By the time I’d finished the first third of this book, I was ready to send my review copy back to the publisher with a rude note. By the end of the second third, I had decided it might interest a few academics and overly educated Upper Eastside acquaintances. By the end, I decided buy copies to send out as Christmas presents. And of course, that is a pretty good compliment.
Let’s back up though. I began Sweet Heaven with high expectations. Essays, when written well, surpass fiction for their insight and immediacy, and the topic of this book, the various beliefs held by various groups in America, is a fascinating one. There are two hundred nations on this planet, but America is the only one founded simply because people wanted a place to believe whatever in the heck they wanted to believe. (OK, maybe Israel.) If you live in America and want to try to make sense of anything – from current events to conversations with your friends from Texas – you have to understand the variety of belief systems at play.
Good intentions notwithstanding, though, after the first 50 pages I had stopped reading and was slogging, turning pages only because I’d promised my editor I would. Why? The book is overwritten, for one thing, with more than one line at the end of a paragraph that was written not to be read, but to be highlighted with yellow markers by earnest freshmen. For example, there’s this one: “…longing is as much of a lie as corruption.” It’s almost undecipherable, and once you do decode it, it’s banal. There’s a quote, from Elmore Leonard I think, that says anytime he writes a line he really admires as good writing, he goes back and takes it out. There are a lot of lines in this that Dutch would have deleted. Every once in awhile, Sharlet’s little one-liner cymbal clashes work. But more often than not, they don’t. Still, I can tolerate poetic impulsivity. Writers are like puppies: they need direction, and in this case I hold his editors to count for letting those get through.
The real problem is that in the first third or so of the book, I met a lot of people I just didn’t like very much – Molly, the narrow-minded Colorado spoiled-rich-girl; Brad, the self-absorbed Kenilworth anarchist; and Cornel West, who comes across in Sharlet’s portrait as a pretentious, affected twit who, to use a favorite phrase of my South Carolinian father, “simply needs the living shit slapped out of him.” Allegedly, the first thing they teach students in screenwriting class is to ”save the cat,” that is, have your hero do something so viewers know who the hero is and why they should like him. Flinty-eyed producers know it’s hard to spend hours with people you just don’t like, on screen or off.
There’s irony at play here, because the most maddening thing about many “creative non-fiction” writers, like David Sedaris and James Frey, is that they have a secret formula for writing interesting non-fiction with sympathetic characters. The secret is fiction. That is, many successful non-fiction writers enhance their reporting, tweak events, clean up dialogue and polish characters to make them more attractive. In other words, they cheat. Some of Sharlet’s characters are so unlikable that he cannot be cheating. He’s clearly adept enough as a writer to make you like these folks a little more if he were willing to do so, but he is honest, perhaps to a fault. By trying for objectivity and honesty, what he actually achieves is flatness and lack of passion, oddly two-dimensional characters set against his well-drawn three-dimensional backgrounds.
Then, when I was almost ready to give up, the book got good. Real good. It got better for the same reason the first part was not good, because Sharlet began giving me people I could not only admire, but actually like. There’s Chava, Holocaust survivor and great Yiddish novelist, now almost forgotten in Montreal; Caleb, the heavy metal evangelist who leads a religious ambush to save Sharlet’s soul, but falls down on the job when he doesn’t know the difference between the Old and New Testament; and my personal favorite, Dilworth, a small time music promoter inside whose soul God and Satan battle for the purity of rock and roll.
The story of Dilworth is titled “Rock Like Fuck,” and it’s simply an extraordinary piece of writing. In it, Sharlet tells the story of Clear Channel Communications (and indeed, a micro-history of the evolution of American media, especially radio) through the rivalry between two small time Philadelphia rock promoters. It’s everything an essay should be – engaging, provocative, and insightful. Sharlet is sympathetic, but clear-eyed about both Dilworth and his nemesis, DJR500. He avoids the cheap and easy and obvious story – “small guy good, big corporation bad,” and instead paints a nuanced and thoughtful picture of two earnest men on opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide, both trying to do the best they can as they see it. (This book is worth buying for this piece alone.) Nuance is when Sharlet is at his best, when he steps neatly around the obvious and the facile and advises you to do the same, like when he calls out, then shrugs off the plagiarizing of Allen Ginsberg by a tinpot evangelist.
That same humor and intelligence shines through essays like “She Said Yes,” which looks at Caleb, Valerie and the angry Christian movement to which they belong; “The Rapture,” which is a fascinating portrait of actress turned corporate lawyer turned spiritual healer Sondra Shaye, nee Shaivitz; and “Born, Again,” which takes a look at folk music through the eyes of Dock Boggs. Boggs, it must be admitted, isn’t one bit more likable than the characters in the first half of the book. But Dock is at least interesting. I mean, my image of folk singers is they are gentle old people like I perceive Pete Seeger to be, not scary banjo-playing ex-miners who carry 38s and plot murder and mayhem against their in-laws.
All in all, Sweet Heaven is a fascinating collection of essays. The majority of these essays are outstanding, at both reportorial and literary levels. It is worth reading for its piece parts alone. But does it work as a book? Not for me. Not quite. Sharlet, at one point suggests it’s best to listen to Dock Boggs from back to front, since he arguably regressed as an artist throughout his career. I would make the same argument about the order of the pieces in Sweet Heaven. If we’d started with Dilworth, maybe I would have had more patience for Molly and Cornel later. More problematic though, Sweet Heaven feels like a collection of pieces written for other purposes, and I presume, edited and shaped by different hands. The individual pieces are not uniformly good enough to stand up on their own, and the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts. I get that in a book like this, it is the reader’s job to infer the central narrative, to find the thread and pull it free, and that is part of the process. But I did not find a thread other than the obvious, and trivial, one.
To sum up, good book with some great pieces. Strongly recommended.