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Reviewers have responded positively to the book’s vitality, of which there is plenty. But you would think after 40 years of cat and mouse, they would be less easily swayed by Dylan’s claims that all he ever really wanted was to settle down with his family, have a white picket fence (he actually uses the phrase), and putter around the house. No doubt there is truth lurking here somewhere. But wasn’t there a more believable way of saying so?
Dylan’s writing is often rhythmic and musical, as one would expect, and his wit redeems his forays into self-pity and grandiosity. But there are passages that make clear he is a songwriter, not an essayist:
What kind of alchemy, I wondered, could create a perfume that would make reaction to a person lukewarm, indifferent, and apathetic? I wanted to get some.…I wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation, and that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots.…This main meal of garbage had to be mixed up with some butter and mushrooms and I’d have to go to great lengths to do it. You gotta start somewhere.
Surely he wouldn’t let this masterpiece of self-parody and mixed metaphor slip by unless he meant to? Yet the reader senses that there is no game here, just a patch of bad prose. The only error worse than letting Dylan fool you is assuming he must be putting you on merely because he is writing poorly. As an autobiographer, he is a good junkball pitcher, all flutters and dips and arcs, and somewhere in that mess is the ball. He once wrote a song about Catfish Hunter; he must have loved Luis Tiant.
All this parsing will make the book an engrossing read for those who aren’t yet tired of the game. Chronicles gives pieces of the story of Dylan’s life — but the important word is story.
It’s pretty safe to say, for example, that Dylan is telling tales when he opens the book by describing a meeting with Jack Dempsey one evening in 1961 at the former champion’s restaurant. “You look too light for a heavyweight kid, you’ll have to put on a few pounds,” the old champion tells him, and signs off with, “Don’t be afraid of hitting somebody too hard.” But even an elderly Dempsey, who really did ride on freight trains and work odd jobs, wouldn’t have mistook Dylan for anything other than a welterweight bohemian.
It’s a charming story, though, and it does no harm to tell. For a book of tales, it starts things off on a high note, and a symbolic one — the counterculture’s wonder boy coming face to face with a man who was an icon of the Old America. Dylan helped finish off that country, and then lived long enough to rue its passing. There’s a sadness to that, too.
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Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
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