The Breakfast Table

Middle East Obsessions

You asked about the novel I’m working on: It’s set in the middle of the19th century—a little in Europe, mostly in America. Not that it’s going to be Larry McMurtry-esque, but his Old Westerns (as opposed to the contemporary ones like TheDesert Rose) are inspirational to me—proof that that time and place can be written about thoughtfully and compellingly and yet (despite the violence, despite the Indian Wars, despite slavery) also with a sense of comedy. Doing the research for this book was the most blissful professional task of my life. By the way, have you ever read Vivian Grey, Benjamin Disraeli’s novel in which he coined the word “millionaire”? It’s a remarkable book for 1827, let alone for a future prime minister to have written. And I’d never read The Confidence Man or Bartleby before. As great and canonically worthy as Moby Dick is, Melville’s a much stranger (and funnier) writer than I knew.

Speaking of confidence men, and of our fast-and-loose, modern free-market ways, the fall of the freshly indicted Tyco CEO, Dennis Kozlowski, is so classic and predictable: He got nailed for evading sales tax on seven paintings, including a $4.7 million Renoir and a $3.95 million Monet. (The couple of times I’ve seen Monets or especially Renoirs or for that matter any Impressionist painting hanging in a private home, I find it sort of embarrassingly vulgar. Is that just me?) Indictment for cheating on sales tax is like those bribed congressmen in Abscam (Abscam, with FBI agents dressed up as Arab sheiks, back when that costume signified Filthy Rich instead of Faintly Evil) who went down for such ratty little sums, or Dan Rostenkowski going to prison for selling his free congressional postage stamps. It’s the entirely unnecessary penny-ante aspect of the crimes that’s so mortifying and apt. Sort of like … best-selling authors appropriating other writers’ work or $2-million-a-picture movie stars shoplifting.

After the ‘80s we had the savings and loan scandal, and after the ‘90s we have the Enron and Tyco and God knows what other scandals. During the next moment of financial mania, let’s remember to try to predict exactly which industries and which captains will get busted in the aftermath. Did you notice in today’s story about the overall income effects of the 1990s boom that New York and California, surprisingly, did worse than almost all the other states? The Times seemed not to notice this. New York and California had more people who slipped below the poverty line and on average smaller increases in income for everyone else. This despite the colossal wealth-accumulating loci of New York City and Los Angeles and San Francisco/San Jose. I guess it’s really true that California and New York are becoming more Latin American in the bad as well as the good senses.

And as long as I’ve veered in this serious, A-section direction: Israel and the Palestinians? We haven’t talked about it, here or in real life. And, 9/11 aside (where of course it can’t really be put in this connection), no news story has engaged me more in the last 10 years. I read every story in the papers. I have found myself in loud, passionate arguments with friends—taking Israel’s side against more pro-Palestinian friends, taking an anti-settlements line against more pro-Israeli friends—to the point that my wife has had to tell me to pipe down in restaurants.

And speaking, finally, on a lighter note, of spouses: Last night I saw the 1971 photo of Nick Pileggi in Vanity Fair. Holy smokes! What a dashing hottie! Did you know him then?