Sunday, August 6, 2000
Washington Suppose you are Joe Eszterhas and you think of yourself as a writer and you sell yourself to Hollywood and you wind up writing screenplays that become sleazy-cheesy-greasy movies such as "Showgirls" and "Jade."
What happens to you? You smoke more Salems. You fret that you have become an event. That you're Joke Eszterhas, soon to be Joe Eszterhas-been.
What's a man to do?
Write a book.
Not just any book. You are Joe Eszterhas, an event who believes he has overcome his appetites and found peace. So you write "American Rhapsody," a 400-plus-page manic meditation on Bill Clinton and his appetites.
And, lo and behold, it seems to work.
There is genuine book buzz. You're in the top 10 best sellers at Amazon.com. You're on the talk shows, in the newsweeklies. People talk about you as a real writer again.
Some reviews have been harsh: "a book that desperately wants to be taken seriously but gets lost in its own excesses" (USA Today), "a lowdown-and-dirty book" (Entertainment Weekly).
But your work has its champions. Chris Matthews bellowed on MSNBC's "Hardball": "I love this book" and "This is a hell of a book."
It's also a book of a hell.
White House revisited
On a bright, hot Washington day, Eszterhas is on the bleachers in the Ellipse, waiting with other out-of-towners to tour the White House.
It's a publicity stunt, of course. Eszterhas can go either way on this. He can be the awestruck, patriotic Hungarian immigrant who learned English from listening to rock 'n' roll. Or the wisecracking, smut-mouthed "Twisted Little Man" he describes as his alter ego in "Rhapsody." Today, as it turns out, he is both.
The man who writes all about Washington and the president and Monica Lewinsky has been to the capital city only once before. In 1966. He won a journalism award at Ohio University and was shown around the White House by Vice President Hubert Humphrey. He remembers a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Dolley Madison.
Eszterhas was 22. It was his virgin ride in a plane and a limo.
At 56, there's nothing virginal about Eszterhas. His craggy face, wider than it is long, has seen it all ï¿½ drugs, scandal, mucho money. He has chain-smoked for years, with the voice and cough to prove it. Shoulder-scraping blond hair, beard, sunglasses, blue shirt ï¿½ partially unbuttoned to expose snowy chest fur and totally untucked to accommodate a somewhat sumo frame ï¿½ faded jeans, New Balance sneakers, a big old gold watch and three gold bands on his ring finger. Smelling of Wrig-ley's Spearming, smoke and col-ogne, Eszterhas has been described as larger than life.
Beside him is his bleached-blond, green-eyed wife, Naomi, in a spring dress. She's pregnant with their fourth boy. Eszterhas left his first wife for Naomi when Naomi's husband left her for Sharon Stone.
Looking out toward the monuments, he wonders whether this is where Norman Mailer got busted in 1967 for protesting the Vietnam War. Mailer's "The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel ï¿½ The Novel as History" was a major influence on Eszterhas' "Rhapsody."
Clutching his ticket, Eszterhas lumbers toward the White House, listing slightly to his left. Inside, he walks quietly past a portrait of Clinton, a man he describes in his book as "tired, red-faced, overweight, a father, sitting alone in a plush office, his fly open ï¿½ "
"There it is, Joe," Naomi intones, pointing to a painting in the Red Room. "Dolley Madison. Remember it?"
The Twisted Little Man rears his large head. "I remember the decolletage," he growls.
Art and life
Published two weeks ago by the haute literary house Alfred A. Knopf, "American Rhapsody" is billed as a strange brew of fact, fiction and memoir. In reality, it's more rant than rhapsody.
Eszterhas believes he's gone through pretty much everything Clinton has and therefore can fully understand our "first rock 'n' roll president."
Joe Eszterhas is Mr. Zeitgeist. He writes of spending an afternoon in Maui, Hawaii, in summer 1993 with O.J. Simpson and his wife, Nicole. Simpson told Eszterhas he admired "Jagged Edge," Eszterhas' 1985 movie about a well-known man who murders his wife with a knife. The knife is never found, and the husband gets away with it. In the movie, the crime was committed on June 12, the same date Nicole Simpson was fatally stabbed in 1994. And on that day in Maui, Simpson told Eszterhas he wanted to be in one of his movies.
Death imitating art? Eszterhas won't say.
One man, many voices
The book is a major clip job, with stories and reports pulled from all over the place. Eszterhas has done much research, almost no fresh reporting. He lifts quotes without acknowledgment, sometimes altering a word here or there. He says Sonny Mehta, the mastermind at Knopf, didn't want to attach footnotes because they would detract from the book's literary style.
One chapter is written in the voice of Hillary Clinton, others in the voices of Bob Dole, Kenneth Starr. The last is in the voice of Clinton's manhood, "clearly a central player," Eszterhas says. "He's been seen by a lot of people. I wanted to give him the chance to speak."
Eszterhas claims to be trying something extremely complicated, an amalgamation of gonzo reporting and picaresque tale-telling. But there's a feeling sometimes of being trapped in a Porta-Potty at Woodstock III by a grizzled old hippie reeking of fresh green-bud and stale philosophy.
Clinton let his generation down. Kenneth Starr is a priggish hypocrite. Hillary Clinton is a power-hungry woman who cut a cynical deal with her politically astute, but sexually stunted, husband.
Hillary is Hilla the Hun; Linda Tripp is Ratwoman; Lucianne Goldberg is the Bag Lady of Sleaze; Matt Drudge is the Scavenger From Cyberspace; Arianna Huffington is the Sorceress From Hell; Monica Lewinsky is Hitler's Whore; Vernon Jordan is the Ace of Spades.
"This is an outrageous assault on political correctness," Eszterhas says of his unapologetic book. "Have we lost our sense of humor?"