A Rough Guide To The Dark Side [Paperback], by Daniel Simpson (Zero Books; Washington, DC, August 2012) 252 Pages, $16.95.
Author Simpson, an Englishman who appeared to be on a charmed course, read history at Cambridge and moved somewhat effortlessly on to Reuters and then the New York Times, where his life took a gonzo detour. The Times assigned him to the Balkans in 2003. By then the wars and massacres had stopped and the usual medieval feuds, quarrels, assassinations, malicious plots, and double-crosses had resumed. He and Times editors very quickly ran into disagreements on how all this should be covered, and he began disengaging from his journalistic mission. Smoking a lot of hash and cannabis, Simpson, for reasons that are never made clear, decided instead to put together a rock festival in Serbia. It didn’t quite work out the way he’d planned. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The fact that his festival bombed, a victim of the endemic corruption all around him, is revealed in a description of the contents that appears even before the title page.
Simpson’s reasons for quitting the Times are spelled out with immaculate skill. I found it the most compelling part of his distinctive, candid memoir. This was when the Bush-Cheney Administration was gearing up to invade Iraq and clear it of all those weapons of mass destruction so we could all be safe. It’s also while the Times, along with most of the self-castrated U.S. media, failed to ask the right questions. But Simpson’s employer, a key relay switch along the misinformation circuit, was among the more grievous media malefactors, and its failures were arguably the most damaging because the administration fed particularly juicy lies and faulty suppositions to the Times. The Paper of Record gobbled them up, and Administration deceivers then cited the Times as a source for their own falsehoods. Even the paper’s Balkans correspondent was called upon to become part of this closed circle of stupidity and betrayal. Simpson ably relates from the inside how Times editors were hoodwinked into asking so many wrong questions and ordering up stories that -- given their foolish premise -- could only result in erroneous, misleading crap. He names names, too. These pages should be mined by historians, but unfortunately the book has no index, an indication that the publisher didn’t understand the significance of the manuscript. Too bad.
When memoirists admit to their stupidities and atrocities they are more credible, and Simpson owns up to some doozies. After giving notice to his employer he cribbed sentences word for word from wire services and pasted them into his dispatches. It’s an amazing confession, equivalent to a politician going on YouTube to describe his intercourse with a reptile. Simpson was clearly out to grind his bridges into dust after he burned them.
But what I never understood was why he went from the Times to this rock festival business, particularly since he got the idea from a Serb slickster he calls “G,” a blowhard who in his twisty, crazy English constantly explains how the world works. Here’s a relatively representative sample of his pronouncements: “Everyone has inside him wolf and lamb, and dancing helps us balance out those forces.” G sounds like the kind of con artist who goes around asking strangers for carfare to get to a nonexistent job interview. Yet Simpson makes G his business partner. Given language and cultural barriers, much of what happens around Simpson is related through this Rasputin-like schemer. And after everything’s fallen apart Simpson, somewhat endearingly, asks G the identity of those who ripped “them” off, apparently not suspecting that G himself was one of the buzzards feasting on the author’s entrails. Even now Simpson doesn’t seem to suspect him of a double-cross. Evidently they don’t teach you about people like G at Cambridge. Simpson should have spent a couple years at my high school in Chicago. He might have saved himself a lot of heartache later on.
Anyway, the author’s fantasy, fed by G’s pompous babble, was to create a rock festival on an island in the Danube that would somehow turn Belgrade and perhaps all the Balkan territories into a heavenly place of peace, love and kindness. So we end up with a tale by a drug-fueled protagonist who takes on an impossible mission, all the while surrounded by fear, loathing, and generic weirdness. Sound familiar? Like Hunter Thompson perhaps? Lots of writers pay homage to Thompson in their work, which is fine. Trouble is, though Hunter made his stuff look easy, it isn’t. Also, Hunter was self-destructive, but unlike Simpson, he was never a chump. When reading Thompson you don’t care whether he fulfilled whatever mission he had on the ground in Las Vegas or Washington or wherever his loony assignment took him. The fun was in the journey. But when Simpson tells us even before the book begins that this is a head-long dive into concrete, it somehow deflates the tale of dramatic tension. Besides, it's not always easy to care about the fate of the doomed festival. Thompson’s writings were often bereft of dramatic tension too, but it didn’t seem to matter. Dark Side is a wild ride that at times gives us too much time to think.
Goldman’s latest novel Isaac: A Modern Fable was released in April by the Permanent Press.
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