Lewis Jones

American enterprise

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The Golden Door: Letters to America

A.A. Gill

Weidenfeld, pp. 254, £

The title of A.A. Gill’s latest book comes from Emma Lazarus’s poem ‘The New Colossus’ (1883), which is inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: ‘Give me your tired, your poor… I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ And its subtitle is a tribute to Alistair Cooke, who was a friend and colleague of Gill’s father, and ‘the most urbane, witty and readable journalist of his century’. Urbanity is hardly Gill’s forte, but he is often witty and always readable.

‘This book,’ he explains, ‘is the view of the New World from the Old.’ He might more modestly and accurately have called it ‘a view’, as it is intended to challenge the view of many European intellectuals that Americans are stupid, ignorant, arrogant and so on. He rightly argues that such sneering abuse is itself stupid, ignorant and arrogant, and that ‘America is Europe’s greatest invention’.

But, as readers of his columns in the Sunday Times will know, Gill himself has a remarkable flair for sneering abuse. Here he is wildly insulting not only to people who are unlikely to read his book (‘What is the point of shooting a Swiss? There’d just be another one there in the morning’) but also to those who might, such as readers of hardback books: ‘The number of hardbacks on your bedside table is in inverse proportion to the number of arched backs in your bed.’ Paperbacks are obviously more flexible, but still…

And while he praises Americans for their optimism, courage, enterprise, ingenuity, philanthropy and sense of irony, he simply cannot resist mocking them for such traits as gun mania and religious fundamentalism. This tends to sabotage his thesis, but is good news for the reader. One of the funniest passages describes his visit to the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, where a diorama shows Adam and Eve in the Garden, surrounded by deer, wolves, panthers — and penguins.

The Golden Door is a collection of essays — on ‘Evolution’, ‘Guns’, ‘Skyscrapers’, ‘Movies’, ‘Sex’ — and though all are written with Gill’s habitual vim, and abound in entertaining stories and surprising opinions (‘Spanish, the language of inarticulate anger’), none of them is particularly coherent, nor do they cohere into what intellectuals on either side of the Atlantic would generally regard as a ‘book’, let alone a ‘hardback’. The most interesting and original are the most personal: ‘Stories’, which tells the history of Gill’s American cousins, the Thomases and Taylors, in Detroit and elsewhere; and ‘Moonshine’, about his youthful drinking exploits among the hillbillies of Kentucky (he is a reformed alcoholic, which makes his byline rather droll).

Gill’s prose is frantically energetic, exhilarating in bursts but exhausting over the long haul. He is addicted to puns, especially fruity ones. Of the fashion for genital depilation, for example: ‘Bring me the huddled masses yearning to be hairfree.’ And he sometimes sounds like a thesaurus, as when he writes that in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin black people are depicted as ‘childlike, naive, innocent, trustingly dim, unintelligent and gullible’.

He is a brilliant critic — as in the masterly six pages he devotes to The Complete Playboy Centrefolds —  but he can get it fantastically wrong. In a brief review of American literature, from Twain to Wolfe, he observes that ‘it almost always sounds like a voice in your ear’, which is fair enough, but then he shoots himself in the foot by claiming that ‘all English writing’ is ‘silent and cerebral… has never been said out loud’, which is clearly piffle.

And though his desire to outrage the politically correct is theoretically commendable, it sometimes exceeds the bounds of decency, as when he remarks, ‘You’re not even allowed to smoke in Central Park, let alone gangbang joggers.’ He is apparently referring to the ‘wilding’ case of 1989, so instead of ‘gangbang’ he should have written ‘gang rape and nearly kill’ — but that would have spoiled the joke.

The Golden Door left me with a huge admiration for Gill’s editors at the Sunday Times. I hesitate to recommend it for the bedside table.