Friday, May 25, 2007

Newt Gingrich's Assault on Grammar

This book has now vaulted to the top of our must-read list, if only so we can send Mr. Gingrich a stern letter on SPOGG stationery. We're posting the entire Janet Maslin review from The New York Times, just because it tickled us so thoroughly:

The New York Times

May 24, 2007
Books of the Times
An Assault on Hawaii. On Grammar Too.
A Novel of December 8th

By Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Illustrated. 366 pages. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. $25.95.

December 8, 1941, is not normally known as a day that will live in infamy. That phrase of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s usually refers to the preceding day, on which the American Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor was savaged by a surprise Japanese air raid. But “Pearl Harbor,” the war novel that is Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen’s latest foray into what they call “active history,” deliberately calls attention to the fact that Japan and Hawaii were on different sides of the International Date Line.

When the attack began, it was Dec. 7 at Pearl Harbor but Dec. 8 in Japan. The book is subtly subtitled “A Novel of December 8th” to signal its attention to the Japanese point of view. On the basis of that detail, you might expect a high level of fastidiousness from “Pearl Harbor.”

And you would be spectacularly wrong. Because you would find phrases like “to withdraw backward was impossible,” sounds like “wretching noises” to accompany vomiting, or constructions like “incredulous as it seemed, America had not reacted.” Although the book has two authors, it could have used a third assigned to cleanup patrol.

This is not a matter of isolated typographical errors. It is a serious case for the comma police, since the book’s war on punctuation is almost as heated as the air assaults it describes. “One would have to be dead, very stupid Fuchida thought,” the book says about the fighter pilot Mitsuo Fuchida, “not to realize they were sallying forth to war.” Evidence notwithstanding, the authors do not mean to insult the fighter pilot’s intelligence — or, presumably, the reader’s.

Some of these glitches are brief, while some are windier. The long ones are particularly dangerous. Here is what happens when James Watson, an academic and a decoding expert who is one of the book’s cardboard Americans (as opposed to its cardboard British and Japanese figures), has lunch:

“James nodded his thanks, opened the wax paper and looked a bit suspiciously at the offering, it looked to be a day or two old and suddenly he had a real longing for the faculty dining room on campus, always a good selection of Western and Asian food to choose from, darn good conversations to be found, and here he now sat with a disheveled captain who, with the added realization, due to the direction of the wind, was in serious need of a good shower.”

James lives in Hawaii with his half-Japanese wife, Margaret. Margaret is the book’s only female character, and she barely appears. This is evidence that Mr. Gingrich has learned that politicians writing fiction are well advised to avoid eroticism. The book’s only trace of the lascivious is a reference to rising wartime hemlines in Britain because of an effort to conserve cloth.

Elsewhere in Hawaii, among the fighting forces, things are typically editor-proof. In a case for James’s decoding skills, the book says: “The boys had money in their pockets to burn and fresh in from the West Coast the obligatory photos with hula girls, sentimental silk pillows for moms and girlfriends, and ridiculous-printed shirts had sold like crazy.”

Distractions like these are unfortunate, because “Pearl Harbor” really does have serious intentions. However ham-handed their people skills, the authors know their military minutiae and are happy to differentiate a B5N1 from a B5N2. (Both are Japanese Navy torpedo planes.)

They also deliver endless speculation on the global strategic issues that led to a point of no return at Pearl Harbor. As they did to better dramatic effect in their Civil War trilogy (“Pearl Harbor” is the first installment in a new Pacific series), Mr. Gingrich and Dr. Forstchen (who is both a pilot and a professor) alter history as a way of analyzing it. Though they have previously taken drastic steps like imagining a victorious Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, the new book’s liberties are more limited. But “Pearl Harbor” imagines that Japan could have expected a very different outcome from its stealth attack.

If the climactic battle in “Pearl Harbor” is the only stage at which the authors’ fascination with their subject comes alive, much more of the narrative is taken up with prophetic conversation. “I was born in Hiroshima,” says Genda Minoru, the Japanese military strategist, when he encounters the American general Carl Andrew Spaatz, known as Tooey, when they meet by chance aboard a Pan Am Clipper (a plane that is lovingly described as an example of American luxury and know-how). “You should visit Hiroshima some day, sir.”

The general, who will go on to lead the strategic bombing of Japan, replies, “Perhaps I will some day.”

The book also includes a prominent Englishman, Cecil Stanford, who has a well-known school chum named Winston. Cecil materializes once, bizarrely and apparently by mistake, in the Genda-Spaatz Pan Am scene, even though he is not on the plane.

More frequently he can be found chatting with Churchill amid the Scotch and cut-glass tumblers and leather and cigars that give “Pearl Harbor” its happiest masculine moments. There are many such incidents of armchair strategizing about what roles Germany, Russia, Manchuria, the Philippines, Indonesia, Indochina and China (the Rape of Nanking is described here as a “maelstrom of agony”) will play in the world’s imperialist chess game.

“Pearl Harbor” is of course laden — or “ladened,” as it would say — with rib-elbowing parallels to the present global crisis. It emphasizes the importance of oil as a motivating force, the danger of choosing to “cut and run,” the ability of Americans to hide their heads in the sand of popular culture and the power of racial and religious tensions to unite the enemies of the United States. While proclaiming those enemies to be essentially unknowable, it sees no contradiction in explaining their every move.

No comments: