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The Doomsday Machine

The master of disaster returns with 104 reasons to be miserable.

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Another writer might be accused of irony if he gave a serene title like Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights to a book in which an abused child is stuffed into a drawer, an old friend murdered, and the puppy of a horribly disfigured girl slain by drug dealers.

And to subtitle that book--in which a sobbing toddler is torn from his mother's arms, a father is shot in the head by heartless home invaders, and a carnival fat man collapses and dies--Of Cloudless and Carefree American Days would be seen as surpassing irony and stepping into grim black humor.

But this is not another writer. This is Bob Greene, the Chicago Tribune's serial nostalgist and a man nearly incapable of irony--certainly incapable of subtle irony (or subtlety in any form, for that matter).

The title of this book, Bob's 17th, instead reflects the blind, uncritical sentimentality that forms the bedrock of Bob's writing. Even the tales of horror--and they come fast and furious--are based on the palpable untruth that these sorts of tragedies never happened in America in 1964, the year Bob retracted his sympathies from contemporary life and began constructing his palace of the past.

So tightly in the grip of nostalgia is Bob, so bleak is his view of life today, that he says almost nothing positive about the present day without repeatedly stressing that this morsel of goodness is a freak occurrence, an aberrant blip in a hideous world gone crazy. A boy can't receive life-changing surgery for free from the Shriners without Bob caviling life for its "tragedy and pettiness and heartbreak." A high school soccer player can't exhibit sportsmanship--disavowing his own game-winning goal because time had run out--without Bob first parading "the preening and taunting of Deion Sanders" and "the tiresome bickering between millionaire professional athletes and the millionaire owners of their teams" to place the selfless act in its proper context of insignificance.

The tale of three boys in a high-spirited rubber-band fight that is mistakenly reported to the police as a crime in progress is not, in Bob's eyes, a goofy case of misunderstanding. Though no one was hurt, no one arrested, and no repercussions of any kind suffered, Bob can't help but see this as more welcome evidence of the Decline. In his mind, the fact that a passerby could even imagine the teens were committing a crime means this is "a pretty cruddy time for a kid to be growing up." He doesn't add "as opposed to Bexley, Ohio, in the 1950s," but he doesn't have to. The idea is implicit when he doesn't state it outright.

At one point, Bob seems to be trembling on the brink of uttering a sentiment that, at first blush, might sound optimistic. While telling the uplifting tale of a selfless friend who shelters a handicapped girl in his home, he writes, "There are thousands of people in this country who, out of charity or goodness or whatever you may call it, do fine and honorable things every day." It might sound optimistic, that is, until you contrast Bob's "thousands" with the fact that there are 275 million people in the United States. I guess the rest are criminals.

And Bob being merely pessimistic means he's in a good mood. When something upsets him (and nearly everything does), he explodes into a kind of Conradean anguish. "Where do we turn to extinguish the meanness and to fill the utter, screaming emptiness?" he wails in distress, a feeling that is so consistently maintained over these 104 columns that you can snip patches from the cloth of Bob's favorite metaphor, threaded throughout the book, and stitch together a quilt of fear without losing any coherence: "Something is very wrong" in "our fast-fraying country" filled with "killers in large cities and small towns, devastating the fabric of our nation" and leaving the few decent people in a state of "numb sloppiness that has taken over the fabric of American life."

You'd imagine that when columns are collected for a book, the obviously inferior and utterly repetitive would be culled out, that readers of Chevrolet Summers would be shielded from the steady drumbeat of duplication that Bob's newspaper readers are hammered with day after blessed day. That is not the case. While Bob does suppress his Baby Richard frenzy (of the 100 columns he churned out on various aspects of the tragedy, Bob conspicuously includes just one), on other subjects he falls back into full autopilot mode.

Bob attends the Iowa State Fair and the Ohio State Fair and the Preble County Fair and the Cambria County Fair and the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair. In one column a kid is given a free ticket to a Bulls game; in another a kid is given a free ticket to a World Series game.

Many heroes-of-the-past columns: Stan Musial, Jack Benny, Phil Silvers, Frank Sinatra, Woody Hayes. Plenty of whimsical-proposals-that'll-never-happen columns: National Courtesy Month; sell the moon; stop videotaping weddings; let the school with the better grade point average get first possession at college games. Bob must have written a thousand of these over the years. Dopes phone them in, and Bob is always happy to use them to piss away another day's obligation.

Even within individual columns, Bob's tendency for inch- eating repetition is clear, particularly in the rare cases when he stumbles upon what he considers a fresh metaphor. He falls on the thought with a delighted cry and slams it to the ground, again and again and again (and again and again and again), until it's reduced to mush in his hands. Example: when walking through an airport causeway (one of several airport columns, of course) Bob decides that the businessmen tapping away at phones seem like woodpeckers. Pleased with his new metaphor, Bob proceeds to clonically repeat the word "woodpecker" 15 times.

For all the tragedy in this book--and Bob offers up a maypole dance of abused and slaughtered children, interchangeable tales that he cynically presents to wring a tear and pass a day--the saddest things, for me, are the dozen or so columns in which Bob manages to hold his fetishes and fixations at bay just long enough to write about an interesting subject. The boy and his dad who couldn't afford World Series tickets and then were handed a pair by a benefactor? Great. The lone Baby Richard column, plucked out of the long march of Bob's endless iteration of the subject? Agonizing.

But rather than redeem Bob, these flashes of brilliance only serve to remind us--like the few hours of normalcy that a mental patient might manage, heavily drugged, on a day visit back home--of what we have lost: the talent that Bob undoubtedly had 25 years ago, squandered in a conspiracy between his own fearful laziness and the narcoleptic neglect of his Tribune editors, slumped in their corporate skyboxes when they should be at the office blue-penciling Bob's autoerotic flourishes.

As it is, Bob can barely write a column without lionizing the past, damning the present, or dreading the future. Sometimes he does all three at the same time, obscuring whatever the supposed subject of the column happens to be.

Sometimes he seems to be operating in the realm of pure fantasy. What other journalist could sit at a tavern at Disney World and decide, based on pure negative faith, that the real city centers around the country must be abandoned dead zones? "All over the country on Saturday night--you could assume that downtown after downtown sat cold and empty, wary products of our time," Bob writes, no doubt drawing on a vodka gimlet in a Donald Duck glass.

Who else would not only serve up the same sentimental tripe but have the audacity to suggest that in a world growing fuzzier and more sentimental by the moment, only he, Bob Greene, offers up a sparkle of dignity and real life?

Again and again he suggests these aren't the sorts of stories that get published. Nobody else cares about people, about these "signs of hope." Nobody else reports them. Only Bob. The rest of the media, their hands red with blood, their teeth sharpened to points, tear at tales of atrocity and horror like a pack of gleeful dogs. Not Bob.

A perfectly good column (the last one in the book), a benign catalog of pleasant events in the day, is ruined in the last paragraph by Bob's ponderous paean to himself and his unique powers of observation.

"The above stories have only two things in common," he writes. "One is that I observed all of them happen within a single twenty-four-hour period. The other is that, by an objective criteria, they are not dramatic or momentous or earthshaking events; thus, none of them would probably ever be deemed important enough to be included in a newspaper."

Aieee! Where were the editors? If only they had snipped that thought and others like it, they could have salvaged another dozen columns from Bob's Pagliacci-like self-pity.

Perhaps they are too deadened by the torpid pointlessness of Bob's writing, best illustrated in the 57th column in the book, "Her Life Was Not a Joke," a formulaic bit of drivel that displays Bob at his utter worst.

It's framed like this: Bob hears a Helen Keller joke on cable TV. He deems it "more than just another depressing testament to the rampant stupidity of our know-nothing age."

Oh, it's much, much more than just a joke. It is a fire bell in the night, a call to arms, and Bob, pawing the earth, responds, froth dripping from his snout, hacking away at the straw man. The bulk of the column is a pastiche straight out of the encyclopedia, beginning "Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880" and ending, after eight jumbo paragraphs of dry, book-report biography, with "She died in Westport, Conn., on June 1, 1968, at the age of eighty-seven." He closes the column by thrashing not only the unnamed comic but "this lazy, sloppy-thinking age of ours" and by making the final exhortation, "Get a life."

"Sloppy-thinking." Now that's an interesting assessment, coming from Bob. A sharp-thinking person might point out that, had Bob not been slumped in front of the television set, again, surfing for material for his column from cable TV, again, then maybe he wouldn't have heard the Helen Keller joke that so rocked his world.

But then, unleashing sharp thought into Bob Greene's world is like sending a pack of starving wolves into nap time at a nursery school. It isn't very fair, and the results are bloody. Suffice it to say that discerning readers will, as always, avoid Bob's work like the plague, scorning him as a man who seeks to be sentimental and disturbing. He succeeds, though not in the intended manner. Instead, his shameless flogging of sentimentality comes off as just disturbing, while his cynical use of abused and injured children in an effort to disturb ends up sounding insincere and sentimental.

Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights, by Bob Greene, Viking, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Jeff Heller.

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