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Exploring pop culture

Books | Historical novels provide keen insight into its arcane origins

Issue: "JOhn Q. Citizen," Feb. 8, 1997

The great English critic and journalist Hilaire Belloc asserted that &quotto comprehend the history of a thing is to unlock the mysteries of its present, and more, to discover the profundities of its future." Two recently published novels explore the arcane origins of modern pop culture--thus providing some much needed insight into both the here-and-now and the come-what-may. They also tell their tales with verve and nerve.

Panama, a historical thriller set at the end of the 19th century in Paris, is the stunning first novel of Eric Zencey. In it the famed historian Henry Adams, grandson of one American president and great-grandson of another, is caught up in the scandalous events surrounding the &quotPanama Affair."

It seems that before going bankrupt, the French company that had obtained first rights to build the Panama Canal had bribed nearly half of the Chamber of Deputies to gain legislation favorable to its interests. Unsurprisingly, several murders turn up; corruption abounds; intrigue is everywhere evident. Unwittingly, Adams finds himself caught up in the swirl of events.

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Eventually, he realizes that he must untangle the web of subversion if he--and those he cares most about--are to survive. In the process, he explores the very latest forensic technologies in criminal investigation, including fingerprinting, photographic analysis, and bertillonage (identification by means of scientific measurements).

This is high-brow fiction at its best--brimming over with ideas, chock-a-block with historical and literary allusions, but simultaneously a real page-turner. The real value of the book, though, is the insight it sheds on the plethora of modern governmental scandals we face today. I couldn't help but think of &quotInside the Beltway" Washington as I read of &quotLeft Bank" Paris.

Donald Davidson was the acclaimed Fugitive Poet, Southern Agrarian essayist, master teacher of writing, and mentor to some of the greatest American writers in the 20th century, including Robert Penn Warren, Caroline Gordon, Jesse Stuart, Andrew Nelson Lytle, Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, James Dickey, Wendell Berry, and Peter Taylor. Alas, he never published a novel himself--at least not in his lifetime. Recently though, his heirs discovered a complete, fully edited manuscript among his personal papers, and they have filled that great void.

The novel The Big Ballad Jamboree is utterly brilliant. It is filled with all the themes you might expect from such a prolific and wide-ranging imagination--from a pastoral reflection on the necessity of a sense of place to a scathing jeremiad against the shallow aberrations of modernism. But it also contains a surprisingly tender love story, a remarkably detailed glimpse into the legacy of country music, a vividly rendered record of Appalachian vernacular, and an appreciative recollection of a covenantal community that is now all but extinct.

Besides the sheer literary joy this novel affords its reader, it also provides a keen perspective on the whys and wherefores of modern pop culture and our fascination with hollow celebrities and empty entertainment.

I read these books for fun--but I came away from both with far more than a few evenings of pleasure. I came away with a new understanding of myself and my world.

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