I’ve always admired, if not envied David Denby. Stroll through the arts quad of any university across the nation and the name you’ll inevitably hear more than any other is Denby’s — a name synonymous with pop intellectualism. Recently, while doing an L-pattern from Goldwin Smith to Willard Straight, I passed three professors animated over something Denby had written in his review of House of Sand and Fog. When your professors are not busy working on their next book, or arranging for you to buy that book so they can claim royalties, they can be seen huddled over a new copy of The New Yorker engrossed in Denby.
For those still in ignorance about Denby, a little biographical information is in order. Coming to New York as an undergraduate at Columbia, Denby became a film critic for New York magazine and currently work as a staff writer and film critic for The New Yorker. I, myself, grew up on Denby, religiously reading his columns. And for those not familiar with his acerbic commentary on American culture, he has a knack for turning the perfect phrase and still sounding hip while doing it. But it is hard to underestimate his influence nowadays, seeing as he has his hand in almost everything. If The New Yorker is an indestructible, infallible institution in America, then Denby is one of its tallest pillars; which brings me to the issue at hand.
This past week I paid a visit to the Management School at Sage Hall. I have never had reason for mingling with all the suits, and I won’t again — it ruins my flava — if not for the fantastic food; but of all places, the management library houses Cornell’s only copy of American Sucker, Denby’s new memoir.
Just when you thought Denby could do no wrong, wouldn’t you know, he has hit a few road blocks. His first book, Great Books, resulted from an earlier midlife crisis of “what do I know?” In American Sucker, Denby, now 59, on his second midlife crisis — “what do I own?”– laments the breakdown of his marriage to novelist Cathleen Schine and recounts his doomed plan to make one million dollars on the stock market to retain his apartment. But even the big man himself couldn’t manage a feat like that.
I found myself lacking patience for Denby’s ambivalent and ill-advised exploration of the darker side of the American Dream — desire, envy, greed, blindness, and, of course, his porn addiction. His hubris is just too much; this book even contains a bibliography. Wow. Talk about being a wannabe academic! If this is what Denby has learned from his disastrous run — publishing a book in order to turn a loss into a profit — then, that is a sad moral. The mere publishing of this book demonstrates that he hasn’t learned anything. This is a man that still takes himself way too seriously and doesn’t understand his limitations. Now, I think that’s a story we could all learn a thing or two from.
Archived article by Jason Rotstein