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The boy whose mother used to call him "my little Peer Gynt" turns eighty this year. "Only now," says G/inter Grass, "is the traveler beginning to tire: looking back is all that keeps him awake." PEELING THE ONION (Harcourt, $26), his autobiography, is wakeful, twitchy, suspicious, shambling, and yet also--if we are still permitted to use this word as a compliment--sincere. Grass may not be as elegant as Nabokov (Speak, Memory) or as lyrical as Garcia Marquez (Living to Tell the Tale), but he doesn't miss a laceration. If Peeling the Onion is less thrilling than Augustine's or Rousseau's Confessions, it's also less complacent. Those Schaden-Freudians consulting it just to gloat are cheating themselves of a rich substance, but such tin drums are empty of heart and full of envy and resentment, hopping and crawling with snails, rats, crabs, toads, and flounder.

Yes, he admits to having been drafted, at age seventeen, into the Waffen SS tank corps, after having volunteered, at age fifteen, for submarines--wanting glory, a uniform, and to get away from home. Yes, as he has told us many times before, he joined the Hitler Youth--"in fact, a Young Nazi. A believer till the end." And here he rubs salt in his wounds of conscience: "Is it only children who, as in fairy tales, ask the right questions?" Young Grass didn't ask, "so that now, as I peel the onion, my silence pounds in my ears." Jewish shops were set on fire in Danzig, and though he didn't do it, "I was very much a curious spectator," as he'd "simply stood by and observed," "at most, surprised" at the pillage of a synagogue. Guilt "hibernates in dreams," he says, and "learns early to seek refuge in the shell of an ear, to think of itself as beyond the statute of limitations, as long since forgiven, as smaller than small, next to nothing." But these secret "erasures" of "disgrace" and "shame," these "eloquently avoided words," "slivers of thought," and "nits nesting in sackhair," are trapped in memory like insects fossilized in amber. Grass shouldn't have to tell us that intuitions of bad faith inspired the Danzig Trilogy in the first place; they are his psychodynamic. Once he stopped being seventeen, in an American POW camp, his urgent business as a writer was to wash damaged language out of the German mouth, to rinse it of the death-camp taste of bile. The silence he broke was his own.

But I have permitted the Waffen SS to eat up too much of my review space. Peeling the Onion is more encompassing. Proceeding from altar boy to first novelist, it is wonderfully and dreadfully evocative--of malt lozenges and tile stoves; of gold-tipped Egyptian cigarettes and clotted milk with pumpernickel crumbs; of "Fuhrer, Folk, and Fatherland," "mussels and Weltschmerz," hunger, religion, sex, death, refugees, and Dresden's firestorm; of learning to cook in a prison camp, durance vile in a potash mine, and plaster death masks for a Berlin undertaker; of Heidegger, Sartre, The Three Musketeers, and the night that Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong showed up to hear Grass's student jazz band. But such is our prurient interest that we would rather smack our lips at turpitudes. Here's my suggestion. Go see Marcel Ophuls's The Sorrow and the Pity. Then ask yourself if you would collaborate with such evil. And if you think you wouldn't, then wonder further whether one of the ways you have learned how to behave honorably is from watching the likes of Marcel Ophuls and reading the likes of Gunter Grass.

Nobody behaves entirely honorably in "DR. LIVINGSTONE, I PRESUME?" MISSIONARIES, JOURNALISTS. EXPLORERS, AND EMPIRE (Harvard, $22.95). Clare Pettitt may be more interested in what the encounter between the roustabout newspaper reporter and the Victorian missionary in an African jungle in 1871 has to tell us about the politics of colonialism, the dawn of the West's celebrity culture, how such technologies as the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable transformed social relations, and whether Britain and America were really over their bad diplomatic patch after our Civil War, but her critical look at the personal lives of both men is the best precis available this side of Tim Jeal's 1973 biography of Livingstone--and she writes with a scalpel.

We learn that the good doctor, an ardent opponent of slavery, neglected his wife and many children; he seemed more interested in exploration than converting Africans to Christianity, at which he was notably unsuccessful; he may have been responsible with bad planning and bad advice for the deathly disasters of more than one missionary expedition; and he enjoyed publicity almost as much as Henry Morton Stanley. About Stanley, who was actually Welsh rather than American, there are strong suggestions of a deviant and perhaps sadistic sexuality (on account of which his widow would be blackmailed), an ugly truth about his service to King Leopold of Belgium when Leopold was up to his brutal worst in the bloody Congo, and indications that Stanley may have doomed an expedition or two himself. But he seems not to have been quite the vicious racist he is often portrayed as being, and Mark Twain was a good buddy.

Still, as Pettitt deftly demonstrates, what emerges from all the Hollywood films, TV shows, children's books, games, cartoons, and songs that since 1872 have so gleefully employed this famous meeting as a trope is an indelible idea of the imperial project as these gutsy white guys out there discovering and/or saving the world, glad to greet another civilized gent among so many grinning primitives--an "imago," it seems to me, in its psychoanalytic sense of an idealized concept of a loved one, formed in childhood and retained unchanged into adult life against any contradictory evidence. It never occurred to Stanley or Livingstone that many Africans already knew the whereabouts of the source of the Nile; that for those who already live there, discovering the local watering hole is no big deal.

What Wilfrid Sheed is telling us in his delightful THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT: WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM IRVING, COLE, AND A CREW OF ABOUT FIFTY (Random House, $29.95) is that American popular music from 1925 to 1950 was a very big deal indeed, something as vital, magical, and profound as movies, railroads, skyscrapers, and the Ford V-8. The shorthand is that when Jews got the blues, America all of a sudden started singing what Sheed calls "jazz songs." At the grand piano in his head, Sheed plays these melodies and the anecdotes that came with them, and improves everything--stage, screen, radio, and jukebox; George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, and Richard Rodgers; alcohol and manic-depression; bread and roses--with his own lyrical gift for metaphor.

About the difficult Irving Berlin, for instance: "New York in the early [twentieth] century was not so much a melting pot as a chafing dish, and if Irving could seem abrasive in later years, it's worth remembering that he was rubbed raw himself at an impressionable age." When Johnny Mercer wrote words to Harold Arlen's music, "suddenly Tin Pan Alley seemed to contain railway yards and bus depots that hadn't been there before." About the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song "The Folks Who Live on the Hill": "a warm ball of fluff about reg'lar folk doin' a heap of livin'. Oscar had found his rich vein of calendar poetry." About Bing Crosby: "It was his first order of business to lower the tone of any joint he was in, and the tone of the songs as well, which would now need to contain more jazz and more schmaltz to service the famous throb of his own voice." Johnny Mercer, "a man of more than one Rosebud," "was simply too nice a guy for even a writer to resent."

Not since E. L. Doctorow in City of God introduced us to the Midrash Jazz Quartet, a rap group of Talmudic interpreters of such pop-standard secular hymns as "Me and My Shadow," "Dancing in the Dark," and "Good Night Sweetheart," has a first-rate American novelist and critic conducted such a love affair in public with pre-Boomer pop culture. Sheed seems willing to forgive rock and roll for what it did to the witty music he still dreams on, but rap.., well, you can almost see his blood boil and his lip curl.

Speaking of blood, or maybe potboilers, I should at least nod my head at several notable new mysteries made for summer reading: Martin Cruz Smith returns with a predictably nifty new Arkady Renko cop case, STALIN'S GHOST (Simon & Schuster, $26.95), involving the new Russian nationalism, the old Moscow corruption, World War II atrocities, a terror-in-Chechnya cover-up, wishful thinking, nightmare memory, fathers, sons, and chess....

John Burdett's third Sonchai Jitpleecheep detective novel, BANGKOK HAUNTS (Knopf, $24.95), graduates from the usual porn and the usual sadomasochism to an unusual snuff-movie DVD starring one of Sonchai's former lovers, who refuses to let a little death get in the way of ghost sex and Buddhist revenge....

THE TIN ROOF BLOWDOWN (Simon & Schuster, $26) is James Lee Burke's best Dave Robicheaux novel since In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, which means that it's Faulknerian. Recovering-alcoholic police detective Robicheaux goes out to do justice in the violent aftermath of Katrina--"New Orleans was a song that went under the waves"--and the pols are behaving as badly as the cops, who are already in cahoots with the Mafia, and you can't tell the race warriors from the vigilantes. Beneath the surface of these dark waters, in search of the body of a junkie priest, Robicheaux finds golden lights like broken Communion wafers.
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Author:Leonard, John
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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