Saturday, September 15, 2007

Robert Caro's Johnson

While staying in Lydon Johnson's Austin residence a few weeks ago (ahem!), I idly began picking through a copy of Robert Caro's multi-volume biography that was on the shelf, expecting it to be a bit ponderous and entirely too detailed for my needs. This is a book I've passed over without much curiosity in countless bookstores. I knew it had been critically acclaimed, but it was just too damn big! It didn't take me more than half a page of reading, though, to realize I'd stumbled onto something special. The incumbent champion of all biographies in betelnut-culture has always been T. Harry Williams's "Huey Long". I read it when I was 17 - 800 pages in a single feverish four day session during summer vacation, mostly deep in the night. (Adding to the sense of being swallowed whole by a book is that this one comes with a sound track: my favorite Randy Newman album, "Good Old Boys", was clearly written under the gravitational influence of the book).

I'm not 17, and I've got a day job, so the intensity will never be quite the same, but this biography embodies the same combination of assiduous scholarship and the art of story-telling. Like "Huey", it draws you into into a three-dimensional, parrellel, doppelganger kind of world. It's said that if you asked Faulkner at any time of any day what a particular character in Yoknapatawpha County was doing, he could tell you. That's how real the world Caro draws is. Anyway, this is just a warning that future posts are coming. Caro's book is basically a series of remarkable stories folded into the larger narrative. I'll throw in a post now and then summarizing a few of them.