Last week I skipped Red Beans on Monday, or posting at all, as I was busy visiting with family in Myrtle Beach where my sister cashed in her timeshare. I did bring a copy Tom Piazza‘s first novel, though, which followed his publication of a collection of stories and several non-fiction books on jazz. Piazza has agreed to sit down for an interview for next Monday’s post so I can delve deeper into my reviews of City of Refuge and Why New Orleans Matters. I enjoyed these two books so much, though, that I picked up My Cold War for the plane (the reason I got caught in the library on the way to Mardi Gras World, if you read my last post) so, though I didn’t plan on making this Tom Piazza month on Read Beans on Monday, that’s how it’s worked out. This novel has nothing to do with New Orleans but Piazza, I believe, was already living in the city when it was published. Either way, he’s a born again New Orleanian, and it was nice to take a thematic break from local matters as much as I love reading about New Orleans. So, here’s one to grow one.
ONE MAN’S METAPHOR FOR ONE NATION UNDER (A) CLOUD
My Cold War
by Tom Piazza
My Cold War is a first-person fictional memoir about a college professor struggling to write a history of the Cold War in the superficial, sensationalistic manner for which he’s become renowned. Cold War Studies is a niche he has carved for himself at his university, yet when a former admiring student now successful in the publishing world gives him a huge advance to collect his pithy vignettes into a book, he finds himself frozen with writer’s block in the midst of a mid-life crisis for a life that has always been in crisis—a personal Cold War struggle with his childhood and the beliefs of his father.
As he grew up in the fifties, the narrator’s father was a rigid engineer who preached self-sufficiency, eschewed compassion, and was obsessed with the communist threat. His emotional distance and sudden harshness scarred the narrator who has grown to be incapable of making true intimate connections. He is lingering in a marriage that, although civil, is more like two professionals sharing an office than an intimate system of mutual support and when he finally attempts to reach out to his wife, she is too practical and preoccupied to shepherd him through his hour of need. Furthermore, he is estranged from his last surviving family, younger brother who once admired him, and part of the novel deals with his painfully misguided trip to try and mend fences after eight years of silence.
This novel is a slower-moving and more introspective than his other reviewed work, fostering a purposeful sense of personal malaise as metaphor for the nation’s post Cold War flounderomg search for purpose and morality. City of Refuge was nearly twice as long but felt like a quicker read being a book about action and survival versus a book of inaction and ennui.
The narrator’s paralysis emerges as he slowly loses faith in his self-styled superficial brand of faux-history. His study of the Cold War dismisses right vs. wrong and deeper meaning to focus on pop-culture themes and iconic images. His academic work is as shallow as his relationships and, though he is ridiculed by colleagues, he has made a popular name for himself with the public; however, he doesn’t know how to react as it slowly dawns on him that his entire life and career has been about trivializing and running away from the paranoia his father, a member of the anti-communist John Birch Society that was famous for ‘exposing’ supposed communist sympathizers, took so seriously.
Once again Piazza’s influences as a music writer shine through. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel, at least for a Bob Dylan nut like me, is the way he describes Dylan’s sway on Cold War pop culture, shocking the world when he morphed from social conscious acoustic protest singer to defiant electric guitar wielding leather clad individualist. Even the mention of the John Birch society is likely a reference to the hilariously satirical Dylan bootleg, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” where the narrator begins to see ‘red’ hiding everywhere, including in the U.S. flag, leading him to conclude: Betsy Ross—communist!
My Cold War is a deceptively complex book that would benefit from multiple reads. By detailing the narrator’s personal Cold War, Piazza creates an effective metaphor for the sense of restlessness and lost direction that still plagues the nation today. This is a book for the serious reader. City of Refuge, while artistically rendered, is a better starting point for the casual bibliophile. For the serious lover of literature, though, My Cold War’s 245 pages are worth the investment.
Like all other Piazza books, there was one extended passage that blew me away, this one a stirring summation of the demise of the American dream and our inability to deal with dichotomy and moral ambiguity in this supposed promised land. Once again I can’t resist the temptation to quote the entire lengthy passage, if just to preserve it for future reference:
“Oh, driving in old America. It had always been important to me to drive, in earlier years. You felt as if you were claiming the country, claiming possibility itself. The sense that you could pull off at any exit and, if you really wanted to, change your life completely. That seemed to have become passé. The image of America as the province of the true liberated of consciousness, that sense of becoming, of drama generated by contrast and tension of the country’s parts—of Jack Kerouac hitting the road, Walt Whitman, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, Norman Mailer’s political-convention pieces, Martin Luther King’s speeches . . . that was something in history books. Now everybody was making a separate peace. A game of musical chairs. Find your roots, stake out your position. This colleague just wrote his memoirs about growing up Irish. This one just got his papers from the Cherokee Nation. Finally it’s going to end up with everyone in the country writing his own memoir, to be read only by himself. E pluribus plurum. The old paradoxical idea of the one and the many, the many in the one, gone for good. But what about someone’s identifying not with his own thin slice of the multi-cultural pie but with multiplicity itself?
Why had that become so hard? It was as if people couldn’t identify with an image of America that was anything less than all good. The joke was that the generation of the 1960s had taken their parents’ idealized vision of America to heights that even those Italian and Irish and Polish and German and Russian parents would have been too modest to advance. The parents presented America and its possibilities to their kids like a precious ancestral treasure—the Statue of Liberty, the sepia-toned photos of Ellis Island, the thrill at the enumeratable victories of assimilation—and it turned out to have flaws that the givers of the gift couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge, and there was shame in this, for the kids, as they watched the sixties unfold. My own parents! Duped! Look at what’s in front of you! Genocide in Vietnam, devastation in cities, hunger in Appalachia, segregation, duplicity . . . When they realized that America did things that were not just ill advised but hideous, they couldn’t allow that into the tent. Instead of being encouraged to conceive of the country’s fate as a constant process of becoming, of struggle between creative and destructive forces, like any organism, they had been told that the Kingdom of Heaven was in fact possible on earth. The negative elements, when revealed to the light, seemed too horrible to consider assimilating. The parents screamed that the kids were ingrates, that they should love the country, but the kids did—that was the problem. Nobody had warned them that humans were going to be human in America, too, just like in Europe. They had been presented with a transcendent vision of the nation’s promise and destiny, without the leavening sense of the undertow of the world’s inevitable barbarism. Nothing could have lived up to such apocalyptic expectation. When it didn’t materialize, the disillusionment was violent and all but complete. It would take another generation to complete it. I see it in the students; they inherited the sense of If it isn’t perfect, it’s shit, the sense of Don’t argue with my ideas; they’re as good as yours—a complacent corruption of an idealized egalitarianism . . . .
Vietnam at least was an occasion for an argument over the soul of the country. After that came Watergate; then, worst of all, the Reagan years—the mixture of sentimentalized moral authoritarianism with the wholesale rape of the economy and the environment for the profit of the oil companies and the military industry. . . . Some of the worse people in the country were the ones who most aggressively made the case for swallowing the notion of the country’s virtue as a whole. But why cede to them the right to do that? Why do they get to define hot to be American? Why not come along with the notion that being American means not taking one’s own virtue for granted but questioning it? As long as the word still existed, you had a right to ask what it meant. ‘American’—didn’t one at least still have the right to say, ‘What do you mean by that?’”