Knopf, 2000, 432 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-375-41144-5
Let’s see: The screenwriter of BASIC INSTINCT and SHOWGIRLS writes a book-length op-ed about the Clinton/Lewinski affair. If there’s an award for literary irony, American Rhapsody is a automatic winner. Who else would be best equipped to deal with the national trauma of presidential adultery than the man who wrote Sharon Stone’s flash to fame? The man who wrote the trashiest big-budget sexploitation films? Who but, indeed, a Hollywood screenwriter to write about an event that makes even SHOWGIRLS look like high art? If Larry Beinhart can playfully suggest (in American Hero, later filmed as WAG THE DOG) that the first Gulf War was a conspiracy designed for Washington by Hollywood, why not the whole Monicagate?
American Rhapsody stands at the intersection of entertainment and politics, in an American Republic where the two are less and less distinguishable. It stands in an America divided (torn or polarized might be better words) between “left” and “right” in a culture war where vocal minorities of extremists on both sides have the unfortunate tendency to silence the ambivalent majority. American Rhapsody is a series of musings on the aftermath of the sixties, the legacy of Richard Nixon (here brilliantly referred to as “Night Creature”), the status of Bill Clinton as the first rock’n’roll president (or the first baby-boomer president, or the first black president, or the first female president; take your pick) and the inner nature of the dominant political players in 1996-2000. It also stands as a biography of sort for Eszterhas, who tells plenty of salacious anecdotes in a history spanning nearly two decades as one of Hollywood’s army of bitter screenwriters.
By far the most satisfying aspect of American Rhapsody is its willingness to name names, cite facts and use colourful language. This book holds back preciously little, whether in form or in content. Eszterhas obviously paid attention during the whole Lewinski affair, absorbing details long after most of us had overdosed on the entire business. Even though the book makes no attempt at straightforward reporting (no bibliography, no footnotes, no sources, no index), it’s nevertheless stocked with factual detail. One chapter lists five excruciating pages of American scandals since WW2. Another gives the inside story on Clinton’s Vietnam-era behaviour. Yet a third describes Sharon Stone in far more detail than you’ll ever need. It’s a whirlwind trip through American obsessions and it’s very convincing.
But beyond the sleazy facts and the even spicier rumours, it’s Eszterhas’ verve which makes the book worth reading. He is variously amazed, amused and betrayed by Bill Clinton, who embodied most of the liberal virtues, yet was made a national mockery by his actions. Eszterhas knows how to write: the pages of American Rhapsody are filled with nasty little turns of phrases, cool linkages, laugh-out-loud moments and passages of dripping anger. While the second half of the book isn’t as interesting as the first (digressions about characters like James Carville can be fascinating, but they remain digressions nonetheless), this is a unique book. I don’t recall reading something so politically charged, so nakedly expressed, so compulsively readable in a long while.
And this, naturally leads to other issues. Published in 2000, American Rhapsody already belongs to another era, one that seems quaintly appealing in retrospect. The Culture War described by Eszterhas has only grown more vicious, and the neo-conservatives’ reign over the White House has exposed national flaws that Eszterhas could only whisper about. His portrait of Bush Junior (“stupid… and mean”) takes on a frightening quality circa 2003. Heck, after American Rhapsody, it’s not such a stretch to think that if Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush only had affairs with interns once in a while, they wouldn’t go around killing innocent people by proxy so often.
American Rhapsody ought to anger plenty of conservatives, and rightfully so: this is, after all, a piece of ultra-liberal agitprop par excellence. But it’s not all cheers and roses for the Clintons and their ilk either, and this free-flowing, sometimes stream-of-consciousness anger is, almost above everything else, honest. In an age where Washington campaigns are meticulously calculated and Hollywood films are shaped to please commercial requirements, this makes American Rhapsody an even more subversive book. Heck, the fact that it comes from Joe Eszterhas even makes it beautiful as far as I’m concerned. Gonzo Eszterhas as the new Hunter S. Thompson? Another level of irony? If pornographer Larry Flynt can shape the destiny of a nation by stopping an impeachment procedure, why not?