Sometimes reading a critical book review is like watching a man punching out a violent purse thief on the street corner. You may wince a bit, but, after all, the robber had it coming.
I am typing this from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, visiting my family on the way back from a speaking engagement in Auburn, Alabama. The FEMA trailers and blue tarp roofs are still everywhere, as are the piles of rubble left in the wake of Katrina. Just before leaving Kentucky for Mississippi, I finished Douglas Brinkley’s new book, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I was prepared to write a highly critical review of Brinkley’s latest offering, but I don’t have to. My fellow Touchstone senior editor Wilfred McClay beat me to it.
Reading Bill’s withering review almost made me feel sorry for Brinkley, except that Bill’s review is relatively restrained given how awful the book actually is.
Bill’s review, originally published in the New York Sun and now on-line at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, hits Brinkley for his scholarly mediocrity, his research sloppiness, and his political pandering. Bill writes: “Would you trust a writer who trades on his intimate knowledge of the Gulf South, and yet claims at one point that a tired-looking President Bush could not have been jetlagged because ‘Washington was in the same time zone as Mobile?'” I could add numerous other mistakes, such as Brinkley’s reference to “former Louisiana senator Trent Lott.”
McClay also points out the embarrassing lengths to which Brinkley goes to curry favor with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (who last Saturday lost his race for New Orleans mayor) while relentlessly attacking Mayor Ray Nagin for everything from his administrative incompetence to his profanity to the length of a shower he took on Air Force One.
Bill closes the review as follows:
“One should add, too, that there is no serious criticism of the astounding malfeasances of the news media in covering this story. No mention of the hysterical falsehoods about bodies stacked in freezers and gunfights in the Superdome that were put out to the world, and that have stuck in the world’s mind, even as their basis in fact crumbled. Instead, Mr. Brinkley writes about the news media exactly as you would expect someone who wants to be well treated by them, and invited back to appear on their cable shows: They were all heroes.
“All of this would be forgivable if Mr. Brinkley had written a book that was lively and evocative. But The Great Deluge turns out to be a book worthy of its title. It just goes on and on and on, a veritable Mississippi of sludgy, sophomoric, rebarbative prose, with gimmicky human-interest stories, transcriptions of press releases, gratuitous quotations from great writers about hurricanes, and potted history. This author may feel the gravity of his subject, but he does not manage to convey it.”
As a native Biloxian, I suppose I had to read Brinkley’s book. You can wait for a better one to come along. But read Bill McClay’s review. And, as you do so, remember: he’s holding back.