Tuesday, 27 July 2010


When I was on Radio 4's Open Book back in May discussing boxing fiction (check that out here); the discussion's hook was the publication of Carver Boyd. In Hauser's novel, the nameless hero is a white college student who works his way up to challenge for the heavyweight championship of the world. In other words, he's a more articulate Rocky, and this is a fantasy novel even more than in the sense that most sports stories are ultimately wish fulfillment fantasies, of victory, of success. This contains those elements, but goes far beyond them too.

In fact, there are a lot of familiar elements, and not just from boxing stories or the real world of boxing. Hauser has written one of the best books on Muhammad Ali (His Life And Times) and other good books about the sport, whose point of view can be gleaned from titles like A Beautiful Sickness. He's also written widely outside the field, with a definite romantic edge. He's well read within the field, and out of it, but there isn't a lot in his own fantasies that's very new. It was telling in our Open Book discussion that Prof. Kasia Boddy brought up Jack London's tales of women watching, or waiting, while their men box, because Melissa, the educated woman who's seen him fight, is a construct with fewer dimensions than London's turn-of-the-last-century women, and immediately after the hero meets her, he asks us: 'How do you respond when a woman who's more beautiful than any fantasy you've ever had comes up to you on the street and says "you're the fighter"?'

The echoes of Love Story and the admission of fantasy aren't surprising, since the love story here is two dimensional if not second-hand. Indeed, they could be seen as ironic in a very subtle way. But not when you consider his response to Melissa: 'that's one way of defining me', which is certainly a fantasy response for any boxer in this world, but more to the point sums up the book's central failing, its point of view.

Hauser has certainly been influenced by W.C. Heinz's The Professional, still as great a boxing novel as has ever been written. As I mentioned in my recap of the Open Book discussion, The Professional is narrated by a magazine writer, thus it's point of view is that of the erudite observer, and the voice of the people within the world of boxing contrasts with the narrator's, and one of the book's points is that it is no less accurate, and truthful, and in fact may be moreso. But Carver Boyd is told in the first person, which means the boxer himself is given a point of view which all too often turns obviously into Hauser's own, and there is a far greater distance between him and the world on which he reports. The boxer narrator is far too mature, far too erudite, far too ominsicent for the boxer character; he is in effect Hauser, just as Heinz's narrator was Heinz, but Heinz was a journalist and Hauser isn't a boxer.

It makes some sense, because the villains in the story are Boyd, the reigning heavyweight champ, described as a more violent successor to Mike Tyson, but obviously his clone, and Boyd's promoter, Vernon Jack, just as obviously Don King, and the explanations of the backroom dealings need to be told by a journalist--if their resolution, a victory of sorts over the Don King figure in terms of future promoting, seems even more fantastical than our hero's romance! Where the first person works best is in its description of the fight itself, which is always one of the tests of boxing writers. Like the fights themselves, a good account can enthrall even the most neutral observer, the human drama is just too great. And when it is the fighter narrating it, it carries even more immediacy, and is easily the book's strongest selling point. But when you're that good at writing your boxing with close-up accuracy, it reveals the abject fantasy of the rest the book even more starkly.

In that sense, Hauser is his own worst enemy. I wondered if he was consciously seeking to be inspirational, attract the Mitch Albom, Saturdays With Morrie crowd, or whether this was simply a paean to a lost time in boxing, before the Kings and Tysons. Perhaps when it was more white. His anonymous hero in that context could be seen as an amalgam of Gentleman Jim Corbett, Jim Jeffries, and James Braddock. He really should have been named Jim.

Monday, 26 July 2010


Ed Brubaker is one of the most interesting writers in the field of neo-noir, but perhaps because he writes for comics he doesn't seem to get the attention he deserves. When people talk about the comics medium, it's usually to express the way it allows the same sort of story-telling possibilities as film, but without some of film's limitations. A corollary to this is the fact that it allows writers to work visually, and thus to explore the original attitudes of a genre which, as it developed almost parallel in film and fiction, is itself hugely visual. And it certainly isn't a new idea to have the creator of a tough-guy detective fall into what might be one of his character's stories, but Brubaker handles it so deftly, and with such invention, you'd think it was all brand-new.

The artist in this case is Jacob Kurtz, and he draws a daily comic strip called 'Frank Kafka, PI'. The literary allusions aren't subtle, but they're not meant to be. Kurtz's wife disappeared, and he was suspected of her murder by both the police and her gangster uncle, Sebastian Hyde, who controls crime in Center City, and who had him beaten to the point of death. When her body turned up, the father, feeling slight remorse, arranged for Kurtz, by now having made a miraculous recovery to the point where he can walk again, to get the strip, and as the story starts we see him lost in the darkness of insomniac creativity, a figure in the modern urban jungle not that different from the Conrad's Mr. Kurtz. You may recognise the setting, for it's where all Brubaker and artist Sean Phllips' Criminal series has been set, and there are subtle links to other stories from the series.

One night, in the Blue Fly Diner, he watches a mean hood abusing his red-headed girlfriend, gets involved to his cost, and, leaving for home, finds her hitching a ride. Anyone familiar with the tropes of noir will know what begins when she climbs into his car, a steadily downward spiral that eventually involves the girl, the boyfriend, and even the cop who pursued Kurtz for his wife's murder, and whom he's now revenged himself on by drawing him into the Kafka strip as a buffoon.

Center City as drawn by Phillips has a certain noir timelessness, something reinforced by the very fact of a daily comic strip, already an anachronism. Kurtz himself resonates with an earlier era, say the 50s, a loser worthy of Jim Thompson. The Kafka strip provides a sharp contrast, and another neat parallel to Bad Night itself; the old story within a story, but again, Brubaker gives it another twist. And equally, although it's one we've seen before, I found its uses here original.

As I say, if you're familiar with noir you will be familiar with Bad Night, but it will still surprise, and please you. Tom Cruise and Sam Raimi were making a version of Brubaker and Phillips' Sleeper, and he won't be a well-kept secret for too much longer...

Thursday, 22 July 2010


John Harvey has a very acute little piece on his Mellotone70Up blog (link to it here) about writing an introduction to Serpent Tail's upcoming reissue of Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? in which he defines the fatalism in McCoy which makes him so popular in France.

I wrote a quick response and posted it there, but I thought I'd share that response with you here, and add a few small second thoughts...

Very nice piece–and interesting speculation. I havent read No Pockets For A Shroud (though I should have by now) but it seems to fit in with a number of works, going back to Jack London's Iron Heel and including President Fu Manchu, which speculate on proto-fascism in America: I wonder whether it’s the fatalism or the politics (or a little of both) that relate to its relative lower status?

There is that strange disconnect, more evident in noirish films, between the obviously corrupt society it portrays, and the triumph of the system (more than the little guy who is the nominal hero) which of course is what is corrupt in the first place. The honest are exceptions, and honesty is a flexible thing in the real world, and that’s what makes McCoy and Hammett (and George V Higgins) work…

Certainly McCoy is arguably the most fatalistic of all of them, which is what makes him great. In fact, you might call him at his strongest nilhilistic, which would also explain the French attraction to his work.

You can link to my take on the spectactularly good I Should Have Stayed Home at Irresistible Targets for March 2009, here. I do believe it was an influence on Wilder and Sunset Boulevard and it's certainly up there with the best Hollywood novels, of West or Fitzgerald or whomever (though it's hard to see Fitzgerald as proletarian, even in the Pat Hobby stories!). O’Hara is sadly overlooked today, there's an off-the-wall comparison to made with him and the Mailer of Deer Park.

Footnote: I'm not sure John can get away with blaming it all on Sun Ra, but with Sun Ra, all things are possible. A college friend of mine once sat in Ken McIntyre's office while he talked to Sun Ra on the phone, and afterwards I asked him what Ken called him, Sun? Mr Ra? Herman Blount (his original name)? Wasn't it a dilemma? No, my friend answered. He just called him 'man'.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


My obituary of Frank Frazetta is in today's Independent, you can link to it here, better a little late than never! Frazetta was hugely influential in the comics world, and already legendary by the time he'd stopped working in comics. I might have mentioned another of my favourites from those days, Jeff Jones, as being another who followed Frazetta's career path in book covers, original art, and everything except working regularly in 'the industry'.

It would also be interesting to see the way a Frazetta cover might have affected the sales of second-tier novels, say, the sword and sorcery of Gardner Fox. He certainly did spark the Conan boom with the Lancer paperbacks in the 1960s, something I know from personal experience; it probably set my literary development back half a decade when I discovered them on the wire racks at Izzy's Smoke Shop or Chapel Street Books or wherever it was I was gathering my literature in those days.

I mention the baseball games he and Al Williamson organised. Williamson just died, and it would have been nice to have done his obit as well; like Frazetta his influence went far beyond his presence in comic books. He also found a niche in daily strips which meant we probably never saw the best he could have done after the 1960s. There's also an interesting parallel to the mainstream artists around New York at the time these guys were making their mark. Frazetta and Williamson would have fit in very well with the very masculine life style of the Abstract Impressionists, the T shirt and dungarees image, though perhaps not so much with the drinking. I think in their field they had to work too much to be hungover regularly!

Monday, 19 July 2010


It's a daily double in the papers today: my obituary of Harvey Pekar appears in the Independent, you can link to it here. And no, I didn't spell 'comix' 'commix', that's just a literal! In writing the piece, it was difficult to avoid launching into a detailed (and thus far too lengthy) analysis of just where Pekar fit in the spectrum of, say, Robert Crumb on one end and Woody Allen on the other--I found it far easier and more telling to link him to Henry Miller, outside the realms of comix and comics, and he is, along perhaps with the Beats, the true inheritor of Miller's legacy.

I also thought one of the real beauties of the film American Splendor was the way it took Pekar and his work with the seriousness it deserved (and it is probably Paul Giamatti's best, least stylised performance). I really wanted to draw a comparison with Philip K Dick, whose 1950s work, including his mainstream novels not published until much later, usually deal with people caught in the reality of such mundane work and lives, and who like Pekar saw that as a by-product, not just as reflection of society itself. And like Dick, he was a fanatic collector of records; I would have liked to write more about his jazz reviews, but again, space wasn't available.

As with Dick, Pekar's work turned out to be prophetic, in its way, as more and more people found themselves caught up in the financial meltdowns and victimised by the antics of the money-pushers. I meant to stress the irony of his medical coverage via his employment: the Veterans Administration is, like Social Security, one of the last remaining targets of the right in their efforts to dismantle the New Deal and other post-war efforts at making an egalitarian society. For all its faults, the VA is a shining example of government run socialised medicine in a system whose flaws we already know all about.

One other thing about Pekar I enjoyed was the way he never did anything to improve his image or presentation, not for David Letterman, and not, according to one obit, for comic conventions. He remained stubbornly true to his persona, which may be seen as self-indulgence, or may be seen as a kind of Tolstoyan self-belief. It was also impressive how he turned in his last decade to different kinds of projects, things and people about which he cared deeply, in the world outside his Cleveland life.


My obituary of Robert Butler, the pioneer of new attitudes toward aging, is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. The linkage of Butler's life as a child and his amazing career as a researcher, writer, activist, and administrator was very touching, and a tribute in itself to both him and his grandparents. It makes me remember the importance of my own grandparents, and regret the fact that my son never got to meet his American grandparents, and that his New Zealand ones are so far away.

I will also admit that Butler's landmark book Sex After Sixty is starting to look far more important to me now than it did when it was published 35 years ago....

Thursday, 15 July 2010


My obit of George Steinbrenner is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. Years ago, when I worked for Major League Baseball, I got to observe him rather close up, albeit at second hand as he was suspended for most of my tenure there, by his fellow Williams' grad Fay Vincent. In fact, I am convinced his reaction to the suspension was one of the main reasons that, after Vincent was fired, baseball didn't appoint another commissioner, instead choosing the rather, shall we say, docile owner of the Milwaukee Brewers to 'run' the game.

My boss at MLBI had lots of dealings with George at the US Olympic Committee. He was genuinely interested in helping, and could be very affable, but he was a nightmare to work with as well as for, since, as Vice President of the USOC he assumed everyone in the Olympic system was working for him. And of course, in the nightmare world of Euro-centric Olympic politics, that approach did not have many legs. He had the patience of a flea on speed, hence his nickname 'George Jettison' for what he did to managers. He did have a sense of humour, and was willing to satirise himself, although when Sports Illustrated dressed him as King George III for its cover I don't think The Madness Of George III had been written.

That's the longest obit I've done for the Indy and it could have been longer. I recall once being in the City (which is how I still think of New York), seeing Rothko and Pollock exhibitions at the Whitney and MOMA and thinking how incredible life must have seemed to adults in those days. Then I went to Yankee Stadium, and had my illusions returned back to the 90s.

Steinbrenner also introduced the singing of 'God Bless America' during the seventh-inning stretch, after 'Take Me Out To The Ballgame' and apart from my dislike of compulsory patriotism, I couldn't think of anything less keeping with the spirit of the game. But it was his politics that first got him into trouble. The first time I wrote about him was when he was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to Nixon, and the piece was titled 'You Can Take The Boy Out Of Cleveland But....' and I got to recycle it in this obit. It ran almost as written, but one line that was excised, and rightly as it may not have been appropriate for an obit, was my summary of New York using their unofficial motto: 'Money talks (and bullshit walks)'. As I pointed out last November, here...

Monday, 12 July 2010


I finally caught up with this exquisite novella, originally published in the Paris Review in 2003, and find myself in some ways haunted by it. The most interesting thing about this tale of an 89 year old Sherlock Holmes, however, is that Chabon never once calls him Holmes--thereby avoiding the Conan Doyle Estate, which is usually credited (and presumably paid) on Holmes pastiches.

And this is a brilliant Holmes pastiche--especially as it's 'updating' the character, as it were, to act like a hermit-like 89 year old. That the actual 'puzzle' and its clues turn out to be rather mundane, indeed something the younger Holmes might have seen immediately, the way in which he reminds us of his younger talents is perfectly done.

And if the actual puzzle is rather simple, the over-arching secret, of what information the parrot actually holds, is brilliantly ambiguous, though the shadow of the book's title hangs over it all the time. This works because Chabon has built up a rich metaphoric sturcture, not least with Holmes' bees, to put the Second World War and the crimes of Nazi Germany into context, and also because that metaphor extends in many ways to the present day.

At heart, however, it's a piece of bravura writing, a beautifully structured mood, a playful but serious imagining of a famous character, and a touching little story in the end. Chabon seems energized by pop culture, and able to turn that energy into something beyond exploitation, and that's a rare talent.

It's also fascinating, in this context, to see the way the book was marketed (remembering that at no time was Sherlock Holmes mentioned). The original US hardcover, from Fourth Estate (shown above, on the left), featured the parrot, and the numerical cyphers at the center of the story, as if this were a post-modern exercise in meta-fiction. Which in fairness, it in some ways is.

The British Fourth Estate hardback (above, right) also used the parrot, but without the cyphers, and included the line 'a novel of detection' and among the three figures included in the bands across the front was one looking about as much like Holmes as it would be possible to be without actually using a Sidney Paget drawing.

The edition I read was the Harper Perennial paperback (illustrated top right), which includes interviews and feature material, designed to help it be used for study. Its cover reflects that, using something that literally might be English nostalgia but powerfully recalls vivid Holocaust images, not least those of any number of recent films. But when the book was issued in its straight forward Harper Collins paperback (left), the Nazi imagery was far more direct. I remember once being told that putting a swastika on a book cover increased sales by 10-15%, and this cover makes it look like a Jack Higgins novel.

I think the US hardcover is the cleverest, and perhaps in terms of what Chabon is doing, the best. But the Harper Perennial shot is by far the most effective in conveying the tone of the story. But it would be interesting to learn which ones sold the best, though how you might measure that (against expectations, say) I'm not quite sure. If someone has the numbers, however, I'd be happy to try.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
Harper Perennial, 2006, £6.99 ISBN 0007196032

Sunday, 11 July 2010


If there was anything good about the 2010 World Cup Final final (the redundancy is FIFA's, not mine) it's that we ought never again to hear anyone call football 'the Beautiful Game'. Odd that here in England, where they pride themselves so on their irony, they take so much of their own puffery literally.

In fact, the BBC's Gary Lineker was forced to argue that this mixed martial arts slug-fest, a cynical festival of fouls, ref-baiting, diving, and bad acting ('the pain in Spain lies mainly in the feign') was a 'good advertisement for football' -- solely on the grounds that at least the match wasn't decided on penalty kicks. Like arguing a military coup is a good advertisement for democracy becaue at least it wasn't decided by firing squads.

In the end the better team won, in the sense that the Dutch were forced to adopt their very cynical tactics in order to negate the dominance of the Spanish in midfield. But their tactics depended on the English referee Howard Webb's instinct to 'ensure a good game' rather than enforce the laws of football. This means the ref should not send players off early--DeJong's spinning chest kick was worthy of Ultimate Fighting-- and thus be accused of imposing 'his mark' on the game. Webb also avoided giving a second yellow card to any number of players, including Van Bommel's foul immediately after getting his yellow, which was worse than the one for which Webb carded him, and most notably to Pujols who tried to drag down a breaking-away Arjen Robben. Robben instead got the yellow for pointing out that had he dived Webb probably would have rewarded him, but since he didn't dive Webb let it go. Of course the yellow would have seen Pujols go.

I also thought Heitinga's sending off came after a dive, but by then everyone was so fed up it seemed just desserts for the Dutch. Webb also should have sent off Joan Capdevila for an extremely cheap-shot to the turned back of a player he thought had just fouled him. The English soccer word we are searching for Mr. Webb here is 'bottled'. Of course it is difficult when one team is playing like thugs and the other is whining and diving. And when you know how FIFA boffins are watching their beautiful game showcase.

We used to call this tactic 'penalty paralysis' when it was used by the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team in the mid 1970s. Their coach, Fred 'the Fog' Shero, had won in minor league hockey, where the game was somewhat more violent and less tightly controlled, and figured that the same tactics could now work in the expanded National Hockey League, with the more diluted talent base. In hockey fights, referees almost automatically sent both players to the penalty box, therefore your goon attacking the other team's best player would get both off the ice, even if the other team's guy simply held his arms up to protect himself.

More crucially, Shero realised that if you committed 'minor' penalties (ie, fouls) all the time, the referee could not call all of them, for fear of 'killing' the game. This was the dilemma in which Webb quickly found himself trapped--having dished out yellow cards, he couldn't go back for a second without changing the whole dynamic of the game. He was more concerned with keeping the game 'even' than enforcing its laws, and dug himself a deep hole doing it.

I couldn't help but thinking that this Dutch team must have got very tired of being compared unfavourably to their great sides who lost in the finals, both times to the home teams, in 1974 and 1978. My guess is they watched the 1978 final for inspiration, and decided to come out and play like it was 1978 again...and they were Argentina.

And it almost worked.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


As it happens, I have been posting to this blog for exactly two years today, and as advertised, this is post number 300. The mini-milestone, and a sagacious nudge from Carol Nahra, has led me to think a little about what point the blog serves, and what I might do with it.

When I was a kid, I used to write for fanzines. It was fun, but it was a hobby, not a living. When I started working in media, and time was limited, I still wrote the occasional piece for magazines, but continued to write other reviews in my notebooks, for my own critical practice, to clarify in my own mind how I felt about things and perhaps leave conclusions for myself to draw later on. I wrote poetry, which I could do in bits and pieces, but although much of it was published in quality journals, little of it generated income. In those days, working for UPI or ABC or MLB, that wasn't a problem.

Dr Johnson said the man who writes for anything but money is a fool, and for the most part he was right. Obviously, some of the posts on IT have linked to, and commented on, published work that has been commissioned from me, or that I have sold. But just as obviously, many of the essays and reviews I've posted here are things that, a few years ago, I would have expected to have sold--and I tell myself that as my writing ability doesn't seem to have declined precipitously, changes in what we now call euphemistically 'market forces' are to blame.

I have reached a few people via this blog, and received some excellent feedback, which is the part of the writing game Dr Johnson (probably with tongue in cheek) overlooked. And I'd be happy to match the content here against a great deal of material in print or on the web (forgive the immodesty). Originally, I began this blog (actually, I started with a different, sports-oriented blog, And Over Here, and added a third, Untitled Perspectives, specifically about art, but I've left the first dormant and the other almost so) as a dry run for a website, intending it to be primarily crime-oriented. Now I'm looking at various ways to roll IT into a website, something which might act as a focus for marketing myself, as they say. If there's a problem, it's one I've encountered ever since high school, the dilemma of having too wide a spectrum of interests, and not having a specific enough focus for the market to latch on to. That's why a website, directing readers to various specific areas of interest, might work better than what I have been doing, which has been expanding the brief of IT to include whatever interests me.

In the meantime, I'll continue doing what I have been doing here, sharing work that's published elsewhere and work that I just want to share...and thanks for reading...

Saturday, 3 July 2010


My obituary of Manute Bol, the Sudanese basketball player, is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. It's odd to be alongside the obit of Beryl Bainbridge, but it makes a nice contrast. I would have loved to see a picture of Manute with Muggsy Bogues in the paper, but as a consolation prize, here's one of the 7-7 Bol with Spud Webb, at 5-5 two inches taller than Muggsy. As always with American sportsmen, I would have liked to go into more detail about Bol's unique set of basketball skills, and I really should have included the old basketball adage, 'you can't coach height'. But Manute's was such a fascinating and touching story that I went well over the word limit anyway. And my thanks to my old friend Bob Brennan for the story about playing with Manute on the playgrounds...

Thursday, 1 July 2010


When I was in school, some 50 years ago, we learned that among the reasons we won our revolution was that the British were fat and happy, didn't care enough about fighting for their American colonies, and hired at great expense mercenaries from Hesse to do the fighting for them. The yeoman farmers who fought for independence cared far more about winning than some Germans fighting so their lords and masters could rake in more English gold. Ten years later, Tom Disch's story 'Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire', part of his novel 334, would make the same point to me about the decline and fall of our own short-lived empire.

Tony Judt's Ill Fares The Land recalls those moments, even though he doesn't make the points explicitly. But his examination of what has gone wrong over the past 30-40 years in American and British society rang more than few familiar bells. Partly because Judt, who is only a few years older than I am, is contrasting those decades to the era immediately after WWII, say 1945-75, which saw those two societies at both their most prosperous and least unequal ever. This implies, as I've often suggested, that we baby boomers grew up as the most broadly privileged generation the world had ever seen, and were given more advantages of the sorts unavailable even to our fathers (who had grown up in depression and fought in a world war) when they were young (though again, GI housing and education opened up doors for them too).

Judt's is also a book with particular immediate relevance, as our governments, having thrown their treasuries away first on two illegal and impossible wars, and then on preserving the extreme financial privilege of those who manipulate money for a living, now face the so-called 'hard choices' which they will inflict on the rest of us. Hard choices is a euphemism; as Judt points out, courage used to mean enduring pain, not inflicting it on those weaker or poorer than yourself.

Ill Fares The Land is also a rich garden of aphorism, starting with its title, which comes from Oliver Goldsmith and reads in full: 'Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay'. It's good to see him gather John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith as advocates for social justice. As you might intuit from that, the book is not so much a history of the rapid decline of the three decades since Reagan and Thatcher took power and changed the world-view of their societies so completely, as a moral treatise on what that all means. It is argued with exceptional reasonableness, only the odd spark of ill temper slips out, and if occasionally the evening glow of Marxism circa 1968 still illuminates the background, it is by and large realistic too. Though even Judt can't help conflating the activists of that era with its entire generation. Perhaps it's because it seemed to him, in Paris, that everyone was!

But there of course is the rub, and one which he never really addresses. We can understand the children of Reagan and Thatcher embracing Bush's compassionless conservativism or Cameron's unsociety, because they have grown up in that world, but what explains US? How does a generation which benefitted from both more wealth and greater equality than any in history, which saw the end of lesgalised apartheid in America, and the end of another divisive illegal war, wind up concentrating on ways to enrich itself, to rebuild the gilded-age barriers between the wealthy and rest, locking themselves up in gated communities and second homes? Judt can quote DeToqueville on the concept that money talks and bullshit walks, and yes it's always been true, but that really isn't enough of an answer. He does engage with the idea of 'protest' quickly moving to more personal issues, to self-interest or to single-issue activism, and he is right as far as he goes; I think there is a good case to be made that baby-boomers were, on the whole, spoiled, that it was no coincidence that the 'me' decade of the 70s came as they reached maturity and faced having to make a living, and that much so-called activism may have been no more than people worried about avoiding the draft for an unpopular war (which brings us back to the mercenaries who fight alongside the professional army in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Judt does lay out the promised land of the post-war era, drawing heavily on The Spirit Level, a book whose immensely revealing graphics and charts illustrate how social and economic equality correlate with all sorts of benefits to society. It is odd to see virtually every graph clustered the same way; the Scandinavian social democracies and Japan down in one corner, where low levels of imbalance and/or high levels of mobility seem to deliver better health, longer life, lower murder rates and so on, while the US is always at the opposite end of the scale, with the UK and, oddly, Portugal, floating just below them. Judt also reprints a revealing bar graph, showing how social mobility in the US (measured by son's incomes being explained by father's income) increased sharply in the 60s (as the baby boomers began to enter the workforce) then declined far more severely in the 90s and again in the 00s.

Social democracy, as practiced in Scandinavia, is itself a relatively recent phenomenon, one born of a certain practical bent of mind when those societies transformed themselves from peasant economies into industrial ones. And it arose in both the US and UK out of a certain practicality as well, in America during the depression, as Franklin Roosevelt fought to lessen the ravaging effects of the economic collapse (again, one caused by speculators--recall that despite the words we now use for the 'crises' they are not natural phenomena, beyond avoidance, though they are inevitable in the face on unregulated greed) and in Britain after the War, as veterans and those who had suffered through its effects felt they deserved a fairer deal. Judt's hero in all this is John Maynard Keynes, whose economic theories underpinned the post-war successes of both societies.

If Keynes is the hero, the villains are Friedrich Hayek and his fellow Austrians whose economic theories underpinned Thatcher and Reagan economics, and were based on the demonstrably false premise that 'state control' of economic planning inevitably led to Hitler, or dictators in general. They felt economic justice and individual freedom were thus incompatible, which seems a huge jump. That the Chicago school took such theories and ran with them conceals the hollowness of the assumptions that lie at their base. As Judt demonstrates the failings of the past three decades, the false accounting of privatisations and cuts in government series, and the cheerleading for inequality which has been the result of all this, the arguments will seem familiar to anyone who has lived through this period with their eyes, as well as their pocketbooks, open.

Which is the weakness of the book. There is a certain sense of preaching to the converted, something one often feels when reading the New York Review of Books, which is especially disheartening when you are among the converted. There is precious little practical advise for how to reverse this decline, especially in the face of the new ConDem government in Britain, and the seeming inability of Barack Obama to transform the promise of his election into any sort of meaningful change. There are other factors which Judt barely touches on, like the stultifying effect of modern media in acclimating its audience to lower expectations, and of the web's fragmenting society even further into smaller groups of self interest. Were it a social history he would have to address the problems of race in America, where the post-war consensus began to crumble in the face of civil rights legislation in the mid-Sixties, and class in Britain; in both countries the real problem is not with engineering equality of opportunity, it is in extending it to the untouchables at the bottom.

But the strength of the book is its inescapable moral rightness, which forces the reader into associations. I have mentioned the one which immediately occurred to me about a society that relies on mercenaries, and it has provoked the reflections above about my own generation. I think the argument about the transformation of our societies into increasing Orwellian, and even more prophetically, Philip K. Dickian worlds, is one which needs to be addressed. And in the wake of his scorn poured on the huge bonuses paid out at Goldman Sachs, it suggests the thesis that, given their virtual control of the US treasury in the past two decades, 2008's huge financial meltdown was part of the Goldman Sachs plan, giving them total domination of the marketplace as well.

I don't think Judt is dreaming of a golden age that never existed, nor of an age of relative justice that can never exist again. But I confess that rarely can a book create such a feeling of uplift by bringing on such a sense of depression. It's a rich but bleak story. That it was written by a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease merely adds to the sense that he, and we, need to focus our minds more intensely on the moral dilemma which we have brought upon ourselves. This compact moral treatise reminds us eloquently of that fact.