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Putting Out a Contract on the 20th Century

Some mornings you wake up convinced that a huge ironyectomy has been performed on the world. A guy writes a satire. In some people’s eyes, an ugly satire calculated to enrage. Eddie Murphy meets Lucifer. In the wake of a book come death threats, real deaths, bombings.

Those of us who’ve spent too long in the mealy-mouthed 20th Century, with its namby-pamby democracy and its nicey-nicey God and its humorless feminist hissers, can’t understand this “Death to the satirist pigs” stuff. It seems to us a bit out of proportion.

We don’t get this whole notion of contracts on an author’s life. Six-million bucks if you’re in the faith; $1 million for an infidel hit man. Will there be a run on the Koran in Mafia neighborhoods?

And finally, we are reduced to our little protests. The greatest authors, 15 of them, are introduced on “Donahue” like players on a football team. They stand up and talk about the threats they’ve faced in the name of literature. Bereft of irony, they end up arguing on daytime television with an American Muslim teen-ager from the audience.

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Need I say that I, too, am playing my part by watching the show?

Addressing Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. et al., the teen-age girl--earnest, wide-eyed and ponytailed--says, “You really, really don’t understand how bad we feel.”

Her look, her accent, her words are Mall Girl. Her heart is in ancient Araby. She is close to tears.

Without hesitation, the great authors challenge her. She is the spokesperson for “the other side” in this satire on democracy. Norman Mailer never backs down. Erica Jong lets her have it.

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A caller calls in. Go ahead, caller: “I just want to say that in this era of trash TV, I’m really proud you had these people on, Phil.”

But what to do? Carry a sign outside a bookstore? Wear a button? Actually read the book?

Write a letter to the Ayatollah protesting his decision to order a hit? “Dear Mr. Khomeini, as an American citizen I object to your order. The amount seems excessive, and I don’t think it’s fair to offer a different amount to nonbelievers. . . .”

Call the Russians greedy opportunists for playing “Let’s Make a Deal” with Iran in the middle of this? Wear a “Nuke ‘em If They Can’t Take a Joke” T-shirt? Denounce George Bush?

These things have been done, and soon it will be forgotten by all but a few who will carry on the protest and the vendetta. And especially by those whose lives are on the line.

One day I opened the newspaper and read that the salmon season had opened. It happened to be the same day the Salman season opened. The salmon season will close, but Rushdie will never be safe again.

Most of us will go on to the next story. We will read about the woman who has been arrested twice for impersonating David Letterman’s wife. We will read that she was found in his home “eating canned pineapple.”

Canned pineapple, there’s the rub. There’s the zany Letterman touch come back to haunt him.

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Why make jokes? The world’s too scary. The world’s too crazy. The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today.

But like a lone nut with a pun, I will carry on. I am part of that small band of cognitive dissidents who won’t quit, especially when we pick up the paper and read that 57% of Americans surveyed said they “could not live without a microwave oven.”

Obviously, the unmicrowaved life is not worth living.

Death from Khomeini or death from microwave deprivation? Tomorrow at 4 on “Donahue.”


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