Joseph Bottum

Drawn to the Beat

Review: 'William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ’n’ Roll' by Casey Rae

When Donald Fagen and Walter Becker joined to begin new recordings in 1972, they decided to call their band "Steely Dan," taking the name from a dildo—"Steely Dan III from Yokohama"—that makes a brief appearance in William S. Burroughs’s 1959 novel Naked Lunch. And from that stray bit of information, one could begin to construct a genealogy, a tree of inspirations and references, that takes us to a very strange place. Start with the fact that English-language rock 'n' roll, from the 1960s through the 1980s, remains the best-selling, most-listened-to music in the history of the world. Add the fact that just about every influential rocker has mentioned Burroughs's books, with half of them trekking across America at one point or another, on pilgrimage to meet the man. And we arrive at the conclusion that William S. Burroughs is the single most influential novelist who ever lived.

Better Than It Has To Be

Review: 'To Clear Away the Shadows' by David Drake

David Drake's books always seem to carry a blurb from the Chicago Sun-Times—a line extracted from an old review that claims Drake has a "prose as cold and hard as the metal alloy of a tank." He "rivals Crane and Remarque" as a writer of military fiction. And there you have it: The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) are joined by Drake's tale of intergalactic mercenaries, Hammer's Slammers (1979).

Killer Instinct

25 years later, can we separate O.J. the athlete from O.J. the murderer?

Senorise Perry is a running back for the Buffalo Bills. Coming out of college at Louisville, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears in 2014. He later played for Miami, mostly on special teams, before catching on with Buffalo this spring. And last week, the Bills gave him permission to wear Number 32 on his jersey. Number 32. A minor NFL player, sitting somewhere around fourth or fifth on the team’s offseason depth chart, now has the number not given out by the Bills since 1977. The number of the greatest tailback ever to play in Buffalo. The number of possibly the most beautiful runner in the history of football. The number of a murderer. The number of O.J. Simpson.

Herman Wouk, 1915-2019

Remembering a master of middlebrow

Herman Wouk was a good writer. He could spin a compelling tale, and he could embroider some serious ideas onto that tale. His prose was clean, and his characters recognizable. But he wasn't Proust. Or Tolstoy. Or Saul Bellow. He was just good, producing—with The Caine Mutiny (1951), for example—solid American middlebrow work much better than, say, Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955).

Warren Zevon: A Genius and Disaster

Review: 'Nothing’s Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon' by C.M. Kushins

There aren't actually all that many lines in pop music that tell you, simply by their construction, who their writer was. And a man named Warren Zevon had a surprising number of them. You hear something like, I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand / Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain, as he sang in his 1978 "Werewolves of London." And you know it has to be him. Only him. The genius and the disaster that was Warren Zevon.

Our Unsexy Future

Review: 'Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity' by Jamie Metzl

There is an underappreciated principle of any new technology as it starts to sail in from the horizon—and that principle runs: The flagship is not the fleet. To some extent, this is simply the general law of unintended consequences, as applied specifically to technology. Every large-scale social action necessarily produces effects that its planners probably did not foresee and certainly did not desire. If the law holds true in the social realm, then why wouldn't it hold true in the social effects that follow from a technological change?

A Legend of the Frontier

Review: 'Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter' by Tom Clavin

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner proposed his famous Frontier Thesis—the notion that the American character had been fundamentally formed by the experience of a frontier, an ever-moving line that divided civilization from the wilderness. And here we are, well over a hundred years later, still watching Westerns. Still arguing over the effects of westward expansion. Still reading books like Tom Clavin's latest effort, Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier's First Gunfighter.

No Thanks

Review: 'White' by Bret Easton Ellis

The negative reviews of Bret Easton Ellis's new book are almost enough to make one want to defend it. Perversity may be underrated as a motive for human behavior: Nothing makes me want to cut my lawn less than a prissy neighbor's complaint that the grass is growing long; nothing makes me want to defend a book more than a chorus of the self-righteous decrying it.

Easter Reading

Review: 'The Morning Watch' by James Agee

One under-appreciated book worth digging up for the Easter Triduum is James Agee’s 1951 novella, The Morning Watch.

Seeking Israel From the Left

Review: 'The Lions' Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky' by Susie Linfield

Israeli flag March Takes Place During Jerusalem DayIsrael has always been a Rorschach test for the left, Susie Linfield argues in her new book about intellectuals' writings on the first decades of the Jewish home state. And she's right, if not quite in the way she may have intended the metaphor.