I truly wanted to write a good review of James Wolcott’s lovely and hysterical Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants, a book length assessment of the nation’s sorry and pathetic political talking heads. Unfortunately, the text moves along zippily, dropping bon mots like raindrops, and I struggled to come up with my own two cents to plug in. Critics reviewing critics isn’t particularly interesting reading generally either.
Wolcott, the TV critic for Vanity Fair, spends what I can only imagine is an unhealthy amount of time watching American television, an activity I engage in to rest my brain from thinking, like daydreaming with someone else doing all the work and with far fewer instances of fellatio. Even worse than having to watch television as part of his job, Wolcott voluntarily endures the kind of television that ranks below late night infomercials for juicers and The Surgery Channel’s Rectal-thon.
Yes, I’m talking about political talk shows.
The infotainment age has produced a number of Z-grade celebrities whose names are practically unknown to most Americans but whose outsized, small-minded opinionating helps degrade the nation’s discourse. Any bloviating asshat on FoxNews comes to mind. Likewise just about all the other cable news stations. CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, ad nauseum. Wolcott spends his time slicing, dicing, and pulverizing this new breed of annoyance, attack poodles in his parlance.
And so in place of the bulk of this review, I will simply turn the stage over to some of my more favorite Wolcott epigrams on the cultural wasteland and its denizens (yes, I know my last review just slammed an author for excessive quotations. You get what you pay for here at Late Reviews. And the wit of Wolcott is too good not to share.)
“It’s like watching someone all thumbs finger-paint.” “He’s been compared to the mentally challenged banjo playing boy in Deliverance.” “Batting out a book like Kerouac on bennies.” “If he was any more of a suck-up, he’d have to have his tongue recoated.” “Sullivan emotes his ideas like Susan Hayward aching for an Oscar. He wheels his sorrows to the end of lonely street and back again.” “Taking refuge in playing Stratego above his competence level.” “Their shows offered a choice between two kinds of crap: smooth or chunky.” “Attack poodles have a Rasputin gene: they’re impossible to quash.” “Umbrage being a regular part of an old coot’s diet.” “Ann Coulter can get away with her skimpy attire because her bone thin figure is ‘sexy’ in ironic quotes.” “Enough cross-talk to supply dialogue for a Robert Altman double feature.” “Today’s Loud Mouth is tomorrow’s Old Yeller.” “That candelabra of teeth, Carol Channing.” “A gem of sophistry wrapped in a lace hanky of prissiness.” “Hungry man entrée, G. Gordon Liddy.” “...Pillsbury Doughboy stand-in Newt Gingrich who saw himself as a general on horseback (pity the poor horse)...” “Sean Hannity is an ideal mouthpiece for FoxNews because he’s the simulacrum of FoxNews’ ideal viewer: the middle aged white man with the refillable, flip-top head who’s told what to think and repeats what he’s told in a brash voice, convinced that he thunk it up himself.”
He describes the Monica Lewinsky affair as “Watergate for wankers.”
Wolcott’s dissection of the clueless management of MSNBC is a hilarious top to bottom cut up. They are a cable channel in search of a reason to exist. He crushes their choices of Alan Keyes, Michael Savage, Dick Armey, Frank Luntz, Jesse Ventura, Dennis Miller, and every other two-week, rightwing failure they foisted onto the screen. He credits their good picks like Keith Olbermann, an actual talking head capable of thinking for himself, then savages the cable channel for their show featuring Michael Savage (non-TV-cool real name, Michael Weiner). Here’s a lovely paragraph:
An illiterate in his chosen field of communications, managing to misspell the name of radio great Jean Shepherd, he brought nothing to the broadcast table but garlic breath. But that was okeydokey with MSNBC. All it asked of Savage was that he be himself. Unfortunately, he obliged. He let it all hang out until viewers begged him to tuck it back in. It was as if MSNBC had hired Boxcar Willy to host a political hour. Savage Nation was as low rent in taste, imagination, and production values as anything filling a time slot on cable access.
Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter and professional crazy lady, as Best in Show among the attack poodles, gets her own chapter in which Wolcott nails her again and again. Granted, it’s easy. Nooners makes it easy.
Of course she can’t handle the truth. Can’t. Won’t. And probably never will. Like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar hanging paper lanterns over light bulbs to spare her eyes the harsh glare of reality, Peggy Noonan spent her adult life adorning herself with illusions. The difference is that she’s been wearing the lantern on her head.
Of Dennis Miller: “hack your way through [his] hip convolutions and the sentiment that escapes is Kurtz’s dying plea in Heart of Darkness: “exterminate all the brutes.”
And: “A man of action when it comes to flexing his jaw muscles, Bush personally isn’t doing the killin’ anymore than he’s doing the dyin’. But Miller, collecting dropped ‘g’s’ like they were spent cartridges, has convinced himself that talking a good war is some kind of wonderful. That’s what befalls an educated mind once it starts jocksniffing around the war room.”
And: “The rancor of his opinions roils up his features, inflames his bleary eyes...His mute naked face looked like he had entered the get acquainted stage of his damnation.”
If there is a weakness in all of Wolcott’s book, it’s that he’s not hard enough on Dennis Miller. It’s an almost Heisenbergian axiom that no matter how hard you are on Miller, a man who finds the idea of use of nuclear weapons exciting, reasonable, and amusing, it can’t ever be quite hard enough. Strapping Miller to a nuclear warhead before it was used wouldn’t quite be hard enough.
While Dennis Boutsikaris is a good reader of the unabridged version, his voice a bemused jest, the buyers of the abridged version get George Carlin making the same wisecracks, only shorter versions of same. This seems a rare kind of marketing which rewards people for buying the cheaper, inferior product with the big name voice. Especially when, in the long version, you get Wolcott at full strength while Boutsikaris lavishes an amazing amount of love on the text. You can hear grins and wry smirks and eye rolls all the way from Wolcott’s pen to your ears.