One trouble with Joe McGinniss's true-crime anatomy, Fatal Vision …, is that it's 663 pages long. If the prose is a little wooden and the insights less than electric, that's like forever. This isn't the Rosenberg case. The book's great length testifies to the author's earnestness, as well as (perhaps) to commercial savvy; but it's insensitive to the enjoyment of true-crime.
Another trouble is that the central mystery of the book, the engine of suspense, is resolved early on—indeed, for reviewers, before the book even begins, in the publicity rap. The suspense is not whether Jeffrey MacDonald, back in 1970, actually bludgeoned, knifed, and ice-picked his pregnant wife and two little daughters ages five and two to death, but whether McGinniss thinks he did. There's a suggestion that McGinniss had doubts at first. But now he's convinced. As was a jury in 1979. Which leaves us with the details. One scrabbles around for them (at least I do), feeling kind of crass. I mean—and I'm aware that it doesn't matter that I know—where exactly did the ice pick go in? Stuff like that….
Fatal Vision has blood and gore; the crime scene at Fort Bragg is gone over several times. It also has explanation and endless saga….
The whiffs of tensions arise from the fact that all the while McGinness worked on the book …, MacDonald thought McGinniss was out to vindicate him. That's why all the tapes and cooperation; they even lived together briefly before the trial. This sounds more interesting than it is. Of course, for himself, for us, McGinniss had to write what he came to believe. But we know what that is from the outset. So what's left are an imagined consternation on MacDonald's behalf when he sees the book in prison, and some vague ethical questions about expectations and obligations that McGinniss only acknowledges. Maybe that's enough. MacDonald is extraordinarily self-deluding; yet exploitation can cut several ways.
It's irony that's supposed to be the backbone of Fatal Vision, which isn't the Jean Harris case but isn't exactly low-life, either. MacDonald was handsome, bright, charming, organized, athletic, gung-ho, an all-American winner….
But there's this cloud: he's under indictment for three murders.
Well, you could cut this mustard with a trash barrel. McGinniss wants to be and seem responsible, so he cuts it very slowly, as if the outcome, the truth, weren't immediately apparent. There's wisdom in this, even generosity. True-crime is a bit like sports; you know what happened and still wish to savor it in print the next day. But 663 pages' worth?…
I don't like this book, and in the end don't quite know why. It's not a "new" In Cold Blood or The Executioner's Song …; McGinniss doesn't write like Capote or have the spunk of Mailer. But that's not the problem, or maybe is only part of it. After snobbery (class, rhetoric, lifestyle, etc.), after acknowledgment of McGinniss's work (four years on this thing), after realizing that McGinniss may not have anything importantly new to say about the culture or our "values" (a tall order, in any case), after absolving him for perhaps overstating his original belief in MacDonald's innocence—after all this and more, all I know is I feel cheap. In both senses; inside myself, and had.
It's as if we were in the thrall of some whirligig that spins around and every so often shoots out a fix of blood and gore. The ice-pick mayhem is what I really want, and the rest should be there, but if not transcendent, short. I don't really care about Jeffrey MacDonald—and while it's easy to say that's McGinniss's fault, I'm not entirely sure. I think we're all in a deal together, readers and writers and subjects, and … it ain't exactly holy. Maybe that's the meaning of the title, Fatal Vision. Otherwise, I haven't a noncommercial clue.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "The Diet Doc Blues," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVIII, No. 38, September 20, 1983, p. 45.