Views & Reviews: American Rhapsody

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Views & Reviews        

Big Willie Style


So how big is the President’s dick, anyway? Exhibit A: the pastoral memoirs of Gennifer Flowers, who was allegedly instructed to call it Willard because, as its owner explained, “It’s longer than Willie.” Exhibit B: the more recent, more qualified testimony of Monica Lewinsky, who deemed it slenderer and smaller than her previous boyfriend’s tool but nevertheless “more than adequate.”

Is Bill Clinton’s Willard shrinking? Or is the human appetite expanding?

The President’s John Henry is not exactly a question of state, and in a few months, it will cease to be even a matter of gossip, except to the Clinton-haters who want it nailed on a pike outside the White House. But it sure looms large in American Rhapsody, Joe Eszterhas’ epic-length rant on Bill and Monica and everybody else. It even gets, à la Joyce’s Molly Bloom, its own closing monologue:

“Bill doesn’t love Hilla the Hun. He never has. He loves me. He’s always loved me, from the time we were both little . . . Why did he have to humiliate me by putting that cigar where I so badly wanted to go? Why did he allow his cigar and not me to be total with Monica’s totality?” It’s almost too much pathos for one organ to contain, but Willard gets to blow off steam with some improvised gangsta rap: “You’re a Lefty, I’m hefty/ You’re a boomer, I boom her/ You’re alone, I’m a bone/ You’re a hick, I’m a prick.” Et cetera.

Maybe, like me, you had thought there was no tawdriness left to plumb from l’affaire Lewinsky. I had not counted, however, on the monumental and almost sacramental tawdriness of Joe Eszterhas, best known as the screenwriter who made the world safe for Elizabeth Berkley’s breasts and Sharon Stone’s pubes. All that aside, if you go into American Rhapsody expecting one more jack-off fantasy from a middle-aged saddle jockey, you’ll find that Eszterhas can’t be dismissed so easily.

For one thing, he has done his research. He seems to have read every word ever written about the Starr Report and its cast of characters; even more impressively, he has slogged through the extended phone transcripts of Monica and Linda Tripp (herein christened “the Ratwoman”). And in his efforts to chart the nexus between politics and show business, he has doled out generous helpings of Hollywood gossip. I would never have guessed, for instance, that James Brolin used the expression “Jewboy” or that Farrah Fawcett once took a dump in someone’s yard. It’s not exactly “Hollywood Babylon,” but it carries a certain frisson.

Before he was suckling at Hollywood’s teat, however, Eszterhas was a reporter with Rolling Stone, and that is the style in which American Rhapsody is written: an amphetamine rush of assertions and attitude, melding Tom Wolfe’s jittery italics and ellipses with Norman Mailer’s bear-like egoism. Like Mailer, Eszterhas fetishizes the dark, “twisted soul” that lives inside him. And like Mailer, he has a woman problem. Why else would he devote an entire chapter to savaging Sharon Stone, whose greatest sin appears to be her failure to regard herself as Eszterhas’ creation? Why else would he give voice to Clinton’s Willard and not, say, Gennifer Flowers’ Precious (or Monica’s Mouth)? Come to think of it, why else would he write so many of those Attack of the Killer Hole movies? (The only one worth seeing twice is Showgirls, and only for the chance to see Kyle MacLachlan turn Elizabeth Berkley into an outboard motor.)

But Eszterhas is less concerned with the president’s conquests than with the president himself. He wants to feel Bill Clinton’s pain. “I understood the ambition, the success, the political duplicity, the Hollywood charm,” he writes. “I understood the mad priapic obsession that had always fuel-driven his life . . . ” For men of the Vietnam generation, Eszterhas insists, the counterculture was always, deep down, about getting as much pussy as you could. So why should it be a surprise that, three decades later, Bill Clinton still can’t keep his Willard inside his boxers? He’s just hearkening back to the siren call of the ’60s.

Maybe baby-boomers really were cursed in some definitive way by hedonism, but American Rhapsody makes a better case that the problem was narcissism. Take Eszterhas, a man who believes that his generation must be explained to itself and to the rest of the eagerly waiting world. (I have no such compunctions about my generation. Why should I be held accountable for SUVs and lite jazz?) A man who believes that basic human experience must, when it happens to boomers, be aggrandized and mythologized. I mean, I’ve got a willard, too. He likes what he likes, doesn’t like what he doesn’t like. It’s never once occurred to me to build an entire mythology around him. But in Eszterhas’s hairy hands, Willard becomes the divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. And so a generation’s exaggerated sense of its own morality has become an exaggerated sense of its sexuality. And it’s no easier to swallow now than it was then. Just ask Monica.

Louis Bayard and, Inc.