In 70 a.d., a few decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem after a long siege. Perhaps no event has had more enduring reverberations. Judaism lost the Second Temple, the site of nearly all its rites, and the temple was never rebuilt. Jewish Christianity, centered in Jerusalem and led by James the brother of Jesus, soon disappeared beneath the waves of Gentile Christianity. Islam, too, was shaped by the defeat: today, on the former site of the Second Temple stands the Aqsa Mosque, the faith’s third most important devotional site. The Roman Church, the rise of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel itself — all can be traced back, in some way, to Jerusalem’s ancient destruction.
We have exactly one contemporary account of this event, and its author was one of the most complicated men ever to have lived. Joseph ben Mattathias was born in Jerusalem in 37 a.d., a moderate Pharisee from a family of moderate Pharisees, and was appointed to a generalship in the Jewish resistance against the Romans. When he was cornered in a cave near Jotapata with fifty other men, Joseph assented to his comrades’ wish for a mass suicide. Everything went according to plan, save for the fact that Joseph neglected to kill himself. Captured by the Romans, he was soon enough collaborating with them. When the war was over, he went to Rome, where he was given a pension by the new emperor, Vespasian, and asked to write a history of the war that would burnish his patron’s honor.
The man soon known as Titus Flavius Josephus became a Jewish apologist to the Romans and a Roman apologist to the Jews (whom he endeavored to depict as an estimable people divinely guided through history). He wrote four books, including a brief autobiography, the earliest-known example of the form to survive into the modern age. His works of history, Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War, are the source of virtually all our knowledge about the time of Jesus outside the gospels. Without Josephus, we would know next to nothing about the Herodian dynasty and Pontius Pilate and would have no idea that the girl who called for the head of John the Baptist was named Salome.
In A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus (Pantheon, $28.95), the prolific Frederic Raphael, who is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, argues that Josephus was something more than a collaborator or (as the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, who excavated Masada, once described him) “a bad Jew.” Josephus was a prototype, “the first Jew to offer an overview of the world’s history and evolution that was not Judeocentric.” Raphael’s magnificently odd book does not skimp on details about the life of Josephus (whose Greek citations have been translated by Raphael himself), but the real focus is on his legacy. What does it even mean to have been a bad Jew in a war as hopeless as the Jewish War, which was not only a popular rebellion against an occupying power (though it was that) but also a bloodthirsty civil war among sometimes deranged factions given to show trials and shocking cruelty? Crazy men with beards ruin everything — a problem that is with us still.
Raphael transforms Josephus, the thinking person’s Judas, into a figure of tragic grandeur and connects him to a wide array of other Jewish writers, artists, and scapegoats from Benedict de (or Baruch) Spinoza, Alfred Dreyfus, and Leon Trotsky to Isaac Babel, Walter Benjamin, and Joseph Roth. “His art,” writes Raphael,
concealed more than art. To call him a traitorous collaborator underrates his subtlety and simplifies his practice. . . . The fact that posterity has read with some ease between Josephus’s lines is more of a credit to his artfulness than scholarly detectives are in the habit of conceding.
Josephus could easily have elided the truth of his actions in the suicide cave at Jotapata, but he didn’t. He was also honest enough to reveal that his mother never forgave him for going over to the Romans.
Raphael’s penchant for the relevance-straining footnote is the least attractive trait of this otherwise erudite book. At various points, Dorothy Parker and Norodom Sihanouk take puzzling footnote bows, and later we find a brief explication of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s feminizing (and, Raphael argues, slyly anti-Semitic) use of the phrase “girlie men.” Very occasionally, the book slips factually, as when Raphael notes that Jerusalem’s Antonia Tower was named after the wife of Claudius. (It was named after Herod’s former patron Marc Antony.) He also claims that Nabokov’s antipathy for Freud was “more naughty than malicious.” But Nabokov despised Freud, and said as much, frequently. Still, when Raphael imagines Josephus walking “among bruising reminders and relics of Jewish humiliation” in Rome — the Colosseum, funded by loot plundered from Judea, and the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the sack of the Second Temple — his subject, to say nothing of his subject’s quandary, feels newly strange and complicated.
Detroit has been a steadily disintegrating disaster for decades, going from one of the nation’s proudest and wealthiest cities to a violent and increasingly depopulated symbol of America’s twenty-first-century decline. With its nonexistent social services, culture of murder, and Herodian levels of civic corruption, Detroit is the domestic equivalent of a failed state — the only city in the nation to have been occupied three times by the United States Army.
Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Press, $27.95) chronicles the journalist Charlie LeDuff’s return to his native city after a decade at the New York Times. There are many I’m-from-Detroit pretenders out there from Grosse Pointe or Birmingham or Bloomfield Hills. LeDuff is not one of these. His drug-addict and sometimes-prostitute sister died in an encounter with a john; his recession-felled brother works a tedious factory job; his niece died of a heroin overdose.
“Go ahead and laugh at Detroit,” he writes early in the book. “Because you are laughing at yourself.” It seems that LeDuff’s Times editor
called the farmers and hunters and drive-through attendants and factory workers I wrote about losers. Say the word slowly enough and it sounds like you’re spitting.
It does? Not remotely. Either way, LeDuff quit. As a Michigander myself, I dislike snooty Times editors as much as anyone, but the best way to flummox unexamined assumptions is to do the hard, diligent work of humanizing those parts of the country parochial nitwits find distasteful. For years — in US Guys and Work and Other Sins — LeDuff did just that.
Throughout Detroit, though, he repeatedly picks fights with his Times editor and all the people he or she supposedly typifies. While this gives his prose a ranting intensity, too often the book feels petty and self-aggrandizing. About taking a job at the comparatively lowly Detroit News, LeDuff writes, “I’d build a castle of words so high on the banks of the Detroit River that they couldn’t help but see it from Times Square.” Equally off-putting is his reductive view of journalists and journalism: “I am a reporter. A leech. A merchant of misery. Bad things are good for us reporters. We are body collectors of sorts.” Later, LeDuff tells us that he enjoys spending time around firefighters because they make him “feel a little bit better about being a guy who makes his living typing up clever things other people say.” No one who worked his way up from a small Alaskan newspaper to writing for the Times, winning a Pulitzer, and publishing several books, as LeDuff has done, can make such claims honestly. No one works that hard for a trade he holds in contempt.
Nevertheless, LeDuff’s account of his time with Detroit’s underfunded and heroic firefighters — which forms the book’s spine — is excellent journalism. His depiction of the violence visited on Detroit’s children — many of their families too poor to afford proper burials — will enrage the conscience of all but the most hardened. And his portraits of Detroit’s politicos — a white industrialist elite that manipulates a black ruling class, both of them having conspired over the past fifty years to rob the poorest big city in the country blind — are almost as good as anything in Richard Price or The Wire. From former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (a preening, thieving mama’s boy with a penchant for sexting) to Congressman John Conyers’s nightmare wife, Monica (once captured on camera yelling at a thirteen-year-old girl for asking her why she was so bananas), LeDuff hilariously and angrily exposes his subjects’ cupidity. (When LeDuff meets with Monica Conyers, she gropes his crotch, looking for a wire.)
LeDuff’s book puts a personal face on a great city doomed to suffer too long for the actions of too few. Along the way, he discovers an unexpected branch within his family tree and, in the pages of the Detroit News, breaks open several scandals, including one that helps expose an arsonist responsible for the death of a firefighter. Unfortunately, LeDuff’s troublemaking investigative skills place in his crosshairs a lazy judge known as “Half-Day Hathaway” because of her tendency to adjourn cases early so she can go on vacation. LeDuff’s editors defang his story, which leads to a predictable judicial travesty. Once again, LeDuff has had enough:
I called my buddy the janitor and had him bring a trash can on wheels up to the newsroom. When he did, I swept the entire contents of my desktop into the garbage and walked out.
He is now a television journalist for Detroit’s Fox 2 News and no doubt a cheery and helpful colleague to all.
The list of writers celebrated exclusively or primarily for their short stories is not long: Chekhov, Kafka, Borges, Barthelme, Munro, and, more recently, George Saunders. It remains unclear why exactly Saunders is beloved by so many readers, including this one. His memorandum prose has no Nabokovian splendor. His ideas about the corporatist future of America range from obvious to very obvious. His sense of humor is frequently juvenile, as when he resorts to such phrases as “cunt-swoggle rear-fuck.” Is Saunders primarily a satirist, like Twain, or an excavator of his culture’s shameful secret conscience, like Kafka? Neither, or both: “Saunders” has become a major key, a way to describe not just tone or theme or characterological tendency but all of those things and more. His new collection, Tenth of December (Random House, $26), is easily his finest book since CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.
A number of stories in the collection (“Victory Lap,” “Escape from Spiderhead,” the title story) would stand as career-summiting masterpieces for most short-story writers — and they are not even the best in the collection. That honor goes to “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a tale about a diary-keeping father who wins $10,000 in the lottery and uses the money to buy his daughter magically imprisoned Third World nymphets. Money, the father learns, buys no one happiness, least of all him: “Can it be true? That I will die? That Pam, kids, will die? Is awful. Why were we put here, so inclined to love, when end of our story = death? That harsh. That cruel. Do not like.” The Saunders secret appears to be beginning with the hidebound conventions of more traditionally sleepy literary fiction and injecting 50 ccs of absurdist sci-fi. Saunders’s obvious contempt for consumer culture, which is present in virtually every one of his stories, somehow never alters his obvious affection for his characters. He writes funny, hopeful stories about truly horrifying predicaments.
Nothing has been read its last rites more frequently than the American short story. George Saunders proves, yet again, to be the form’s one-man defibrillator.