It is rare to find a political leader who is also a first-rate writer. Now the speaker of the House, Rep. Jim Wright, D-Texas, joins the august ranks of Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli and only a handful of others who've managed to be equally adept at politics and literature.
There are some Philistines in the press who even question whether the 117-page, $5.95 paperback, first published in 1984 and unjustly ignored by the supposedly sophisticated literary journals of the day, can even be considered much of a book at all.According to publisher William Carlos Moore, the book was "a vehicle to show the world this man, and for him to make a buck and me to make a buck."
Moore is far too modest. The book reveals Wright to be one of our most astute pioneers of the literary avant-garde, drawing on everything from the short ficciones of the Argentinian master Jorge Luis Borges to the "cut-up" collage techniques of William Burroughs.
He uses a deceptively simple framework, arranging short prose pieces under such straightforward headings as "This I Believe," "Some Thoughts on Posterity" and "Summer Days."
But the discerning reader will also note that the author has managed to create a special persona for the book, a narrator with the same name and identity as the affable speaker - that is, "Jim Wright" - but who is actually a figure of Dostoevskian complexity, prone to dark broodings about law and morality that he barely masks with strained attempts at homespun humor.
It is this tension over the underlying guilt and anguish of the narrator with his Babbitt-like public facade that gives the book its remarkable power. Wright is the first author since Ring Lardner to truly capture the pathos underlying the comic monologue of an American original, and his main character, "Jim Wright," is surely that.
The opening section of the book sets the stage with short reminiscences grouped under the heading "Boyhood Reflections." Only a page or two in length, they appear, at first glance, to be unconnected, pointless musings.
Here is his description of a game he played when the iceman came to town: "Once we invented a contest, the object of which was to see who among us could sit longest on a big block of ice before jumping off with freezing butt." This sentence captures much of Wright's technique: the earthy humor reminiscent of Mark Twain, spiced with the disjoined wordplay associated with Alain Robbe-Grillet and the French nouveau roman movement.
Wright is not just a dazzling wordsmith. In the first part of the book, he begins laying the groundwork for the ethical dilemmas that become the book's leitmotif - an ironic foreshadowing, perhaps, of the House Ethics Committee's investigation of the book's author.
In a short tale about a watch his father gave him, he describes how the words inscribed on the back haunted him throughout his life: "Lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil."
He admits, "Always - on a street or at a desk or in the Halls of Congress - there are vicissitudes in which those words need to be remembered. Sometimes, to my regret, they haven't." A subtle but ominous note of impending tragedy is struck here.
But Wright's real strength is as a writer, not a moral philosopher, and it is ultimately his poetic sensibility that will make his book classic reading among campaign contributors for years to come.
For is there a consultant or Teamster anywhere in this land who can resist the soft stirrings of a poem entitled, "Thoughts on a Mexican Sunset"? With the grace of an Auden or a Yeats, Wright enchants the reader with his muse:
I stood and watched the sun descend
To ocean's rim past Acapulco Bay
And felt I must be nature's friend
Thus entertained in such a regal way
(To take it in one almost had to pray).
It is not inconceivable that readers might be so touched by these sentiments that they would underwrite another Mexican vacation for the speaker, so he might let his creativity flourish once again.
A spokesperson for Wright says of the book, "Every word of it was written by the speaker" - and I, for one, am grateful. Without this book, American literature would be far poorer, as would the speaker himself.