Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gov. Putz

Sometimes Yiddish is just the thing. As in the case of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a putz with an oversupply of chutzpah. Unfortunately, we're likely to hear more about him and from him in the months and years ahead, since impeachment and removal from office is only Part One. A criminal trial is next, and there's certainly a book deal for Blago after he does his minimum-security time, and probably a career for him on daytime TV too. Maybe that's what he should have done all along.

During my Japanese days, a Jewish acquaintance of mine once explained to us the difference between "schmuck" and "putz," which have the same literal meaning. If you were kidding around with a close friend, he said, you could call him a schmuck. But never a putz, if you wanted to remain friends.

It occurs to me that I'm a stone-cold philistine when it comes to American literature written after a certain time. Roughly, say, within my lifetime. I knew a girl in college who was fond of John Updike, or at least the Rabbit books. I saw the film version of The Witches of Eastwick years ago, but only recall bits and pieces now, such as what Jack Nicholson liked after lunch. But otherwise Mr. Updike's opus has made a light impression on me.

But it's not too late to buckle down and read the mid- to late-20th century titans of American literature that I've neglected, whose achievements will surely, uh, illuminate the centuries ahead. Maybe they'll will change my worldview! Spark my own personal intellectual renaissance!


I speak from ignorance, of course, but something about gushing posthumous praise for an artist, or anyone really, makes me skeptical. I felt the same way with the passing of David Foster Wallace. A regrettable suicide in his case, but somehow praise for him as a literature god makes me think that he was only lucky enough to be fashionable, and fashion passes. Fame isn't only fleeting, it has a half-life whose span isn't clear to contemporaries.

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