Joe McGinniss

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Edward Hoagland

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["Heroes"] is an interesting book which gets better as it goes along and gradually absorbs one once again into a familiar, very current form; the author's search for himself in the guise of fulfilling a much more merchantable assignment. In this case, Joe McGinniss was sent out with a lucrative contract to look for "the vanishing American hero." Even to begin with, for many reasons which he enumerates, he was pessimistic about finding such a beastie. Apparently he thinks there will never be any heroes again…. But the lucrative part was important to him because his first book, "The Selling of the President, 1968," had made him at 26 the youngest author ever to stand number one one the nonfiction bestseller list—"not counting Anne Frank." However, it had gradually dawned on him over the next few years not only that he would never be a great writer but that he would never write so well or successfully again.

On the evidence here, I would say the assumption was premature, but as he traveled about the country, seeking out famous people—a rather unimaginative list, on the whole—he wasn't interviewing them at all. Certainly he wasn't really asking them why there aren't public heroes any more, why they themselves aren't heroes. He was crying out to them boyishly, "Say it ain't so about me!" and "What shall I do with myself!" A lot of the book is written in extremely short sentences, as by a sick man. Not sick as though heading toward an early demise but sick as in a fainting spell…. The genre is appealing enough, the book brief, and McGinniss makes fun of himself and has the good sense to quote Joseph Campbell on the subject of heroes….

The putative heroes for McGinniss are, of course, from somewhere around that same era when he was Number One, and he keeps asking them, "Hey, remember me? Include me in!" Meanwhile he's keeping his wife and children on a string as to whether he'll come home to them or continue to live with his girlfriend.

Nevertheless, the best writing in the book is about his daughter Suzie when she gets sick, and his own father's failures and death. He's good on General William Westmoreland and military reportage too. He's fair and respectful with the various figures who are hard on him, such as a colonel who witnesses his cowardice on the battlefield in Vietnam, and Daniel Berrigan up in Winnipeg, but is generally cruel to those like George McGovern who are nice friendly gentle guys….

McGinniss reaches no conclusions about himself, no catharsis of any kind, and one has the unusual feeling at the end of the book that he'd prefer that we all write in and tell him what our opinion is. Will he wind up like Neil Armstrong—first man to walk on the moon—in Cincinnati teaching school?….

He's a crisp, professional writer, recovering from a dizzying early success, who can dot his book with pretty vignettes, such as at test pilot school shooting a jet through roll after roll in the sky, "like riding on the feathers of an arrow." He has been dogged by a reputation for betraying confidences because of his portraits of McGovern (in a New York Times Magazine article) and Nixon (in his "The Selling of the President, 1968"), and he petulantly expresses surprise that Ted Kennedy steered clear of him. I would have, too. But much good writing verges upon betrayal. The point finally turns on whether the betrayal was done in the service of trying to get at the whole truth—whether the decency in the person who feels betrayed has been put in, as well as the sensational lapses. McGinniss has tended to specialize in the confidences and lapses, but I suspect that as another decade goes by and the hunger in him which he chronicles and even tries to purge here has had more chance to cool, he will end up a balanced writer.

Edward Hoagland, "William Buckley Snubbed Him, Styron Lost Some Crabmeat," in The New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1976, p. 8.

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