the king’s circle was privileged and not to be disseminated to the people. Taking all these three points, the “great sin” of the Watchers was that they rebelled against their divine monarch and led destructive actions which carried disastrous consequences. It was not that they merely had sexual relations with those of a different kind or caste. (pp 96-104)

The Fall of the Watchers: Their Justice. The way God punishes the Watchers is how Near Eastern kings punished rebelling courtiers. Kings typically dispatched a senior courtier or courtiers to deal with the rebellion. Violent punishment was inflicted on the defeated rebels, to such gruesome lengths that they even saw their children die before their eyes. The punishment was meted out over a period of time, with initial seizure and binding, physical punishment and torture, followed by death. There was no forgiveness against courtly treason; the king’s justice was cruel and merciless. Case in point: Darius ordered Takhmaspada to put down the rebellion of Tritantaechmes, and when the rebellion was squashed, Darius cut off Tritantaechmes’ nose and ears, then put out one of his eyes, imprisoned him, and then later crucified him. What God orders Raphael and Michael to do against the Watcher leaders Asael and Shemihazah is equivalent. Here are the graphic details:

The Lord said to Raphael, “Bind Asael by his hands and his feet and cast him into the darkness. Split open the desert that is in Dudael, and throw him there. Put sharp and jagged rocks under him and cover him with darkness. Let him stay there for an aeon. Cover his face so that he may not see the light. On the day of judgment he will be hurled into fire.” (I Enoch 10:4-6)

And the Lord said to Michael, “Bind Shemihazah and the others with him who mated with the daughters of human beings, so that they were defiled by them through their uncleanness. When their are perishing, and they see the destruction of those they love, bind them for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, until the day of their judgment and until the final consummation, when judgment will be completed forever. They will be borne away into the abyss of fire, and into the torture, and into the prison for all eternity.” (I Enoch 10:11-13)

These passages are patterned on the completely merciless justice of monarchs (like Darius) in dealing with court rebels. Such justice would be off the scales if the standard view were correct: priestly infringements don’t require unrelenting torture followed by everlasting torment. (pp 104-107)

God’s Abode: Heavenly Temple? We’ve been told that the divine home in I Enoch is a heavenly temple, even though the text doesn’t come close to supporting this view. The first structure Enoch encounters (supposedly the vestibule), is not physically contiguous with the two structures that he comes to next (supposedly the nave and the sanctuary). Enoch goes into the first structure, which is a “wall of hailstones” encircled by “tongues of fire” (I Enoch 14:8-9), and then moves through a distance of space before he gets to the second structure (14:10). The first structure is simply a wall — further evidenced by the fact that there are gates on it (I Enoch 9:2, 9:10, 34:2, 35:1, 36:1) — not an enclosed structure like a vestibule. As for the second and third structures, the “houses”, they cannot be modeled on the temple’s nave and the sanctuary, because in the Jerusalem temple the sanctuary is smaller than the nave. In I Enoch the second house entered (the supposed sanctuary) is larger (I Enoch 14:15) than the first. Not only that, there is no veil mentioned between the two “houses”. And there is no altar anywhere. (pp 115-117, 128-130, 139-140)

God’s Abode: Heavenly Palace. Enoch, therefore, is not looking into the holiest of holies, but into the throne room of a royal palace where the king is seated on his throne (I Enoch 14:18-23). This heavenly palace is modeled on Near Eastern palaces like the one at Pasaragade, built by the Persian king Cyrus (which the exiled Jews in Babylon would have been aware of, and perhaps even made to construct). In both cases, one must first pass through a wall to again access to the building where the king resides. That building in question contains two (not three) stages. At Pasaragade, the first stage consists of four small porticoes (north, south, east, and west) that surround and join the second stage of the large central throne room. In I Enoch, the first stage is an antechamber joining the second stage of God’s throne room. Just as someone in any of the four porticoes at Pasaragade could look into the audience hall and see the enthroned Cyrus, so too Enoch, from the antechamber, looks into the larger hall and sees God on his throne. (pp 131, 142-143, 150-151)

A Community of Scribes against the Temple

Esler argues that the Enochic authors were a scribal community who opposed the temple. Most of his book focuses on the Book of the Watchers, but the last chapter has the entire corpus in view. That corpus was written over three centuries:

3rd century BC Book of Luminaries (1 Enoch 72–82) (Astronomical Book)
3rd century BC Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36)
175-170 BC Apocalypse of Weeks (I Enoch 93:1-10, 91:11-17)
~160s BC First Dream Vision (I Enoch 83-84)
~150s BC Bridging Exhortation (I Enoch 91:1-10,18-19)
~130s BC Birth of Noah (I Enoch 106-107)
~100 BC Epistle of Enoch (I Enoch 92-105)
~40 BC – 40 AD Book of Parables (I Enoch 37-71)
Late 1st century Eschatological Exhortation (I Enoch 108)

The unifying aspect in the corpus is the hero Enoch, who proudly identifies himself as a scribe. The biblical Enoch was never understood this way, and so the authors of these works are plausibly understood as a community of scribes who reinterpreted a hero from the past in terms of their own profession. (pp 176-182) This group of scribes took the revolutionary step of integrating Babylonian astronomy with Enoch (for which there was biblical warrant: Gen 5:23 says that Enoch lived to be 365 years old — easily construed as a connection to the solar calendar), but going even further, according to Esler. Because Enoch “walked with God” (Gen 5:24), and thus must have been a suitable person to interact with God in heaven, he could pass on heavenly revelations that addressed the bigger questions of human experience. Specifically, the existence of evil and how God would deal with it. The Book of the Watchers is all about that: how evil came into the world under control of a good God.

But these scribes were not connected to the temple, despite what scholars tell us. Just the opposite. Esler notes that Sirach was a pro-temple author who attacked what are probably Enochic works, and that the conflict seems to be an inter-group one, not intra-group — that is, between a group of scribes associated with the temple (Sirach) and another that is not (Enoch). (pp 172-174, 185) Also, in the Apocalypse of Weeks (I Enoch 93:1–10, 91:11–17), the Enochic author blatantly omits the true events of the seventh week: the return of Judeans and the rebuilding of the temple. (pp 185-186) Instead he characterizes the seventh week as a period of dire perversity (I Enoch 93:9-10); the Judeans are cast as a wicked out-group who will be supplanted by “witnesses of righteousness” (i.e. the members of the Enochic community, naturally). No temple-loving Judean would do that.

Interesting corollaries emerge from Esler’s findings. It’s not just the temple metaphor that has to go. Some scholars also tell us that I Enoch 1-36 is a subversive text that is anti-imperial. I don’t see how they get this, and the royal court metaphor renders it nonsense. The Book of the Watchers endorses, without reservation, the legitimacy of God punishing rebellious courtiers with the most extreme and unforgiving violence — just like the violence used by Persian and Hellenistic kings. It valorizes the existence of tyrannical monarchies. (p 108) Another post-script is that with the temple metaphor gone, I Enoch is less representative of the religion “Judaism”, and better understood within a broader ethnic context of “Judeanism”. (pp 12-19) As an ethnic group the Judeans were similar in many ways to other groups in their world, like the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Parthians, etc. This  probably explains why scholars have insisted on seeing a non-existent “Jewish” temple cult in the background of I Enoch 1-36, when the courts of the Near Eastern kings are staring them right in the face!

Yet another brilliant book by Esler, and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand The Book of the Watchers.

The Best Scenes of Stranger Things 2

After my fifth viewing of season 2, it’s about time for a best scenes list. I won’t even try to rank them, because I think that would be impossible. I simply list them chronologically. There are thirty. I should note that episodes 2 and 9 have an embarrassment of riches, with six scenes from each. All the other episodes have three or less.

Episode One (3 scenes)

Lab exam

1. Lab exam. Halfway through the first episode is when season 2 really takes wing. Character intros are out of the way, and Will comes into alarming focus as he’s taken to the “bad men’s” den of season 1. We learn that those men are no longer in charge, but it’s still far from a comfort zone a kid like this needs. His medical exam foreshadows he heavy Exorcist vibe that will return in Episode 6, and while he isn’t actually possessed yet, he’s clearly infected by the Upside Down. But he’s told no one about the slug he coughed up at the end of season 1, and Dr. Owens insists that his episodes are psychological flashbacks. We know better, which makes our reaction rather different from that of Owens, Joyce, and Hopper when Will says the shadow creature wants to kill… not himself but everyone else.

Dinner with Barb’s parents

2. Dinner with Barb’s parents. When I first watched this scene and the next one, I remember breathing a sigh of relief. They run back to back at about two-thirds of the way through the episode, and they were the definite tipping point in assuring me that season 2 was in good hands. The consequences of season 1 would be felt everywhere, and not just on a surface level. Nancy doesn’t just move on because Barbara Holland happened to be a minor character in the scheme of the TV series. She’s appropriately distressed over the fact that Barb’s parents still think she’s alive. On top of that, they are selling the house to pay for a private investigator. Her scene in the bathroom with Barb’s photo is genuinely heartbreaking.

Emo Mike

3. Emo Mike. Nancy’s brother isn’t doing any better. Most directors would not have scripted an Emo Mike; they would have facsimiled the season-1 Mike in a pointless sequel. Here again I literally sighed in relief. In order for Eleven’s sacrifice to be felt, it had to hurt Mike and cause him to stagnate. He’s no longer the spirited leader of last year; he steals from his sister, swears at his teachers, cheats on exams, plagiarizes essays, and graffitis the bathroom stalls. For this he is made to throw out most of his toys (for which I despise his mother), and all that keeps him going is the ridiculously dim hope that Eleven is still alive somewhere. He calls her every night on the walkie talkie (day 352 now), and shits on Dustin and Lucas when they interrupt these empty moments with their own calls. Bravo.

Episode Two (6 scenes)

“Halfway Happy”

4. “Halfway Happy”. This is a perfect first scene for El and Hopper after their stage debut in episode 1. It shows their relationship to be a typical “father and daughter”, which is certainly how Hopper sees it, as he has taken in Eleven to fill the void left by Sarah’s death. After almost a year’s worth of cabin fever, El wants to get out and go trick-or-treating like any kid, to which an appalled Hopper says no, but offers instead to bring home candy that night and watch a horror movie with her. Millie Bobbie Brown’s acting is terrific and subtle as always, as she sulks and struggles to understand the meaning of the world “compromise”, which she finally grasps as “halfway happy”.

Peeing

5. Peeing. Deja-vu goes from scary to hilarious in a carbon-copy replay of Joyce and Jonathan’s first scene in season 1. Jonathan is cooking breakfast, and Joyce finds an empty bedroom, prompting a “Where’s Will?” tirade. Suddenly she and Jonathan hear a booming noise coming from the bathroom, and Joyce crashes in like a Mohawk warrior on poor Will, who is standing by the toilet unable to get any privacy from his crazy mom. She tries covering her stupidity with a feeble “What are you doing?”, to which Will deadpans the obvious: “Peeing?” (Translation: “What the fuck else?”) Of the many helicopter-mom scenes in Stranger Things 2, this one wins hands down.

Ghostbusters

6. Ghostbusters. The montage of the four boys getting photos taken by their mothers is a terrific homage. The Ghostbusters theme plays over it, and the costumes are awesome. Will is excited, Dustin ecstatic, and Lucas somehow attains the same level of joy in the face of jeers from his nine-year old sister. But it’s Mike’s reaction that is priceless — Emo Mike, of course, who has forgotten how to smile, is sour through the whole proceeding, and just wants to get the hell out of Dodge.

Halloween

7. Halloween. In the Beyond Stranger Things round-table discussions, Sadie Sink told the Duffer Brothers that she never saw Halloween and has no intention of doing so. Her Michael Myers jump scare is so effective that we can excuse her blasphemy, and her character Max is absolutely right: Lucas does sound like a wailing little girl. The trick-or-treat scenes on top of the shadow monster’s appearance add up to a wonderful night out; the Duffer Brothers made Halloween for me what it should be, according to Mike, “the best night of the year”. It turns out to be a shitty night for Mike, unfortunately, thanks to Max, which takes us to the next scene…

“Crazy together”

8. “Crazy together”. This tender moment foreshadows the Mike-Will pairing in episodes 4-6, and follows on the heels of Mike basically telling Dustin and Lucas to fuck off. He refuses to trick-or-treat with them anymore since they invited Max along without his permission, and since he also finds their abundant cheer to be unacceptable. If he is suffering in misery, then so by God should everyone else, and Will seems to be the only one who can satisfy Mike on this level. One would think Mike almost applauds the shadow monster for terrorizing Will. It gives him someone to save and protect, like he did for El last season. The boys’ conversation here is very moving, as they take comfort in each others damage, and resign themselves to going “crazy together”.

Stalking Mike

9. Stalking Mike. I continue to be impressed by the way scenes are shot in the ethereal plane where Eleven projects her spirit to spy on people over long distances. In season 1 she did this at the behest of Papa (which resulted in the disaster of opening a gate to the Upside Down), and then also to locate Will to find out if he was still alive. Now she uses this power to stalk Mike, who calls her in vain on the walkie talkie, while she spectates in frustration. The final shot, which flits from our world (where we see only Mike, who thinks he hears something) to the ethereal (where we see El caressing the face of the ethereal Mike), is some fine cinematography.

Episode Three (3 scenes)

Handling Dart

10. Handling Dart. Of all the episodes this season, it’s the third that channels the spirit of season 1 most visibly. The boys are in fine form working tightly together, and even Emo Mike comes out of his shell to take a proactive role. This is my favorite scene of the episode, where they pass Dart around in the AV Room, most of them (Max, Lucas, Will) thoroughly grossed out — “He feels like a living booger” from Lucas is the best line — until it ends in the hands of Mike, who studiously ponders the creature.

To kill or not kill Dart

11. To kill or not kill Dart. When the boys return to the AV Room at the end of the school day, Mike excludes Max, rudely leaving her outside the door as he proceeds to tell Lucas and Dustin what Will has told him since their last huddle: that Dart resembles critters from the Upside Down. He urges taking Dart to Hopper, to which Lucas agrees but Dustin strenuously objects, thinking that Hopper would likely kill Dart — which Mike says would be most welcome. Sensing hostility, Dart thunders in his cage. The Stand-By-Me bickering is what we loved so much about these kids in season 1, and it’s on full display here, as Dustin is willing to defend his dangerous pet no matter what.

Will stands his ground — in vain

12. Will stands his ground — in vain. The shadow monster’s invasion of Will is one of the most unpleasant scenes of the series, let alone this season. It smothers him, rapes its way down his throat, and fills his body, settling in for a long and hideous possession. This is the last we will see of the externalized tentacled creature (until the end of the finale). After this point, the shadow monster manifests internally through Will. Which takes us to…

Episode Four (3 scenes)

Possession trauma

13. Possession trauma. With the fourth episode comes a shift in tone. Will, having taken Bob’s well-meaning but stupid advice, is no longer just infected by the Upside Down. He’s possessed by the shadow monster (later called the mind flayer). Possession is a scary concept to put on screen, but it’s also the riskiest because it’s hard to do right. Thankfully the Duffer Brothers know what they’re doing, and Noah Schnapp nails this performance. There are no jump scares here, just the slow creep of dread as Will becomes shaken and terrified over feeling helpless and out of control. Noah has said in interviews that he’s quite proud of this scene, and he should be. It’s the scene that could have killed the story if he missed.

Telekinetic tantrum

14. Telekinetic tantrum. One of the Duffer Brothers — Ross, I think, but I’m not sure — calls this his favorite scene of the season. It is certainly Eleven’s best scene, as she and Hopper get into the worst shouting match they’ve ever had. They’re both trapped: Hopper keeps her confined under strict rules for fear of losing another “daughter”, and he also clearly doesn’t like that she’s interested in a boy. El accuses him of being no better than Papa — she feels just as caged in the cabin as she was in the lab — resulting in her telekinetic tantrum of hurling things at him and shattering windows. In the round-table discussions we learn that none of this was CGI, and that David Harbour was really in the room when all the glass exploded. Millie’s hysterical acting is top-notch; like Noah’s scene above, this one stands or falls on her performance, though Harbour does an amazing job as well, shouting her down and calling her a brat.

“He likes it cold”

15. “He likes it cold.” It’s a chilling moment when Joyce takes Will’s temperature and it’s not even 96; and Will says he feels like he’s walking around hardly awake. Schnapp had to run the gamut in this episode, from feeling shaken and terrified (in the scene above), to stalking about the house confused, to finally making resolute demands of his mother: that she dump the hot bath she ran him, and run him a freezing one instead, because his possessor “likes it cold”.  Not only is this a scary and well-acted scene, it’s creatively juxtaposed with the school scene of Mr. Clarke explaining the biological origins of fear. His lecture voices over Will’s slow approach to the bathtub that finally revolts him. It’s brilliant editing.

Episode Five (2 scenes)

Hockey-puck Dart

16. Hockey-puck Dart. I have only two scenes from the fifth episode, but this one is admittedly a gem. Dustin shoos his mother out of the house on the pretext of their cat being spotted in another neighborhood, and then proceeds to deal with Dart who actually ate the damn cat. It’s clear by this point that Dustin takes care of his mother more than she takes care of him, and the devious way he spares her the knowledge of Mews’ death — by pretending to speak on the phone with someone who “found” Mews — speaks volumes for his empathy. After his mother leaves, Dustin throws on his hockey gear and engages in more devious strategies to lure Dart outside and lock him in the cellar. My heart always skips a beat when he charges out the tool shed and smashes the pissed-off Dart like a hockey puck down into the cellar. Even now he feels bad about it: “I’m sorry,” he says, locking the doors, “but you ate my cat.”

Bob solves Will’s map

17. Bob solves Will’s map. It wouldn’t be a season of Stranger Things without the Byers’ house getting trashed in some way, and this year it’s Will’s map that does the damage — a maze of tunnels that plasters the walls and floors. It takes Bob to make sense of it, and it’s his best scene of the season (aside from his death, on which see below), as he lives up to his moniker “Bob the Brain”. The scene exploits his nerdy compulsion to solve things, even when he can see that Will needs a doctor and that Joyce is insane for playing up to this “game”. Sean Astin was perfectly cast here.

Episode Six (3 scenes)

Burning inside out

18. Burning inside out. I was recently wheeled into the Emergency Room, and so I have a hard time watching these scenes — the prologue shown in the right picture, and the later scene where Dr. Owens runs tests on Will by torching (and torturing) a creature from the Upside Down, which simultaneously burns (and tortures) Will. No, my torments in the hospital weren’t as painful as Will’s, but I did feel like I was dying, and the doctors and nurses sounded very worried about me behind their professional facades. In any case, these are scenes once again brilliantly acted by Noah Schnapp. The scene to the right, in particular, was evidently of concern to the actors, who were so frightened by Noah’s acting they thought he was really in agony. Five minutes later, he was cracking fart jokes on the set.

Big Brother Steve

19. Big Brother Steve. Steve’s evolving character continues to surprise. Having been commandeered by Dustin in the last episode, he now directs Dustin in an attempt to bait Dart into the open and kill it. Along the way they form a rather unexpected bond on the basis of their girl troubles. Steve has just lost Nancy, and Dustin’s crush on Max hasn’t been going well at all. So Steve proceeds to counsel Dustin in all the right ways of hitting on girls, which calls forth amusing remarks about sexual electricity (which Dustin misconstrues as pertaining to electromagnetic fields), but by far my favorite line is when Steve projects his anger over Nancy through some advice meant to “protect” Dustin: “You’re not falling for this girl, are you?” he asks. When Dustin says no (lying obviously), Steve retorts, “Good. Because all she’ll do is break your heart, and you’re way too young for that shit.”

Demo-dog attack

20. Demo-dog attack. Steve and Dustin are eventually joined by Lucas and Max, and when Dart finally shows up, it’s with another demo-dog in tow. Suddenly it’s Steve and the kids who become the bait, trapped inside a bus as the beasts assault them. The claustrophobic suspense is right out of Jaws and Jurassic Park, but the best part is Dustin’s hilarious line, when he screams for help into his walkie talkie: “Is anyone there? Mike! Will! God! Anyone! We’re at the old junkyard, and WE ARE GOING TO DIE!” That purposely enunciated “We are going to die” is cribbed from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, from the scene where Harrison Ford’s character screams that to the blond dingbat whose only concern is the fact that her precious fingernails are getting ruined. What an homage.

Episode Seven (1 scene)

“I can save them”

21. “I can save them.” Most people hate the seventh episode, but it does have supporters, and I have to admit it’s grown on me a bit. I won’t pretend it’s an under-appreciated gem, because the fact is that Kali’s crew are hollow cliches. What the episode does well is make Eleven experience the lure of vigilantism. Ultimately she rejects using her powers for homicidal revenge, but she certainly flirts with the idea, furious over the way her mother was abused under Papa’s regime. That arc ends in a superb scene, starting with her vision of Mike and Hopper (who are just realizing that Will has unleashed an army of demo-dogs on the lab), to Kali’s use of an invisibility cloak to escape the cops, to El insisting that she return home — not because her Hawkins friends can save her, but because she can save them. It’s genuinely moving, and pays off the episode rather well.

Episode Eight (3 scenes)

Bob’s death

22. Bob’s death. Tropes from Aliens and Jurassic Park are used effectively for the season’s crowning action sequence, which results in the death of poor Bob. The sight of him being torn apart by the demo-dogs is nasty, and I’m surprised Joyce wasn’t reduced to a gibbering lunatic for the rest of the season. On the one hand, Bob’s death is telegraphed too obviously; at three particular points I said to myself, “He’s not going to make it”. On the other hand, I became sure those telegraphs were part of a grand bait-and-switch, once Bob makes it into the foyer. We’re supposed to think he’s going to die, until he barely makes it to Joyce and bolts the doors. Then — just as we start breathing again — the doors crash open and Bob goes under. Very well played; very traumatic.

Mike recalls meeting Will

23. Mike recalls meeting Will. The Duffer brothers have a sadistic streak, no question. In the Beyond Stranger Things round-table discussions, Matt Duffer is jokingly accused by one of the actors of having laughed and reveled in all the scenes where Noah Schnapp has to scream and thrash under torment. In the case of this scene, Will is strapped to a chair and worked over in turns by Joyce, Jonathan, and Mike. They share intimate memories in hopes of breaking through to him, and in particular Mike’s recollection of becoming friends with Will on the first day of school is a tearjerker. Will continues to speak like the damned, but these stories do break through and allow him to tap a Morse code message, “Close the gate”, which will apparently kill the mind flayer. Score for mom, big bro, and — especially — Emo Mike.

Stand-off

24. Stand-off. The tension here is insane. Even after my fifth viewing — knowing that Eleven is right outside ready to save everyone — the scene still makes my heart race. The way it’s shot is a throwback to last year’s scene, where Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve were in the Byers’ house under a strobe light effect, armed with a gun, lighter, and baseball bat trying desperately to sight the Demogorgon. This time it’s an army of demogorgons, but again the terror is caused by what everyone can’t see, but can hear and sense too well. I should note that the right characters are armed with the appropriate weapons — Hopper and Nancy with guns, Steve with the studded baseball bat, Lucas with his slingshot, and Emo Mike (wait for it) with a goddamn candlestick holder.

Episode Nine (6 scenes)

Mike and El’s reunion

25. Mike and El’s reunion. The reunion is powerful because Mike has been an empty shell for a year. To see him come alive again is sublime. And to think it almost didn’t happen this way. The original script had the reunion occurring at the Snow Ball epilogue. While I appreciate the idea — those who say the reunion should have occurred much earlier, like halfway through the season, are crazy — that would have been a little too late. We need at least a full episode of these two working in knowledge of each other. And it is the perfect first scene to follow on El’s glorious re-entry at the end of the last episode.

Mike goes ape-shit on Hopper

26. Mike goes ape-shit on Hopper. This one is just as good as the reunion, and heart-rending. All of Emo Mike’s frustrations from the past year boil over, as he goes ape-shit on Hopper, screaming at the son of a bitch and physically attacking him for keeping El hidden all this time. In the round-table discussions we learn that David Gilmour told Finn Wolfhard not to hold back, and Finn is really clobbering him without pulling his punches. Chokes me up every time. Emo Mike had a bad year.

Hopper and El’s reconciliation

27. Hopper and El’s reconciliation. Mike and El’s reunion is short lived (of course), since she leaves right away with Hopper. On their drive to the lab they make amends over their hellish fight back in episode 4. Even though I like the two scenes above better, this one is probably, objectively, the most moving scene of the season. It’s a long scene, as it deserves to be, and shows Hopper acknowledging his past demons that cause him to be overprotective, while El, for her part, owns up to her own stupidities. It plays authentically because we’ve seen the dark road she’s been on in episode 7; for all the problems of that episode, it did allow her to grow in a way that pays off an important scene like this.

Steve and Billy

28. Steve and Billy. As if the finale couldn’t get any better, we cut to Steve who has assumed the role of a babysitter and refuses to allow the boys to assist the other two groups (Hopper/El, and Joyce/Jonathan/Nancy/Will) in any way. He’s responsible for these “little shits”, as he puts it, and orders them to “stay on the bench” until the others do their jobs. The sudden intrusion of Billy makes it a moot point, and Steve proceeds to take an even worse pounding than he got from Jonathan last year. Billy is a more disturbing bully than Troy and his sidekick ever were — genuinely psychotic, and laughing, laughing, laughing through all the hits he takes.

The gate

29. The gate. The climax is last year’s times ten. A single Demogorgon has nothing on the mind flayer, which is sentient and all-powerful, and clearly too much for El to go against. She must shut the gate on the thing, sever its ties to our world, and isolate it in the Upside Down. In so doing, she’ll kill everything connected to it, including the army of demo-dogs, but also Will. So Will needs an exorcism, while Steve and the kids decide to launch an attack on the underground hub to draw the demo-dogs away from El and Hopper. When those two missions succeed, El is ready, and the momentum has piled like a juggernaut. Millie does a fantastic job conveying stress and exhaustion and fury all at once, and the flashback to Papa in episode 7  — “You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound, and eventually it will kill you” — goes a long way in compounding her rage against the mind flayer.

Snow Ball

30. Snow Ball. If El closing the gate is a spectacular moment, the Snow Ball epilogue is the crowning scene of the entire two seasons. All the boys end up paired with the right girl in the right ways: Lucas gets Max after a clumsy proposal, Will gets a bashful admirer (his “Zombie Boy” status working for him, for a change), and poor Dustin is rejected by every girl he asks until the elder Nancy comes to his rescue. Finally, Eleven arrives, and she and Mike dance to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”. Some critics have decried the use of this creepy stalker song, but it’s hard to believe they can be so clueless. The song is a perfect fit, not only because Mike and El’s relationship has always been rather weird, but because El has been stalking Mike for a whole year! Not to mention the stalker theme between Lucas and Max. On top of that, the final shot “underneath” the school in the Upside Down shows the mind flayer looming over the school, which aligns with the song’s theme: “I’ll be watching you, every breath you take, every move you make…” The Snow Ball epilogue is so affecting, so right, and more than I dared pray for this season. The kids earned this closure, and by God so did we.

Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (3): The Throat

throatIf you’ve never read The Throat but intend to, then stop reading now. This analysis will ruin any chance for a rewarding experience of all its surprises. For that matter, read Koko and Mystery beforehand, and “swallow” those novels as the title of this one urges.

The Throat is not only the best Blue Rose novel; it’s one of my favorite novels of all time. I say this with the deflective irony such a statement needs. It’s the most self-indulgent of the trilogy (at a whopping 689 pages), unconstrained by the discipline and tight writing of its predecessors, while shamelessly recycling their contents: Milwaukee is again transformed in an alternate setting; the protagonist was molested as a child like Koko’s villain, and hit by a car like Mystery’s hero. The specter of Vietnam is back. Tom Pasmore is back, now an adult and every bit as resourceful as Lamont von Heilitz. By this point Straub was risking beating a dead horse. But the redundancies work when taken to the next level. Everything that went before serves as a mere foreshadowing of the grand homicidal opera that is Blue Rose. He’s back after 41 years, and his story is a juggernaut.

It’s also impossible to figure out. In Koko it was hard to guess the killer’s identity, and in Mystery it was easier, but in The Throat there is no way in hell you would ever conclude that Mike Hogan is Fee Bandolier. On top of that is another Blue Rose killer, a copycat revealed in an outrageous twist that ends up eating the narrative’s tail. Some consider all of this a cheat for not giving the reader half a chance; but I don’t think so. It’s a testimony to Straub’s talents that he can make a mystery so deeply rewarding even when the clues are too hard, and when you enjoy going back afterwards and ruminating on them.

As for the title, it makes no sense. It’s the most meaningless title of any novel I’ve read. “The Throat” doesn’t refer to anyone’s physical anatomy. The Blue Rose killer slashed his victims’ throats, but also stabbed them in the heart. Straub has said that this novel “swallows” the previous two, Koko and Mystery, in a metafictional way — and I paid lip-service to that in the spoiler warning at the top — but that’s a very abstruse metaphor. I defy anyone who has read The Throat to say honestly that he or she grasps the title without having it explained by the author. I love it anyway. It’s one of my favorite book titles. It’s sounds great — I want to say it out loud when I look at the cover. At the very least, the novel’s theme of inhuman violence and deep scars suggests a guttural tone or atmosphere.

The Throat is a triumph because its problematic elements are either invisible or work strangely for it. It’s hard to say whether it’s more like Koko or Mystery. It channels Koko with the plot of a serial killer who is difficult (if at all possible) to figure out, and for themes of child abuse and the Vietnam War. It’s like Mystery for centering on the viewpoint of a great protagonist, in this case the very best Peter Straub has written. I could spend hours inside Tim Underhill’s head. He’s better than even Tom Pasmore, though it’s a close call; their team-up in this novel is such a treat that I could wish for a spin-off series modeled on the detective duo Jago & Litefoot.

I’m going to review the plot, briefly as possible and thoroughly as necessary. We need these facts at the ready.

The Plot

The story is set in 1991, and begins with Tim Underhill getting a phone call from his old high school friend John Ransom, who tells him that his wife April is in a coma. She was beaten and left for dead in the St. Alwyn Hotel with a “Blue Rose” calling card, just like the second Blue Rose victim of 1950. Five days before April, an unidentified man was killed in an alley outside the hotel, also with a “Blue Rose” calling card, like the first victim of 1950. Ransom knows that Tim wrote a fictionalized account of the Blue Rose murders in a novel called The Divided Man, in which Tim followed the official line that the police detective in charge of the Blue Rose investigation, William Damrosch (called Hal Esterhaz in Tim’s novel), was the Blue Rose killer. But even though Damrosch’s suicide note implied his guilt, Tim never really trusted it, and he later learned that it was Glendenning Upshaw who framed Damrosch and engineered his suicide. (Upshaw was responsible for the attack on the fake Blue Rose victim, Doctor Laing, which is the story of Mystery.) Tim and Ransom begin working on solving the original and present Blue Rose murders. Tim spots a man following Ransom on their way to visit April in the hospital. The next day, April is murdered in her hospital bed. A serial killer named Walter Dragonette, who calls himself the the “Meat Man”, is arrested by the police. He claims to be the Blue Rose killer, but it becomes obvious that he’s not. The next week, the first Blue Rose victim is identified at the morgue as Grant Hoffman, a student at the college where Ransom teaches. The Blue Rose killer seems to have a vendetta against John Ransom.

On the other hand, Tim learns that April had been working on a history project about one of the Millhaven bridges, and he spots the man who was following Ransom parked outside an old taproom near the bridge. He and Ransom break into the taproom, and find a torture chair in the cellar, along with fragments of a note that says, “Jane Wright, Alle-to-n, 1977”. They think this cellar could be a torture playground for the Blue Rose killer, and that Jane Wright was one of his victims. Tim wonders if April was killed because her history project led her too close to the Blue Rose killer’s hideout. On this reasoning, the killer would have nothing particular against John Ransom, and the murder of Grant Hoffman is mysterious.

A little over halfway through the novel, Tim and Ransom learn that the day manager of the St. Alwyn Hotel, Bob Bandolier, was the original Blue Rose killer: a Nazi of the private life who beat his wife, and who killed victims inside or near the hotel in order to “pay back” the St. Alwyn for firing him. They also learn that Bob had a son named Fee, who was sent away to live with relatives in Tangent Ohio, about a year after the murders, when he was seven or eight years old. Fee went straight into the military after high school in 1961, but his relatives say that he must have changed his name, because no one could track him down after that. After nights of detective work with Tom Pasmore, Tim realizes that Fee must have returned to Millhaven in 1979 and acquired his father’s old house, vacated since Bob died in 1972. Reason being, the Bandolier house has been owned by a fake company since ’79, and the front man for this company, William Writzmann, is the man who was following John Ransom to the hospital, and who was parked outside the abandoned taproom where Tim and Ransom later found the torture cellar. It turns out this fake company owns the taproom too. Tim concludes that Fee Bandolier is the new Blue Rose killer, following in his father’s footsteps, and that Writzmann works for him somehow. Soon after that, Tim realizes that Fee must be a Millhaven homicide detective, when he learns that one of the listed officers of Fee’s fake company is a bogus name referring to the head of the Millhaven homicide unit back in the ’70s, a name that only a cop would know. Soon after this realization, William Writzmann is found dead near a tavern close to the St. Alwyn, with a “Blue Rose” calling card, just like the third Blue Rose victim of 1950. Tim deduces that Fee killed his own thug because Tim and Ransom were getting too close to him.

Tim and Ransom begin to suspect that Paul Fontaine, the detective in charge of the Blue Rose case, is Fee, since he keeps insisting that Tim stop meddling in the Blue Rose affair and go back home to New York. Tom Pasmore agrees with Tim that Fontaine is probably Fee. He also deduces that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor, a figure we have seen in flashbacks at many points in the novel. Bachelor was a Green Beret feared by every soldier on earth, and a full-blown psychopath who engaged in rites of murder and cannibalism. John Ransom was a captain in Vietnam at the same time, and in 1964 he was sent to retrieve Bachelor out of the field and bring him in to his superiors for questioning. Bachelor evaded Ransom and tricked him into capturing his subordinate instead. Later, during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Bachelor went full rogue and betrayed his country by waging a personal war on Captain Ransom, tipping off the Vietcong who attacked Ransom’s camp and killed everyone except Ransom, who barely escaped. Tim likes Pasmore’s theory that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor. The initials F.B. are promising, and the Vietnam connection is off the scales: Bachelor was a psychopath like Blue Rose and was Ransom’s enemy — a clear motive for killing people like Hoffman and April who are connected to Ransom. Tim already learned that Fee changed his name after he graduated from high school in Tangent Ohio and enlisted in the army, and so he flies out to Tangent to visit a retired colonel and ask him if a Franklin Bachelor is listed in the 1961 records. They find Bachelor listed, and the colonel says he even remembers what he looked like. Tim shows him a photograph of a group of Millhaven police detectives, and the colonel positively identifies Paul Fontaine as Bachelor.

Now fully convinced that Detective Paul Fontaine is Fee Bandolier (the son of the original Blue Rose killer), who changed his name to Franklin Bachelor (the psychopathic Green Beret), who has every reason to hate John Ransom, Tim returns to Millhaven, and he and Ransom plan to bring down Fontaine. They find him late at night at the Bandolier home, and confront him. John’s father-in-law (April’s father) is with them, and he shoots Fontaine, killing him. Tim tells the police that Fontaine was the Blue Rose killer, but the police cover everything up to preserve their reputation.

Tim returns to New York but is contacted two weeks later by Tom Pasmore, who tells him they made a grievous error. Paul Fontaine could not have been the Blue Rose killer. One of Fee’s victims, the “Jane Wright of Alle-to-n in 1977” found in the taproom owned by Fee’s fake company, turns out to be Jane Wright of Allerton Ohio, murdered in 1977; Paul Fontaine was a detective in another state at that time. Tim flies back to Millhaven, and he and Pasmore set a trap for the real killer. He turns out to be Detective Sergeant Michael Hogan, Fontaine’s superior, and widely admired by Millhaven’s citizens. They lure Hogan into an old theater, where Tim kills him. Later that morning, Tim contacts news reporters to be sure there is no police cover-up this time. Finally, he goes to John Ransom, and tells him they were wrong about Fontaine; Fee Bandolier was Mike Hogan. Then comes the outrageous twist: Tim accuses Ransom of killing his wife. Hogan murdered only the third Blue Rose victim (Writzmann, his own thug); the first two victims (Grant Hoffman and April Ransom) were killed by none other than John Ransom himself. That twist demands thorough explanation.

The Clues: Fee Bandolier = Michael Hogan

On one level, the new Blue Rose killer is easy to figure out. He’s Fee Bandolier, son of Bob Bandolier the original Blue Rose. Tim and Ransom learn the existence of Fee at the same time they learn Bob was the psycho killer of 1950, about 60% of the way through the novel (p 413). When Tim brings this information to Pasmore, it doesn’t take long for them to deduce that Fee is also a psychopath (p 446), especially after Pasmore calls his Aunt Judy in Ohio, and she describes Fee as having been a disturbed and abused child. The mystery is who the hell Fee Bandolier is, since he vanished from the human record after graduating from high school in 1961 and enlisting in the army.

Tim and Ransom (and then Pasmore) become convinced that he is Detective Paul Fontaine, and they receive what appears to be unshakable confirmation of this. They confront Fontaine, he is killed in the ensuing shootout, and that appears to wrap up the mystery of Blue Rose. Two weeks later, Tim and Pasmore realize that Fontaine could not have been the killer, and by shrewdly manipulating the police they find out it’s really Detective Sergeant Michael Hogan. I don’t know of any reader who figured this out. There are few clues it could be Hogan, and most of them aren’t clues to speak of.

(1) The first (and only real) clue are Hogan’s resemblances to Clark Gable, in bold:

I sensed immediately that I was in the presence of a real detective, someone even Tom Pasmore would respect. Michael Hogan possessed a powerful personal authority. Hogan had the uncomplicated masculinity of old movie stars like Clark Gable or William Holden, both of whom he resembled in a generalized, real-world fashion. (p 161)

That powerful and unaffected natural authority that distinguished Michael Hogan radiated out from him like an aura and caused most of the people in the room to glance at him. I suppose great actors also have this capacity, to automatically draw attention to themselves. And Hogan had the blessing of looking something like an actor without at all looking theatrical — his kind of utterly male handsomeness, cast in the very lines of reliability, steadiness, honesty, and a tough intelligence, was of the sort that other men found reassuring, not threatening. As I watched Hogan it occurred to me that he actually was the kind of person that an older generation of leading men had impersonated on screen, and I was grateful that he was in charge of April’s case. (p 256)

When Tim is later asking the neighbors about Bob Bandolier, one of them says,

“That Bandolier, he was handsome as Clark Gable, but no good! Beat his wife black and blue!” (p 318)

Obviously Mike Hogan, a man in his late 40s, cannot be Bob Bandolier, who if alive would be in his late 60s or early 70s, but is in any case long dead. But the next day Tim learns that Bob had a son Fee (from Theresa Sunchana, on p 413), and so we might wonder if Mike Hogan is Fee, if we remember the Clark Gable association by that point. I did remember it on my first reading of The Throat, but I dismissed it as a Straubian red herring.

(2) The second clue is a non-clue, or a clue after the fact, because Straub doesn’t provide enough description. To the reader this looks like unshakable proof that Paul Fontaine is Blue Rose. By the time Tim has guessed that Fee Bandolier changed his name to Franklin Bachelor when joining the military, he asks Colonel Hubbel to identify Bachelor in a photo of some Millhaven police officers. We read that Hubbel

planted the tip of his right index finger on top of Paul Fontaine’s face. “There he is, right there, that’s the boy. Yep. Franklin Bachelor. Or whatever his real name was.” (p 518)

What we don’t see is that Hubbel is not really pointing at Paul Fontaine, even though that’s how Tim interprets it. Hubbel’s finger is more on top of Fontaine’s face, and actually pointing to the face of Mike Hogan who is standing behind Fontaine. Tom Pasmore figures it out at the end (pp 657-658), after he and Tim have trapped and killed Hogan. He takes out the photo Tim had showed Hubbel, and then points. To his disgust, Tim sees that

the tip of Tom’s finger aimed directly at the next man in the picture, Michael Hogan. He wasn’t pointing at Fontaine, he was obliterating him. “I think — I think I’m an idiot,” I said. “Maybe a moron. Whichever one is dumber.” (p 658)

Tim had seen the colonel pointing at Fontaine because he had been expecting him to identify Fontaine. But there was nothing in the text to give us a shot at figuring that out. That’s why Hubbel’s identification of Fontaine looked like the unshakable proof that Fontaine was Blue Rose.

(3) There might even be a third clue that Paul Fontaine is a bum steer, though it’s outside the structure of the narrative. Straub could be using Fontaine as the functional equivalent of William Damrosch. Both men were in charge of Blue Rose killings before dying tragically (Damrosch in 1950, Fontaine in 1991), and since Damrosch was wrongly thought to be the killer, perhaps we should conclude — as devotees of Straubian metafiction — that Fontaine is too. I only thought of this “clue” on my seventh reading of The Throat.

Blue Rose in Vietnam: Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor

Long before he became Mike Hogan, Fee Bandolier was Franklin Bachelor, during his military service in Vietnam. He was Major Bachelor, or just “The Major” — a Green Beret who became a legend among grunts, respected and then widely feared. He got results but crossed way too many lines. Finally his CIA superiors sent someone to retrieve him out of the field and bring him in for questioning; that person was Captain John Ransom.

In order to avoid Ransom, Bachelor had his subordinate impersonate him while he escaped into the hills, and Ransom never ended up confronting Bachelor or even seeing him. When he got to Bachelor’s camp, he found that the Bru tribesmen had been slaughtered and cannibalized. It’s a terrifying account, gleaned through the journal of Colonel Runnel which is read by Tim:

Bachelor knew that Captain Ransom was on his way to take him back to the United States for questioning. At that point he murdered his own followers. In cold blood, he dispatched those who could not keep up on a high-speed escape through rough terrain. Women. Children. The old and the weak, all were executed or mortally wounded, along with any able-bodied men who opposed Bachelor’s scheme. Then Bachelor and his remaining men boiled the flesh off some of the bodies and made a last meal of their dead. I believe it is even possible that Bachelor’s people voluntarily accepted death, cooperated in their own destruction. He held them under his sway. They believed he possessed magical powers. If Bachelor ate their flesh, they would live in him. (p 349)

Bachelor went rogue after this and began a personal vendetta against John Ransom, who in Bachelor’s mind had forced him to abandon his best camp and kill most of his Bru. Years later, around the time of the Tet Offensive (1968), Bachelor betrayed his country, duping the Vietcong into thinking the base commanded by Ransom at Lang Vo would be the next thorn in their side after Khe Sanh. The Vietcong reacted by descending on Lang Vo and devastating the place, though Ransom escaped.

This being a Peter Straub novel, we might guess that Colonel Runnel’s account isn’t quite the real story, and sure enough, at the end of The Throat we learn that it was actually John Ransom who slaughtered and ate Bachelor’s Bru followers. Bachelor did perform cannibalistic rites, but he didn’t victimize his own followers; he just left them behind if they were too weak to follow. Ransom wanted to be like the legendary Bachelor and tap into mystical awareness through the most intimate forms of violence. That’s what we learn in the Ransom Twist.

The Ransom Twist

It comes in The Throat’s final pages. The Blue Rose victims Grant Hoffman and April Ransom were not killed by the new Blue Rose killer Mike Hogan (= Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor), but by someone else copying the old killings: John Ransom himself. He murdered his wife for the oldest reasons: for her money, for her affair with a young artist, and for making his life a marital prison. “You’re worse than Hogan,” says Tim. “He couldn’t help killing, but you murdered two people for the sake of your own comfort.” (p 673)

Subsequent readings of The Throat show how obvious-yet-not it is that John Ranson killed his wife. The clues are small and subtle but there, pretty much whenever Ransom is on screen. What he says and the way he reacts to things are the reactions of a guilty man. But they’re equally the behaviors of an irascible man with a short temper coping with the loss of his wife. That’s what makes him hard to catch onto.

And it’s a brilliant twist, no question. It’s entirely believable that John Ransom would kill his wife, given his hollow character and his history of esoteric violence in Vietnam. The problem is the relationship between John Ransom and Mike Hogan (= Fee Bandolier = Franklin Bachelor). It asks abusively much of us to believe in the coincidence of John Ransom exploiting the Blue Rose murders of the past while having no idea (at the time) who Blue Rose was (Bob Bandolier) or that his son (Fee Bandolier) even existed, while that son turns out to be the very Franklin Bachelor whom Ransom is trying to blame as a new Blue Rose killer. The true reason Ransom invited Tim out to Millhaven was to sell him the idea that Franklin Bachelor was the Blue Rose Killer. First he floated the idea to Tim that he thought Blue Rose might be an old soldier, and later told Tim melodramatic tales about his Vietnam assignment to bring Bachelor back to his superiors.

But Ransom had no idea that Bachelor was actually living in Millhaven, just as he had no idea that he was ever from Millhaven in the first place. His plan depended on the fiction that Bachelor would (supposedly) come in from somewhere out of town after seeing Ransom’s picture in the paper with April from her public awards ceremony, and then exact revenge on him for Vietnam. According to Ransom (and the journal of Colonel Runnel), Bachelor harbored a fury against Ransom for forcing him to abandon his best camp and kill most of his own followers. But Tim guesses that it was Ransom, not Bachelor, who murdered and ate Bachelor’s Bru followers in Vietnam — including Bachelor’s Bru wife and child — which turns out to be true; but, as Ransom retorts to Tim’s accusation, this simply gives Bachelor all the more reason to want revenge on Ransom: to kill his wife April as just payback.

Except that’s not what happened. Hogan (Bachelor) didn’t kill April out of his fury with Ransom. He had his thug William Writzmann beat April to shut her up. She had been making inquiries for a special history project about the Green Woman Taproom, which was where Hogan killed his victims and kept detailed diaries of their torments. If April’s relationship to John Ransom wasn’t enough to move Hogan to kill her, then her getting close to his torture playground would have surely done so. It’s preposterous that a serial killer like Hogan would have had her merely beaten as a warning, and risk her continuing her investigation. Ransom, for his part, had no idea who beat up April when he found her bloodied in the car. All he knew was that this was his opportunity to kill April as he’d been planning for some time, and blame it on the old Blue Rose killer. So that’s what he did.

All of this collapses under too many pressure points: Hogan and Ransom, arch-enemies in Vietnam, are now living together in the same city. Each has multiple reasons to kill April, and plan to assault her around the same time. Hogan however, incredibly, does not kill her, only has her worked over. Ransom finishes Hogan’s work, killing his already bludgeoned wife, utterly clueless as to who beat her or why. He exploits the Blue Rose murders of the past, not knowing that Bob Bandolier was the killer, or that Bob had a son Fee who is a new Blue Rose killer; also not knowing that Fee Bandolier is Franklin Bachelor, whom Ransom did know (though never actually saw) in Vietnam, and whom Ransom is trying to blame as a Blue Rose killer — which, surprise, Bachelor already is!

Straub either got lost up his own ass, or he’s a metafictional genius; I’m not sure which. The funny thing is, the Ransom twist works for me. John Ransom is a violent asshole who would kill for selfish and petty reasons. It’s a good payoff to his character. If Blue Rose ends up diminished by it, it’s at least masked by the fact that Hogan got only 17 pages of screen time anyway. We’ve been with Ransom all the way through.

The Meat Man

I said that The Throat is an indulgent novel, and the most egregious indulgence is the side plot of “The Meat Man”, Walter Dragonette, who is clearly intended as a combination of Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy. He’s a red herring that entertains on shock value, and a sure tipping point for readers eager to accuse Straub of laziness or just plain ridiculousness.

This fifty-page section could pass for boilerplate slasher. On the morning April Ransom is murdered in her hospital bed, two boys (Akeem, 9, and Kwanza, 7) living across from Dragonette’s home skip across the man’s lawn and peer into his living room, hoping to get a look at the huge television set which they frequently hear at high volume blasting out the sounds of films like The Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “where folks got hunted down and cut up, man, right there in your face” (p 146). They find, to their surprise, no TV, and to their horror, the corpse of an African American lying in a sea of bloody newspapers, with a broken hacksaw blade sticking out. The kids hadn’t been hearing movies at all. They race back across the street screaming for their parents who call the police, and by the time Walter Dragonette has returned from his morning trip to the hardware store (to buy a new hacksaw), practically the entire Millhaven police force is waiting for him. For years this guy has been inviting people home, slaughtering them in his living room, fucking their corpses, and then sawing them into pieces.

Inside the home the cops find a meat factory, and the inventory goes on for two pages (pp 152-153). In a refrigerator: four heads (two black males, one white male, one white female), two severed penises, a human heart on a white china plate, a human liver wrapped in Clingfilm, along with normal food like bread, mustard, and lettuce. In a long freezer: six more heads (three male, three female), two pairs of male human legs without feet, a freezer bag of entrails labeled STUDY, two pounds of ground round, and the hand of a preteen girl minus three fingers. In two 60-gallon drums of water and pickled preservatives: headless torsos. Around the house: human skulls meticulously cleaned, electric drills and saws, baking soda, and carving knives.

These graphic horrors fill a certain void in The Throat, where the Blue Rose killer is kept off screen and the narrative relies on deeper and more psychological terrors. It’s a contrivance untypical of Straub — seriously, this disorganized killer has been making his home a slaughterhouse for over eighteen months, and he just happens to get caught on the morning April Ransom comes out of her coma and is killed by Blue Rose! — but I can’t deny the detour is immensely entertaining. Appreciation of this depends on how individual readers react to the switch in tone, but I believe The Throat’s scope is wide enough to accommodate it.

Metafictional Masturbation

And yet The Throat’s most significant indulgence lies in its first-person point of view. “I” narratives lend themselves to excess anyway, and it’s clear from page 1 that Straub will be pushing the envelope. Tim Underhill, author of The Divided Man, explains to us that he actually co-authored Koko and Mystery with Peter Straub. This allows Straub the masturbatory fantasy that he wrote some of his best work with his best literary creation.

It also lets those novels off the hook to a certain extent where they blundered. For example, in my retrospective of Koko I mentioned the problem of how Tim could have written The Divided Man, in which the fifth Blue Rose victim is a fundamentalist butcher who molests little boys. In the real world (of Koko) Manny Dengler’s father was a butcher preacher who molested him as a child, but Tim doesn’t become aware of this until the end of the novel. And the novel is set in 1982-1983. How could he have written that victim in The Divided Man years earlier, in the early ’70s? The Throat answers that question: The fifth Blue Rose killing represents the butcher from Illinois, Heinz Stenmitz, who molested Tim when he was a child. Manny Dengler is a real character (he appears in one of The Throat’s flashbacks, pp 63-66), but in Koko he is as much a fictitious vessel for Tim’s experiences. Mystery’s Tom Pasmore is also real; he plays a major role in The Throat. But he wasn’t hit by a car as described in Mystery; that, we now learn, was Tim’s accident (p 40) projected onto Pasmore.

The Throat, in other words, becomes the “real story” to which Koko and Mystery serve as reflective preludes. Like The Divided Man, they are Timothy Underhill’s sounding boards as he navigates his personal traumas. This seems to be what Straub means by the The Throat “swallowing” those novels. Here’s a chart I made to show how everything looks from within the assumed reality of The Throat.

 

. The Divided Man (1972) Koko (1988) Mystery (1990) The Throat (1993)
Author(s) of the Novel
Tim Underhill Tim Underhill & Peter Straub Tim Underhill & Peter Straub (N/A: The Throat is the assumed reality)
Killer(s) of the Novel
Blue Rose Killer (Hal Esterhaz) Koko (Manny Dengler) Glendenning Upshaw Blue Rose Killer (Bob Bandolier in 1950); New Blue Rose Killer (Fee Bandolier, aka Mike Hogan in 1991); Copycat Blue Rose Killer (John Ransom in 1991)
Period of the Novel
1950 1982-83 1962 1991
Role of the Blue Rose murders Main plot None (a character reads The Divided Man) Side plot (the doctor is a fake Blue Rose victim) Main plot (there is a new Blue Rose Killer)
Setting of Blue Rose Murders (1950)
Monroe, Illinois Mill Walk, Caribbean Millhaven, Illinois
1st Murder Piano Player Prostitute Prostitute
2nd Murder Prostitute Piano Player Piano Player
3rd Murder Doctor Doctor (survived) Hustler
4th Murder Hustler Butcher Doctor (survived)
5th Murder Butcher Butcher
Police Detective in Charge
Hal Esterhaz William Damrosch William Damrosch
Blue Rose Calling Card Piece of paper next to victim Chalk on wall Magic marker on wall
Setting of New Blue Rose Murders (1991)
Millhaven, Illinois
1st Murder Grant Hoffman
2nd Murder April Ransom
3rd Murder William Writzmann
Police Detective in Charge
Paul Fontaine
Blue Rose Calling Card Magic marker on wall

 

Loving Fee Bandolier: The Trauma of Tim Underhill

In The Throat Tim Underhill finally remembers his childhood trauma. You’d think he would have done so long before, having projected it onto the characters in his novels, but his mind has kept it suppressed. He suffers panic attacks, hardly knowing why, sometimes almost passing out. He uses the gnostic gospels (to the amusing derision of John Ransom, who is a professor of religion) to aid his self-discovery:

All that saved me from another spell was the sudden memory of what I’d read in the gnostic gospel while I waited for John to come back from the hospital: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. [Gospel of Thomas 70] I was trying to bring it forth — but what in the world was it? (p 140)

He gets his answer toward the end (pp 604-605) when hit by a hideous flashback, and relives his seven-year old self giving the butcher Heinz Stenmitz a blowjob. He vomits in the street, and in sudden intuition realizes this is also what happened to Fee Bandolier — which is why Stenmitz was Bob Bandolier’s final Blue Rose victim.

According to Tom Pasmore, Tim has been obsessing Fee Bandolier all his life; he practically invented Fee in his novels years before he knew of his existence. On some level, says Pasmore, Tim loves Fee, whose sadistic home environment and Blue-Rose genes had set him on a path of rage and violence over the compassionate pacifism that Tim eventually chose. This comes to a head when he and Pasmore are about to trap Fee (Mike Hogan) and Pasmore says they will have to kill him rather than turn him in. It’s a moving passage (pp 635-637) and The Throat’s best:

“Are you thinking about disarming him and taking him to Armory Place [the police station]? Do you think he’ll confess? Or that we’d ever walk out of Armory Place? You know what would happen.”

I said nothing.

“Tim, I don’t even believe in the death penalty. But right now, the only alternative is to get out of here and go back home. I’ve spent about fifteen years working to get innocent men off death row — saving lives. That’s what I believe in. But this isn’t like anything else I know — it’s as if we discovered that Ted Bundy was a detective with so many fallbacks and paper trails that he could never be brought to justice in any normal way. Do you want to know how I really see this?”

“Of course I want to know,” I said.

“We’re going to set him free.”

As a euphemism for execution, the phrase was ludicrous. “Thanks for sharing that,” I said.

“Who is he now? Is that worth saving? That person is a being who has to kill over and over again to satisfy a rage so deep that nothing could ever touch it. But who is he, really?”

“Fee Bandolier,” I said.

“Right. Somewhere, in some part of himself he can’t reach, he is a small boy named Fielding Bandolier. That boy passed through hell. You’ve been obsessed with Fee Bandolier before you even knew he existed. You almost made him up out of your own history. Do you know why?”

“Because I identify with him,” I said.

“Because you love him,” Tom said. “You love the child he was, and that child is still present enough to make himself visible to you, and he makes himself visible to your imagination because you love him.”

I remembered the child who came forward out of the swirling dark, on his open palm the word that cannot be read or spoken. He was the child of the night, William Damrosch, Fee Bandolier, and myself, all of whom had passed through the filthy hands of Heinz Stenmitz.

I tear up every time I read this part, and not just out of grief for Fee Bandolier, but because Tim and Tom are both so right. If pacifism must yield to pragmatic mercy, it’s only because Fee is too dangerous and protected by the law to let live. “Setting him free” sounds like a right-wing platitude, but in this case it’s not.

The Mighty Throat

So why is The Throat one of my favorite novels, along with mighty classics like Lord of the Rings and Shogun? I’ve had a hard time explaining it. Tolkien and Clavell require no defense; Peter Straub is more an acquired taste. I’ve urged the Blue Rose trilogy on many people who give up on it, usually halfway through Koko. The style is too cerebral for them. They find Straub a chore.

Frankly, I’ve had more fun reading Straub than most authors. That may run counter to accepted truths of him being “colder to the touch” than Stephen King, but I don’t find Straub to be “cold” at all. Starting with Koko in particular, Straub embarked on a string of work so focused and immersive that it seems to have given him discernment over existential mysteries, let alone the ability to write suspenseful ones. His characters seethe with fury and pain, and reach for love and hope, and he treats them with a unique mix of empathy and clinical curiosity. I never grow tired of his work. Few authors have his intuitive grasp of aesthetics and discipline, and even when he goes against the grain of that discipline — as he has done in The Throat like no other novel — he has fail-safes that leave the work stunningly intact.

I could say that I love The Throat for all these reasons, which is true, but none of that is quite the answer. The Throat occupies me every time I read it, to the exclusion of everything else that requires my attention. I want to stay with Tim Underhill, just as he wants to linger at Tom Pasmore’s, in those comfortable chairs leafing through the Blue Rose files late into the night: Despite my exhaustion, I wanted to stay another half hour; I thought it was a privilege. (p 305) A privilege, yes, to read story like this. And like Pasmore, I don’t want the Blue Rose mystery to be over. Tim and Tom feel like family, and I could follow them 700 pages more.

Rating: 5+ stars out of 5

Poland and the Holocaust

There’s been a lot in the media about Poland criminalizing any mention of Poles being involved in the Holocaust, but as Deane Galbraith shows, these reports are misleading and never quote the legislation:

“The amendment does not apply to those who blame individual Poles for individual acts of collaboration with the Nazis. The scale of the involvement of Poles in the Holocaust is a matter of ongoing historical debate. Polish authorities tend to emphasize the role of those who assisted Jews during the German occupation, and minimize the role of those Poles who were complicit. Others have less favourable opinions of Polish involvement in the Nazi Holocaust. Yet this debate will still be allowed under the legislation, as the legislative amendments don’t apply to this debate. In addition, there is an explicit exemption even for attributing it to the Polish Nation or State, for ‘artistic or academic activity’ (Article 55A(3)).

“What the Polish legislation does deal with is the false attribution of the German Holocaust to the Polish Nation or State. This is beyond doubt, as the Polish State did not in fact exist after the German takeover during WWII, except in exile. Poles have been understandably upset that the German death camps have been regularly, but misleadingly, referred to as ‘Polish death camps’ – including in a 2012 speech by the US President Barack Obama. They are especially aggrieved given the fact that 6 million Poles died at the hands of the German Nazis, including 3 million Jewish Poles and 3 million non-Jewish Poles.

“As recently as 29 June 2017, Israel agreed that the description ‘Polish death camps’ was incorrect… But now that Poland has made the very phrase ‘Polish Death Camps’ illegal, Israel has taken the opposite stance, interpreting the Polish legislation as itself being a ‘denial of the Holocaust’. The Israeli response is, at least, a badly judged response based on poor news reporting.”

As a sidebar, I don’t believe government should be enacting any legislation at all like this: free speech should never be criminalized. But the point isn’t that Poland doesn’t have the First Amendment. As objectionable as the legislation is, it isn’t nearly as odious or restrictive as the media has been making it out to be. It doesn’t restrict academic debates about the issue, nor any discussion (academic or otherwise) of the involvement of individual Poles. The media repeatedly implies those things, in the posts cited by Galbraith, and also yesterday’s Conversation article “New ‘Holocaust law’ highlights crisis in Polish identity”. The latter concludes:

“Through the new ‘Holocaust Law,’ the government is, in effect, trying to repress knowledge of crimes committed against Jews by Poles… Those Poles opposed to the law – and there are many, judging by the number of organizations and public figures denouncing it and the number of petitions circulating – hope that it will be deemed unconstitutional because it represses freedom of speech and could significantly curtail academic research.”

But again, the legislation doesn’t do either of the things I italicized. Yes, it represses free speech — which makes it bad legislation by definition — but not to the extent the Israelis and the media are implying.

Read Galbraith’s whole piece here.

Retrospective: The Blue Rose Trilogy (2): Mystery

(As with Koko so with Mystery. This review will ruin your experience of the novel if you read it beforehand. It’s full of spoilers and very significant ones at that. Avert thine eyes accordingly.)

Whenever I’m asked to name a modern novel — written within the last 30 years or so — that qualifies as lasting literature, three come to mind: Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Peter Straub’s Mystery. And if I could chose only one for the honor, it would have to be the last. Mystery is the sort of novel you imagine Cliff Notes for. It’s pristine writing of unerring expression and appreciates in value on each reread. This was my third, and I was savoring the prose more than ever. It’s the Glenlivet of the Blue Rose trilogy (I’d call Koko the snake wine, and The Throat Bacardi 151), a classic that thoroughly deserves retrospection.

The settings are inspired and critical to Mystery‘s success. The main theater is the Caribbean island of Mill Walk, where poor natives live under white elites who care for them like Donald Trump does hurricane victims. The other setting is Eagle Lake, a lakeside residence in Wisconsin where the Mill Walk elite fly to spend their summers. This allows Straub to cast “Milwaukee” in an alternate reality that is both exotic and surreal, which turns out to be perfect for a boy’s coming of age story. Tom Pasmore’s world is criminally real, but filtered through a lens that mutes the ugliness.

As for Pasmore himself, he’s one of the author’s best characters. The story starts with him at 10 years old, running down the streets of a rough neighborhood, getting bullied and then hit by a car, and almost killed. Straub had a near-death car hit like this as a child, and the autobiographical prints show. In recovery Pasmore becomes obsessed with reading (any book he can lay hands on), death, and solving murder mysteries. He soon turns 17; the fast-forwarding stops; and the mystery of Mystery is launched as he becomes mentored by an elderly detective. Together they work on solving two seemingly unrelated murders. One was the sister of a finance minister in present-day 1962. The other was a family friend, Jeanine Thielman, back in 1925. The killer of both is none other than Tom Pasmore’s grandfather: Glendenning Upshaw, the rich tycoon who runs Mill Walk with the police in his back pocket. He is Mystery’s villain, staying mostly off-stage like Koko’s Manny Dengler, though not nearly as obscure.

The Clues

In Koko the killer’s identity is hard to figure out, and the reader plays detective along with the Vietnam vets. In Mystery we’re immersed in a young detective’s process, and sometimes we’re ahead of him. It’s not hard, for us, to peg Upshaw as the villain when Tom is shot at through his lodge window at Eagle Lake. Upshaw is raging at him over the phone for digging up the past, suddenly calms down and advises Tom to look out the window, at which point a bullet comes smashing through the glass and barely missing him.

The reader will surely recall Upshaw’s decision to send Tom up to Eagle Lake in the first place, back in part five. Tom and his mother were having lunch at his grandfather’s home, and Tom proceeded to royally piss him off by offering the opinion that the finance minister killed his own sister, and the Mill Walk police covered the whole thing up. Upshaw became agitated and belittled Tom, dismissing his theories as stupid and paranoid. Then he suddenly calmed down, and offered Tom help with his future:

Upshaw sampled the soup and looked at Tom again. He was no longer angry. “In a way I’m almost happy you have spoken as you have this morning. It means I’ve come to the right decision (bold mine). I think your horizons need widening.”

“My father said something about your being willing to set me up in business after I get out of college. That’s very generous. I don’t quite know what to say, except thanks. So thank you.”

His grandfather waved this away. “You’re applying to Tulane?”

Tom nodded.

“Stick with engineering. It’s a foundation. It’ll give you everything you need. If you want to study poetry and the collected works of V.I. Lenin, you can do it in your spare time.”

“I don’t know if I’d be a good engineer,” Tom said.

“Well, just what do you think you’d be good at? Biting the hand that feeds you? Insulting your family? I don’t think Tulane offers degrees in those subjects yet.” He simmered for a while. Tom and Gloria occupied themselves with their soup.

After a moment, his grandfather said, “Have you ever seen Eagle Lake?”

Tom looked up in surprise.

“I’ve been thinking of showing our old lodge a bit of life. How do you think you’d like to spend a month or so at the lake?”

“I’d love to. It would be great.”

“A carefree summer before your hard work begins.”

And then Tom understood — Eagle Lake was a reward for having agreed to major in engineering.

Except it wasn’t. It was his “reward” for making too much noise about the death of Marita Hasselgard, and accusing important people of involvement. On the face of it, Upshaw’s I’ve come to the right decision referred to sending Tom to college. But it really referred to the afterthought — or what seemed like one — about sending him up to the Wisconsin resort. Frankly I was suspicious about Upshaw even at this point, and not just because he’s nasty and unpleasant. (Victor Spitalny was nasty, but he wasn’t Koko’s killer; Upshaw could have been a false lead too.) There’s something subterranean about him that made me guess he was at least complicit in the killings. I didn’t think he would try having his own grandson killed to silence him.

Blue Rose

Only when Tom is on the plane back to Mill Walk, and he is discussing the Blue Rose murders of 1950 with Lamont von Heilitz, does he begin allowing himself the truth of his grandfather. The Blue Rose mystery will be the subject of The Throat, but the killings are tangentially relevant here, because one of the Blue Rose victims was a false flag — a victim of Glendenning Upshaw. Doctor Buzz Laing was stabbed and left for dead (though he survived the attack) with the calling card “Blue Rose”. Upshaw had arranged to have him killed and make it look like it was the Blue Rose killer. Von Heilitz doesn’t spell this out; he speaks in vague innuendos and mentions to Tom that his grandfather had arranged a different detective to be assigned to the Blue Rose case — as though this is some kind of hint.

Why did Upshaw want the doctor killed? Later towards the end, Tom calls Buzz Laing, and learns why he was fired from the hospital owned by his grandfather. Laing had called out a colleague for ignoring sexual abuse symptoms in one of his patients:

“One time I brought home the file of one of the patients Boney kept for himself, and I thought I saw some of the classic indications of real trouble, if you see what I mean. Vaginal warts, vaginal bleeding, and a couple of other things that at the time should at least have called for further investigation and were probably an indicator for psychiatric counseling. Do you see what I’m talking about? This was in the woman’s childhood. Really it could only mean one thing. I can’t be more specific, Tom. Anyhow, I said something about it to Boney, and he hit the ceiling. I was out on my ear, and that’s why I don’t have any patients at Shady Mount.”

The patient Laing is describing is Tom’s mother, Gloria Pasmore, though Tom doesn’t realize this yet. He later has a flash of intuition and recalls Laing’s comments as he and Detective Natchez are discussing Upshaw’s non-affairs with young women. Upshaw made a point to be seen in public with women like like Carmen Bishop and Barbara Deane so as to appear a “normal” man with appetites for younger women in their twenties. His true appetites were for prepubescent girls. He abused his daughter Gloria from a very early age, before she was even five, and hers was the patient file Laing saw by accident. Tom suddenly understands why his mother has always been such a mess — her anxieties and depressions and screams in the middle of the night.

Thus the root of the mystery: Jeanine Thielman had discovered that Upshaw was a pedophile and threatened to expose him. Upshaw killed her, up close and personal, unlike most of the dirty work he dumps on hit men, corrupt cops, and self-serving doctors. The Blue Rose case helps Tom solve the mystery in a roundabout way: Buzz Laing, the fake Blue Rose victim, had stumbled on Upshaw’s worst secret.

The Pasmore Pedigree

When Sherlock Holmes is your father and Jeffrey Epstein times ten is your grandfather — that pedigree. It took balls for Straub to use a character like Lamont von Heilitz. He is implied to have inspired “The Shadow” of the ’30s radio show and so of course he’s a caricature; but he works. Had Straub used this figure in the gritty realistic framework of The Throat, the results would have laughable. In the more dreamy atmosphere of Mystery he fits hand in glove. In that sense von Heilitz is like Shadowland’s magician Coleman Collins, an archetype whose credibility depends more on the author’s writing style than the actual narrative.

It’s fitting that Mystery’s pivotal scene is the only one in the novel where Tom’s father and grandfather are both on screen. Tom and von Heilitz sneak onto the Upshaw grounds, and spy on Upshaw through a window as he opens their letters — the anonymous notes they mailed in order to “rattle his cage”. The notes say “I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE”, “YOU HAVE TO BE STOPPED”, which mimic the implied accusations sent by Jeanine Thielman to Upshaw back in 1925, when she learned he was raping his four-year old daughter. As far as Upshaw knows, those notes had been destroyed, but Tom found them hidden at Eagle Lake. Upshaw’s reaction carries mountains of suspense through sheer body language:

Upshaw took up the red envelope. He looked at the handwriting and examined the postmark. Then he slit the envelope open and pulled out the sheet of yellow paper. He unfolded it and read.

Tom held his breath.

His grandfather was motionless for a second; and then, though he did not move, gesture, or change in any way, his body seemed to alter its dimensions, as if beneath the black suit it had suddenly deflated and expanded like a bullfrog’s air sac. He seemed to have drawn all the air in the room into himself. His arms and his back were as rigid as posts.

“And there we are,” von Heilitz said.

Tom’s grandfather whirled sideways in his chair and looked through the window and out across the terrace. Tom’s heart slid up into his throat and stayed there until Upshaw slowly revolved back to the note. He stared at it for another second. Then he pushed the yellow paper to the corner of his desk and picked up the envelope to look at the handwriting and the postmark. He turned his head to make sure the door was closed, and then looked back out the window. He pulled all the rest of the letters toward him and shuffled through them, setting before him on the desk a grey envelope and two white envelopes, set down the others, and held each of the three up to examine the printed address and the postmark. One by one, he slit them open and read the notes. He leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling for a moment before reading the notes again. He pushed his chair away from the desk, and then stood and moved to the window and looked both right and left with an unconscious furtiveness Tom had never before seen in him.

“He really did kill her,” Tom said.

Few authors can write scenes like this. Upshaw is presumably deducing that von Heilitz is behind these perfidious notes, and sure enough he sends the police to kill him. Von Heilitz’s death is predictable, but only in the way that tragedy always is. Someone has to pay for banging the bee nest. The tragedy is made worse, however, by Tom’s last words to his father. He resented von Heilitz for showing him the truth about his grandfather, and said things he didn’t mean — accusations of abandonment, letting his mother marry an ineffectual man to raise him, and using Tom as a tool to solve his pet crimes. His discovery of his father’s corpse inside the ransacked house is a well earned tear-jerker.

Eagle Lake = Shadowland

It struck me on my reread that Eagle Lake is a replay of Shadowland. A teenager named Tom (Flanagan, Pasmore) goes on a summer retreat at a spectacular place (Shadowland, Eagle Lake) on the arrangement of an elder mentor whose agenda is to kill him (Coleman Collins, Glendenning Upshaw). He has an affair with a girl (Rose Armstrong, Sarah Spence) to the jealousy of the boy she has been with for some time (Del Nightingale, Buddy Redwing). The first Tom suffers trial by crucifixion; the second Tom a trial by fire. The attempt on their lives fail, but someone else is killed (Del Nightingale, Barbara Deane). Shadowland and Eagle Lake become the punishing education grounds where Toms Flanagan and Pasmore learn how the professions they crave can kill them.

The major difference is Shadowland’s high stakes; it’s a complete tragedy. Del is killed (shapechanged by his Uncle Cole into a glass bird), while Tom Flanagan, though able to leave the fairyland (after being crucified), grows up to become a penniless stage trickster. His heartthrob Rose disappears into a water-world, to escape the feeling that she walks on knives. There’s tragedy in Mystery too, as we’ve just seen, when von Heilitz is killed, but Tom Pasmore transcends it and ends up doing well for himself (as we learn in The Throat). If he doesn’t exactly “get his girl”, the final pages at least hint at a friendship with Sarah Spence that will last. Also, Tom Flanagan suffers on a staggering level. His crucifixion is the most unspeakable torture of a teenager I’ve been subjected to in a novel. While Tom Pasmore is almost burned alive (the final attempt on his life by his grandfather), his torments are nothing compared to those of Flanagan. These differences make Shadowland a much darker story than Mystery, and arguably stronger; I’ve said before that it’s the best novel of Straub’s early horror period. But it’s still a close call. They are both extraordinary coming of age stories.

Every time I read Mystery, I wish the Eagle Lake section would last forever. It’s the longest of the eight parts, and the heart the novel, where Tom Pasmore’s vacation becomes ours — his swims in the lake, his clandestine affairs with Sarah Spence, his stand-offs against Redwing bullies, his conversations with people like Kate Redwing and Barbara Deane, and his inquisitive research that almost gets him killed three times. His investigation of Jeanine Thielman’s murder leads to unexpected twists, and we learn about past events in the ’20s through some colorful characters.

Intertextual context

Apart from one blunder, Straub keeps his metafiction under control, with none of the confusions and unlikelihoods of Koko. The single exception is the presence of Tim Underhill’s novel The Divided Man. It’s a fictionalized meditation on the Blue Rose killings, which happened in 1950, so that part is fine; but according to Koko and The Throat, Underhill didn’t write the novel until the early ’70s, after his Vietnam service. The Divided Man is an anachronism in a 1962 setting. (It would also mean that Underhill wrote the novel in the late 50s as a teenager, which is rather unlikely.)

It’s hard to overstate how inspired Mystery is. Between its alluring settings and precious character, Straub is able to infuse a coming of age story with his particular style of mystery where the past holds the present in a vise. And he’s actually done even better, as we’ll see in the next retrospective.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Free Speech on Campus (6): What’s at Stake?

The authors wrote this book out of a concern that “much of the current debate over the learning environment on college campuses gives insufficient attention to the values of free speech and academic freedom — the philosophical, moral, and practical arguments in support of these principles, the lessons of the historical record, and the current state of the law. Surveys reveal that students’ support for basic free speech principles is dramatically eroding.”

Many factors have contributed to this trend especially since the ’90s, but a big one is the collapse of traditional network news and rise of “curated” information gathering on cable and online. It’s been much easier in recent decades for people to listen to those with whom they already agree, and to respond to opposing viewpoints with mockery and charges of bad will. Colleges and universities should be a corrective to this trend instead of following it.

The stakes are high, conclude the authors, as we help today’s generation of students understand why free expression matters, on college campuses and in the world. They can hardly be expected to fight for free speech values if they don’t understand their history, practicality, and ethical premises. I found this book to be a helpful presentation of the issue and highly recommend it.