"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 September 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Hit & Run CXCVI



While professional jealousy has

long been the scrip in which

Suck pays its staff, even we

were taken aback by the mother

lode of spite, bile, and gall

unearthed by the sudden success

of Jedediah Purdy, the home

schooled Harvard man whose book

For Common Things: Irony, Trust,

and Commitment in America Today

has cashed in so handsomely on

the pundit-invented trend away

from sarcasm and toward deep

sincerity. Frankly, having

gotten behind the irony

backlash and dipped our behinds

in the new earnestness back when

it wasn't cool, we expected to

get at least an appearance on

public access out of the deal.

We also recognized a rare

opportunity to beat up on a

seemingly defenseless punching

bag. Sadly, while we can't

recommend the book, the open

secret is that there's hardly

anything about irony in it. We

suspect a put-up job, in which

the young snake charmer has

managed to tie himself to the

media's hot air balloon. We

were determined to get the

story straight from the young

bard himself.

The New York Times
story on you
contains an anecdote in
which you were outraged at
students who made
wisecracks during a
screening of Love Story.
Is that true?

Of course it's true.

What do you mean, "Of
course?" Because it's in
the Times it must be true?

No, no, no, but it's
basically accurate. I did

That's totally admirable.
Seriously, you should be
applauded for that.

It was funny. Talk about
how these things don't
change: After that piece
was out, Todd Gitlin sent
me a note saying,
"Freshman week, Harvard,
1960." They were doing
exactly the same thing
with old Bogart movies.
Same routine, same folks.
And he got up and started
shouting at them to sit
the fuck down and stop
their show of insouciance.
I'm not totally enamored
of the argument that "The
more things change ..."
but it's interesting about
the subculture at that
kind of institution.

Well, since you've dropped
the H-bomb, I might as
well ask: Your editor
calls you "the kid from
nowhere." Walter Kirn
calls you the "brainy
nature boy" who "has
stormed the capital." How
do you get to be an
outsider after graduating
from Exeter and Harvard?

It depends on what you
mean. The sense in which I
think it's not wrong to
describe me as an outsider
is that you get a certain
perspective on your own
setting when a couple of
things happen. One is in
some degree when you come
out of West Virginia to a
place like Exeter or a
place like Harvard.
Another is when you come
out of a very particular
kind of cultural setting
at almost 14 and go into
the public high school.

I'm sure you can imagine
the complexity and
sometime cruelty of that
culture — what it is
to go into it with no
sense of its rules and no
sense of the kinds of
distinctions that people
make all the time. The
point is not that I had
trouble making friends
because I was an outsider.
The point is that you
develop a kind of
self-conscious acuity when
you're trying to figure
out what the hell's going
on around you.

I still say I'm a bigger
outsider than you. At
least in Appalachia you
had Wendell Berry. The
only writer we had in
Atlantic City was
Christopher Cook Gilmore.

I missed him.

You were lucky.

If you ask where my gut
loyalties are, they have a
lot more to do with West
Virginia than with
Harvard. But there is
another sense, in which to
say that I'm an outsider
is sort of fatuous, and
I'm not going to try to
say otherwise.

In his review of your
book in Salon, Caleb
Crain catches you mixing
up Emerson and Thoreau.

That is incredibly
embarrassing. I can tell
you the narrative, and
it's not exculpatory, and
I don't pretend it's
exculpatory. I was
rereading Walden and
Emerson at the same time;
and I came across
"original relation to the
universe," thought it was
a great line, and wrote it
down; and I just never
reread that section again.
But it's incredibly stupid
and embarrassing, and I
really wish I hadn't
trusted my own memory.

You should try Ruth
Shalit's download defense:
Just say you downloaded
stuff and then it got

That doesn't get you off
the hook.

All right, take it like a
man. In your book you
describe the suspicion
that "we are just quantum
selves — all spin, all
the way down." In your
profile in the Times
you say, "With
[Harper's editor Roger]
Hodge, it's no all the way
down." Do you know the
story of the old lady who
told Stephen Hawking that
the universe is constructed
of "turtles all the way

Sure. I'm sure that's
where it's coming from.
I've always loved that

Everything I had heard led
me to believe your book
would be some kind of
impassioned anti-irony
lamentation. But the
reality, which few people
have admitted, is that it
includes a lot more
information about strip
mining and Eastern Europe
than condemnations of
Jerry Seinfeld. I say you
just threw in a little
anti-irony patina because
you know it's hip to be
down on irony these days.

I certainly had a sense
that when I talked about
irony people were a lot
more interested than when
I talked about skepticism
toward politics. I did not
have a sense that the
discussion of irony in the
first chapter was not the
freshest thing in the

Was not?

That's a double negative.
I thought it was the
freshest thing in the
book. It's probably true
that to the cognoscenti
the theme is not novel. I
do think it's an
never-clearly-said matter,
and the one reason people
are interested in the book
is that it does try to
describe the ironic manner
in a fairly textured way.
Does it add anything to
our understanding of the
ironic manner? If you say
no, then no. I mean, if
you knew all that, then it
does not.

But your point is really
about tactics and
marketing of the book. On
that point, I'm literally
trying to remember the
process by which the
subtitle got selected. The
back and forth basically
was that I came up with
the title and was told
that there had to be a
subtitle and that it had
to be "x and x and x in
America Today." And no
question; I'm sure that it
came up — not
explicitly, but I'm sure
it was in people's minds
— that folks are
paying attention to irony.
It seems implausible that
it was not. On the other
hand, there was never a
conversation where someone
at Knopf said, "You know,
you're going to get a lot
of press if you put
'Irony' in the subtitle."
The way the book is being
received, as an
anti-ironic screed, is not
something I'm happy about.

I didn't write this book
to achieve a fleeting
notoriety or even a
slightly more lasting
notoriety. The last thing
I want in the world is to
become the anti-irony guy,
the pundit in square E7 of
the pundit grid, who gets
called up when they want
someone to say something
snide or sanctimonious
about irony. And you're
right, it's not a book
basically about irony.
It's a book written
against indifference. I
don't say, "All right,
score!" when The New York
Times Magazine
titles its
piece "Against Irony."

The rest of us should be
so lucky. There are plenty
of worse things that can
happen to you than to
become America's talking
head of choice.

I think it would be pretty
horrible. I think that
would be a pretty nasty
position, and I have no
intention of taking it up.

So what are you doing to
prevent all this from

What do you do? Well, the
first thing you do is you
turn down an offer from TV
to review five new
pilot programs from the
fall lineup in terms of
their ironic and nonironic
content. The idea of an
offer like that was
basically a parody of the
situation I was entering
two weeks ago. That offer
came in today, and I just
about fell down laughing,
but it's also very
unsettling. The project
I've been doing for the
second half of the summer
is on the political
economy of agriculture,
looking at vertical and
horizontal integration and
consolidation in the
agriculture industry and
their effects on mid-scale
farming. That's not
anti-irony, and it's not
sexy. I'm not here to nail
down a job on Wall Street
or somewhere else.

But right now you're doing
a Slate Dialogue with
Michael Hirschorn in which
you're in character as
Anti-Irony Man. How is
that any less
self-parodic? Because
Slate has intellectual
credibility and TV Guide

That's interesting. It's
sort of unsettling,
because I've never read

You and everybody else.

It seemed like a good
chance to discuss some of
the cognoscenti response
to the book.

Do you think scientists
will ever quantify the
sheer inanity of
Hirschorn's comments?

I'm not sure what you
mean. He spent a lot of
time on the branding
issue, but that's sort of
an interesting paradox in
my situation. If you're
going to go for the
paradoxical jugular,
that's probably the one,
and it's an issue that's
worried me enough that I
thought it was worth
responding to. His other
stuff ...

His wrap-up question was
some flapdoodle about,
"How can we avoid irony
without moving to West
Virginia?" My grandmother
could come up with a more
intelligent question than

[Very polite and charming
deferral, which did
Hirschorn more credit than
he deserves]

In the book, when it comes
time to give an example of
public-minded action, you
cite your mother's service
on the local school board.
Pretty thin stuff, don't
you think?


Because plenty of people
already serve on school
boards all over this great

You're being a little
ironic right there.


The "great nation" thing.

I believe this is a great
nation, pal. You can take
that any way you want.

Fair enough.

In any event, why do we
need somebody lecturing
about the importance of
serving on school boards
when, in fact, school
boards already have to
hold elections and turn
people down who want to
serve? Do you not
understand why people with
kids and mortgages want to
kick your ass when you go
on about the need to take

I swear that I'm not out
of sympathy with that. I
have a discomfort with the
fact that this book runs a
constant risk — and
it's a risk that it has
evidently fallen on the
wrong side of with you —
of coming off self-righteous,
sanctimonious, and
preachy. It's one of the
virtues of a disciplined
irony that it really cuts
off your
self-congratulations. It's
a risky book in terms of
self-regard as well as
other people's perception
of it. I don't think it's
cool to be sanctimonious;
I don't think it's
attractive to be
self-righteous. The book
is really an attempt to
talk seriously about
public purposes and to not
be those things. And some
people who have read it
carefully think that it
succeeds in doing those
things, and some people
who have read it
carefully, like you, think
that it fails. And to the
extent that it fails,
writing a book like this
is a really humiliating

Well, jeez, I don't want
to be tormenting you over

I'm serious; that's just
the way it is.

The Times Magazine story
has one scene where you're
riding your motorcycle at
60 mph in a 25-mph zone.

That is, in fact, fair.

Well, for a guy who just
wrote a book about the
importance of acting in a
civic spirt, isn't that a
pretty poor example of
public-minded action?

There was no one within
two miles. It was a
desolate country road....
Um, that's a totally fair
question. I'm trying not
to sound like an ass in
responding to it.... No,
it's not a good example.
It is true that that was a
road where the reporter
and I were the only people
who would have been in
danger. No one lives
there. No kids were
playing on it....

Didn't you ever see the
opening scene of Lawrence
of Arabia?

Yup, sure did.

Well, that's what he
thought: "I'm the only one
on the road."

Yes, it wasn't smart, and
I have nothing to say in
defense of that, except
that I don't drive my car
that way, and I don't
drive that way when there
are people around.

In the Salon review, Crain
also implies you would
have been better off if
you'd been beaten up by
your classmates in grade

That's truly obnoxious. I
can't make anything of

But it does speak to some
general hostility toward
you and your celebrity,
doesn't it?


Do you think Jesus was
smart to put off preaching
until he turned 30?

Those were different
times, and the ways that
they were different are
obscure to me. He made a
good call by preaching in

All right, Harvard boy,
let's see how smart you
ain't. If I write under
the alias BarTel d'Arcy,
to whom does my alias

Sorry, you got me.

Nyah! He's the tenor in

Oh! Excellent.

How about if I write as

Got me again.

She's the princess in
Candide. How about
Satchel Paige?

Well, sure. Played with
the Kansas City
[Monarchs]. Said to be
pitching until he was 60,
after he broke into the

Good. How about Benedict


He's the evil millionaire
in the Young Three Stooges
comic books.

The Ulysses one is
embarrassing, because I
actually did read it. In
class, of course, not on
my own. Read it and loved

OK. Thumbnail impressions:
Bill Clinton.

Ahem. Gives political
cynicism a good name.

Andy Warhol

Huh. Continues to confuse

Chris Rock

Saw him quoted recently as
saying that the best thing
in the world, better than
love letters, is to sit at
home with his girlfriend
— or maybe it's his
wife — and watch a
dumb video and laugh at
it. And it made me feel a
little more warm and fuzzy
about Beavis and Butt-head

Susan Faludi

Didn't read any of her
earlier stuff. I'm curious
to read this new book
that's getting so much


Pretty saccharine.

John Updike

Haven't read a whole
lot.... Eventful nose.

Koko the gorilla.

Still not sure whether she
was saying anything.

OK, that's about it. Have
you ever read Suck.com?

I've heard about it but
I've never actually read

You and everybody else.
When the Purdy brand
started to break wide a
couple of weeks ago, we
saw you as an opportunity
to build our own brand as
the Antipurdy. But to do
that, we would have had to
misrepresent the content
of your book — which a
lot of other publications
apparently don't mind
doing. Unfortunately, at
Suck, we're scrupulous to
a fault.

Well, I take it you put
people in Suck to make fun
of them?

Yeah, don't worry about
it. You acquitted yourself



It's more than just our

instinctual need to defend le

Jerk against all attackers that

has worn out our patience with

the long and pointless campaign

against Jerry Lewis' lost

masterpiece, The Day the Clown

Cried. Having recently scored

our own (no longer rare) copy of

the script, we can say that

Harry Shearer's long march of

laughter at the unreleased

film's expense now seems less

than credible. Admittedly, the

script teems with jawbreaking

dialog like "... all rations

are canceled for the next 48

hours," "You make us scream

— scream with laughter," and

"Why do they hate me?" But all

the mockery of Clown

has long ago reached a level of

sub-MST3K-level wiseacreage, and

as Shearer acknowledged for the

umpteenth time in an appearance

this week on The Howard Stern

Show, the film's Achilles' heel

is that it ends on a really down

note — which we would think

was a mark of quality in a movie

about the Holocaust. But then,

maybe not. As Jakob the Liar

hits screens tomorrow, it's

becoming clear that the key to

success in Shoah business is to

be heartwarming, and in that

respect, the joke seems to be on

all of us.



It's become a de facto part of

the post-disaster coping process

that some mope has to tell a TV

reporter that the experience was

"like something from a movie."

The rest of us have come to

expect this part of the news

cycle, but for a criminal bent

on going out in a blaze of

glory, it can be a real bitch.

So it was for Larry Ashbrook,

who last week became the latest

poster boy for crazed loners

with assault rifles when he let

loose with a semi-automatic in a

Baptist church in Fort Worth,

Texas, killing seven. While it

was no surprise that several in

attendance fed reporters the de

rigueur "like Hollywood" line,

what was striking was the number

of people who actually believed

it was a movie or some other

entertainment, even as their

fellow churchgoers were spurting

real blood out of bona fide

gunshot wounds. "We all thought

it was part of a skit," said

teen witness Rachel Millar. Fort

Worth Police Chief Ralph Mendoza

acknowledged that the injuries

were worse than they might have

been, since people failed to run

away in the apparent belief that

they were witnessing some kind

of act. Even actual bullet

wounds weren't enough to shake

some of the kids from the notion

that they were being subjected

to some kind of extra-wacky

Candid Camera stunt. After he

got blasted, 14-year-old

Nicholas Skinner looked down and

saw red all over the seat and

came to the inescapable

conclusion that he had been hit

— with a paint gun. (No

doubt he spent his hours in the

emergency room keeping his eyes

peeled for George Clooney.) The

upshot was that Ashbrook, in his

final bid to make a splash after

leading a life of quiet

desperation, found himself

fighting an uphill battle. "This

is real!" he yelled at the

congregation, understandably

nonplussed during his final

moments as kids stood up and

shouted, "Shoot me!" rather than

cowering in terror. It wasn't

all for naught, though: Two

people present managed to catch

part of his performance on


courtesy of theSucksters

[Purchase the Suck Book here]