I'm about to give up on standards, especially those of the NY Times. Its latest atrocity is a review of Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, "a memoir of sorts by the delightfully named Barton Swaim, who worked for [Gov. Mark] Sanford for three years and 10 months, from 2007 until 2010." The review is written by one Sarah Lyall, a "New York Times writer at large," according to her Twitter page. A writer she may be, but a reviewer — with standards — she ain't.
Ms. Lyall describes Mr. Swaim as "so talented a writer" — why, the man could just make pert near any story "come alive in the best possible way." She describes his book as "a wryly funny, beautifully written, sometimes bewildered, always astute dissection of" … full stop. If you've read the book, as I did one afternoon a couple weeks ago, you're at this point scratching your head, trying to reconcile Lyall's swooning with Swaim's writing.
It's a not a bad book. At times it is somewhat amusing. But wryly funny? Beautifully written? Always astute? Thus enters bewilderment. The book is to memoirs what John Grisham is to Great American novelists. It is by and large competently written, and about 70 percent of it is just interesting enough to carry the reader to the end. It is there, however, that the bloody pile-up occurs. Mr. Swaim goes out in a melancholy breakdown of moralistic innocence and almost unbelievable shallowness. To wit …
Politicians, he had discovered, "should never be trusted." Such is Swaim's blockbuster conclusion, which rambles on for several pages — amidst which is this:
I must sound hopelessly naïve. Hadn't I noticed that politicians are prone to vanity, and that vanity frequently unmakes them? Yes, I had noticed. But I had thought of it mainly as a joke. Now I realized it wasn't a joke. It was the most important thing.
Vanity was the most important thing? Swaim drops this on us — at page 200 — smack in the middle of his thematic thrust about the preeminent need to distrust politicians. By then I had only four more pages to go, however, so I didn't worry about which was which. Swaim obviously didn't. Why should I?
As for that closing, yawn-evoking theme of "distrust." I'm a compulsive marginalia man, and reopening the book to the final page, I see I scribbled: "This is a pathetic, sophomoric conclusion that is stunning — in that it ever got published by Simon & Schuster."
I thought, then, that that was the end of my being stunned. It wasn't. Still to come was the NYT's sparkling review.