Reviews

Private Parts

Mandelbrot

The author of The Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy Enthusiasms (Harper Perennial), portrayed on the front cover holding a skull in his left hand, looks exactly like the actor Bruce Dern posing as an intellectual. That is what drew me to this book in a used bookstore last summer; and when it fell open to a story about phone phreaks, called “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” which I remembered reading in Esquire in 1971 and admiring so much that I have been repeating it ever since as well as I could remember it to anyone who would listen, I understood again the transcendent mission of the used bookstore—which is to be there when you least suspect that you need it. The Secret Parts of Fortune, by Ron Rosenbaum and not Bruce Dern, is 8 pages long, too long for any book but this one, and turns out to be filled with treasures equal to the phone-phreak story, which apparently inspired the two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) to get into hacking—and may be the Ur factor in the genesis of Geist magazine itself. Ron Rosenbaum is a well-known journalist and essayist (how have I missed him all these decades?), who has been writing from below the horizon for decades about the strange and the wonderful and the very weird. His interview with the failing movie star Troy Donahue, who was playing the Charles Manson figure in an exploitation flick based on the Sharon Tate murders, is a masterpiece of controlled understatement, in which Troy punctuates his remarks with “Dig it, dig it, dig it,” and repeating his story—well known at the time—of being hit by lightning while stoned on LSD, an event that I heard reported on the radio and memorialized in 1969 in one of the only poems of my own that I have not destroyed (I called it “Troy Donahue Lives” and never thought of publishing it until now, so here goes: troy donahue swallowed / a capsule of lsd / and was struck by lightning the same night / “I had gone outside for a walk,” / troy donahue said later on the television / “and you know, it changed my whole life”). Rosenbaum’s title, The Secret Parts of Fortune, which appropriates a pun combining private parts with the unseen elements of destiny, is taken from an exchange between Hamlet and his erstwhile buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; included along with stories of the hidden worlds of Hitler theorists, get-rich-quicksters, conspiracy-hucksters of all kinds, is an essay praising the little-known novels of Charles Portis, who wrote True Grit, and whom Rosenbaum calls the “least known great writer alive in America,” whose novels were just about to be re-published (1999) by Overlook Press. I went to the public library the next day and in an epiphanous moment found all three Overlook novels sitting on the shelf. Now I could feel everything working: magazine publishing, book publishing, bookselling, book re-selling, book reviewing, library-acquiring, public transit: and no need for the internet—this was all real life.

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