Sunday, December 10, 2006

Friendship, Life, Death, Bob Greene

Here's another book I just stumbled on, without a conscious decision, just picked it up and then got caught up in it: And You Know You Should Be Glad, by Bob Greene.

I have been reading and enjoying Bob Greene's work for many years. He developed his folksy style as a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, but I knew him mainly from Esquire--I've been a pretty faithful Esquire reader since I outgrew Rolling Stone back in the early 80's. I remember a time in 1994 when I came across Greene's novel, All Summer Long, in the Key West library. I was so happy to see his name because it reminded me of many pleasant reading experiences. I was not disappointed; the book was light but memorable, a page-turner but not quite in the category of guilty pleasure. I guess it was like a very long magazine article.

Greene was always more Kinkade than Rembrandt, and had plenty of detractors. But I would have been one of his defenders, up to the point where his personal moral failings eclipsed his professional skills--in 1999 he resigned from the Tribune in disgrace amid allegations and revelations of sexual misconduct.

Here's what his Esquire colleague, Bill Zehme, said about Greene's professional demise:

"Here is who we all are, more or less: We are, each one of us, the sum of many conflicting truths. In our most secret souls, we know—although we'd rather not—that certain of our personal truths might well be seen as dark and shameful truths. When a man falls, without exception, it is only these dark truths that emerge and resonate and expand, eclipsing all other truths that should matter as well but no longer do. We feast on the disgrace of the fallen, feel better about ourselves while doing so, and then await the next fallen one to turn up so as to feast once more. It is, alas, the blood sport of human nature."

Here's Howard Kurtz, of the Washington Post, reacting to Zehme's account: "It's hard to feel sorry for Bob Greene, since he behaved abominably and repeatedly used his column to cruise for chicks. But after reading this story, it's hard not to."

I suppose this latest book--a memoir--represents a comeback of sorts, although it isn't advertised as such. It is very much in the style of Greene's earlier work and the subject matter makes it difficult to criticize. It is the story of how one of his oldest friends--a man he had known since kindergarten--spends the last months of his life, after being diagnosed with cancer. The group of friends who were so close they called themselves ABCDJ (for Allen, Bob, Chuck, Dan and Jack) come together to see their buddy, Jack, through the last part of his life and in the process they relive old memories and explore their own feelings about mortality. The critics didn't like it much. (Publisher's Weekly: "Unfortunately, the author's dusty attic of lost Americana is cluttered with clich├ęs, nostalgia and overly sentimental yearnings.")

I am really interested in the concept of popular art versus fine art. I have read a lot of Stephen King's books and without fail, when I finish one I am sorry that I spent my time reading it. They keep me interested but fail to improve my mind, they leave me feeling diminished, the opposite of what good literature does. I do not like the aforementioned Kinkade, the self-styled "Master of Light"--although he sells trillions of prints and figurines and Christmas ornaments. He's tremendously popular but I think he makes bad art. I think The DaVinci Code is bad art. I can't define it but I know it when I see it. But I acknowledge that other people don't agree with me.

Bob Greene, his peccadilloes notwithstanding, gets by my bad art detector. I'm aware that he's very close to the line, though. And I am not recommending this book. If you want to read a true story about watching someone you love die, I recommend Fathers Aren't Supposed to Die, by T.M. Shine. That is a book that will make you laugh out loud, make you cry real tears, and make you think, really think, about a subject you'd rather ignore.

1 comment:

TBG said...

You just reminded me to get Be True to Your School for my daughter to read. I promised myself when I first read that book that I would get it for any daughter I might have. I think every girl should read it before she starts high school.

I don't think much has probably changed in the girl/boy courtship ritual and it'll be good for her to read an intimate version of the boy's side of the story.

[And I found it on Amazon for one penny!]