Disasters Both Outside and Within

I’ve recently read Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters (after watching the author spar with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report), a book I found profoundly moving–a reaction I hadn’t expected, but probably could have predicted.

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The book is a series of transcribed radio broadcasts (with a few exceptions), as the events are unfolding, of crucial blows to the American psyche: the assassination of President Kennedy, then his brother Robert, John Lennon’s murder, the Challenger disaster, the Columbine massacre, the World Trade Center attacks and the death of Michael Jackson. Virtually anyone reading this book will have experienced living through at least some of these events, if not all (I was in seventh grade when Kennedy was killed).

So the book is a You Are There account of some of the main body blows of recent American history, but it also creates an alternate personal history of the reader, too, if he or she is old enough.

The first chapter, of the Kennedy assassination, begins with radio patter of an almost child-like American innocence, a care-free world managed by helpful advertised products: Armour Star turkeys (“government inspected and graded to give your family a very special treat this Thanksgiving”), Falstaff beer (“no deposit, no return cans in handy packs of six”), and the Robert Hall department store (“robes and pajama sets are priced from only $3.97”). In between, songs by the Chiffons (“I Have a Boyfriend”) and Tommy Rowe’s “Hey Everybody” keep the tone light.

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But slowly, breaking news about shots being fired at a Kennedy motorcade in Dallas eventually overwhelm the radio station’s normal proceedings, and this news grows ever alarming: Kennedy has been shot at, Kennedy has been hit, Kennedy’s wounds are minor, Kennedy’s wounds are grave, Kennedy is dead. Though of course I knew what was coming since I lived through this national trauma, I found myself wishing certain reports were indeed true, that Kennedy’s wounds were minor, manageable, and because of this need to deny what could not be denied (an impulse that surprised me as I read), the transcribed radio report created an almost unbearable tension.

Perhaps I felt this way because the Kennedy assassination revealed to me the wider world of adult tragedy, the shocks that often come without warning. And in some ways, the willful innocence of the country’s popular culture was lost that day as well.

When the on-the-scene radio report of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s assassination kicks in, there’s an odd emotional quality to the reporting, a sort of Can this really be happening again? tone that seems to imply that history’s lesson hasn’t completely been learned. Less than three years after the death of his older brother, this death almost hits harder, because it illustrates that the first assassination wasn’t an anomaly, but another step in a horrific future business-as-usual (Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been assassinated months earlier).

And the litany of disasters follows: John Lennon’s murder appears to cap off any last remaining promise of the Sixties, and the Challenger explosion crumples the country’s assumptions of technological superiority.

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The chapter on Columbine is perhaps the most powerful: a transcription of a teacher’s 911 call as the killing unfolds at the high school, and it captures a chilling, head-shaking sense of helplessness and disbelief at such carnage in such an unlikely (then) setting.

After the grim on-the-scene news reports of the World Trade Center attacks (attacks that also tore down America’s willful belief in our safety and invulnerability), we come to the rather jaded reports of Michael Jackson’s death. We have become so inured to tragedy that the commentators can argue about whether Jackson was really the King of Pop or not.

Goldsmith’s book of transcribed tragedies would be a difficult read if it weren’t also a compelling secret history of the country, and of the reader. As individuals, we have all had to absorb terrible news and events in our lives, and these radio reports of disasters “as they happened” captures the emotional shock and disbelief, the hopeless bargaining with reality to return to normality that we undergo when our personal or family lives go kablooie.

So, if all of this book is transcribed reporting, then how does Goldsmith get to be the “author”? I’m reminded of the work of Studs Terkel, whose transcribed interviews in such books as Working and Hard Times are masterpieces of revelation: voices we haven’t heard, only brought together through Terkel’s efforts, and shaped into an overarching narrative. Or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, a reclamation of late 19th century and early 20th century court documents that reveal stories of despair and violence lost to history (see my post on Reznikoff’s book “To Remain a Witness”).

Goldsmith, I think, has done a similar service, taking the disasters that now loom like horrible monuments in our history and bringing back to them the “shock of the new.” It’s not perfect: Goldsmith says he couldn’t, for example, find a contemporaneous report of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death that captured the developing despair of the news. But this still remains one of the best history books I’ve ever read, voices from the past, under great stress, that recapture the immediacy of the present, and that laid bare, by example, the raw emotion of some of my own life’s (much smaller) disasters.

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