NEW YORK -- "I seem to be mildly famous," says Michael Lind, "much to my astonishment."
And perhaps to the astonishment of those reading this. Michael who? But, in fact, in certain circles -- the overlapping ones created by the subscription lists of the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker -- Michael Lind is somebody.
Make that many, many somebodies. Apostate, pundit, journalist, novelist, poet, hunter, Texan. Middle class by birth, overclass scribe by achievement, neo-paleoliberal by way of his beliefs. Coiner of phrases, thinker of big thoughts and a writer surprisingly comfortable with the first person pronoun, given his disdain for those who mix the personal and the political.
"Do you want to know my hobbies?" he asks. "A lot of journalists seem to ask about my hobbies. I think it's because their bosses tell them to."
Actually, a friend of Lind's has let it slip that he has no hobbies, that his days are spent in front of a computer screen, dreaming up op-ed pieces, a bottle of his only vice at his side -- Jolt cola.
One needs Jolt's extra caffeine and sugar to keep the kind of pace Lind is setting. In the last 14 months, he has published three books -- two nonfiction works on politics and history, one novel -- and plans to publish next year a 6,006-line epic poem on the Alamo.
He is so prolific that his critics have tried to turn his productivity into a character flaw. ("Portrait of the Autist" was the headline for a Weekly Standard piece in this vein.) Yet Lind, who will do a reading tonight at Borders in Towson, remains best known for his high-profile rejection of the conservatives who once nurtured him -- William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol, et al. He may be the most celebrated convert since Sammy Davis Jr.
Now with his novel, "Powertown" (HarperCollins), arriving hard on the heels of "Up from Conservatism" (Free Press), so many journalists have come to speak to him that he can no longer keep them straight.
He arrives for an interview at an Italian cafe in his Upper East Side neighborhood, pink-cheeked and smelling of soap, blond hair severely parted and ridged with gel. If this is Thursday, you must be Texas Monthly, right? Um, no.
To be fair, if Lind's head seems a little large, metaphorically, he has received more attention than the average 34-year-old former policy wonk, yet another arrow in his quill of identities. He's been written up in the New Yorker ("A Recovering Dweeby White Guy") and profiled in the Washington Post.
His high-profile transition from wonk to pundit began in 1994, when Lind -- who had worked at the conservative National Interest under publisher Kristol and long considered Buckley a mentor -- wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books, excoriating the right for its tolerance of Pat Robertson. Although he had written similar pieces before, the Republican takeover of Congress gave it a sense of urgency and buzz.
How to capture liberals' giddy excitement at Lind's attack on conservatives? Although his beliefs didn't change, Lind was moving left when everyone else was moving right. He was doing to Buckley what Buckley had done to the John Birch Society! A star was born.
Hired by Harper's in 1994, he joined the New Republic in 1995, moving to the New Yorker earlier this year, although he has yet to publish a piece there. In 1995, his first book, "The Next American Nation," was almost universally praised. His theories about the "overclass" -- the new American elite -- set the stage for a Newsweek cover.
And now he has tried a literary form fraught with peril, a form that has tripped up many a talented journalist and politician -- the Washington novel. "Powertown," as Lind has said in repeated interviews, would be to our nation's capital in the 1990s what "Bonfire of the Vanities" was to New York in the 1980s.
Put aside, for a moment, the kind of automatic abuse one can sustain just by invoking the name of Tom Wolfe's novel about New York in the '80s. ("More like a Duraflame weenie roast" is only one critic's riposte.) Lind's novel also arrives at the height of what appears to be a Michael Lind backlash, or what he calls Phase Two of his fame, which can be characterized as the dog-pile phase. Everyone seems to be jumping on him, questioning his motives, second-guessing his ambitions.
It is relevant to ask if this is merely payback for his much-publicized rejection of the right, as the most virulent criticism has come from conservative publications like Buckley's National Review and the Weekly Standard. Or is it simply the media cycle on its usual spin: Having been built up, Lind must be torn down.
Or is it all these things, plus his prodigious output and the fact that he has produced a novel where the sex scenes are easily parodied, a pious black woman has a habit of saying "Oh, lawdy," and Baltimore is seen as some vague promised land.
"Maybe the children would have been better if they had stayed in Baltimore," a character thinks, worried about his nephew's increasing involvement with Washington's gangs.
Of course, no crime or crack in little ol' Baltimore. Oh, lawdy.
Up from Texas
Michael Lind did not become Michael Lind by conceding there are things he may not know or cannot master. Over the course of a three-hour interview, he tells several stories about ideas he has advanced -- including his embrace of the Big Bang theory when he was 10. "And, of course, I was right," he says, time and time again, or words to that effect.
So when asked about his attempts to portray Washington's lower classes, he quickly points out he is not to the manor born, but a middle-class kid who bagged groceries and drove a forklift while working his way through the University of Texas law school.
A Texan who has traced his roots back to the 1870s (in Texas terms, that's akin to arriving on the Mayflower), Lind is defiantly hoi polloi for someone who has an advanced degree from Yale and, according to the New Yorker, gone sailing with Bill Buckley.
"I know more about how people talk and what's going on in Southeast Washington and black working class suburbs of Washington than I do about what goes on in the Hamptons," he says. "There's this very wealthy white overclass that is totally alien to me."
But, certainly he is part of the overclass?
"Not by origin. For example, I would have to do enormous research if I were going to do something set in a prep school. I know less about that world than about Salvadoran maids in Adams-Morgan. I don't know what people say in a yacht club." He pauses, perhaps remembering those sails with Buckley. "I mean, I could do it well if I did the research."
He probably could. It is obvious Lind has read widely and well, and his memory for what he reads is truly stunning. His conversation is studded with facts, often with helpful explanations for the listener. (Euripides is a Greek playwright, the Texas Observer is a literary-political journal in Texas, Larry McMurtry is his fellow Texan and writer.)
A meal with Lind has been compared to the running of the bulls in Pamplona: The only thing to do is get out of the way. But this torrent of words is sort of charming, the way a youngster is charming when he performs for guests at his parents' dinner party.
"There's a way Mike is really like a kid," says David Samuels, a New York-based free-lance writer and friend of Lind's. "He loves ideas, he's very enthusiastic about them, and he expects that sense of enthusiasm and discovery to be shared by others. It's almost a quality where he's perennially surprised when someone is more interested in defending their piece of political turf or their particular bit of received wisdom than they are in listening to Mike."
Certainly this was true last spring, when Lind wrote a New Republic piece arguing for restrictions on immigration. Co-worker Charles Lane wrote a rebuttal, something very much in the spirit of the New Republic, where staffers regularly disagree and regularly share these disagreements in the magazine's pages. Lane drew on his personal experiences, citing his immigrant grandfather. Lind became incensed and wrote a rebuttal to the rebuttal.
"Let's put it this way," Lane says now, when asked about the back-and-forth. "I had no personal beef with Michael Lind whatsoever. Then I wrote what I thought was a fairly -- in the context of opinion journalism -- fairly mild and respectful rebuttal or reply, and he went off.
"I will say for the record, Michael Lind can dish it out, but in this case showed he couldn't take it."
Lind, asked about this, says that anyone reading Lane's piece will see how offensive it was. (It compared his views to Patrick Buchanan's.) His reply proved to be his last piece as a New
Republic staffer. In April of this year -- his contract up, editor Andrew Sullivan stepping down -- Lind decided to leave. Payment on his last check was stopped.
"My plan was to try and stay on friendly terms with them," Lind says now. "I try to stay on friendly terms with everyone -- well, obviously with Irving Kristol and Buckley, that's not the case. [But] that's my approach. People should be professionals if there's no great principle at stake. And there wasn't at the New Republic."
Lane sees Lind as someone who thrives on such public disagreements. "His stock in trade is to generate controversies," he says. "Partly, he's capable of doing that because he's hypergraphic. Partly he does it just because he's belligerent and he'll argue with whoever is standing next to him."
Given his time at the National Interest and his turn at the State Department during the Bush administration, Lind does know much of what he writes in his novel, the Washington world-whirl. "Powertown," which Lind says he wrote in about 10 weeks at the tail end of 1994, tells the story of Washington at every stratum, from Salvadoran domestic to K Street lobbyist.
"Powertown" has been pilloried in some predictable arenas (Buckley's National Review) and more gently rebuked in apparently disinterested quarters ("His inexperience shows, badly," said the Hartford Courant). Novelist Thomas Mallon was savage in GQ -- coining the "Duraflame weenie roast" line -- but Lind says Mallon is a Buckley protege. Mallon, who used to write book reviews for the National Review, counters that he has never met Buckley and has no political scores to settle with Lind. "I think Michael Lind is a bright guy who has written a lousy book," he says.
However, Nation writer Christopher Hitchens, a self-styled expert the "Washington novel," thinks Lind deserves credit for his ambition and for his decision to go beyond the form's usual suspects -- the Senator, the Diplomat, the Georgetown Lady.
"It's a sporting effort," says Hitchens, who admired the book enough to provide a blurb for its cover and send it on to Gore Vidal, who has written historical Washington novels. "Michael has a feeling for the fact that this is a class society, which no one denies, but no one acts as if it were, either."
Lind's editor has even compared him to Vidal, which would seem flattering enough, given that Lind believes Vidal's "Washington, D.C." is perhaps the best Washington novel of all. But Lind's not sure how he feels about such comparisons.
"The way this game operates, you have to be another somebody," he says. "So if you write science fiction, you're another Michael Crichton. If you write a legal thriller, you're another John Grisham. I guess if I'm going to be another anybody, I wouldn't object to being another Gore Vidal. I'd rather be the first somebody. Instead of being a post-somebody and a pre-somebody, I'd rather just be a somebody."
He is nobody in his own book. Whatever criticisms may be leveled at "Powertown," no one will accuse Lind of writing a memoir disguised as a novel. The character whose professional life comes closest to his is Stephanie, the journalist from St. Louis who cements her reputation with one fabulous scoop. ("Her phone has been ringing with offers to write from Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, The New York Times Book Review. Profiles of her have appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post. On college campuses, she has learned, she is the latest feminist heroine, though she knows next to nothing about feminist theory or politics. She is a quick study.")
He almost did create a doppelganger, he says, an Alfred Hitchcock kind of appearance that would be the set-up for a wonderful punch line. "I had a cameo appearance in the first draft, so that when people would say 'Which one is you?' I'd say 'The Michael Lind character.' "
The problem was, he didn't want the novel to be time-specific and the Michael Lind character he envisioned was an obscure policy wonk. That would be the joke, you see, all these people wondering who was this opinionated Michael Lind person anyway. But after 1994, he concluded, all his characters would have heard of him.
Of course they would have.
What: Excerpts from "Powertown"
When: 7: 30 tonight
Where: Borders Books & Music, York Road, Towson
Pub Date: 10/02/96