by Pat Holt
Tuesday, July 25, 2000
Okay, he's despicable and hilarious. His message is disgusting and true. A person feels cleansed and soiled reading his book, "American Rhapsody" (Knopf; 432 pages; $25.95).
So why do we take apparently sinful pleasure when screenwriter Joe Eszterhas ("Basic Instinct," "Showgirls," "Sliver," "Jade"), explains American politics to us? Why isn't it laughable that the king of sleaze-and-mutilation films throws a fit about Bill Clinton's sexual escapades?
Perhaps the answer lies in the Bottom of the Pit Syndrome - the belief that only those who reside in the lowest pit of social behavior can authentically portray others who've fallen to similar levels of human squalor.
Eszterhas certainly qualifies as our guide. When it comes to understanding why Clinton likes to wave his "willard" (Clinton's name for his penis, says the author) in front of every woman he sees, Eszterhas knows. He has been there. Men like Eszterhas and Clinton have "just HAD to give our willard room, dangle it out there, and stick it into SOMETHING." Such an eloquent guide, too.
To prove this, Eszterhas quotes Geraldo Rivera, whose description of himself as a man among women, says the author, "fit many of us: 'a grunting, voracious pig in heat.' " This is endearing stuff down in the Pit.
Eszterhas wants to impress us early on by establishing his bad-booty-boy credentials from the '60s, when we was a reporter for Rolling Stone. He talks about Alice Cooper spraying chicken blood on audience members "who'd rub the blood into one another's privates (they did?).
He tells us how so much coupling went on at Rolling Stone that the publisher complained of finding "coke and come" all over his desk, and how Bill Clinton and Joe Eszterhas and all the hip guys had love affairs: "The point was a pair of lips, a pair of tits, a nice ass. The point was skin, flesh, meat. The point was a hole."
Eszterhas explains that the Bill Clinton he joyfully proclaimed as "the first rock and roll president in American history" ended up betraying the American people - that is, Eszterhas and his dope-smoking, booze-swilling, porno-obsessed buddies.
Oh, the problem with Clinton was not that he got caught womanizing, says Eszterhaz. It was rather that Bill Clinton wouldn't stand up for himself - as, say, Mick Jagger might have - and declare that he WAS America's first rock and roll prez, that he did inhale and he did have sex with "that woman" and he loves his willard more than anything.
Instead, Clinton became the kind of weak-kneed sister who ended up hiding behind White House secretary Betty Currie in the same way Richard Nixon hid behind Rosemary Woods. Clinton told enough lies to make Teddy Kennedy's story about Chappaquiddick look like the gospel. Clinton tried to emulate John F. Kennedy but really is closer to Hamilton Jordan, who once grabbed at the dress of the Egyptian ambassador's wife and said, "I've always wanted to see the Pyramids."
So Eszterhas has something to say, all right, but his central complaint is pretty lame - that Clinton turns out to be like everybody else in American politics. Aw. But don't worry about Joe - he has a second intention for this book, which is to say that Hollywood is far worse than Washington D.C. when it comes to narcissism, dirty secrets, starlets offering sexual favors and celebrities caught acting like pigs.
He takes his revenge on colleagues from Hollywood (Ryan O'Neal, Sharon Stone, Glenn Close, director Adrian Lyne) by dragging them through one muddy innuendo and embarrassing anecdote after another. And he uses the idea of celebrity to make Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore, Arianna Huffington and other women who started out in supportive roles look like fascist power-mongerers.
After all, when you think about Hillary, says Eszterhas, who can blame Bill Clinton for his sexual peccadilloes: "You could call Hillary many things, but not sexy," he adds. For Eszterhas, that's all we need to know. And please, he says, don't feel sorry for Hillary - she benefited from Clinton's womanizing when she became one of those "scorned holes" American voters so love to feel sorry for.
This is what I mean about feeling cleansed and soiled by reading "American Rhapsody." Eszterhas' bad-boy diatribe cuts through the baloney surrounding Monica Lewinsky and Kevin Starr, all right.
But it also has that sicko edge that comes from years of pandering to the base tastes of his target audience - not ALL13-year-old boys but rather that 13-year-old sociopath that seems to lurk in the mind of a man like Eszterhas: the one who wants fantasies to be cheap, women heartless, men vindictive, politics smarmy, himself heroic.
Joe may desperately need to command our respect as the one truthful voice we can trust, but he can't help falling back in the Pit time after time, describing masturbation scenes ad nauseum, or Richard Gere seeming to make a pass at him, or Farrah Fawcett befouling the lawn of a Hollywood mogul's house, or the world according to Willard, which thank heaven is the last chapter in this godawful book.
But perhaps the best and most telling throwaway anecdote of the book occurs when Eszterhaz actually takes CREDIT for giving O.J. Simpson the idea to kill Nicole. One day in 1993, he writes, Simpson told Eszterhas "how much he admired 'Basic Instinct' and, especially, 'Jagged Edge.' " The latter was about a celebrity who brutally kills his wife with a big knife that is never found.
A year later, Nicole was killed, and while the world couldn't believe the grisly nature of the murder, Eszterhas was thrilled to view "Jagged Edge" at home and find one "spooky coincidence" after another. (For example, the date of the murder on film and the murder in real life is June 12!)
What is telling about this incident, however, is that after Eszterhas "kiddingly" notes these similarities to Robert Shapiro, Simpson's attorney, Shapiro "looked me dead in the eye and said, 'You have no idea.' " We think, then, that some intriguing point is going to be made about the Simpson murder from Eszterhas' or Shapiro's point of view. Well, here's what it is: "I asked Shapiro later what his international fame meant to him. 'It means,' he said, 'that I can get a blow job anywhere in the world.' "
So we're right back to square one. You want dirty talk, blood rubbed in privates, celebrities smeared, women dismembered, willards in your face? It all comes to you with that same level of eloquence we've come to expect from Joe Eszterhas.
He leaves us with an image that is memorable in perhaps a different way than intended. Did you know that both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are on record as rapists? Well, they are, says Eszterhas. In fact, he personally viewed a videotape of the woman who accused Clinton of rape, and he says that she "was as believable as anyone I'd ever seen on television." This from the man who wrote that poignant laptop-dancing scene in "Showgirls."
So thank you, Joe! Everything about "American Rhapsody" has the same incisive intelligence we remember from "Showgirls" and proves to us that if readers seek the truth from the likes o' Joe Eszterhaz, the Bottom of the Pit Syndrome will be alive and kicking for a long, long time.
NOTE: Part 3 of our interview with Marty Asher will run this Friday, July 28.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I think it's a mistake to take out the local free newspapers that Barnes & Noble has traditionally had available at the front of their stores. Granted, a large majority of customers come in, grab the freebies and leave, but I suspect these people are doing the same at the independents. They welcome the local population and that can only be a good thing. These local papers are one of the last things that keep Barnes & Noble stores from looking like some hermetically sealed spaceship dropped from above.
As for the local events that are held in the stores, I think you'll find that the events are as good as the Community Relations Manager who plans and executes them. While one store might not have many interesting local events, some B&N's excel at this. A good example would be the Berkeley Barnes & Noble, where local authors are preferred for its esoteric customer base. These events are planned carefully, and the chairs, microphone, books, etc. are set up well in advance of the scheduled time. As a result, these events are almost always well attended. B&N doesn't make that happen, the knowledgeable, organized employee does it all.
By the way, there are no coffee smells blown into any areas of the store except those generated by the brewed coffee itself. Sorry to disappoint.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just organized a protest in front of the Barnes & Noble in Baton Rouge, LA. I've never organized something like this before, so it was very exciting and overwhelming. I printed up some informational flyers to hand out, using the information in your columns . . . The protest ended up going very well, and we got on the local news. There are never protests in Baton Rouge, so most people were very surprised to see us out there! I set up a posterboard graveyard with the names of a few of the 2000 independent stores across the country that have been put out of business by B and N and Borders. B and N opened here about four years ago, and since then about 5-7 indie stores have died. There are now only two indie stores in the whole city that sell new books! Anyway, thanks for your help!
Dear Holt Uncensored,
In his introduction to his new downloadable novel, "The Plant," Stephen King writes, "we have a chance to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare." However, King is Amazon.com's best friend -- Bezos & co. are processing the $1-per-installment payments for King's e-book. Granted, it makes sense that King doesn't want to have to worry about cashing a bunch of $1 checks, but I wish he'd contracted with another company to deal with the money end. If other writers follow King's lead, selling their electronically distributed works exclusively through Amazon.com, it will be yet another blow to independent booksellers.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
One of the scariest characters in Stephen King's last paper & glue books was the hero's publishing agent. Clearly King is troubled by the industry in its present state. Maybe King truly has considered and developed a plan for authors to succeed without intermediaries. I consider his proposed honor system among "The Plant" cyber subscribers naive, but not evil. Pat, let's see what other strategies King intends to try to outwit the publishing industry. So far, he's demonstrated a small arsenal of weapons vis a vis e-publishing, and now this latest gambit. I suspect he is going to up the ante as the publishing world tries to cope with him. I bet it will be an entertaining and instructive show.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Not only is Steven King sticking it to the Eastern Publishing Establishment, but so are a lot of savvy writers (midlist, as you point out) who are tired of the snooty habits of hoop-jumping. My about-to-be written book (working title: "New Rules for Growing Up") will not include a query letter, wait six months for an answer, an outline and 2 chapters, et al. It will be written, published on the Internet and if necessary given away free. Well, maybe not entirely free. Let's say at a reasonable price.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I just returned from the Alaskan "bush" (a remote tiny community on an island in southeast Alaska) where mail is delivered once a week on the mailboat. I thought it rather astounding (in some ways) that the new Harry Potter book distribution was so extensive, that 2 days after the release my neighbor's daughter had a copy---in the Alaskan bush! Much easier to get a copy of this book, it seems-- than any really good fresh produce when one lives in a remote Alaskan community (of course, the book isn't perishable....is it?)
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Good news and bad news:
Bad - Iowa State University Press has died, folded, gone kaput - backlist bought by some scavenger (merger partner in gobblespeak)... and is no more...
Good - Iceland chose a new Miss Iceland ... she was selected out of 20+/- finalists as having written the best poem - all the finalists had to submit poems and the winner was picked on the basis of her poetry....
Dear Holt Uncensored:
So how much money has HarperCollins paid "Dr." Laura for her poorly written, didactic, unrealistic picture books for innocent children?
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.