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The Chambers Report: A Tale Of Three Cities

I.

Cities have been around for a long time. As ancient, entirely rural populations grew and became more complicated three millennia ago, people increasingly banded together for security and economic reasons. The earliest such gatherings would be largely unrecognizable to us today, but cities pretty much as we know them were established fairly early on in China and Europe, primarily to provide protection against marauding armies and to offer central places of trade and interaction. As they expanded, they became more complex and naturally developed both benefits and costs. Among the benefits were reduced transport expense, the exchange of ideas, the sharing of natural resources, the provision of local markets, and, later on, such amenities as sewage disposal and running water. The costs of expanding cities included rising crime rates, higher living expenses, pollution, and, in time, the replacement of the bicycle and buggy by the automobile and alarmingly dangerous high-speed traffic.

With the creation and growth of cities inevitably came the need for organizing and managing them - and thus the necessity of political systems with all their divisions, jealousies, and corruption. Bad as these could be, though, they also became the stuff of art, literature and written history. Just as The Eternal City inspired Gibbon to pen The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire and as eighteenth century Paris and London led to Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities, so, in our own time, cities have spawned an industry of political fiction and historical investigation.

One of the best American political writers today is the satirist Christopher Buckley, who has, for years, been skewering Washington, D.C., and its environs as cesspools of venality, power-seeking and lunacy. His most recent foray into the political swamp is They Eat Puppies, Don't They?, a farce about the shenanigans of politicos in our nation's capital and in Beijing, the Chinese counterpart to our Paradise along the Potomac. Throughout his many pages, Buckley describes a bizarre world that could only exist in modern cities, whether American or Asian.

With far more success, historian Erik Larson does with the development of twentieth-century Chicago much of what Buckley tries to do with Washington and Beijing; show the underbelly of a modern metropolis and the nation it represents. The main difference between Larson and Buckley, however, is that Larson also shows us the greatness of a dynamic city, its glories as well as its warts, while Buckley pays precious little mind to whatever good there might be in his two cities tale. In his great The Devil In The White City, Larson paints an astonishing portrait of a provincial and second-rate Midwestern town evolving from frightening backwardness into a progressive shining model for cities elsewhere to follow. By looking closely at both books, we can see everything from silliness to the sublime, all inspired by the venues in which most of us now choose to live. Let's look at them, beginning with Buckley and building to Larson.

II.

Buckley's fifteenth book has elicited a broad range of critical reactions. Most reviewers (including this writer) like Buckley and want to like what he writes, but something about Puppies stops numbers of us short.

To me, Buckley, our most talented political satirist - a likable, super-articulate, Yalie Republican like his celebrated father William F. Buckley - disappoints here by being, at once, both far too cute and surprisingly mean-spirited, not to mention giving us a novel with no real conclusion. Puppies just ends . . . after 300 pages of steadily mounting and murky complexities.

Buckley's chief task in this book is to skewer virtually everything about Washington and Beijing; in neither capital does he find anything at all to admire. His D.C. is riven by greedy defense contractors, loopy lobbyists, scheming warmongers, and double-dealing politicos.

And things are just as bad in The Peoples' Republic, where the mild-mannered President is in daily conflict with constipated generals, an aggressive minister of state security, and a bickering Politburo. Buckley endeavors to pull all this together in a wandering "plot" centering on Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and an apparent attempt by the Chinese leadership to murder the world's most beloved citizen.

The novel begins with Congress shooting down a hugely expensive defense project proposed by aerospace giant Groepping-Sprunt (a predator-drone fittingly named "Dumbo") - a seeming disaster for lobbyist Walter "Bird" McIntyre, the effort's chief director. The crash of Dumbo appears to be yet another sign of a national defense system in a state of nearing collapse, with generals being "retired" left and right and no one in power anxious to fund grotesquely pricey military projects.

Not to worry, though. Wily Groepping-Sprunt CEO Chick Devlin simply steps back, regroups, and decides that renewed life might be pumped into the flagging national defense money machine in another way, through exploiting American xenophobia. Bird gets a new shot when he's charged by Devlin to juice the military-industrial complex by playing on American anger at and fear of the menacing advance of the Chinese economic juggernaut. To accomplish this, he teams with scissor-legged beauty Angel Templeton (think Ann Coulter), who, when not in someone's bed, presides over something called The Institute for Continuing Conflict - "We're not really into deterrence at ICC!" she boasts.

Angel and Bird decide to stir up national rage over "the one thing having to do with China that Americans care about . . . the seventy-five year-old sweetie pie with glasses, the sandals, the saffron robe, and the hugging and the mandelas."

Accordingly, they hatch a fake plot whereby Chinese leaders are rumored to be planning to poison the universally-beloved (everywhere but in the PRC!) Dalai Lama by manipulating reports of some mystery malady he contracts in Rome and for which he travels to the Cleveland Clinic for treatment.

As the supposed cabal moves along, Buckley jerks the action back and forth between Beijing and Washington, mixing in frenzied calls to and from Henry Kissinger, shouting matches on Chris Matthews' Hardball (Buckley and Matthews are close friends), the firing by a Taiwanese shrimp boat on Chinese gunboats, schemes to inter the sure-enough dead Dalai Lama in either Arlington National Cemetery or in a satellite permanently hovering 150 miles above Lhasa (to spite the Chinese for refusing to allow "the Lotus" to be buried anywhere in land controlled by the PRC), Civil War battle re-enactments (Bird's feckless brother Bewks wears the uniform of a Confederate soldier and brags of being a "living historian" of the War Between The States), and even a furious equestrienne (Bird's beautiful but bitchy wife Myndi, who knows all about her husband's bedroom dalliances with the sexually insatiable Angel).

The false plot to do in the Dalai Lama almost comes true (yet he spoils things by dying on his own), World War III looms in the immediate future, everything and everybody seems doomed . . . but the author, near the end, agilely averts all of this by tying up the many storylines far too neatly. With a final silly joke or two, he merely steps aside.

Too bad. Some disappointed former Buckley fans, including me, might not have the energy or patience to come back to him for the next book.

III.

Here, to borrow fittingly from The Wizard of Oz, is "a horse of a different color." Larson's White City is an astonishingly exciting read from beginning to end. No wonder it has been a continuing best-seller since its publication in 2003.

Larson brilliantly shows in his marvelous historical recreation just how the 1893 Colombian Exposition, a spectacular achievement principally crafted by architect Daniel Burnham, in effect gave birth to modern America.

In creating the "White City," Burnham and his all-star team of fellow architects - Frederick Law Olmstead, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, et al - turned grimy Chicago into an electrified thing of beauty; before long, the incredibly ugly and stinking "Black City" of bloody streets, rotting animals, and deep darkness would evolve into a shining exemplar for other cities to follow.

Miraculously, Burnham and Olmstead (the father of American landscape architecture), in particular, did the seemingly impossible by one-upping Paris and Gustave Eiffel, whose 1889 Exposition Universelle had awed the entire planet only four years earlier.

Over a six-month period, millions of White City visitors would marvel at the sheer size of the gargantuan all-white structures (the most important of these, and the portal through which most people would enter the Fair, being the Administration Building, which was topped by a dome higher than that of the U.S. Capitol) and gape at the future as it was unfolding before their eyes.

Alternating current was invented to make massive electrification possible for the first time anywhere. The bicycles and buggies that brought tourists through sludge and muck to the Fair would soon be replaced by clean streets and motorized traffic.

Paved thoroughfares would supplant mudholes and offal, and the metropolis would emerge as a beautiful collectivity of increasingly towering buildings made dramatic by the inventive wonders of Edison and Tesla.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show would give birth to show business itself. Gail Ferris's great 264-foot-high wheel would, with the midway below it, make way for all circuses and fairs yet to come; successor Ferris Wheels have since anchored every fair, large or small, everywhere and one, The London Eye, is now among the biggest tourist attractions in the great British Capital currently gearing up to host the Olympic Games.

Beyond mass electrification and beautiful urban buildings, the Fair also pioneered in giving us parks for strolling and admiring nature; shredded wheat; cracker-jacks; belly dancer Little Egypt; Disneyland and Disney World (Walt's Magic Kingdoms were direct descendants of the White City built, in part, by his father Elias); the Emerald City of Oz was inspired by author L. Frank Baum's awe of the Fair's grandeur which he saw in person; the idolization of the American West; a right-angle turn in American architecture with grungy Chicago quickly moving ahead of everyone else, including arch-rival New York (a major goal of Burnham was to give the Big-Shouldered City some badly-needed respect and bragging rights) - all these things and countless more were brought to us by this stunning achievement, the Columbian Exposition, and the people who created it and who were inspired by it.

This was the birth of the Twentieth Century and a harbinger of what was to come, good and bad, including two horrifying world wars started by the Germans and fueled by Krupp's mighty guns, one of which was the scariest, most ominous exhibit at the Fair. Here was emerging the modern world at its best . . . and at its worst.

Mass war was not the only evil looming on the horizon beyond the drained Chicago swamp on the shore of Lake Michigan. In the midst of all the Exposition's wonderment, crime in America would, ironically, also take a nasty leap ahead with the arrival of our first mass murderer, Dr. H.H. Holmes - whose given name, Herman Webster Mudgett, was jettisoned in his young adulthood for a more glamorous handle.

Utterly sadistic and totally amoral, Dr. Holmes used the Fair to entrap single young girls into his lair, a gloomy nearby hotel where he slaughtered his many victims, flayed them, burned them in his basement oven, and then sold their skeletons for big money. Larson describes Holmes' MO this way:

Holmes did not kill face to face, as Jack the Ripper [his hero] had done, gorging himself on warmth and viscera, but he did like proximity. He liked being near enough to hear the approach of death in the rising panic of his victims. This was when his quest for possession entered its most satisfying phase. The vault deadened most of the cries and pounding, but not all. When the hotel was full of guests, he settled for more silent means. He filled a room with gas and let the guest expire in her sleep, or he crept in with his passkey and pressed a chloroform-soaked rag to her face. The choice was his, a measure of his power.

A handsome, exceptionally smooth charmer, the doctor (his degree was legitimate) seduced most of his naive victims with surprising ease. As the slaughter increased, public outcries for its stoppage led to a national manhunt and his eventual capture, trial, and execution by hanging.

Throughout this belabored process, Holmes wallowed in his escalating national celebrity - cutting out every newspaper article he could find about himself (there were thousands) and pasting them into scrapbooks- - and continued his charming ways, winning over even many of his jailers.

He even gave elaborate directions on how he - the "most dangerous man in the world," in the words of D.A. George Graham- - should be buried.

In the end, Holmes' boasts of being the devil himself went largely unchallenged. He was interred in an unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery, just outside Philadelphia. By his own admission, the evil doctor slaughtered at least 27 people, though that figure, like most things about him, has long been subject to challenge.

All this creativity and carnage are vividly displayed by Larson, whose dramatis personae range from Henry Adams and P.T. Barnum, through Clarence Darrow, Elihu Root and Teddy Roosevelt, to Woodrow Wilson and Frank Lloyd Wright. Larson, in a dazzling feat of management and wordsmithing, somehow gets it all down in exceptionally entertaining fashion. Let's hope that Leonardo DiCaprio, who purchased the rights to the book,will do as well with his planned movie.

-

Previously in Bob's Books:
* Steve Jobs vs. Jack Kennedy

* The Last Boy Of Summer

* Melville, Elvis And Baseball

-

Comments welcome.



Permalink

Posted on July 23, 2012


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