Blind Eye

By James B. Stewart

The genre of true crime may not be any stranger than fiction, but there’s no denying it’s a lot scarier. Exhibit A: The strange case of Michael Swango, M. D.

It is hard to locate exactly when Swango started to go bad, but we do know that he began being associated with mysterious deaths as early as medical school, where he was given the nickname “Double-O Swango” – a doctor with a license to kill.

During his internship at the prestigious Ohio State University Medical Centre, this pattern continued, concluding with the attempted murder of Rena Cooper, a 69-year-old widow hospitalized for a back operation. Shockingly, Swango was cleared of wrongdoing by a hospital board of investigation (despite the presence of three eyewitnesses), and, after having his internship cancelled, quietly allowed to continue his studies elsewhere.

Swango’s passion was poison, his modus operandi usually involving some kind of lethal injection. Yet despite his suspicious record, and even a criminal record for poisoning a group of his co-workers, he was able to repeatedly find work at other hospitals both in the U. S. and abroad (Stewart follows his trail all the way to Zimbabwe). By the time he was finally jailed (for fraud), he was suspected by the FBI of having killed 60 people, a figure that would make him one of the most prolific serial killers in American history.

If that was all there was to the story, then Blind Eye would simply be another case study in criminal psychopathy. As the title indicates, however, Stewart’s real target is the medical establishment that allowed Swango to pursue his criminal career for so long. And it is this part of the story that makes Blind Eye such a truly disturbing book.

What Stewart argues is that a buck-passing medical system shares a large part of the blame for Swango’s crimes. Poweful people, in positions of trust, routinely ignored clear evidence of danger and exposed the most vulnerable members of our society to mortal risk.

In fact, even after Swango’s apprehension, the Ohio State administration continued to stonewall both press and prosecutors. Nor was federal legislation in these matters any help. A national data bank set up in 1990 to monitor incompetent and criminal physicians has been a complete failure due to the medical profession’s almost total refusal to report on itself.

“The loyalty among physicians,” Stewart concludes, “makes police officers’ famous ‘blue wall of silence’ seem porous by comparison.”

It is a shameful record, and one that would normally demand some kind of institutional response. Normally, but in this case unlikely. Given the power of the establishment, it will be easier to turn a blind eye.

Review first published December 24, 1999. For an account of a very similar case, see my review of Charles Graeber’s The Good Nurse.

Better Living

By Mark Kingwell

Happiness has always been an impossible concept to pin down. For Mark Kingwell it is “eudaimonistic” (he is a philosophy professor), involving the “rational satisfaction” of a virtuous life. How he comes to this conclusion is the subject of this new book.

When it works, Better Living is a quick-reading piece of what has become known as cultural criticism – full of odds and ends ranging from a discussion of our obsession with obesity to the now de rigeur analyses of Star Trek and The Simpsons. It is organized around Kingwell’s own semi-satiric pursuit of happiness, and looks at current trends through a wide (but shallow) historical lens. Along the way the author discusses pop psychology bestsellers with titles like Become Happy in Eight Minutes, puts himself on Prozac, and even attends a special happiness “clinic” in Massachusetts.

Easy game perhaps, but it is the best part of the book.

In terms of style Kingwell displays a knack for making any platitude seem as exciting as the formula for cold fusion. Thus (are you ready?) “we must confront the possibility” that religion is the opium of the masses and that Star Trekis itself a form of soma” (i.e., television is a drug – emphasis in the original!). Another revelation is that the concept of “cool” has been largely manufactured by advertising agencies.

Really? I’d always wondered.

Better Living is also a very personal book. Most of the time this is a good thing. Kingwell does seem like a decent sort of fellow. But he is also a tortured soul. He is critical of the media, but is a TV junky and media personality himself; he hates the game of academic advancement, but remains a committed player; he rails against materialism and consumerism, but for some reason wants us to know that he owns two Armani suits.

Candor without self-awareness is an unexpected quality in someone who extols the importance of an examined life.

What blindness, for example, leads Kingwell to condemn the kitschy rubber doll facsimiles of Munch’s “Scream” as a “debasement of the artistic image,” then shell out to buy, not one, but two? At first he tries to rationalize his purchase (“I bought them to illustrate a lecture”), but then confesses that he now has them decorating his office! A very “cool” office indeed, I should think.

There is an important point to be made here. The tone of most cultural criticism is detached irony, a way of presenting oneself as in the world but not of it. Fair enough, but one has to temper one’s contempt for the uncritical masses with some belief in a shared humanity, a sense that we are all in this together.

A particularly telling moment occurs when Kingwell visits the CNE. The Exhibition strikes him as a depressing theatre of consumption, full of trashy goods and trashy people (who are described, quite frankly, as pigs wallowing in their slop). While he waits for his wife to buy something he notices a little boy in a “filthy” coat, kneeling in the “dirt.” The “grubby” wretch has mustard and ketchup smeared all over his face and is chewing a hot dog with his mouth open. And there he squats, beneath our gaze: “The entirely contented consumer.”

Offensive stuff, make no mistake. All too often Better Living reminded me of the attacks on the unwashed herd made by Modernist writers in the ’20s and ’30s. And to what end?

Ultimately Better Living is precisely what it seeks to deny – a self-help manual on happiness for high-brows. Call it Chicken Soup for the Academic Soul. There are, for example, “Eight Myths of Happiness” that can be read in Eight Minutes. And finally the whole thing collapses into Adspeak as we are exhorted to make sense of our lives through narratives and “become who we are.” (Yes! That’s it!)

As a diversion some of this may satisfy. But as a guide to better living it is better left alone.

Review first published April 18, 1998.

Bank Heist

By Walter Stewart

“Once a nation parts with control of its currency and credit, it matters not who makes that nation’s laws.” – William Lyon Mackenzie King

Bank-bashing has always been popular in Canada, and rarely undeserved. In this latest attack on the giants of Bay Street, Walter Stewart argues that our banks are too big, powerful, and arrogant. They operate inefficiently, are a scourge to small business, and offer terrible service to the public.

At times, Stewart seems merely cranky. Automatic banking machines (ABMs), for example, while clearly a device for gouging the public, are also a genuine convenience. But on more important points the news he brings is bad enough. Our financial system is now an oligopoly. The banks have digested the mortgage industry, the trust business, personal finance companies and security firms. “Conflict of interest” has no real meaning and competition is obsolete.

Ironically, despite this overwhelming consolidation of power, the banks continue to criticize government for being too big. They also like to give lectures on fiscal responsibility – even when 90 per cent of the federal debt created over the last 30 years has been due to interest charges paid to banks.

The core problem with the banking industry is one that we can see everywhere today – the failure to connect with reality. The banks, without any primary reserve requirements, are free to make money out of nothing (which is exactly what they do). They can thus continue to grow out of all proportion, indeed all relation, to the rest of the economy.

Those who have been watching the Toronto Stock Exchange’s spectacular rise may have noticed the same thing happening with stock prices. Many stock prices today have lost their connection to the notion of value, to something “real” (e.g., corporate assets or earnings). Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who brought down Barings Bank by speculating in derivatives later claimed it was “like trading ether.”

Reading Stewart, one gets the disturbing feeling that our banking system is a mighty glass tower built in air. This does not bode well for the one aspect of it that we tend to be most confident about – its stability. In fact, this stability is beginning to sound more and more like a refuge for scoundrels. John Kenneth Galbraith has suggested that almost any amount of injustice will be tolerated as the cost of stability in a “culture of contentment.” The same would hold true in an age of anxiety. In a time of resentment and discontent? Perhaps not.

Review first published August 30, 1997.

At Home With the Marquis de Sade

By Francine Du Plessix Gray

One of the big problem with literary biographies is the inherently boring nature of their subjects. Despite what we have been conditioned to believe by the cult of celebrity, a popular author is not necessarily a newsworthy or even interesting person. While it is natural to be curious about a favourite creative personality, few literary lions led lives requiring the kind of detailed analysis they regularly receive.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was an exception to the rule. As a young man he first distinguished himself on the battlefield, and went on to become France’s most notorious libertine. A series of sensational trials led to a series of of incarcerations and daring escapes. Eventually he was sent to the Bastille, where he was removed for rowdiness just before the fireworks began. After another near escape, this time from the Terror, he became one of the chief orators of the Revolution (his name downgraded to humble Louis Sade). Yet despite losing nearly everything he was hounded by the authorities to his grave.

And, yes, he also wrote some dirty books.

At Home With the Marquis de Sade takes this material and turns it into a truly first-rate biography. Gray is totally at ease with everything about her subject, from the complex history of the period down to the terrain of Sade’s native Provence. Her research into original sources has been thorough, and in particular Sade’s correspondence (his most highly-valued writing today) has been capably mined.

If I had one objection it would be that the portrayal of Sade’s mother-in-law is not entirely fair. The fidelity of Madame de Montreuil’s rage was not without some justification. While she may have been a narrow-minded and selfish woman, she was not the Fury she is made out to be here. Despite a genuine belief in his own innocence, or at least that he was more sinned against than sinning, Sade was the author of his own misfortunes.

No one would deny Sade some place in the history of thought. After all, his name is now a part of the language. But in fact the Marquis was not that complex a psychological case. Essentially he was the spoiled little boy who never grew up: self-centered, emotionally petty, demanding of affection and impatient in his desires. And as for his books . . .

One way to judge a literary biography is to ask whether reading the life provides any incentive to re-read the work. In the case of Sade, however, this won’t do. Few readers who have slogged through The 120 Days of Sodom or Juliette will feel any inclination to repeat the experience, no matter how intriguing they find this biography.

Instead, Sade has to stand by himself, warts and all. Gray’s book gives us such a portrait, and let us see the man behind the myth.

Review first published December 26, 1998. For my further thoughts on the man, see my review of David Carter’s brief bio Marquis de Sade.

American Exorcism

By Michael J. Cuneo

When Wilde wrote that life imitates art he was really only stating the obvious. Life, considered as the way we choose to live our lives, is an art. The things we make instruct us (for good or ill) how to go about it.

But we should be wary of extending his epigram too far. As an example of what can happen if we do, Michael Cuneo brings us this report (from the trenches, as it were) on exorcism in America.

Before 1971, exorcism, or the casting out of demons, was an obscure Catholic ritual that few people knew anything about. That all changed with the publication of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, a book that, by itself, gives its author a persuasive claim to being the most important Catholic novelist of the twentieth century. Its presentation of a pair of relevant (nay, heroic!) Catholic priests struck a chord with a church that was feeling under siege.

The notorious film version that came out two years later only further opened the gates of hell. Almost overnight a small cottage industry in exorcism sprouted up, even spreading to various Protestant denominations (though it has been hard for the Holy Rollers and other groups to match the spiritual cachet of the full Catholic ritual). Cunoe’s explanation for why this happened is commendably clear. In the first place he blames the media: Blatty and his spawn. The exorcisms Cunoe attends play out like amateur versions of scenes from The Exorcist and other movies, albeit without any of the special effects. It seems nothing is sacred from Wilde’s mimesis in reverse:

Am I really suggesting that the popular entertainment industry, with all its dreck and drivel, is capable of manipulating – actually manipulating – religious beliefs and behavior? Indeed, this is one of the main contentions of the present study, and there seems nothing (to my mind) especially far-fetched about it. Like it or not, the products of Hollywood and the tabloid media are an inescapable fact of life in contemporary America . . . they play a crucial role in shaping public sentiment and engaging the national psyche. Why should religiously inclined Americans be less susceptible to their charms than anyone else? When Hollywood or Oprah or Madison Avenue advertises the existence of demons and satanic cults, it is hardly surprising that at least some Americans will comport themselves accordingly.

The second contributing factor has been the “therapeutic ethos of the prevailing culture.” The notion that one’s drunkenness and lust are the result of demonic infestation rather than personal weakness suits us well:

No less than any of the countless New Age nostrums or twelve-step recovery routines on the current scene, exorcism ministries offer their clients endless possibilities for personal transformation – the prospect of a thousand rebirths. With its promises of therapeutic well-being and rapid-fire emotional gratification, exorcism is oddly at home in the shopping-mall culture, the purchase-of-happiness culture, of turn-of-the-century America.

We may recall how Regan’s mother is first advised to put her possessed child on Ritalin. There is a lesson here for parents on what to do when tranquilizers just won’t work.

American Exorcism is a fascinating piece of investigative journalism that manages to be both fair-minded and skeptical. And while, as Cuneo admits, there is nothing surprising about its conclusions, they are still worth considering.

In particular, I have always felt that Wilde’s dictum requires a corollary: Life imitates bad art. American exorcism has nothing to do with church history, Latin rituals or archaeology. It is trash culture, born of a pulp bestseller, a sensational movie, tabloid journalism and talk shows. As Cuneo describes adults writhing on the floor and vomiting their demons into buckets one thinks of the children who cripple themselves pretending to be professional wrestlers. Imitation may be hazardous to your health.

Review first published online November 15, 2001.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

By D. M. Thomas

Biography, according to English novelist D. M. Thomas, is an “impossible art.” I agree.

Of course, that has not stopped anyone from trying.

Literary biographies, overlong and unnecessary, have become the academic pulp of the book world. Given the polluted environment, Thomas deserves some praise for this latest tome. His arrangement of material is skilful, his observations are generally astute, and his decision to focus on Solzhenitsyn’s world rather than his work is a wise one. (How many people actually finished The Gulag Archipelago? Be honest.)

Unfortunately, all of the sins of the modern biography are here as well, beginning with the hefty weight. Anyone who ever met Solzhenitsyn gets an honorable mention. And the trivia! Is it really true that Solzhenitsyn’s aunt was a neighbour of Yuri Andropov’s mother? Now I know.

The novelist’s style, usually sharp, can’t always handle this critical mass. Ellipsis dots, especially at the end of a paragraph, are used far too often – hinting at a rush job or lack of proof-reading. And what are we to make of filler like this: “If Sanya’s sense of truth was like a laser beam, Natasha’s was like moonlight on a stormy night.” If Thomas had been this uninspired while writing The White Hotel he might have won the Booker Prize.

Finally, there is the matter of Solzhenitsyn himself. Despite all of the persecution he has endured, “Sanya” is not a very sympathetic figure. Thomas’s portrait, though admiring, also describes him as being arrogant, self-centered, and (reaching for Freud) “anal.” The most severe criticism, however, is saved for the great man’s appalling treatment of his first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya. It is hard not to see her as the real hero of the book.

Like most unauthorized biographies, A Century In His Life is both compromised and controversial. The first blow came when Solzhenitsyn refused to be interviewed. Later, he attempted to have the book suppressed, apparently because Thomas had interviewed his first wife and planned to use pictures she had given him. This, in turn, led Thomas and his editors to charge the Voice of Freedom with censorship.

Whatever is behind all of this, the loss of Solzhenitsyn’s input is real. There are two sides to every story and, as Thomas admits, we do not have Sanya’s version of what happened. What we have is Natalya’s story, “and she was not above putting a favourable gloss on her own behaviour.”

Thomas believes that when history has done with the political debate over Solzhenitsyn, he will continue to be remembered for his art. If the ’90s are any indication, he still has a long way to go. Upon his return from exile, “Russia’s conscience” quickly became the Old Bore – his politics irrelevant and out of touch, and his television talk show cancelled when it was discovered that people were more interested in pop videos, soap operas, and porn than harangues from a cranky Old Believer.

But what draws Thomas to his subject is the fact that, for a time, Solzhenitsyn wrote within a culture that still saw writing as important. He was a private man with a truly public voice. “In terms of the effect he has had on history,” one observer remarks, “Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of this century.” His writing put the lie to Auden’s famous line: It made things happen.

Even though Solzhenitsyn is still alive, the tone of elegy that fills the final chapter is entirely correct. Writing is not that important today, and never will be again.

Review first published March 21, 1998. The White Hotel, by the way, is a good book.

Albert Camus

By Olivier Todd

“The people who create,” by which Albert Camus, writing in 1940, meant people like himself, “are almost always men of action.”

The comment goes a long way to describe the short but busy life of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. Killed in a car accident in 1960, Camus had risen from desperately poor roots as a war orphan in French Algeria, through working as a journalist for Resistance newspapers during the Occupation, to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.

It was a writer’s life to be sure, but also the life of a man of action. This new biography – fast-paced and crowded with famous names – is testimony to the richness of its subject.

If it is surprisingly uncritical (on both the personal and the literary level), that, too, seems to flow naturally from an examination of a man of “endearing human warmth and goodness” whose work successfully combined metaphysical depth with popular appeal.

Camus often protested that he was not a philosopher, but he was an heir of the Enlightenment, which made him both a humanist and a revolutionary. Central to most of his work is a spirit of revolt against repressive systems (the Church, the totalitarian state) that he saw as hateful and absurd. That revolutionary spirit is sadly lacking today, but for Camus being an outsider still meant something.

Which is perhaps one reason why he has never gone out of style. Indeed, books like L’Etranger and La Peste have only gained in relevance over the years. In a recent French survey Camus was considered the 20th century author who interested readers the most. Now, thanks to Olivier Todd, they have a chance to learn something more about the man.

Picky readers will have no trouble finding things to complain about. First of all, this is not only a translation (by Benjamin Ivry), but an abridgement. The translator’s note informs us that “some material not of sufficient interest to the American general reader has been omitted to improve the narrative flow.” Unfortunately, the narrative does not flow. In addition, scholarly types will be disappointed to find that the notes have been left out and the index fails to be comprehensive. For example, one thing I found interesting is that Camus despised Celine’s Mort a Credit, but neither Celine’s name nor the name of his book has a reference.

But while these are annoying points they do not detract greatly from the whole. Overall, I was impressed with the work Todd has done. He respects his subject, has obviously done a great deal of research, and mixes opinion well with objectivity. He also has a rare sense of fun. Describing Camus’s reputation as a ladies man, for example, Todd refers to how he treated women “the way a bombardier pilot treats a target site: he would strike and, mission accomplished, he would get away quickly.”

Camus’s lungs were in such poor condition there was never any question of his living to be an old man. The last 10 years of his life were particularly difficult as his health worsened, his marriage broke down, and he became the whipping boy for the French left wing over his stand on the Algerian crisis. It also seems clear that his finest work was behind him.

And yet his death at the age of 46 was far too young.

Review first published December 27, 1997.