If you’re young and/or never had a gas stove–or a professional gas range– let me explain. Before electronic ignition, in order to use the burners (or the oven) you had to start the flame yourself. (There were stoves in between that had pilot lights to avoid having to do this, but every so often the pilot light went out and you had to do it anyway. “Do I smell gas?!” was a common background chorus of my childhood, and one I sang myself in my first couple of apartments.) You’d light a match, turn the dial corresponding with the burner you wanted to use and use the match to light the flame while cringing and bracing yourself to pull back in case of whoosh! and eyebrow singeing. More often than not, you’d burn your fingertips trying to get the damned thing to light long before flames were exploding in your face. This, the gut clenching expectation of scorched nose hairs and realization of singed fingers, was what I experienced reading Micheal Wolff’s Fire and Fury this weekend.
I haven’t read anyone else’s reviews, so it’s more than possible my thoughts aren’t in line with the majority. I’m also not a book reviewer, and I have a lot of thoughts, so even with limiting myself, this will run long.
I bought the book Friday afternoon. I tried to get the hardcopy in the morning at my local Barnes & Noble, but they didn’t have it in yet (snowstorm Thursday, everything still iced and approximately 1000° below zero) so I downloaded to my Nook. I really wanted to read this and I really, really wanted to support Wolff and Henry Holt & Co. Much the way the first thing I did after the 2016 election results was to purchase subscriptions to the NY Times and The Washington Post, it felt important to use my wallet to support free speech and free press. Trump using the office of the Presidency to bluster about forcing the publisher to stop publication/production? Fuck yes, I’m contributing to this legal defense fund. An in-depth look at the first 9 months of Trump’s tenure in the White House, written by someone who had spent considerable time interviewing people in the West Wing, someone who didn’t seem to be blindly aligned with this administration? Yeah, I’m in. Besides, with the excerpts coming across my twitter feed and just about every news article I read, a) how could I resist? and b) I wanted to be able to discuss the book with more understanding than choice quotes possibly pulled out of context. It took me all weekend to read it, a long time for me to plow through less than 330 pages. First it was slow going because I had to keep putting the book down. The first couple of chapters put me right back to the first days after the election; feeling nauseous, angry, betrayed, and helpless.
It continued to be slow going. Partially for the same reason as those first chapters. Much as nothing I read in Fire and Fury (I’d already seen the more shocking bits in excerpts online) felt truly new, having it all compiled into one book packs a hell of a psychological wallop. What a shitshow of an administration. If only half of what Wolff wrote is true, it confirms we are experiencing my worst case scenario (my vivid and dark imagination is long established). Some of it, though, was because I kept thinking the book would have benefited from holding off on the publication date while spending some more time with a content editor, a copyeditor, and then getting another once over from a proofreader. Separate from the subject matter, it didn’t read like smoothly crafted narrative nonfiction, yet it didn’t read like a compiled collection of essays/articles, either. I understand the need to strike while the iron is hot, and I kept reading until the end, but it was more put-downable than I had hoped. This is so important for all of us, collectively and individually that I wish the author and the publisher had taken the extra month or two to smooth it out, clean it up, and address what wasn’t in there.
Non-fiction or fiction, what an author leaves out is every bit as important as what gets put in. Some of what’s left in the author’s notes shouldn’t ever make it to the manuscript. Those decisions are shaped by the focus of the book, style of the author, and information available. The buffoonery and hubris of this administration is inherent in the very existence of this book, the author’s unbelievable access to the West Wing. But here I have to say I was expecting the author to address a few issues that he didn’t.
Given that much of Fire and Fury focused on the idea that this President takes everything personally and (it seems to me) many of his tweets and comments since winning the election have focused on Hillary Clinton, compounded by the above all threats pre-election of “lock her up,” I kept waiting for this to be addressed, and nope. This isn’t a matter of wanting a bit more juicy gossip. Threatening to jail opponents in what has until recently been a democracy is the mark of a dictator, not merely a bumbling, petulant fool. I understand that the revival of those threats didn’t hit the twitter feed and press until long after the book went to press, but hello?! That seems more than a bit important. Was/is this just a bit of political theater for his base, as unimportant as the other promises he made on the campaign trail that he can’t remember and doesn’t care about? Not understanding how our government works, admiring dictators because hey, they’ve got all the good bling AND good press, planting his equally unqualified family because of paranoia combined with a spectacular lack of comprehension ≠ purposely, specifically wanting to create a dictatorship. That feels like a really important detail to leave out. Even if the author didn’t know if that is the President’s intention, how about the people around him and advising him? Was that purely Flynn, regurgitated now as a signal for him to stfu? A desperate attempt to distract from the Mueller investigation? A signal to the FBI that their silly laws and mores are passé? Intent matters. It matters for how wethepeople interpret his actions and statements and respond.
Healthcare. DACA. Freedom of religion. Gerrymandering. Separation of church and state. On reading the book, it seems that no one in the West Wing (or the barely mentioned but completely responsible and complicit GOP) addresses, acknowledges, or understands that these issues have tremendous impact on human beings. Does the author? These are issues that yes, are political hotbuttons, but literally have the power to destroy the lives of the vast majority of the American people. Wolff reminds us again and again that Jarvanka and several on “their” team are Democrats. Really? And none of them ever discusses the impact of repealing the ACA on little Johnny in Montana who needs his chemo? If this is the case–it isn’t a stretch for me to believe it–how about a page, a paragraph, a nod from the author letting me know? The many meltdowns, tantrums, zillion instances of lack of attention to detail are important to the picture being painted, but I could have done with less description of who ate what and more meat.
Which leads me to Bannon, who was probably the one person portrayed in the book as coming closest to remembering these ideas and policies are more than theoretical–which of course, isn’t very close at all; he’s also the one with the closest to clear intent of dictatorship, and it’s Steve Bannon. Describing a conversation with him where he states he doesn’t believe Trump is anti-semitic but he isn’t sure about the “other” (insert dog whistle here) without restating this is Steve Fucking Bannon, master of the safe space for nazis, racists, homophobes and misogynists of all flavors feels like a glaring omission, no? Obviously, Bannon was the one who did the most talking to (at?) Wolff. It isn’t a coincidence that the book ends with his dismissal. I wish I’d known going into it that this was more of a tell-all from Bannon’s perspective than a general “Inside the White House.” This, more than anything, is what kept my nausea going. I’m all in for an unlikeable and unreliable protagonist, but somehow, somewhere along the way, Wolff dropped the authorial hints and reminders that Bannon is Bannon, not a sympathetic character to hang your hat on. Yeah, I know, this isn’t fiction, and the characters at hand are all too real, but honestly, as it was written, it didn’t feel like clear and reliable journalism–neither investigative nor opinion. I’d still have purchased it, though maybe not rushed to read it, and my expectations would have been different.
As expected, Fire and Fury shows a disorganized, disinterested, and ruled by a brutal and unsupervised playground of a White House. I’m sick from spending the last year living under it, let alone the weekend immersed in it.
What about you, Fringelings? Have you read it, are you going to?