Drawn to the Beat

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

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).

Still Marching On

Nationalism used to be the norm in American politics. It powered the northern effort to reunify the country and end slavery with a war that came to define the country. Since the United States was much more of a religious country in the middle of the 19th century, it follows that the enduring anthem of the Union effort would be the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It’s Old and New Testament imagery and its emphasis on God’s judgment is much better fitted to that America than to the America of modern day. Yet the conspicuously religious song has stuck around. Does it have anything to say about our present movement for nationalism?

Guarding Honor

Shortly after a Boeing 757 rammed into the western side of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment sprang into action. The so-called Old Guard of the Army, stationed just across the highway in Arlington National Cemetery, was the most readily available outfit to aid those affected in the attack—and perhaps the most qualified.

Herman Wouk, 1915-2019

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).

Its Own Worst Enemy

Freedom of the press is under attack, and President Donald Trump is to blame. So goes the media narrative.

Mark Levin accepts the premise that freedom of the press is at risk, but places the locus of blame on the media itself. His new book Unfreedom of the Press takes the media to task for “destroying freedom of the press from within.”

Warren Zevon: A Genius and Disaster

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.