Robert Sherrill

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654

[In Heroes] Joe McGinniss says he's going to write about heroes and winds up writing mostly about himself and his problems. It's as though you were promised a full account of the kidnapping of Helen and the ensuing wars between Greece and Troy, but instead got only an entertaining account of a crap game inside the Trojan horse.

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To be sure, McGinniss does go through the half-hearted ritual of seeking out some headliners—people like John Glenn and George McGovern and William Buckley and Daniel Berrigan—to see if he can find the yeast of heroism. He fails, not only because he has prejudged their failure in a very silly fashion ("The truth was, we did not have heroes anymore because there were no heroic acts left to be performed") but also because the kind of hero he was looking for had to measure up to some sort of buttery formula that I certainly don't understand and I doubt that McGinnis does—that is, his concept of a hero was one who "provided a transcendental link between the contingencies of the finite and the imagined realm of the supernatural," or who "unites the course of history and the stream of dreams." In defense of McGinniss, let me hasten to add that those are not his quotes; he borrows them.

In making his rounds McGinniss does occasionally—when he stops trying to be a philosopher—reveal his genius for recreating scenes. (p. F1)

His glance at Buckley is a perfect biographical haiku, and his memories of his seedy palsy-walsy outing with the Vietnam War's most decorated soldier have that marvelous touch that Jimmy Breslin has given to so many similar encounters.

But mostly you get strange autobiography.

Six years ago McGinniss blessed this land with his book The Selling of the President, 1968. He became famous and at least temporarily rich. If he did not exactly become a hero to others, he apparently became something of a hero to himself.

Then McGinniss learned just how thin six years can stretch the fame derived from one event, when the interim has been filled mostly with sloth. But he couldn't let go of it; six times in this book—and it is a very small book—he reminds us, as no doubt he was constantly reminding himself, of that faded glory. He has become like a middle-aged member of the Boosters Club who keeps talking about the time he ran 95 yards for a touchdown as a sophomore.

The salvation of McGinniss is: he knows his problem. Or he seems to. There is this scene with Eugene McCarthy at Toots Shor's at which nothing happened—very little happens in this book, which is part of McGinniss's moral—except the craving inside McGinniss's brain to get inside McCarthy's:

What I wanted to say to him was: "Look. Once you were at the center of things. Everything revolved around you…. Now it's gone. The moment has passed. It won't be back." I wanted to say also that once I had been at the center of things…. Now, I wanted to ask Eugene McCarthy, What happens next? Where is the center of things? Why didn't we stay there? Will we ever be there again? (His emphasis.)

What McGinniss needs is for somebody to give him a swift kick, with instructions to quit whining and get back to using his considerable talents as they ought to be used. If he had got around to asking McCarthy such dopey questions, he probably would have got a verbal kick to that effect….

No longer a hero to himself, McGinniss has become a sulky character in his own soap opera. Unfortunately, the kind of ego that most people lay aside in their early twenties has prompted him to transfer his staleness to the world at large. (p. F4)

Robert Sherrill, "Good Men Are Hard to Find," in Book World—The Washington Post, April 18, 1976, pp. F1, F4.

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