BOOK REVIEW / Going 'Wow!'

The Dustbin of History by Greil Marcus Picador, pounds 15.99; A study of 'history's excluded' is high-class guff, says Gilbert Adair

Greil Marcus made his reputation as a rock critic, which is strange because, when he writes about popular music, his writing, never all that rigorous, turns to pure mush.

Here he is, for example, on the composer Deborah Chessler and the group she managed in the Fifties, the Vibranaires (later renamed, thank heaven, the Orioles): "As the Orioles, they sang her songs, among them 'It's Too Soon to Know,' a tune so bottomless all the music that followed can disappear into it with no sense that anything has been lost." I had never heard of "It's Too Soon to Know", but my difficulty with Marcus's enthusiasm for it is not that it would have been regarded as a tad overstated had he been talking about the Hammerklavier Sonata, but that, as with almost all of his populist devotions, what he is doing is extrapolating from "Wow!"

"Wow!" is what Marcus says again and again about the people and things he admires - the film The Manchurian Candidate, the blues musician Robert Johnson, the TV movie Dead Man's Curve, about two "surf and hot-rod music princes", Jan Berry and Dean Terrence - except that, because he is a critic who likes the sound of his own voice, he systematically, not to mention ectoplasmically, expands that "Wow!" into paragraph after paragraph of the higher guff.

That is the first problem with The Dustbin of History, a problem of idiom. The second is a problem of identity. The title is, of course, Trotsky's, from his excommunication of the Mensheviks: "Go where you belong from now on - into the dustbin of history!" Marcus admits in his introduction to a sympathy for, and fascination with, history's salon des refuses - "those people, acts and events that are casually left out of history or forcefully excluded from it". It is a wonderful subject for a book, and one's expectations are not at all disappointed by Marcus's first 80 pages, which contain fine essays on a now-forgotten hero of Tiananmen Square, on how it felt to experience the convulsions of May 1968, on Eric Ambler's political thrillers, and even on what really occurred at the Rolling Stones's Altamont concert in 1969, when a black teenager was stabbed to death by Hell's Angels hired to guard the stage.

Then, on page 80, one is confronted by an essay entitled "Dylan as Historian": the Dylan, needless to say, is Bob. Bob Dylan as one of history's "excluded"? And John Wayne, the subject of a later essay? And Susan Sontag? The Beat writers? Wim Wenders? Although, to be fair, the promised theme resurfaces here and there throughout the book (if there were an index of abstract concepts, the entry on "history" would fill several pages), the suspicion grows on one that The Dustbin of History is merely a collection of journalistic bric-a-brac that Marcus deemed unpublishable in these hard times without some defining, overarching subject to glue the whole baggy thing together. For 80 pages or so, he manages to keep up the pretence that this is a book about a compelling idea, then it all falls apart.

Is there nothing to salvage? Not much, I fear, for the idiom does not change even when Marcus shifts into accusatory mode. He is a master of "negative gush". His attack on Susan Sontag, devastating and not completely beside the point, is ruined by a final, astonishing dismissal of her as "fundamentally and unnaturally an un-American critic". (Joe McCarthy would have approved of that adjective "un-American", but even he might have balked at qualifying it with the adverb "unnaturally".) And his ire at her preoccupation with European cultural trends (he contrasts her, ludicrously, with Pauline Kael) leads him into firing off a cheap shot. "Sontag was raised in Arizona and California, but there is nothing in her voice or her sensibility to betray the fact, save perhaps the cowboy boots she sometimes wears." Is this man worth listening to?

In his introduction Marcus offers the reader an insight into the motivation behind his methodology: "I think criticism has a good deal to do with a willingness ... to bet too much on too small an object or occasion." I agree. The trouble is that the "too small an object" on which he himself too frequently bets is his own garrulity. For a lot of the time he is barking up the right tree, but barking nevertheless.

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