This is the second part of a two-part review. Click here to read part 1.
Like a novel written in the first-person voice of an unreliable narrator, If I Did It is not meant—by the publisher, anyway—to be taken at face value. It’s the self-portrait of a wife-abuser who somehow worked himself up into thinking he was a victim. To take O.J. Simpson at his word when he writes that “Nicole was on the fast track to hell, and she was determined to take me and the kids with her,” is like taking Humbert Humbert at his word when he describes as a romantic idyll his molestation of 12-year-old Dolores Haze. As Simpson relates the tale of how his wife gradually lost control and evolved into a menace, clues drop here and there that it is really Simpson himself who was losing control.
One of the biggest clues drops soon after O.J. and Nicole have separated, very much against O.J.’s wishes. (Later, O.J. writes, the roles were switched, and it was Nicole who wanted to get back together and O.J. who said no.) They are still sleeping together from time to time, but Nicole is also bending O.J.’s ear about the various guys she’s dating,
treating me almost like a girlfriend or something—but I didn’t mind, I realized that, if nothing else, I was probably her closest friend, a friend she could talk to about anything, and it gave me hope.
One night, O.J. goes clubbing with friends and runs into Nicole and two woman friends, one of whom asks jokingly, “[A]re you stalking your estranged wife?” Mirthful repartee follows, and O.J. rejoins his pals. Later in the evening, though, O.J. finds himself thinking about Nicole “and missing her a little.” Why not stop by her house to see if she’s awake? As he approaches her door, he sees Nicole on the couch with a male friend.
It was pretty hot and heavy. I took a deep breath and turned to go, but paused to knock on the front door—I rapped on it twice, hard—just to let her know they’d been seen.
A less pathologically narcissistic person might register jealousy or embarrassment at witnessing this awkward scene and feel contrite about his inappropriate response. O.J., however, experiences moral indignation. The following day, he scolds Nicole. “What you do is your business, but the kids were in the house,” he says. “I don’t think it would be too cool for them to walk in on that shit.” Amazingly, Nicole does not (in O.J.’s account, at least) tell O.J. off for peeping in her window late at night. Instead, she apologizes, says she’d been drinking, and promises it won’t happen again.
I was getting old. I could hardly walk anymore, and I’d been told recently that I would eventually have to have both knees rebuilt. Plus the arthritis was killing me. […]I was trying to figure out how it had come to this. I’d been somebody once. I’d had my glory days on the playing field, a number of high-paying corporate gigs, many years as a football analyst, and even something of a career as a Hollywood actor. It wasn’t over, not by a long shot, but everything seemed more difficult now. …[I]t seemed like every day it took a little more energy, and Nicole was sapping up a lot of my goddamn energy.
O.J.’s thoughts drift to his father, with whom he didn’t speak for 10 years, and he thinks maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all: “I had always blamed him for my parents’ marriage not working out … [but] he had always been there for us kids.” Then O.J. thinks about the night he stumbled onto Nicole “going at it on the couch, in the glow of two dozen candles—while the kids were in the house” [italics his]. As O.J. ponders Nicole’s declining parenting skills, the inquisitive reader may choose instead to marvel that O.J. watched Nicole “going at it” long enough to count how many candles she had lit. “We don’t know the half of it,” O.J. thinks [italics his], recalling a comment from a friend at the recital about Nicole’s drinking and drug-taking.
Much doubt has been cast about whether the pseudonymous Charlie, whom O.J. describes as his accomplice in the killings, actually exists. In January, Ron Goldman’s father, Fred, told Newsweek’s Mark Miller, the first reporter to write about the actual contents of If I Did It, that the very idea of Charlie was absurd. (He hadn’t yet seen the text; it’s possible he’s changed his mind since then.) James Wolcott, who reviewed a bootleg copy of If I Did It in his Vanity Fair blog shortly thereafter, insisted that Charlie was “a concoction, a fictional stooge, a phony accomplice, a bogus bit of poetic license on the ghostwriter’s part to set the death trap in motion.” That buys into O.J.’s claim that the account of the murder was an invented story he played no role in crafting. But the ghostwriter, Pablo Fenjves, made clear to me in an interview around the same time that he’d added no embellishments to what O.J. told him (“I’m not in the habit of making things up in my books”). I see no reason to believe O.J., and every reason to believe Fenjves.
Even though I believe Charlie is real, I won’t deny that he serves double duty as a trope. Charlie is the “fifth business” of O.J.’s tale, the mysterious character who appears out of nowhere and catalyzes the story’s climactic action. (The term, purportedly from comic opera, is an apparent invention by novelist Robertson Davies, but it’s too useful to pass up.) O.J. describes Charlie vaguely, and what details he does provide are very likely deliberate misdirection:
I’d met him some months earlier at a dinner with mutual friends, and I’d seen him again a few weeks earlier, when we’d gone clubbing with the same friends. I liked Charlie—he was one of those guys who is always in a good mood, always laughing—and I told him what I tell a lot of people. Stop by when you’re in the neighborhood.
And so Charlie does, but he isn’t smiling. He’s been “out to dinner with some guys,” and for some reason, has decided he must tell O.J. immediately what they said.
“A couple of these guys at dinner tonight, I guess they didn’t know that you and I are friends,” he began, tripping over the words. “They started talking about this little trip they took to Cabo a few months back, in March I think it was, and about these girls they partied with.””Yeah?””It was Nicole and her friend Faye [Resnick],” he said.”I’m listening,” I said. I tried to stay calm, but I was fit to explode.”There was a lot of drugs and a lot of drinking, and apparently things got pretty kinky.”
We never find out what Charlie means by “pretty kinky,” but we can presume that Charlie gives O.J. the unspeakable details. (Otherwise, why take the trouble to drive over?) Next thing we know, O.J. and Charlie have hopped into the Bronco and are speeding to Nicole’s house. “I’m going to scare the shit out of that girl,” O.J. tells Charlie. “This shit’s been eating away at me forever, and it’s got to stop.” O.J. parks the car, retrieves a knife he keeps there to ward off “the crazies,” pulls on a wool cap and his famously ill-fitting gloves (“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit“), and lets himself in by the back gate. (Laurence Schiller, Simpson’s collaborator on I Want To Tell You, a revelation-free tease of a book that O.J. wrote to generate cash while awaiting trial, insists that the trial record established the killer came in not the back gate, but the front. Whatever.) Charlie takes the knife away from O.J., and O.J. peers in the window and sees candles burning and hears music playing. “It was obvious that Nicole was expecting company,” O.J. writes. “I wondered who the fuck it was this time.” At this ill-timed moment, Ron Goldman arrives to give Nicole a pair of glasses that her mother has left that night at the Brentwood restaurant Mezzaluna, where Goldman is a waiter.
Topic for Future Inquiry: Would Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman still be alive if this middling Italian restaurant, now long gone, had never opened its doors? It seems to have carried more than its share of bad O.J. karma. On the night she was killed, Nicole had dinner at Mezzaluna with her parents and children, but not her ex-husband. The man O.J. had watched Nicole screw was a part-owner of Mezzaluna. Ron Goldman waited tables at Mezzaluna. So had Nicole’s friend, the one from her disreputable crowd, who was stabbed fatally in what was rumored to be a drug-related killing. Nice people don’t go around getting themselves knifed to death. Did O.J. make these mental connections when he clapped his eyes on Goldman? Did they drive him to the brink of Mezzalunacy?
O.J. accuses Goldman of being Nicole’s lover. Goldman says he’s just there to deliver the glasses. “Fuck you, man!” O.J. replies. “You think I’m fucking stupid or something?” Nicole comes out wearing “a slinky little cocktail dress, black, with probably not much underneath.” (In the alternate universe where O.J.’s claim of innocence is true, the mere act of writing this sentence consigns him to hell.) Nicole tells O.J. to leave Goldman alone. O.J. accuses Goldman of delivering drugs to Nicole; he’s heard that half the waiters at Mezzaluna deal drugs on the side. Nicole orders O.J. to leave. He refuses.
She came at me like a banshee, all arms and legs, flailing, and I ducked and she lost her balance and fell against the stoop. She fell hard on her right side—I could hear the back of her head hitting the ground—and lay there for a moment, not moving.
Sort of like how she got bruises all over her face when O.J. pushed her out of the bedroom? This may be what O.J. believes happened, and in that sense may be authentic. But let’s not confuse what O.J. believes with objective truth. O.J. struck Nicole.
Nicole moans, regains consciousness, but “it didn’t seem like anything was registering.” Where’s that knife? O.J. seizes it from Charlie. Goldman has assumed a karate stance, which O.J. finds comical. And then:
something went horribly wrong, and I know what happened, but I can’t tell you exactly how. …[M]y shirt felt strangely wet. I looked down at myself. For several moments, I couldn’t get my mind around what I was seeing. The whole front of me was covered in blood but it didn’t compute. Is this really blood? I wondered. And whose blood is it?
O.J. looks at Nicole, and then Goldman, “both lying in giant pools of blood.” He kicks off his shoes, pants, shirt. In his underwear and socks, O.J. drives home. He gives the clothes to Charlie, along with the knife. (They were never recovered—capable fellow, that Charlie!—though Nicole’s blood was found on O.J.’s socks.) O.J. sneaks into the house, showers, hops into a waiting limo, and is off to the airport for a late flight to Chicago. “The last hour was just a nightmare,” he tells himself [italics his]. “None of that ever goddamned happened.”
And so it comes to pass. As If I Did It moves on to the familiar details of O.J. hitting the road with Al Cowlings, being tracked down by police and news helicopters, threatening suicide, and finally getting arrested, the narrative voice magically acquires the conviction that O.J. is a wrongly accused man. Never mind that this contradicts everything O.J. has told us before. Remember, this is a book about what O.J. has persuaded himself to believe. In that sense, the shift makes total sense. None of that ever goddamned happened. After his miraculous transfiguration from guilt to innocence, O.J. stays rigorously on message. He meets with the cops, against his lawyer’s advice. He tells it to them straight: He did not kill his ex-wife, nor that waiter. He contemplated suicide and evaded arrest because … the shrinks pumped him up with too many drugs. He tells the children Nicole is in heaven.
That isn’t what he’s telling them in If I Did It. If not now, then perhaps someday, they’ll be able to read past O.J.’s poisonous rants and self-justifications and learn what this text has to teach. If I Did It is a portrait of an abusive husband who beat and eventually killed his ex-wife, then laid out his narcissism and self-delusion for all to see. I’d prefer a more straightforward confession, but in the meantime, this will certainly do.
Correction, Sept. 2, 2007: An earlier version of this column erroneously stated that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were killed on Thanksgiving. In fact, they were killed on June 12, 1994. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)