Twentyone Twice: A Journal
by Mark Harris
Little, Brown, 288 pp., $5.95
In Twentyone Twice, the San Francisco writer Mark Harris recounts the extraordinary events of his life from November 8, 1964 to February 1, 1965, and his response to them. He says of the book:
I think its main vision is of the young man inside the old boy, my younger and best instincts coming to the front at twice my age…. Now that I’ve got it, dare I print it? Its main themes are my fight with the FBI, showing how my youthful instincts remain with me though I am twice my age; the nature of the Peace Corps—its channeling of idealism: Africa freed by peaceful means, set free, as a teacher sets free a student, or a father sets free a child; a man chained to his Journal; the clash of altruism and ego.
The title of the book, then, asserts Mr. Harris’s conviction that he has preserved, at forty-two, much of the élan and truculent honesty of the students he has recently been teaching at San Francisco State College, and of the militant Peace Corps volunteers he describes in his Journal. “Yes, students have built-in shit detectors,” he observes, and is relieved and delighted to find himself twenty-one for the second time with his own equipment still intact.
The events that Mr. Harris describes here began on July 28th, 1964, and are related, briefly and retrospectively, in the first entry in his Journal. On that afternoon, Sargent Shriver phoned Mr. Harris:
He had the Kennedy accent, the familiar special pronunciation of certain words…He said he had read Mark the Glove Boy and had the definite feeling that I shared with him a sense of purpose about American life, spotting me as the kind of person who could examine the work of the Peace Corps and say useful things about it. The idea would be for me to write a report for “internal” circulation. He had such enthusiasm about the Peace Corps he couldn’t stop selling it to me, though I was already sold…. He described the meaning of “internal” circulation: “I want to know the worst before anyone else in the world knows it,” he said, “and I want to be able to read it, I don’t want any of that bureaucratic nonsense…What I’m trying to get at,” Shriver said, “is a work of art I call it that truly reveals the heart of what the hell’s going on in the Peace Corps. It’s so extraordinarily difficult to find anyone with sensitivity, it always ends by being schmaltzed up, and that’s not what I want.”
COULD ANY JOURNALIST have resisted this appeal? Who knows? S. J. Perelman, I think, could have, since Shriver’s actual speech, if this is a sample of it, lies beyond the reach of satire. Harris, at any rate, did not. His whole book is suffused by a veneration for John F. Kennedy that probably left him little capacity for criticism. Twentyone Twice …