Road-tripping with Harry Truman, some Commie bastards, the Bat Boy and Dead Elvis

THRILLERS THROUGH THE AGES: My brother-in-law was  always the easiest guy to shop for. All I needed to do each Christmas was buy him the hottest international-intrigue thriller and he was happy.[image-1]


If I could find something with Nazis hiding out and still visiting evil on the Earth, then he was in heaven. But those darn Russkies would do in a pinch.


But then two horrible things happened: The Cold War ended and Robert Ludlum died. Somehow, Ludlum has continued to write books after his death, but the best we can do for paranoid-action-thrillers these days is to go back in time.


The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central, $24.95) takes us back to 1956, in the seconds after Stalinist Russia is coming to an end. Old Joe is dead and his successor, Nikita Khruschev, wants to deliver a conciliatory speech to the world. This sets into motion (of course, things are always set into a motion) a series of back-door negotiations that can alter the fate of the world.


Khruschev, for those of us who remember him, ain’t exactly a sexy character for a novel, so readers will be happy to hear that there is a great protagonist. He’s Leo Demidov, young and tormented . . . a Commie with a conscience.


My brother-in-law will love this one.


With him, the dive into fiction often sent him scrambling for the Real Stuff, so if you develop nostalgia for the Cold War, I recommend The Anti-Communist Manifestos (Norton, $27.95) by John V. Fleming. You’ll have to wait until August for this examination of four books that shaped the Cold War, including Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler and Witness by Whitaker Chambers.


SCOURGES OF THE STATE: Two books deal with those things that vex Floridans – hurricanes and tabloid journalism.[image-2]


Back before hurricanes were named (yes, kids, there was such a time), a bastard of a storm ripped through the Keys, killing 400, including a bunch of pissed-off veterans camping out in the Keys, protesting President Franklin Roosevelt‘s policies. When the 225-mile-per-hour winds hit, they didn’t have a chance.


Category 5 (University Press of Florida, $29.95) by Thomas Neil Knowles tells the story in all of its pulse-quickening detail. A rather routine tropical storm picked up steam – literally and figuratively – over the Gulf Stream and wreaked holy hell on the Keys over Labor Day 1935.


Hurricane Season starts next week. Read this, then prepare.


No way to really prepare for sleaze, though, is there? We can bundle ourselves in Saran Wrap and we’re still going to get some muck on us. But for the same reason that we like to get slimed at Nickelodeon Studios or frolic in the mud after a spring rain, it’s possible to find pleasure in all of the goop.


Tabloid Valley (University Press of Florida, $24.95) by Paula Morton is both a reputable and hilarious history of those who practice the American art of sensationalism. This kind of journalism dates from our colonial era, but it’s reached new heights in the last couple of decades.


I worked at the Palm Beach Post --  near the Tabloid Valley around Lantana – and the National Enquirer hired out of our newsroom all the time. Back in the early 1970s, the Enquirer was paying copy boys $20,000 a year – back when that was astonishing money for a full-time legitimate reporter. How can you complete with that? And, as one of my friends said after going over to the dark side, “It’s unethical as hell, but man, do we have fun.”


This book is a lot of fun, particularly with capsule portraits of such characters as Eddie Clontz, the Weekly World News editor who invented the Bat Boy and brought Dead Elvis back to life. Famously, after Dan Rather’s street mugging back in the 1980s, Clontz (as columnist Ed Anger) called out the “media prettyboy” and accused him of not being a real journalist, like those dedicated souls who worked for the Weekly World News. No shortage of balls, this Eddie.


It was hard to get through an Ed Anger column without a few cascades of explosive laughter. Say what you will about the content of the tabloids – the people who worked there were excellent writers. After all, they got a largely illiterate audience to read. Even Norman Mailer couldn’t do that.


SIGNING AT HASLAMS: John M. Taylor signs Missing Sticks (Blue Eagle Press, $14), his novel of D-Day, on Saturday, May 30, 3-4 p.m. at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave, St. Petersburg.


FOR MYSTERY LOVERS: Be on the lookout for the Mystery Florida conference the weekend of June 5-6 at Lido Beach Resort, 700 Ben Franklin Drive, Sarasota. For details, see www.mysteryflorida.com. The list of authors attending:  Wayne Barcomb, Bill Bonner, James O. Born, Don Bruns, Stephen Cork, Blaize Clement, Tom Corcoran, Tim Dorsey, Mary Anna Evans, H. Terrell Griffin, Robert Gussin, Patricia Gussin, David Hagberg, James Hensal, Jonathon King, Ward Larsen, James Macomber, Bob Morris, P.J. Parrish, James Sheehan, James Swain. J. M. Taylor and Elaine Viets


 


William McKeen is chairman of the University of Florida’s Department of Journalism and author of several books, including the Hunter S. Thompson biography Outlaw Journalist.


 


Time to get caught up. As the T-shirt reminds us, “So many books, so little time.” Let’s hit the road.

AMERICA THROUGH THE WINDSHIELD:  We’re all about road trips here at Creative Loafing and so imagine this: The dude who pulls up next to you at the Tastee Freeze parks a little too close. You glance at him when he gets out of the car and I’ll be damned if it isn’t the former president of the United States.

Don’t worry.

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure (Chicago Review Press, $24.95) by Matthew Algeo is the thoroughly charming story of how the former president and first lady drove across country in 1953. It was for fun, not publicity. At first, you might think this book is science fiction, since the guy playing the president of the United States is so bullshit-free. But this is an all-true story.

Algeo pulls together the narrative of the trip and retraces the route in his own car. It’s part road-trip meditation and a wonderful morsel of American history. We learn all kinds of things, including that Truman was a shitty driver. He paid off the other drivers in his prolific fender benders, mostly to keep Bess Truman from chewing his ass.

Back then, ex-presidents didn’t have Secret Service protection or even a pension plan.  It was, as I say, a different world. This wonderful book allows us the opportunity to get a glimpse of that America.

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