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Think of Timothy Leary, since we have to, as an evangelist more than an advocate, the Pied Piper, Sgt. Pepper, Elmer Gantry, and Jim Jones of lysergic acid. Not that there was ever a pill to swallow or stick to smoke that he didn't equally approve of. Nor should we forget that he probably inherited his gift of blab, like his alcoholism and his womanizing, from the Irish father who deserted him when he was fourteen. Claiming to belong to "the ancient underground society of alchemists, artists, mystics, alienated visionaries, drop-outs, and the disenchanted young, the sons arising," he graduated from discovering that "we're all schizophrenics" to declaring that "we were all gods ... two-billion-year-old seed centers pulsing together" to announcing that "I am going to start my own country." But Robert Greenfield's relentless, remorseless, exasperating, and exhaustive biography, TIMOTHY LEARY (Harcourt, $28), makes it clear that from the start, when Mad magazine in 1968 parodied his message as "TUNE IN, TURN ON, DROP DEAD," to the end, when it had been revised to read "DIAL ON, TUNE IN, HANG OUT, LINK UP, ESCAPE-DELETE," Leary was always barking his own carnival. He telemarketed Tim.

Here we meet absolutely everyone who ever gave the Sixties a bad name, plus too few of those who redeemed the decade. The story of the boy psychologist educated first by Jesuits at Holy Cross and then by soldiers at West Point, before winding up in a Ph.D. program at U.C. Berkeley and in the first of his four marriages, begins its parade of celebrities with Allen Ginsberg and concludes with Winona Ryder. In between, among other shadows in his cave, we meet Robert Lowell, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, Jerry Brown, John Lennon, and Roman Polanski. It is a sure sign of a warped life and a meretricious culture when Steppenwolf, the I Ching, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, G. I. Gurdjieff, G. Gordon Liddy, R. D. Laing, Marshall McLuhan, and Salvador Dali all crowd into the same ninety pages. Naturally, when Tim does time in Folsom prison, his next-door cellmate is Charles Manson. Just as naturally, when his ashes blast off into space in a Pegasus rocket, they keep company with the cremains of Gene (Star Trek) Roddenberry.

Peep in on Tim as a Harvard prof munching magic mushrooms. Or, as a candidate for the world's worst father, passing out tabs of LSD and little pink psilocybin pills to anybody who drops in, while nobody stays sober to ride shotgun in case of a flip-out, even during a pajama party for Leary's little girl and eight of her prepubescent friends. Or, on a European jaunt, trying to turn on Isak Dinesen, who just says no, and Samuel Beckett, who won't even see him. Or, when the dope he stashes in film canisters, snuffboxes, mayonnaise jars, and teddy bears is finally discovered, jumping bail; being fetched back again to lockup; being sprung by Bernadine ("Amazing Legs") Dohrn and the bombhead Weather Underground, who then ship Leary off to an Algerian exile where he must put up with his carny equal, the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, until he's grabbed again by feds in Afghanistan--after which, of course, he names every name he can think of, ratting out the counterculture. What else is left except to write an article for National Review attacking John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Golda Meir, while hitting the college circuit in a "Drug-and-Thug" roadshow with Watergate plumber G. Gordon Liddy?

Greenfield has done so much hard work that the rest of us can skate. Leary was a lousy vehicle for almost any message, but how many of these Miracle Boys of Modern Chemistry, for whom revolutionizing consciousness was supposed to be as easy as licking lollipops, ever exerted themselves to care for the casualties? It's not that they shot their wounded. But like Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters on their way by psychedelic bus to Leary's Millbrook, they just dumped their bad trippers in a loony bin in Houston and went on playing the mandolin. One of the reasons America hates the Sixties may be because so many of its performance artists, like Jerry Rubin and Hunter Thompson, were such tiresome clowns, showing off instead of hunkering down. About Leary another drunk, Jack Kerouac, is quoted here, with maybe the smartest thing he ever said: "Coach Leary, walking on water wasn't built in a day."

Horace Greeley neither drank, smoked, gambled, nor consorted with wild, wild women. He was too busy at his newspaper, the grand nineteenth-century New York Tribune, to consort even with his sickly wife, Molly, except to visit upon her an endless string of children, most of whom perished. From Robert C. Williams's HORACE GREELEY: CHAMPION OF AMERICAN FREEDOM (NYU Press, $34.95), we gather that he was an odd man, a prickly New England moralist who looked in his old linen coat more like a farmer. But the blood of the Republic flowed in his veins. A printer's devil who became the publisher of our first national newspaper, he editorialized in favor of free public education for all and, of course, going west; and against capital punishment, slavery, imperialism, and (alas) women's suffrage, while hiring a brilliant Margaret Fuller to edit his literary pages and publishing an early draft of Thoreau's Walden. A stalwart of the Whig Party till he could no longer abide its spinelessness on slavery, he helped to organize the Republican Party in 1854, then departed from it in 1872, protesting corruption in the first Grant Administration. He even ran for president against Grant in 1872--and the drubbing he took seems to have been the death of him.

Biographer Williams is more interested in political theory and the written record than in depth psychology and the second guess. Greeley's raw ambitions clearly determined much of his party-switching behavior, and another volume could be written entirely on his feelings about Abe Lincoln, whose second term he opposed. But we should be grateful for and even astonished by this graceful and absorbing account of a species practically extinct, a newspaper publisher for whom focus groups and stockholders aren't true north on his moral compass.

There seems to be no such moral compass anywhere in Paris, certainly not in the Paradise projects where we meet Doria, the fifteen-year-old first-person heroine of Faiza Guene's KIFFE KIFFE TOMORROW (Harvest Original, $13). Kif-kif in Arabic means "same old, same old"; kiffer means "to be really crazy about something"; and if, like the young novelist Guene, you decide to double the f's, you get a kiffe kiffe verb "for when you really like something or someone." Think of Doria on the same adolescent raft as Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, except that she's North African, Muslim, and female, and spends more time than they do thinking about calories and cigarettes. But she can articulate a principle and spot a phony a mile away, and is just as wise to the playacting in her own community--the grocer who won't marry her mother, the ex-con who designates himself her protector, the tutor desperate for a kiss--as she is to the social workers and school psychologists the French inflict on her to confabulate a demographic. Doria--who "just can't see myself in the future"; who'd rather have been a boy than a girl but will "get used to it eventually"; who used to cut the hair off Barbie dolls because they were blond and chop off their boobs too "because I didn't have any"--will construct herself, thank you, without the help of the state, out of such fantastic materials as the films of Mathieu Kassovitz and the poetry of Rimbaud, and knowing how to crack her toes and fake an Italian accent, and realizing that if "the church used stained-glass windows as the poor person's Bible, for people who couldn't read," then, for Doria, "TV today is like the poor person's Koran." What we have here is a cunning wonder.

Whereas Boubacar Boris Diop's MURAMBI, THE BOOK OF BONES (Indiana, $16.95) is a ghostly scream. The gifted Senegalese novelist and screenwriter has felt it his duty to imagine the 1994 Rwandan genocide. And so his book shifts like a camera from the point of view of the proprietor of a video shop to that of an Interahamwe militiaman, to that of a double agent of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, to a doctor, a colonel, and finally a schoolteacher, who has returned from exile only to discover that his own father was one of the worst of the genocidal criminals, the murderer of his own mother. So the camera eye is unblinking as banality turns into evil and banana beer into blood. The men with machetes get tired, we are told: "maybe we underestimated the physical effort it takes to kill so many people with knives." Were Murambi a film, we couldn't bear to look at it. On the page, it is a knife whose incisions are so sharp and swift, parts of us are gone before we are conscious of being stroked.
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Title Annotation:Timothy Leary; Horace Greeley: Champion of American Freedom; Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow; Murambi, the Book of Bones
Author:Leonard, John
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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