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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: December 2019/January 2020

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: December 2019/January 2020

Nick Hornby
4 Snaps

books read:

  • Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend—Susan Orlean
  • Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington—Terry Teachout
  • Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show—Richard Zoglin
  • The Dutch House—Ann Patchett

Books Bought:

  • Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters—Martin Gayford
  • This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War against Reality—Peter Pomerantsev
  • Everything I Know about Love—Dolly Alderton
  • Siege: Trump under Fire—Michael Wolff
  • How Democracy Ends—David Runciman
  • Run—Ann Patchett

Where would you like me to begin? Fiction or nonfiction? Nonfiction about the golden era of big-band jazz, or nonfiction about movie dogs? I need a toe-tapper to kick off, but I have no idea which of these books would produce the desired effect. I’m guessing that, paradoxically, neither of the books about music will do the trick. If I start banging on about 1930s dance bands or Vegas-era Elvis, I’ll lose you. You’ll wander off to read about something more fashionable elsewhere in the magazine—Himalayan fiction, say, or sculptures made out of Juul cartridges. I can’t believe I can go too far wrong with dogs. Lots of people like dogs. I’m going to start with Rin Tin Tin.

Having read Susan Orlean’s surprising, gripping, and informative The Library Book recently, I found myself wondering why I haven’t read every word she’s written. I then realized that her previous book was about a dog, and lots of people don’t like dogs. Perhaps as many people dislike dogs as like them, so maybe I was wrong to start with a book about them. At the time Orlean published Rin Tin Tin, I didn’t like dogs much, either, so I didn’t read the book, even though I bought it, but now I own a dog, through no fault of my own, and I can see they’re not irredeemably terrible. Owning a dog did not make me want to read a book about Rin Tin Tin. But owning a dog did enable me to see that this was a book by Susan Orlean, one of my favorite writers; the name on the cover became more important than the jacket image or the title. Thus emboldened, I picked Rin Tin Tin off my shelves and immediately became lost in the sad, complicated, occasionally hilarious, occasionally baffling story Orlean excavates.

A man called Lee Duncan found the original Rin Tin Tin, or Rinty, as his close personal friends called him (and, yes, we call him that still, because he exists still, in the way that Lynyrd Skynyrd exists still), in war-torn France at the end of World War I. Improbably, Duncan got him home to the US and trained him, with apparently extraordinary success, before coming to the conclusion that Rinty was so gifted that he deserved a career in the nascent film industry. Many things were different at the beginning of the twentieth century. The idea of keeping an animal as a pet, in the house, was a new one; nobody called their dog Rover (nobody does now, either, but for different reasons); and people loved to go to the cinema to watch animals starring in movies. When Rin Tin Tin became a star, he was the lead, and was reviewed as an actor; the poet Carl Sandburg, then a film reviewer, said that Rinty was “phenomenal,” “thrillingly intelligent,” “one of the leading pantomimists of the screen.” He was also paid eight times as much as his human costars. 

Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, and Duncan replaced him with Junior, and then with Rin Tin Tin III. During World War II, people were asked to donate their pets to the war effort, and thousands were trained by the Army. Some of them were parachuted behind enemy lines by the Army Air Corps. (A boxer dog named Jeff, an official account states with an apparently straight face, “made thirteen jumps, twelve successfully.”) Rin Tin Tin III led the recruitment drive. In the 1950s, Rinty IV achieved nationwide success again, this time as the costar of a TV series, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, and by this point Orlean’s book has become a brilliant if eccentric study of American twentieth-century mass media. When The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin goes the same way as Rinty’s movie career, Orlean finds another, equally rich subject: the obsession, self-delusion, and lunacy of those on the fringes of the entertainment industry. Bert Leonard, the producer of the TV series, never let go of the idea that Rin Tin Tin had something to say to American audiences; he believed this until the day he died, in the early twenty-first century. His conviction burned so bright that he was drawn into an insane lawsuit against a woman called Daphne, who had registered ten Rin Tin Tin trademarks because she owned dogs with an authentic Rinty bloodline. The papers were served to Daphne in 1994 at a Hollywood Collectors and Celebrity Show that she had been lured to by Lee Aaker, the former child star who played Rusty in the TV series—the real Lee Aaker, not the fake one (real name Paul Klein), who for reasons best known to himself went around signing Rinty memorabilia and even spoke at a cast member’s funeral. Man, there are some stories in this book. I loved every word, and it deepened my devotion to Susan Orlean’s work. She is indefatigable, funny, and sees resonance and meaning in the most unlikely material. Do you need to like dogs to love Rin Tin Tin? Emphatically: no.

Do you need to like Duke Ellington or big-band jazz to enjoy Terry Teachout’s Duke? I’m rather afraid you do. I couldn’t in all conscience make much of an argument that the book is about anything else. Duke Ellington arrived late in my life, even later than my appreciation for jazz—I was somewhat deterred by his determination to write “suites,” a tendency that suggests a craving for high-culture approval. The straight-ahead jazz came earlier in his career, and then one has to deal with the scratchiness of the recordings and the limitations of the 78 rpm form: nothing longer than three minutes. I had found enough good stuff to make me want to pick up a meaty biography, but I hadn’t expected all the good things it introduced me to, nor had I expected my suspicions about the suites to receive Teachout’s scholarly confirmation: Ellington always wanted to be taken seriously as a composer, but his lack of formal compositional training and the commercial imperative to write quickly and copiously meant that the suites never quite worked.

The most consistently brilliant stuff came between 1940 and 1942, when bassist Jimmy Blanton (who died of TB in ’42, at age twenty-three) and the superlative tenor saxophonist Ben Webster joined what is now known as the Blanton-Webster Band. The resulting recordings are intoxicating, and my happiest cultural moment of the summer came when I listened to Ellington’s “Ko-Ko” while reading Teachout’s description of it at the same time. “‘Ko-Ko,’” says the author, “is something else again, a relentless procession of musical events that contain not a wasted gesture. Every bar surges inexorably toward the final catastrophe, after which no response is possible but awed silence.” One of the things I love about Teachout’s writing is that, while it rests on a bed of meticulous research, unshowy authority, and deep musical understanding, every now and again he allows himself a couple of felicitous phrases that convey just how thrilling this music can be. The Blanton-Webster Band was a “murderer’s row of soloists.” About the band’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, which raised Ellington from the dead and turned him into a Time magazine cover star, Teachout says: “No other rhythm section, not even Count Basie’s crack team of musical arsonists, had ever played with such unquenchable fire.” And the story of that Newport performance is a firecracker too. Just a year before, Ellington had a dismal two-month stint at an ice show in Flushing Meadows, and he looked to be on the way out. Newport offered a chance of redemption, but the show began limply—“the playing was sloppy, the audience response tepid.” It closed with the promoter attempting to stop the show because he feared a riot, such was the hysterical response of the crowd. Teachout does the regular biographical stuff well too—Ellington was a complicated, difficult man, as his wives, mistresses, and colleagues would have told you. 

Richard Zoglin’s Elvis in Vegas covers much of the same period, and contains a fascinating account of the history of Las Vegas and the entertainment the city provided ever since people started losing money there. Much of the talent came right out of the very top drawer—Sinatra and the Rat Pack, of course, but also Streisand (who bombed), Woody Allen, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Bob Newhart, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, even Noël Coward. The money was sensational. When Sinatra left the Sands for Caesars Palace in 1967—after the infamous argument with Sands casino boss Carl Cohen, which left the singer short a couple of front teeth—he was offered (and took, understandably) one hundred thousand dollars a week. A hundred grand a week! In 1967! Other, less stellar acts had to work hard for their dough. Louis Prima and Keely Smith, who became known simply as the Wildest because of the electrifying nature of their live performances, played five times a night between midnight and 5 a.m. Everywhere, there was money being made, lost, and laundered. When Howard Hughes was asked to vacate his suite at the Desert Inn in 1966 because he wasn’t spending anything at the tables, he bought the hotel instead, before buying the Sands, the Castaways, the Silver Slipper, and the unfinished Landmark. He was stopped by antitrust laws from owning 20 percent of every major piece of property in Vegas. 

Elvis’s first Vegas appearance was in 1956, and it went badly. The music was too raw, the show too unsophisticated. He didn’t go back until 1969, by which time Vegas entertainment was struggling for relevance—none of the bands or singer-songwriters were interested in playing there, and the old guard was looking jaded and tacky. Elvis was struggling too. He made terrible movies, released only terrible songs from the movies, and his fans had lost interest in all of it. (He had no top-ten hits between 1964 and ’69.) In 1956, Elvis played with his three-piece band; in 1969, he expanded to a five-piece. Oh, and a group of backing vocalists, the Sweet Inspirations, and also a gospel group, the Imperials. And, just to be on the safe side, a forty-piece orchestra. The shows were a tumultuous success. You know what became of Elvis; you know what became of Las Vegas too. Richard Zoglin’s book is a clever, thoughtful, and enormously entertaining book about the good and the bad they brought to each other.

Over the summer, I listened to a friend bemoaning the absence of old-school colossi from contemporary literature: Where, he wondered, are the Roths, the Updikes, the Bellowses, the Amises (or Amiseses, if you want to include both Kingsley and Martin)? Well, right at the moment, it’s true, there are no Philips or Johns or Sauls. There are, however, a ton of Elizabeths and Margarets, Anns and Megs. I fear that my friend, like a lot of men of his generation, is not a great consumer of fiction written by women, in which case he wouldn’t know that actually, these days, it’s all colossa, not colossi.

Ann Patchett is one of them, and The Dutch House is appropriately magnificent. One of the extraordinary things about Patchett’s work is that she disappears inside her stories, and this lack of literary ego may be one of the reasons that people who lament the passing of the “grand old men” wouldn’t necessarily notice her. You cannot predict what one of her books will be about, nor even what it might feel like—they are startlingly discrete. You know that they will be smart, and true, and that they will be full of people who have been brilliantly imagined, and that when you come to the end you will feel as though you have been somewhere. But beyond that, her literary humility makes it difficult to talk about her body of work. She reminds me of my friend and occasional colleague Stephen Frears, the film director: you can try and talk about what The Queen has in common with My Beautiful Laundrette or Dangerous Liaisons or The Grifters, but I doubt you’ll make much sense.

The Dutch House is a kind of multigenerational family saga, with the eponymous house at its center; I was lucky enough to read it on holiday, where it was allowed to absorb me for hour after hour, with only the occasional break for the usual exotic floor shows, elephant rides, and elaborate cocktails. My sister was with me on this holiday, as she has been on many before, and the central relationship in the novel is between a brother and a sister, over decades, so there was that too. But the protagonists, Maeve and Danny, are, like the author, buried deep in the narrative, much too involved in the complications of their own lives to worry about where theirs might intersect with yours. The Dutch House offers the kind of satisfaction and consolation that, I think, people look for in fiction and don’t find often enough: the sense that the defining moments in the lives of ordinary people are worth describing and contemplating. Having begun with a dog, I’ll end there. Susan Orlean and Ann Patchett, Rin Tin Tin and The Dutch House… If I had to live off a diet consisting of books like these for the rest of my life, I’d be running literary marathons when I was 120 years old.

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