Going Down

Dwight Garner reviews Jennifer Belle's "Going Down", Keith Haring's "Journals", and Charles Rutheiser's "Imagineering Atlanta".


Dwight Garner
July 3, 1996 11:00PM (UTC)

The odds are probably stacked against Jennifer Belle's "Going Down," a punk-picaresque first novel that Riverhead is slipping into bookstores as a summertime paperback original. For one thing, it comes adorned with blurbs from three writers (Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Quentin Crisp) that may scare away all but the hardiest souls. For another, if there's one thing the culture doesn't need right now it's another tragicomic saga about a good-hearted call-girl. And if that's not enough, Belle -- a 27-year-old editor at a literary magazine called Mudfish -- saddles her protagonist with a name that shouldn't have gotten past the book's first edit: Bennington Bloom.

All that said, "Going Down" has a bright, engaged, bracing tone that keeps you turning the pages. The plot isn't complex: Bennington is an NYU undergrad who, on the brink of financial and emotional collapse and with no help forthcoming from her addled family, spies an escort service ad in the Village Voice and quickly finds herself leading a frantic double life. ("I felt self-conscious with my nipples showing through my Laura Ashley dress and my beeper going off in my coat pocket," she cracks early in the book. "It didn't fit with my story about being a paralegal.")

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As "Going Down" progresses, it not only picks up a rueful, feminized kind of grace -- Bennington is shrewd about where she wants life to take her, and Belle doesn't condemn either her or her odd assortment of clients -- but the details are never less than exact. "New York is a convenient city to go crazy in," Bennington notes after a particularly manic day, while scanning the teeming life in Washington Square Park. "You can always stop and have a diet Pepsi with a malfunctioning straw." While never prurient, she is just as exact about her on-the-job routine: "Afterwards, I always say, 'You've got a great body.' Or if there is no way that is plausible, I say, 'You've got great hair,' and if even that's stretching it, I say, 'I love your mustache,' or 'Your skin is so soft.' Sometimes I just say, 'Nice apartment.'"

"Going Down" closes as its narrator is struggling toward a kind of escape, emotional if no other kind. At the same time, you feel Belle's narrative gifts working their way toward the surface, too. She's got a way to go, but she's worth watching.

-- Dwight Garner


N O N F I C T I O N

JOURNALS
By Keith Haring, Viking, 294 pages.

Talking about art is never as interesting as the art itself.

Keith Haring's journals begin in 1977, when he was in high school in Pittsburgh, excited that he bought tickets for a Grateful Dead concert for $5.50 each. The last entry is from 1989, right before he died of AIDS at the age of 31, by which time he had become a world-famous artist. In between there are poems, photographs, letters, dreams, critiques of other artists, insecurities, unpublished drawings from his notebooks, lists, calendars, quotes from Graham Nash, John Keats and Walt Whitman, mentions of sex and AIDS and such philosophical babble as "The freedom of the artist is symbolic of the human spirit in all mankind."

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Haring's journals are more introspective, analytic and soulful than his mentor Andy Warhol's superficial, celebrity-studded diaries. Fans of Haring's works, the best-known of which feature colorful primitive figures dancing, will no doubt enjoy reading about his world travels, his public and private shows, and his intimate connections with Warhol, Timothy Leary and William Burroughs. Yet Haring was a visual artist, not a writer, and making paintings is not an inherently exciting topic. ("Fill in color inside the black shapes -- one color at a time. Very 'Cobra' brushwork and very drippy. Finish around 9:30 with back hurting and smelling bad ...") It's ironic that, for someone whose work seemed so free and spontaneous, the journals reveal the intensive planning, toil and clear agenda that went into Haring's work and image.

Although Robert Ferris Thompson's introduction is well-written and informative, one wishes for more linear biographical information. Thompson quotes a friend who said that Haring was "the nicest person he ever met in his life," and indeed it's refreshing to find an artist who talks of his love of children, concern for humanity and donations to charity. Haring comes off as vulnerable and human. In his brief but poignant preface, the artist David Hockney perhaps sums up Haring best when he writes, "He left his mark everywhere. A very generous life."

-- Susan Shapiro


N O N F I C T I O N

IMAGINEERING ATLANTA:
The Politics of Place in the City of Dreams

By Charles Rutheiser, Verso, 309 pages.

In his ambitious and influential "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles" (1990), the journalist and urban planner Mike Davis combined social science, geography, architecture, anthropology and urban planning to create not only a vivid recapitulation of L.A.'s history, but also to hypothesize its future. It was the kind of wildly original book that spawns imitators, and in Charles Rutheiser's "Imagineering Atlanta," we have what looks to be the first of many. (Similar books about Miami and San Francisco are forthcoming.) Rutheiser's book doesn't cover as much intellectual ground as Davis's did, but this Georgia State anthropology professor builds his tale into a precise look at the politicking behind preparations for this summer's Olympics.

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Contrasting "Imagineering Atlanta" with "City Of Quartz" makes sense, too, because Rutheiser argues that Atlanta's growth over the last several decades has turned the city into a kind of Los Angeles of the Southeast. Atlanta is a "polycentered sprawl," Rutheiser writes, an "autopolis only comprehended from behind the wheel." It has its own racially segregated features (race-based zoning was law there in this century), its own gated communities, even its own Orange County. Also like L.A., natural boundaries do not impede Atlanta's growth in several directions at once; Rutheiser notes the city's "piecemeal expansion by annexation of its suburban fringe." What's more, Atlanta has recently seen a massive influx of immigrants who've almost immediately leapfrogged African-Americans in economic terms. And since political power there is based (like everywhere else) on money, minority representation in civic institutions belies the real power held by largely white corporations.

One of Rutheiser's more salient points is that Atlanta is expert at publicizing itself. He begins his study by eradicating some myths about the city. First, Atlanta was no more than a backwater railroad hub -- not even a major Southern city, more Nairobi than Charleston -- when General Sherman completed the Confederates' razing of it in 1864. The rebirth-by-fire metaphor has been reused to exhaustion by the city's leaders in their various efforts to rebuild and reorganize entire swaths of the city, both during "urban renewal" (a.k.a. "Negro removal") and in many other eras. Rutheiser chronicles these efforts and all their sundry corruptions and miscues in painstaking detail before sketching out the groundwork for the 1996 Olympics. In his view, the planning for the games seems no less misguided and blundering than anything else in Atlanta's history -- and brings its own cast of unexpected villains. (Note to Andrew Young: hire a publicist.)

It's too bad that Rutheiser, unlike Davis in "City of Quartz," doesn't move beyond the usual sources of journalism and historical studies to primary material such as police files, homeowners association documents and planning board minutes. "Imagineering Atlanta," while informative, lacks that creative research, as well as the vigorous prose and leftist vitriol that made "City of Quartz" so much fun. But Davis' is a tough standard to hold anyone up against.

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Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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