Commentary Magazine


Mark the Glove Boy, by Mark Harris

Nixon and the Fat Lady

Mark the Glove Boy.
by Mark Harris.
Macmillan. 147 pp. $3.95.

Mine would be the “lead” article in the California Issue. . . . Perhaps it would affect the outcome of the election. Something was demanding responsibility now in a way not demanded before, as when one becomes a father and seizes a power he never held. It was important to be just. . . .

“I don't care who,” I said. “The point is that you're telling me how to run my classroom, it's out of your jurisdiction, you haven't the facts, it's like your telling me the other night that we need a bigger auditorium. . . .”

“My goodness,” said Mr. Nixon, “you're not comparing Communism to auditoriums, are you?”

—Mark Harris
Mark The Glove Boy

_____________

Mark Harris, under the auspices of Life magazine, has entered the field of personal journalism, a form whose recent incarnation we owe to Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. It is a tricky business—the technique is one of double exposure. The author is less interested in exposing his subject than in exposing himself in relation to his subject—he follows the subject around seeking not objective truth, but personal truth: an oblique assault on the methodology of orthodox journalism. About time too. Journalism, as the game is traditionally played, is no longer convincing. TV journalism has queered it, giving the public a new eye against which to measure the same old stories. A reader who once lived comfortably in a New York Times world in the morning and a Post or “Telly” world in the afternoon now lives in a Rashomon world where subtly conflicting truths cancel each other out. Not just intellectuals, but nobody believes what he reads anymore. Television has spread cynicism to the masses.

The overly informed emptiness of straight journalism has left a void into which increasing numbers of novelists and critics subjectively lunge. Their search, I imagine, is for a version of reality at the source. The locale of the search often enough is politics and pugilism: two above-ground arbiters of our power and our violence.

A requisite of the successful personal journalist is that he abandon the pretense of objectivity when he enters the field. Otherwise there is no reason for his entry; Gladwin Hill can always get the facts. The personal journalist damns the facts: his interest is in some kind of truth. Truth is an improvisation between invention and research—a natural field for the novelist because he is trained to know what sounds and feels right. His fiction is designed to get at something deeper than anyone else's fact. In personal journalism he has the opportunity of not only being on the scene but finding its heart.

The problem with Mark the Glove Boy is that Harris begins his investigation of Richard Nixon by refusing to trust his biases. In the summer of 1962 he was asked by Life to report on the Nixon-Brown race for governor of California. Convinced that Life would soon come to its senses (“No, not Harris for that; put him on something that matters less”), Harris, at the outset, undergoes an experience that was, he tells us, to color his thoughts during the entire ninety days of the campaign: his car breaks down. Refused help in the night by the indifference (or fear) of a nearby homeowner as well as by rival motorists, he is eventually rescued by a stranger:

He had started not only my car but my whole life going again, and I was to think of him in the weeks ahead, seeing faces like his in the crowds who came to hear the candidates. . . . I thought of myself as committed now in an unexpected personal way to return favor for favor, impulse for impulse: if I had been helpless on the shoulder of the road, he was helpless to defend himself against words. I would try to clarify for him, as surely as he had towed me with his chain. . . .

I was determined that nothing be put over on me. I was the personal representative of The Chain Rescuer, The Two Old People in the Dark, Mrs. Queenlee, and my family.

Not to mention the Fat Lady; all marching bravely through life never knowing that for some writers they are the specious reason: why.

_____________

Beginning with one literary pretense, Harris must shore up his error with an accumulation of other pretenses: the dream of a New Nixon (again, yet!) whom he will report objectively, impartially, favorably; the pretense of Mark the Glove Boy (no baseball reference here: Harris's first job was delivering gloves. I guess in those days they had to have called him a “glove boy”); the pretense of Port Chester, New York being Wines-burg, Ohio and Mark the Glove Boy being George Willard who, years later, fearing obscurity and ignominy from his hometown, is astonished to hear his old editor say: “Oh, my boy, how could I forget you? You left your mark in Port Chester”; the pretense of informative detail—

. . . pads of California Legal paper, with blue lines and a margin of doubled red lines down the left; a supply of ballpoint pens; much of both. . . . In anticipation, I numbered the pages of my California Legal in each upper-left-hand corner. . . .;

the pretense that the battle could be on his terms, not Richard Nixon's—

It was going to make a great deal of difference—to me, if not to him—how he reacted to my face, to me, to who I was, or what he thought I might be. I intended to begin by identifying myself as “of Life” (my reason for being here), and then, after a pause, as “a teacher up at San Francisco State College” (my qualification of my reason for being here, my further self announced), to see what his face would do with the second thought after whatever it did with the first. . .;

the pretense that the success or failure of his article, its very truth, depended on the inclusion of a sentence of Pat Nixon's which Life wanted to cut: “Wasn't that exciting!” says Mrs. Nixon after a rally. “It was just like a revival meeting.” (Here, as elsewhere, Harris confuses the passion a writer puts into a piece with the minimal attention a reader gives to it.) And, most disquieting of all, the pretense that his journalism for Life, like his journalism for Port Chester, left its unheralded but not unimportant mark:

I tried, by putting off hatred and going to my discipline, to produce an article above prejudice and therefore believable because it wasn't wild, like prejudice; it wasn't dirty; it didn't depend upon loaded adjectives; it had shed hatred, using not hatred but the power beneath. It must have been convincing, for it touched editors and must have touched beyond, and must have been responsible along with a good many other things, not the least of which were the record and the person of the Governor, for the turning of the tide.

So, looking for truth, Harris ends up running for office.

Whatever value Mark the Glove Boy might have had was lost when its hero opted for the pretense of objectivity. Not trained for it in the first place, it was a self-imposed barrier he had to surmount in order to resume the prejudices (slightly altered) that he had against Nixon before he began. The personal journalist does better when he begins with prejudices intact, testing their viability as he goes along.

_____________

By neutralizing himself, Harris succeeds in neutralizing his subject matter. There is nothing new here to learn about Richard Nixon; nor, despite his excursions into autobiographical trivia, is there anything to learn about Mark the Glove Boy. Both, in Harris's telling; remain shadows. When Harris quits the Nixon campaign midway, that is the last we hear of it—other than that Nixon loses (to Brown and Harris). The rest of the story is taken up with the writing of the article, the disappointment of Harris's wife, the rewriting of the article, the disappointment of Harris's friends, the editing of the article, the publication of the article, how many copies Harris buys and what Life does to one of Harris's exclamation points (corrupts it into a question mark).

_____________

Still there is Harris to suggest he had an influence on the outcome. He caught Mr. Nixon out and there went the game. The why or what of the game is never revealed. The reader begins by knowing more about Nixon than Harris knew before the campaign, and ends by knowing more about Nixon than Harris knows now.

By paralleling the frustration of him by Port Chester with the disarming of him by Richard Nixon—and then resolving both defeats on a note of triumph—Harris uses personal journalism to give us a version of reality that only he can use. It has no value to his readers, including those of us who will make it a point to forget this book in order to continue to admire his novels.

If Harris indeed put a whammy on Richard Nixon it is the beside-the-point whammy. The Chain Rescuer and the Fat Lady have been had again.

About the Author




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