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A Spanking Shame

Do you really want to buy Matt Taibbi's new book that documents his drug-laced adventures as a flailing campaign reporter? He doesn't think so.
 
 
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Editor's Note: AlterNet took the unusual step of asking the author to review his own book. What we expected: a funny, acerbic, self-deprecating rant. We were not disappointed.

I had two surprises last week. The first came via an email from my publisher, Colin Robinson at the New Press in New York. Quietly, as though it was no big deal, Colin informed me that he had spotted my new book, "Spanking the Donkey," on the bookshelves at a Barnes & Noble in downtown Manhattan.

I called him up. "What the fuck?" I said. "I thought it was coming out in May!"

Colin is a classically hyper-polite Brit, of the sort who is liable to speak of an utter disaster as if it were nothing at all, a smudge on one's ascot. I expected him to respond in the hushed, only mildly embarrassed voice of an MP who has just been caught screwing a chicken in a public restroom by a Daily Mail photographer. You know -- yes, heh heh, what a shame, quite a thing, that...

"Well, yes," he said. "The release day is in May. But you see, we shipped it already, and they just put it out on the shelves willy-nilly. These things happen. Incidentally, if it doesn't sell, they're pulling it from the New Releases table in a week..."

"But there's no publicity!" I screeched. "We're fucked!"

"Well, some publicity would help, yes," he agreed. "Do you know anyone?"

That same afternoon, I received an email from Lakshmi Chaudhry, the editor at Alternet.org. In it, Lakshmi kindly informed me that Alternet was planning to feature an excerpt from my new book. The catch was, she wanted me to write the accompanying review myself. I immediately thought of the scene in Casino where the blackjack cheat is caught by Joe Pesci and offered a choice -- he gets to keep his ill-gotten winnings and get his hand smashed by a hammer, or he gets to walk with empty pockets and both hands intact. It was that kind of choice.

The downside to not accepting this offer was pretty clear. Most of "Spanking the Donkey" is a collection of vicious tirades directed at various politicians and journalists during the last campaign season. It would therefore be the most egregious cop-out if I were to spare myself that same treatment.

So here it is -- my review of "Spanking the Donkey", list price a ridiculous $24.95, publisher the aforementioned New Press. Release date: May, 2005.

Let's talk for a moment about what this book was supposed to be, and then let's talk about what it is. This is probably the best way to get at the failure of "Spanking the Donkey."

As someone who has followed Matt Taibbi's work for a number of years, there are a few things I can say about this writer. The first, and perhaps most important, is that he is not a deep thinker. He knows almost nothing about politics or anything else, and this is borne out in his reading habits; he consumes about five hours of sportswriting a day, stopping only when he is forced to go to work.

He remains employed as a journalist only due to a genetic accident. Some writers bring a variety of skills to the table when they work: a broad knowledge base, a burning inner idealism, a joyous gift for language, a keen sense of audience. Taibbi, on the other hand, possesses exactly one trick, which he uses over and over again to collect paychecks in between Patriots games. Thrust into any situation, he describes in morbid detail the most negative aspects of every thing, act and person he encounters.

Occasionally, this is amusing. This also occasionally makes his work read like principled iconoclasm, although the true motivation is probably closer to simple laziness and a kind of cowardly, masturbatory psychosis. Because he does not like to work very hard, Taibbi just blasts everything he sees as quickly as he can, and then retreats back immediately into the empty hole of his barren personal life. But this is irrelevant; the point is that the marriage of this particular writer to the subject of the American presidential election should have made for very interesting reading.

The American presidential election, after all, is a disgusting, shameful spectacle that just begs for the kind of fevered, blind shit-pounding that is this writer's ostensible expertise. Unfortunately, however, the election's peculiar qualities also played directly into this writer's most serious weakness -- his lack of broad intellectual vision. Charging head first into the campaign trail with his fangs bared, Taibbi quickly found that the fraud of the American electoral system existed on a level far beyond his immediate animal understanding. What was most vile about the campaign process was something ethereal, obscure, extremely complex, and mostly invisible to the naked eye.

It involved subtleties in the behavior of the campaign press corps -- which consigned certain candidates and their ideas to the margins, mainly through careful inattention at the right times, scarcely detectable strategies of word choice in questioning candidates, and a cheerful willingness to be trapped in the isolated, incestuous chamber of the campaign trail. It had something to do with geography; by the time Taibbi noticed that the campaign never visited "real" America, the election was almost over. And it had to do with a false storyline involving the left-right battle, a pure media concoction that very early on created a compelling narrative of a "hopelessly divided" America, and then wrote about it as fact when relentless propaganda along these lines actually brought this about as an electoral result.

All of this was very complicated, and difficult to detect from inside the media fish tank of the campaign, which Taibbi dips in and out of throughout the book: on the plane with then-frontrunner Howard Dean in summer 2003, in New Hampshire in the months leading up to the primary, on the trail with eventual nominee John Kerry as a reporter for Rolling Stone in the months after Iowa. The reporter never really figures out what the hell he's doing during these journeys, and as a result, most of the book's narrative reads like a bad imitation of a Buster Keaton comedy, with Taibbi literally tripping over his dick for months at a time as he searches for a fruitful angle.

The book's most hilarious moments come when Taibbi, having emptied whole clipfuls of blanks at the campaign story, resorts to shameless schtickery in desperate attempts to squeeze something out of his assignment. Thus you get scenes like the one at a Kerry event in Jackson, Mississippi, when Taibbi, certain that he is about to be fired by Rolling Stone, decides to go to work in a Viking suit. No one at the event finds this very funny, neither do his editors, and neither, probably, will readers of this book. As unintentional humor goes, it is priceless -- like watching Kirstie Alley confess to sucking off a moose in a last-ditch attempt to get three minutes of coverage on the E! network -- but that is exactly what it is, unintentional humor.

As political journalism goes, "Spanking the Donkey" is probably limited to a voyeuristic curiosity. At some level, it is extremely funny to watch this low-rent brute flail around and slowly lose his mind under the glare of the campaign lights. Taibbi gets nothing from the campaign story, and it just might be that there is nothing to get -- a funny thing for us to consider now, but a horror tale to an idiot stuck in the middle of it. If you enjoy failure as a spectacle, Taibbi at least made sure this is rich reading. But that is a big if, especially at $24.95.

Matt Taibbi lives in New York. He covers politics for Rolling Stone and the New York Press.