Paperback roundup

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson, Phoenix pounds 12.99. "The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures," Johnson states in his opening sentence. That's probably a truism, but it doesn't do any harm to be reminded of the obvious once in a while. When it was published last year, Johnson's vast book attracted some ridicule for its factual clangers - among other things, apparently, Johnson claimed that Edison invented the telephone. To be fair, a book on this scale is bound to have a few mistakes: cf Norman Davies's Europe: A History. The important thing is getting them corrected, and not only does the Edison one not reappear in this edition, Johnson goes so far as to include his private address for any reader who wants to point out any other errors or take issue with his opinions. Now why would anybody want to do that?

In the preface Johnson boasts that, thanks to the inadequacies of the English educational system, he came to American history "completely fresh, with no schoolboy or student prejudices or antipathies"; as students of his work will realise, however, that still leaves an awful lot of other sorts of prejudices and antipathies to be accounted for. You could start with the title, and the question-begging assumption that the Americans are all one people. (Justifying this, Johnson says that he refuses to accept "the fly-blown phylacteries of Political Correctness"; and you don't even want to think about what a phylactery looks like when it's fly-blown.) Even if you are prepared to take that one on the chin and move on, you might pause at his characterisation of Watergate as "a media putsch which ... reversed the democratic verdict of a Nixon landslide", or his characterisation of the Reagan presidency: "It was not long before the American public began to sense that the dark days of the 1970s were over, and that the country was being led again". Elsewhere, though, he is often more reasonable than you would expect - Senator McCarthy gets a proper wigging, for instance - and his readiness to stick his neck out on all kinds of matters and his affection for his subject make up for a lot. By the way, in case it was starting to gnaw, it was Alexander Graham Bell.

Underworld by Don DeLillo, Picador pounds 10. Possibly America is too big for conventional narratives to take in; instead, it inspires encyclopaedic extravaganzas like Moby Dick or monstrous scrapbooks like John Dos Passos's USA. Underworld is a little like the latter. Taking as his starting point the Dodgers v Giants game of 3 October 1951, DeLillo tracks the historic baseball that Bobby Thomson hit into the stands to win the game for the Giants. Through the lives of the people who hold the ball and a succession of tangentially connected others (including J Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce and Frank Sinatra), he assembles, piecemeal, a kind of underground chronicle of pre-millennial America: a history grounded in nuclear warfare, consumer excess, waste disposal, black-outs, rumours and, running beneath it all, a weary, almost nostalgic longing for oblivion. It's a useful antidote to the optimistic, pioneering America that Paul Johnson offers, and (unless I'm forgetting something obvious) this decade's best stab at the Great American Novel.

Culture of Complaint by Robert Hughes, Harvill pounds 6.99. Good to see back on the bookshelves this likeable polemic, first published in 1993, a long, controlled splutter of fury at the "the two PCs" - the Politically Correct and the Patriotically Correct - which in his view are destroying intellectual and political life in America. Hughes, art critic of Time and author of The Shock of the New, stamps his foot in fury all over modern American culture, and pretty well everybody gets their toes trodden on: the sheer bloody ignorance of Afrocentrism, the pointlessness of college quotas, the jargon-ridden insanities of postmodern academia; the complacency, philistinism and vicious moralising of the new Right. It's as bracing as a cold bath.

The Factory of Facts by Luc Sante, Granta pounds 7.99. Sante is an immigrant to America - several times over, in fact. In his youth, his parents bobbed about between Belgium and America, and he ended up, mentally, somewhere in mid-Atlantic. I say "in fact", but facts are to be treated with caution here. The opening chapter, "Resume", contains nine different accounts of his early life, together cumulatively hilarious but also disconcerting: is there anything in this supposed memoir we can take literally? At one level, this book is more about Belgium than America, tackling such topics as the history of the Sante family since it was first recorded in 1221, the topography of the Ardennes, Belgium's influence on world culture. More to the point, it is about a crucial aspect of the American experience: having your roots in Europe while trying to be an American. Sante is at times almost distressingly clever; but he is also a natural charmer.

Toward the End of Time by John Updike, Penguin pounds 6.99. God save us from writers who think they understand modern physics. Nobody understands modern physics, and the sooner they stop fooling around with the collapse of the wave function and alternative realities, the better for us all. This chilly little number is set in 2020, when war with China has wrecked the American economy and government. The narrator, 66-year-old Ben Turnbull, marooned in a comfortable house in Massachusetts, staves off the twin ravages of old age and a decaying polity by paying a young prostitute and the second-rate hoods who run the protection rackets in his neighbourhood, meanwhile seeming to drift between alternative realities where he has and has not killed his wife. What can I say? Updike's always impressive, and here there's an eerie surrealism that's new. But he still can't suppress his mad urge to describe everything; and, you know, I really don't think he likes women that much.

Hungry Hearts by Anzia Yezierska, Penguin pounds 6.99. Mad, flat-footed tales of the New York ghetto, about women trapped by poverty and ignorance and feeding on cheap romance: "'Oi weh! Light!' breathed Shenah Pessah, excitedly ..." Ignore the unintentionally funny introduction, a piece of witless postmodernism by Blanche H Gelfant (a name I strongly believe to be an alias). But enjoy the fusty prose and the atmosphere of repressed sexuality, fuelled by sightings of the new, opulent American woman: a swig of raw spirits.

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