David Breithaupt

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The Player was about the movie business in the same way that The Godfather was about the Mafia: ostensibly. 

Both were actually studying a larger idea, American capitalism itself, and the way that money and power can awaken a ruthlessness in those looking to make the grade. The savagery of Michael Tolkin’s 1988 Hollywood Babylon seems almost quaint in retrospect, a stunning turn of events that shows how far we’ve fallen in the decades since. That’s not an isolated event: Dick Cheney, a war criminal, now seems a cooler head by comparison in 2017, the year that the U.S.A. went full apeshit. In this sickening moment of the White House occupied by a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, the dystopia fits into the shrunken screens of our smartphones. The pictures got small, yes, but so have we.

In a smart Los Angeles Review of Books Q&A conducted by David Breithaupt, Tolkin considers culture, government and climate change in the time of Trump, and discusses his futuristic new novel about biological disaster, NK3. An excerpt:


We have suffered catastrophes throughout history. Do you think our current one can be corrected?

Michael Tolkin:

So the story goes that Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and biographer, asked Kafka, “Franz, is there hope?” And Kafka answered, “Oh yes, Max, there’s plenty of hope, an infinity of hope — but not for us.” We’re an omnivorous, territorial, and essentially lazy ape that gathers in bands to steal from others, or force them to work for us, and then sing about it and sometimes even feel bad about how bad we are, but still, you know, go on more with the bad than the good. We’re wired for apprehension and hoarding, and we follow the leader. We have religion to mitigate and excuse. We have art for who the fuck knows, really? We’re funny, no question about our sense of humor, especially our gallows humor. We leave loopholes in all our contracts. This is the dystopia now and has been for a long time. The essence of climate denial is to make a bet that the scientists are wrong so there’s no necessity for prudence, just in case the scientists are right. To be prudent might cost money, and if the scientists are wrong, then that money would be wasted. The denial argument is an equation: better to risk the life of the planet than lose money. And we go along with this because it’s too hard to fight peacefully over a long period. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but not in our lifetimes. There’s going to be a massive die off, but in the long run … Consider the animal videos on YouTube, all the little movies showing animal intelligence, animal capacity for love, and animal capacity for joy. This is a new thing — they are evolving ahead of us, they are rejoicing. That dog and goose chasing each other around the rock, that Russian crow sledding on a pitched roof, that cat rescuing the puppy from the ditch, that elephant sitting on the car. They know something. They know we’re on the way out, even if a million more species are killed, in the very long run, soulful life will return to dominion, finding niches and making a shared ecology, without us. And that’s just the way it’s going to be. In the short run, the fuckers are going to have their celebration of blood. In the long run, intelligent bacteria will eat their flesh.


That’s a nice image, wildlife taking over the Earth after we are gone, perhaps the only comforting thought about our dilemma. Spalding Gray said Mother Earth needs a good long break from us. Is it time to pack it in? One of your characters at the end of NK3 says that every civilization is crushed by its own stupidity. Kurt Vonnegut thought we have passed the point of no return. Where do we go from here?

Michael Tolkin:

Get out the vote. That’s where we go. Otherwise, it’s pitchforks and torches, and that’s what we’re being goaded toward.•

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I’ve always traced the War on Drugs in the U.S. to the Nixon Administration, but British journalist Johann Hari, author of the book Chasing the Scream, dates it to the end of Prohibition, particularly to bureaucrat Harry Anslinger, a stern-faced Fed who looked like Mussolini as played by George C. Scott, who later mentored Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Tent City infamy. Hari also reveals how intertwined crackdown was (and is) with racism. No shocker there.

The so-called War has been a huge failure tactically and financially and has criminalized citizens for no good reason. All the while, there’s been a tacit understanding that millions of Americans are hooked on Oxy and the like, dousing their pain with a perfectly legal script. These folks are far worse off than pot smokers, but it’s the latter who are still afoul of the law in most states. I’m personally completely opposed to recreational drug use, but I feel even more contempt for the War on Drugs. It’s done far more harm than good. Decriminalize drugs that can be used in moderation, send users of harder drugs to rehab and only imprison those selling drugs to minors. It’s not ideal, but I think it’s a far saner solution. Or try something else; just make it less destructive.

From a LARB Q&A David Breithaupt conducted with Hari, an excerpt about the groups that inspired Anslinger’s folly, a seemingly never-ending waterloo:

He built the war on drugs around the three groups he hated most. The first was African-Americans. This is a man who was so racist that he was regarded as crazily so during the 1920s. His own Senator said he should have to resign because he used the “N word” so much in official memos. He believed that drugs were deranging African-Americans and leading them to attack whites and impregnate white women.

The second group was drug addicts. Anslinger believed that addicts were “contagious” and had to be “quarantined” — cut off from the rest of humanity. These first two groups came together, in his mind, in the form of the great jazz singer, Billie Holiday, who was his worst nightmare: a drug-addicted African-American woman challenging white supremacy. He was obsessed with her. In the book, I tell the story of how he stalked her, playing a key role in her death. The story of how Billie — and so many other Americans at the time — resisted Anslinger and the early drug war is one of the most inspiring I know.

The third group Anslinger hated was the Mafia. And here’s a complexity to the story: he was one of the first senior figures in federal government to realize the Mafia was real. It’s hard to believe now, but the Mafia was seen as an urban myth — like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But Anslinger had met these wiseguys as a young man. He knew they were real, and he wanted to destroy them. The tragedy is that the policy he believed would destroy them — drug prohibition — was, in fact, the biggest gift they received in the 20th century. He transferred the enormous industry in drugs from the people who used to control it — doctors and pharmacists — into the hands of organized crime. That’s what prohibition does. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, said: “Al Capone was the product of alcohol prohibition. The Crips and the Bloods [and, he might well have added, Pablo Escobar and El Chapo] are the product of drug prohibition.”•