A Kennedy rewrite, dull and dishonest

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This isn't a book. It's a 600-plus-page entreaty from Joe McGinniss that says, "Trust me."

It says to trust Joe McGinniss to give the story of Edward M. Kennedy from the point of view of the Massachusetts senator himself, without the cooperation of the subject.

It says to trust Joe McGinniss' reporting and scholarship, despite no footnoting and extremely rare sourcing.

It says to trust Joe McGinniss' analysis of the man he describes as "the embodiment of the central secular myth of our age."

As he writes in his "Author's Note": "I would contend that when an individual is as encrusted with fable and lore as is Teddy Kennedy (and his brothers), a writer must attempt an approach that transcends that of traditional journalism or even, perhaps, of conventional biography."

And it's on the last point that I found myself utterly unable to trust Mr. McGinniss. We are promised an original, on-the-wire interpretation of the life of a fascinating, flawed man whose life has been marked by tragedy and unrealistic (and unwanted) expectations. Surely Teddy Kennedy is as ripe a subject as any for an arresting and iconoclastic treatment. But it doesn't happen on these pages.

Far from being the bold and unconventional book Mr. McGinniss envisions, "The Last Brother" is, astonishingly, an incredibly boring piece of work. Forget the questions of whether it is fact or fiction, biography or "rumination," as Mr. McGinniss suggests in his self-serving and completely unconvincing "Author's Note." You could even forget the allegation of plagiarism that Kennedy biographer William Manchester has made against Mr. McGinniss, though it's obviously a serious matter.

Ultimately, Mr. McGinniss doesn't deliver on his own terms. This book tells us nothing new about Teddy Kennedy, and all the while it's crunching the reader's brain with vapid "insight" and pedestrian writing on the level of a high school textbook. Mr. McGinniss obviously thinks he's a trailblazer, but in fact he's not daring enough, not inventive enough.

For instance, I think anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the Kennedy family would suspect, as Mr. McGinniss concludes, that Teddy has had a rough life, that the deaths of brothers Jack and Bobby affected him profoundly, as did the Chappaquiddick episode and its aftermath.

The book concentrates almost exclusively on Teddy Kennedy up to 1970, omitting much of his tenure in the Senate and the infamous Palm Beach incident of a few years back. It concludes with a brief coda in which Mr. McGinniss recounts a chance meeting with Mr. Kennedy in 1988:

"He'd been haunted for so long, by so many ghosts. Frozen forever in our memories as the kid brother Kennedy with the biggest grin of all, he was now a lonely, divorced man with a drinking problem, older already by ten years than any of his brothers had lived to be, but still seeming not at all sure how he'd failed to become what they had become. As his car pulled away from the crowd at the station, I did not envy him either his past or the night and the years that lay ahead."

For this we slog through more than 600 pages? -- the stunning notion that Teddy Kennedy has taken some tough knocks?

To be sure, any reader of nonfiction in the past 30 years has had to deal with the "Trust Me" issue. How could you read Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, among many others, and not be troubled by the use of such devices as reconstructed dialogue and composite characters? Ever since the New Journalism came into vogue in the mid-1960s, readers have had to decide for themselves how to take books that vigorously blur the line between fact and fiction.

Was Capote's "In Cold Blood" a great book? Certainly, but this "nonfiction novel" about two murderers in Kansas -- vivid though it may be -- subverts many of the conventions of nonfiction writing, such as sourcing and critical distance. So did Mr. Mailer's "The Executioner's Song," which was exhaustively researched and re-created convicted killer Gary Gilmore with a frightening believability. Still, when it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, "The Executioner's Song" was placed in the fiction category, where many (including this reviewer) felt it rightfully belonged.

And what about "The Right Stuff," Mr. Wolfe's book on the early days of America's space program? Like "The Last Brother," "The Right Stuff" contains no footnotes. It also contains a similar note at the end of the book citing several earlier works as important sources. It, too, sought to tell the story from the viewpoint of the participants.

As Mr. Wolfe wrote, "The writing of this book would have been impossible without the personal recollections of many people, pilots and non-pilots, who were intimately involved in the beginning of the era of manned rocket flight in America."

So how are Mr. McGinniss and Mr. Wolfe any different? Mr. McGinniss addresses this question in his "Author's Note," pointing out that several highly respected biographers have inferred the thoughts of their subjects.

The answer from here is merely this: Read the first 20 pages of "The Right Stuff," and then try to do the same with "The Last Brother."

Mr. Wolfe readily understood that he was the puppet master, the one controlling the strings, and if you profess to be a bold writer, you should be ready to run naked through every page. Mr. Wolfe knew that the onus was on him to write vividly, to entertain the reader, and he did so hugely all the way to the end of the book.

It helped, too, that he talked to many of the participants at length, and so his re-creations of their thought processes, though they may come from Mr. Wolfe's fertile brain, at least seem convincing. Is "The Right Stuff" history, or biography? I don't know, but I couldn't stop reading it.

That's certainly not the case in "The Last Brother." Mr. McGinniss simply is not enough of a prose stylist to carry a book of this bulk with his writing. He writes clearly and has an eye for detail, but what emerges is the unmistakable thought that this book is a rehash of what others have written earlier, and often better, about the Kennedys in general and Teddy in particular. Given the lack of literary flair, the narrative soon bogs down. And on every page, after every unattributed assertion, the question nags: How does Mr. McGinniss know this?

Even when he's writing about the most compelling subjects, Mr. McGinniss rarely draws in the reader. Whether it's the sex lives (or lack thereof) of various Kennedys, or father Joseph Kennedy's apparently bottomless ambitions for the family, it's related in the most hum-drum manner, like a middling prep school teacher droning on before a roomful of restless pupils. His technique of seamless storytelling, with maddeningly infrequent sourcing, imparts a sameness to all he covers.

Mr. McGinniss also informs us that he "conducted many dozens of interviews with people whose lives have intersected [Mr. Kennedy's] at different points." If so, how do we know when he's giving new information or reworking someone else's work? Through his highly dubious narrative technique, Mr. McGinniss makes his own research invisible.

Because Mr. McGinniss has written several best sellers ("Fatal Vision," "Blind Faith"), and because of the controversy over this book's techniques and the subject matter, I suspect a lot of people will be buying and reading this book. I wonder, though, how many will finish it, for at heart it's an example of a writer's hubris getting the best of him.

Thinking he could carry off a 600-page "rumination" on the life of Teddy Kennedy, through the senator's own perspective, without talking to him is sheer folly. This approach might have worked in, say, a 20,000-word essay in Esquire. Here, it's quickly clear that Mr. McGinniss has taken on more than he could handle.

Far from charting new territory, Mr. McGinniss has instead returned to his old newspaper days. By choosing to rework other people's material so extensively, he's become little more than the rewrite man on the city desk who has been given an Associated Press story and told to "dress it up a little" -- to make a straightforward story more lively.

But in this case, Mr. McGinniss has accomplished the reverse. How he could make the Kennedy saga dull, dull, dull is hard to imagine, but he has done it.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Last Brother"

Author: Joe McGinniss

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

(Length, price: 626 pages, $25

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°