- Working—Robert Caro
- Everything’s Fine—Cecilia Rabess
- Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty—Patrick Radden Keefe
- Ellen and Romeo—Anonymous
- Working—Robert Caro
- The Power Broker—Robert Caro (twice)
- The Years of Lyndon Johnson I: The Path to Power—Robert Caro
- Pure Colour—Sheila Heti
I think I have a new literary hero. I cannot yet confirm this, because I have yet to read any of his books—the big ones, anyway—although I have all the best intentions, as you will see from the Books Bought column above. His name is Robert Caro, famous for The Power Broker, which is his book about Robert Moses, and his still-unfinished biography of Lyndon Johnson (four volumes to date and counting), and I’m sure you know all about him. He is less known here in the UK: his subject is American power and who ends up wielding it. The British would like to know, for sure, but maybe most of us just want to be told a few names, rather than to be handed a twelve-hundred-page book about someone who has played no part in their lives.
My fascination with Caro began with the documentary Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, which I think every Believer reader should see. It’s a movie about a writer and his editor, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is unlikely to be another film in the writer-and-editor genre for the next hundred thousand years. (After that, however, with the way the world is going and all, I expect an unstoppable flood of them.) The editor is Robert Gottlieb, and both men were born in the 1930s—Gottlieb in 1931, Caro in 1935—so there is an undercurrent of melancholy, or at least a sense of time running out, in the documentary. Neither of them knows whether they will be able to finish their work on the last volume of the LBJ series, nor can Caro get a move on. He has to do it his way, with extraordinary thoroughness and patience. Gottlieb is legendary, of course. He worked on Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, and he discovered Joseph Heller, and he edited John Cheever and Bill Clinton and Katharine Hepburn. Caro, meanwhile, has won two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards; the only historian I have come across with the same ambition, the same inability to leave a stone unturned, is our own David Kynaston, who is in the middle of writing a history of Britain from 1945 to 1979 with astonishing pointillistic detail.
Some of the stories Caro tells in Turn Every Page can be found in Working, his collection of brilliant essays, and they are stories you can’t easily forget. Here’s one: Caro wanted to find out more about Lyndon B. Johnson’s time at Southwest Texas State Teachers College. He kept hearing whispers that Johnson had stolen a student council election, that he had blackmailed a young female opponent, that he was unpopular, that his college nickname had been “Bull”—for “bullshit”—Johnson. Caro tracked down a classmate, who, unhappy to talk freely, eventually told him that the information he was looking for was in the 1930 edition of the school’s yearbook, the Pedagog. Caro, being Caro, had already been through the yearbook and had found nothing illuminating, and asked the classmate to provide page references. She called back with five… but when Caro went back to look for them in his copy, they weren’t there. They had been carefully razored out of the book. He tracked down some more copies, in a used-books store in San Marcos, Texas. The first few had received a similar treatment: the pages had been removed. Eventually he found one with the information he needed: proof that Johnson had been loathed by his classmates. There is something both thrilling and chilling about this anecdote. Who removed the pages? How can anyone care this much about preserving a reputation? How does one find copies of a 1930 college yearbook fifty-odd years later, pre-internet?
Caro thought he’d be able to dispense with Johnson’s childhood in a couple of chapters, and that he wouldn’t have to do much research on it. He went down to Texas a couple of times, but was dissatisfied by the answers he was getting from his interviewees; they were evasive, and they didn’t trust him. He decided the only thing to do was to go and live in the Texas Hill Country. As it turned out, he was there for three years. “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?” his wife and researcher, Ina, asked him wearily. Caro writes modestly, and with some wry self-impatience—he had no choice but to move to the Texas Hill Country, metaphorically speaking. And even if what interests Caro doesn’t interest you, you have to admire his extraordinary commitment to his art. That’s kind of what we do here at The Believer: admire artistic commitment. The Power Broker is seven hundred thousand words long; Gottlieb helped Caro cut another third of a million.
Will I read the Meisterwerke? I’d like to think so, but maybe the time will come only once I have stopped writing this column; otherwise, I’d be telling you stories about Robert Moses and LBJ for the next five years. When you read this, I’ll be sixty-six; the melancholy so evident in Turn Every Page is contagious. My purchase of The Power Broker and the first volume of the Johnson biography is, at the moment, something like the purchase of a football jersey. I am a Caro fan. I am on his team. I want people to know I love him.
Like Working, Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain has a recent documentary counterpart, Laura Poitras’s great movie about Nan Goldin, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. The Sacklers seem to be, gratifyingly, the most vilified family in the United States right now, although you do seem to have a lot of unspeakable families, so I don’t know whether my impression is accurate. I think we can all agree, however, that they have done a lot of unspeakable things. Maybe we can’t. Maybe things have become so fractured and fragmented that there is a thriving, angry Sackler Fan Club. Why not, in a country that has warring gun factions? (I’m not claiming any moral superiority for my country, by the way. We have our own unspeakable families and baffling divisions. Are you opposed to traffic in residential streets? Answer yes to that question and you are part of a sinister Stalinist cabal. And you’re probably pro-vaccine and anti-Brexit too.)
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed gives an enthralling account of Goldin’s brilliant and frequently beautiful protest against the Sacklers’ creation of the opioid crisis. Keefe’s book gives us an enthralling, enraging account of the Sacklers themselves, from patriarch Arthur Sackler’s birth, in 1913, to the day in 2021 when Nan Goldin’s ferocious campaign resulted in an announcement from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that several of its exhibition spaces would no longer carry the Sackler name. In between is a long, long story, about medicine and the law, greed and cynicism, lies and self-delusion. In other words, it’s a Dickens novel, admittedly without too many funny bits, and beyond the reach of satire.
Arthur Sackler worked in pharmaceutical advertising; one of his side projects, publishing a free newspaper called the Medical Tribune, came in especially handy. He could place ads in his publication for the drugs he was representing, and then send it to doctors. When Roche, his main client, introduced Librium and then Valium, his newspaper ran ads for both drugs for decades. Valium and Librium were sold as cures for more or less any nervous condition. Women were aggressively targeted once it was discovered that doctors were prescribing more tranquilizers to them, which is why within a couple of years of the launch of the two drugs, the Rolling Stones wrote “Mother’s Little Helper.”
But what is really significant about Valium and Librium is the playbook that was devised when it was discovered that they did, after all, create dependency, despite all partisan protestations to the contrary. Addiction, the makers and advertisers of the tranquilizers suggested, was an indication that the user needed more of the drug, not less: the discomfort was a sign that the underlying nervous condition had intensified. And in any case, some people had addictive personalities, and would abuse anything they were prescribed. These arguments would be repeated, word for word, when OxyContin began to destroy millions of American lives. Decades later, Nan Goldin would say that although Arthur Sackler died before OxyContin was unleashed, “he was the architect of the advertising model used so effectively to push the drug… The whole Sackler clan is evil.” These views correspond to those of your columnist. Other opinions are available.
Both All the Beauty and the Bloodshed and Empire of Pain end with a rush of public galleries—the Met and the Guggenheim, in New York, and the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, and quite a few more—removing the name of the family that had given them so much money over the years. Even the Sacklers’ hedge funds and bankers dropped them. They had squirreled away billions before much of it was taken from them by plaintiffs whose lives had been wrecked by their drugs, and this wealth is a source of great dissatisfaction to campaigners. But their good name was important to them—that’s why it was all over many major cultural institutions. (There was nothing they wouldn’t sponsor. There was a Sackler Escalator in the Tate Modern.) They are rich, but their name has been ruined for generations. There’s something comforting about that. This is the second of two stupendous, definitive books by Patrick Radden Keefe that I’ve read in the last few months, the other being the sad, gripping Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, about the Troubles. He seems to work faster than Robert Caro, and I for one am grateful.
Cecilia Rabess’s Everything’s Fine is both a love story and a state-of-the-nation novel, and Rabess is so deft in her storytelling and so sly and unshowy in her ambition that you don’t realize quite how high she’s aiming until you’ve wolfed the whole thing down. The relationship between Jess Jones and Josh Hillyer begins on the November night in 2008 when Obama was elected. Jess, a young Black woman at an Ivy League college, gives an interview to a student reporter about the momentousness of the occasion, and overhears Josh, the next interviewee, in chinos and a shirt with a collar, talk about the inadvisability of electing a tax-and-spend liberal during a financial crisis. The book ends at the Trump inauguration, with Josh and Jess living together, and watching it together. Whether the relationship will survive the next four years is a question for book groups.
If the novel sounds schematic, or improbable, then I have given the wrong impression. The relationship is messy, unpredictable, and credible, in part, because the world in which Rabess partly sets it is a world she knows something about: Jess and Josh meet again when they are both working at Goldman Sachs, where Rabess was once employed. A lot of first novels, it is fair to say, do not contain authentic-feeling observations of a world the reader knows very little about—my own first novel was about relationships (you’ve probably been in one yourself) and music (you’ve probably listened to some). There are so many other strengths to the writing here, though, that I can almost guarantee that Rabess isn’t a one-trick pony—her dialogue is wonderfully sharp and unforced, and she has an ear for conversations that contain meaning and resonance.
Dialogue, it seems to me, is properly valued only in the theater. In films it’s regarded as uncinematic (“Too chatty!” a director I was working with kept scribbling on my script); in fiction, ironically, if there’s too much dialogue people think you’re thinking of the movie rights. Please note, cynical readers: a book with tons of talking in it is not a movie, especially if all the talking takes place in the kitchen, over a period of, say, fifty years. Anyway, in this terrific novel, the conversations are a joy. And, yes, someone will option it. I expect they already have. But that’s not because Rabess has an ear and discipline. It’s because she has something to say, and has found real locations and relationships in which to say it.
I cannot write about the other novel I read recently. I was asked to adapt it (and, yes, it has very good dialogue), but its high-concept twist makes it unfilmable, I think, because it would necessitate filming the very thing that the author doesn’t want you to know. The other way to do it would be to reveal the secret at the same time as all the other characters learn about it, which would render it simply… odd. Let’s say this is a novel about an attractive single woman, Ellen, who, despairing of dating apps, falls in love with a giant piece of cheese that she calls Romeo. And while we are led to believe that Romeo is a handsome, unfathomably eligible man—albeit one who could use a new aftershave and crumbles under pressure—everyone else in the book knows that Romeo is a giant piece of cheese, not least because they can see that he’s a giant piece of cheese when Ellen takes him to the theater or to a wedding. We can’t see this, because we’re reading a book that wants to mislead us, and that consists of words, not pictures. The other characters never ask Ellen why she’s dating a piece of cheese, because that would give the game away. And then eventually, Romeo gets grilled, or placed between two equally giant slices of bread and smothered in pickles, and we’re like, Wait. What? Oh! I get it. Romeo is a piece of cheese. I don’t know how to turn Ellen and Romeo into a movie, even though it’s a hugely enjoyable book, so I’m going to have to pass. (The analogy, by the way, is fair.) Anyway, I’m going to be too busy reading The Power Broker to do any paid work. That is my commitment to my art—and to you, dear Believer reader. You don’t even have to read the resulting column, as long as you recognize that.