Once again heap big thanks are in order. This time they go out to The Man From K Street, who epitomizes the high journalistic standard we have here at Est Quod Est with his live account of the one-and-only Rod Dreher doing a book-signing for The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (LWoRL) at the Barnes and Noble bookstore at Tyson's Corner in Fairfax, Virginia. There is video content which goes along with this piece, but we don't have it ready yet. So please be patient while we get that prepared.
by The Man From K Street
First off, I have seen Rod in person before. The last time was about twelve years ago, at a very well-attended National Review panel discussion downtown. Even in that packed room, you could hear earnestness in his voice as he talked about his emerging ‘crunchy’ thesis, enthusiasm about Dubya and about fresh, local vegetables. And there was, in that energetic delivery, no trace of an accent.
It was a much older man who spoke Thursday night at the Barnes & Noble superstore at Tysons Corner, and he did not come across as very enthused. Perhaps he was just road-weary.
I counted the crowd at about eighteen people who were in attendance for all or at least part of the event (perhaps this is why the pic on Rod’s blog was a zoom in showing only a few chairs). That number does not include: the obvious minder from the publisher, Father and Mrs. Mathewes-Green, a couple of people who looked suspiciously like sales clerks asked by their manager to remove their tags and fill out a respectable audience number, and some young women who periodically scanned the shelves on one side of the gathered assembly and retreated with their intended purchases. Yes, by coincidence, or karma, it was of course the “Teen Supernatural Romance” section that was closest to Our Working Boy’s dias.
But for this Southern Gothic Teen-angst Horror Story, however, the average age of the attendees was probably a fraction south of 60, and I believed nearly every one of them would have described themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. My first observation/prediction regarding this book is that the audio version will have to have a professional actor as reader, for Rod, in the intervening dozen years since I last heard him speak in person, has regressed to a stultifying monotone that makes paying attention difficult. (see attached video for a few seconds’ worth of an example—stopped after a few seconds to save a) battery power and b) my sanity) An accent has reasserted itself into his speech—not an unpleasant one, but a gentle one reminiscent of the late Shelby Foote. But if one doesn’t modulate their delivery, going up or down in pitch and faster or slower in speed, to match the subject matter or its tone, then even the intended drama of a deathbed reconciliation scene ends up sounding like the Deputy Sheriff of West Feliciana Parish reciting a manifest of rusted farm implements at a foreclosure sale.
Thus Rosco P., er, I mean Rod, read two excerpts from the book, both of which he claimed would be short, but subjectively seemed to drag on interminably. The first, of course, was Ruthie’s Forgiveness of Rod (he neatly omitted the later revelation that this was entirely insincere—I think it might have spoiled the Oprahesque appeal of the book for the non-cognoscenti in attendance). The second excerpt was the scene most tailor-made for the Lifetime adaptation—those damn candles in the graveyard.
Along with all but the minder and one of the attendees, I declined to ask any questions afterwards, but chose to have my own fun by playing a new game—Dreher Bingo. I imagined a bingo card with all the spaces filled with all the Rodian clichés we’ve all come to love, and waited to see how and when each one would be filled. I didn’t have long to wait:
• The Scandal. Of course this was going to come up, but I figured it would have to be shoe-horned in, in some completely appalling way—and Rod delivered the goods. His angst stemming from his investigative journalism in 2002 was set out as a Plutarchian parallel to Ruthie’s excruciating chemo- and radiation therapy.
• Andrew Sullivan. Rod made it clear that immediately after Ruthie’s pseudo-absolution, overwhelmed by the power of forgiveness in a broken world, the very first thing he felt compelled to do was reach out and give that same pardon to—another family member who over the decades might have shared some of Ruthie’s grievances? A lifelong neighbor who might have been wronged in some indelible way? A former LSU co-ed whose subsequent romantic and sexual life was forever warped by a traumatizing night of Rod’s antics? No. There is no one in his Real Life circle who speedily needs his apologies as much as…another blogger. By the way Keith, I’m convinced you are right that getting Excitable Andy front and center is a deliberate strategy to get in front of the ‘homophobia’ charge that is poison to the Gotham tastemakers that will make or break this book’s prospects: Rod told the audience that he needed to assure Sullivan of his undying friendship—despite their disagreements on what he would only refer to as “certain social and political issues”.
• An Infinity of Personal Pronouns. For a book about Ruthie Leming, even the most casual of listeners to a presentation by this author has to note that absolutely no other word in his vocabulary sees as much as 1% of his use of a single-lettered word—a vowel that is neither “A”, “E”, “O” or “U”.
• “MTD and Me”. At no point in either his excerpts or his discussion did Rod make any direct reference to any organized expression of religion. Not his native Methodism, not Catholicism, and not Eastern Orthodoxy. LWoRL seems in its entirety to be a thorough embrace of a treacle-like, sentimental, undemanding, non-denominational worldview where nearly everyone will be going to heaven because they’re “nice”. I suspect the average reader of this book would be shocked to learn of any of Rod’s real preoccupations of the past decade or more—liturgical fetishism, food’s value as a signifier of moral advancement, and homosexual priests.
• Tiresome Cross-marketing. “You get a mawkish tear-jerker about Ruthie’s death! Now how much would you pay? But wait, we’ll throw in this lovely local map as an endpaper! You’ll love it so much, you’ll just have to have the wall version! Here’s the address—operators are standing by!”
• Le Revanchisme de retour. The listener must simply get used to every plaudit heaped upon St. Francisville or West Feliciana Parish being an exercise in veiled anger: “I just love the way these people are, DESPITE the way I was made to feel like such an outcast when I was young.” “I felt no anguish at all when I made the decision to bring my family to my hometown, even though perhaps I should have given my long history of alienation from it caused by the way I was treated.” Rod’s going to make you, the reader, know all about every slight he suffered as a young man, whether you thought you were buying a book about Ruthie or not. If I didn’t already know he was married with three kids, I’d simply assume this book was yet another example of that genre beloved by the NYT Book Review editors: the story of the sensitive literary young man from flyover country who must grapple with his feelings of being an ‘outsider’ and ‘different’, i.e. the Gay Coming-of-Age Novel. Who am I to say how this book will be received, either by the critics or the buying public? For all I know, it’ll be a bestseller. But if it is, I will laugh uproariously—not out of surprise, but from the cosmic irony of an author succeeding by coming to embrace nearly every cultural trend that he has spent the last several years of his life decrying as a signifier of civilization’s decline.