"The Secret Parts of Fortune" by Ron Rosenbaum

The author of "Explaining Hitler" shares his adventures and passions, from getting caught in a pissing match with Oliver Stone to tracking down the inventor of canned laughter.

Published August 23, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms
By Ron Rosenbaum
Random House, 799 pages

The air is thin in the elevated climes inhabited by the diagnosticians of our era. In their protected aeries, far from the grit and grime of everyday life, past events are reflected upon, analyzed, interpreted, spun into miles of column-inches in America's print -- and online -- magazines. For the most part, such ruminations lead to a sort of ricocheting of the common wisdom. Occasionally, they add new insight or fresh perspective, providing new means of understanding the political, cultural and economic realities of our time.

Ron Rosenbaum, a longtime contributor to the higher echelons of American magazines, and whose Edgy Enthusiast column appears in the New York Observer, has been settled on this perch for the bulk of his 25-year career in journalism. "The Secret Parts of Fortune," a new collection of Rosenbaum's magazine writings, displays his mastery of the compact format. His intelligence and wide-ranging curiosity mark him as among the most original in a genre dominated by quick-hit magnifiers of the self-evident.

In the Rosenbaum universe, things don't actually happen; they have already happened in some far-off place or time, and demand a reexamination, providing nourishment to his seemingly bottomless appetite for interpretation. He wrings his subject matter inside out with originality and understated flair. There's a profile of the inventor of canned laughter, and the role that this artifice played in the development of television comedy; riffs on writers Charles Dickens, Hart Crane and Jorge Luis Borges and the poet John Keats; a revealing portrait of then-N.Y. Gov. Mario Cuomo at the height of his persuasive powers; an inquiry into the allure of conspiracy theorists woven into his own investigation into the death of journalist Danny Casolaro, who died in his bathtub while researching the ultimate explanation to U.S. involvement in the various civil wars in Central America. From an assessment of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' obsession with death to the obsessions of Watergate investigators to Rosenbaum's own plaintive marriage proposal to Rosanne Cash, there is something in here for everybody.

This is a book requiring random interests. Only a very serious Rosenbaum fan could appreciate the gamut. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that he stretches himself too thin. With such a broad array of topics at his disposal, his gaze can seem nondiscriminatory, giving equal critical attention to explaining the confluence of psychological and philosophical motivations of Adolph Hitler (a New Yorker excerpt drawn from his bestselling book, "Explaining Hitler") to the calculus behind a Charmin toilet paper ad campaign. To each, he applies the same postmodern sensibility, bemused at the foibles of men who have staked their reputations on competing points of view.

Rosenbaum doesn't help himself with his 42-page introduction, in which he attempts to provide a cap of narrative consistency to some 27 article-essays written over nearly 30 years. He explains, for example, that the title of the book is drawn from a line spoken by the Danish prince of indecision, Hamlet, in Shakespeare's play, a snippet of dialogue in which aide-de-camp Guildenstern evokes the many hidden treasures of a woman he desires as "the secret parts of fortune."

Moving rapidly from hapless Guildenstern to himself, Rosenbaum suggests that for Shakespeare, the phrase "the secret parts of fortune" alludes not merely to a woman's favors, but to "the secret workings of Fate, the hidden hand or the hidden plan behind history and human destiny." It's quite a leap, but Rosenbaum appropriates this line of dialogue for his narrative through-line, thus communicating his rationale for spending the better part of three decades in the observation tower. Rosenbaum presents himself as a sort of trope-destroying Houdini on a mission to pierce popular conspiracy theories and clear up misunderstandings among the common folk. Deconstructing his own deconstructions, he claims that his aim is to peel away the simple explanation and replace it with a higher, more truthful "uncertainty." "Unsolving mysteries," he writes, "often ... multiplies and deepens uncertainties." He wants to "investigate ideas as thoroughly as [other journalists] do politics and crime."

Many ideas do stand up to such inquisition -- his deep and colorful evocation of Long Island as the suburban source of such bizarre personalities as Amy Fisher and Howard Stern, and a brilliant exploration into the multiple duplicities of the British spy Kim Philby, to give just two examples. But others do not: His analytic powers can overwhelm comparatively lightweight subject matter. At times one is left with a desire for Rosenbaum to slog through the trenches for a change, to put his considerable prose skills to work and get his hands dirty with the business of primary, as opposed to refracted, information. Rosenbaum, however, plays to his strengths as a sort of journalist on time delay, and there are plenty of fresh insights to be found within his selective retrospective history of our times.

By Mark Schapiro

Mark Schapiro is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, Harper's Bazaar and the Utne Reader.

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