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One of the Boys

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 begins as follows:

Sunday, November 8, Today, on the fourth anniversary of the election of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States, I resume my Journal, it having lain idle since August 10, 1963. The event the present Phase is designed to cover is my journey somewhere in the world for the Peace Corps, an arm of our Government, and instrument of what Kennedy called “national purpose.”

However, there is some possibility that I may not go abroad at all for the Peace Corps, since there is a serious question on the part of the various people who investigate other people as to both my loyalty and my sanity. In order to prove that I am both loyal and sane I am to go to Washington, D.C. tomorrow for interviews, and we shall see how it all turns out. Jo says, “Oh, they’ll stamp your ass Sane and Patriotic.” We shall see.

By choosing to resume his Journal on this date, Harris emphasizes the Kennedy leitmotiv and achieves a degree of dramatic unity. But he also, of course, obliges himself to condense an important part of his story, covering all the negotiations and some recollections of an earlier visit to Japan, in an awkward flashback. The Journal itself is divided into two thoroughly unequal parts. The longer, and more ambiguous, concerns what he calls his “fight with the FBI,” and his behavior and anxieties while waiting for the Peace Corps to act on its report. The shorter concerns his visit for the Corps to the new African state of Kongohno. Kongohno, it turns out, has attracted far more than its share of “risky” Peace Corps volunteers; and Shriver wants to send someone who is himself both suspect and artistic to check them out. Although the FBI apparently declined to stamp Mr. Harris’s ass as clearly as had been hoped, Mr. Shriver and his board decide to send him to Kongohno anyway. “In twenty years I’ll tell you the whole story,” Shriver’s subordinate, Robertson “Hurry” Upp, reports to Harris, “and you’ll realize Sarge made a very gutsy decision. There was a lot of heat on him.”

Upp needs him in Kongohno:

He said, “I don’t think these Risks are all that Risky, but I need somebody that might know the psychology and attitude of the Risk, and has the language to write it down.”

It takes one to describe one,” I said.

You can say it that way if you want,” he said.

This is what the assignment boils down to. Harris accepts it, and after waiting five months for his unenthusiastic clearance completes it in sixteen days. That is long enough for him to observe and report that the volunteers he has been instructed to scrutinize are, with one possible exception, each contributing something special and invaluable to the Peace Corps program. The one exception is a girl who is merely trying to carry a larger chip than her frail shoulders will bear; the others are indispensable precisely because of the qualities that make them appear “risky” to Washington. A pleasant, conflict-free outcome; even the American Ambassador, whom Harris has been avoiding out of “a kind of prejudice against authority,” turns out to be a fine individual, whom Harris admires for “his readiness to assume—by use of the first person singular—responsibility for his own mistakes in judgment or procedure.” That would certainly make the Ambassador a Risk so severe as to preclude any possibility of reassigning him to Southeast Asia.

A REVIEWER who attempts to look more deeply into Twentyone Twice faces curious but interesting problems, both technical and moral. If it were fiction, I would hail it as a satirical masterpiece. The character, Harris, who emerges from it is just the sort that Jean-Paul Sartre, say, would have drawn to depict an American professor in a provincial college torn between fidelity to his youthful radicalism and the ambition to become an instrument of “national purpose.” It is all there: the studied use of obscenity to project an image of impulsive warmth; the deliberate, self-critical assumption of an anti-heroic posture to explain the absence of militance. Mr. Harris loses no opportunity to present himself as sensitive, good-hearted, and so tolerant that he has come to expect, as a matter of course, to betray himself. As chairman of a course at San Francisco State, he objects strongly to having to write a letter firing for incompetence an instructor whose teaching he has never observed; and sets out to visit the man’s classes—but never makes it, and fires the man anyway. His own students treat him insultingly, and at the beginning of a class present him with a bottle of Geritol for his “tired blood.” “I accepted my rebuke gracefully, along with my Geritol.”

These incidents prepare the reader for the more central fact that the “fight with the FBI” to which Harris refers never occurs. He has fantasies about fighting them, and ridicules himself and the FBI agents who are interviewing him in his Journal; but face-to-face with them he behaves very nicely indeed. He reports that at the end of the first session, the agent who conducted it

…asked me, then, if I thought I had been well treated this long day, and I should have replied No, I am offended, outraged, but made, instead, a positive statement for the eternal tape, saying I had come here voluntarily and spoken without coercion, that no pressure had been brought against me, that I had been fairly dealt with in every way, etc. They smiled with satisfaction.

What is the function of all this self-abasement? Apparently to suggest that self-abasement has become a necessary part of being human, the way we all live now. Robertson Upp behaves the same way; Harris presents him as likeable, but he hides from Harris for days until the eve of Harris’s departure for Kongohno because he fears to be contaminated by Harris’s riskiness, even though Harris has already been hired. Only the young, like the frisky, risky Peace Corps volunteers in Kongohno, demand more of themselves or others; and their idealism, Harris states, makes war between the generations inevitable: “Everybody under thirty hates everybody over thirty, and that’s all there is to it,” Harris tells “Hurry” Upp, paraphrasing Mario Savio, whom he mentions several times with wistful admiration. But, “The clash of young and old has never occurred to Hurry, he said it was a profound thought. I said No, it just comes from teaching school.”

THERE IS NOT MUCH I CAN SAY about this point of view without sounding like a Southern hostess insisting that she has always been on friendly terms with her cook, except to point out that the young don’t hate Paul Goodman, elderly though he has become. In the book, they don’t really hate Harris either; the young Risks of Kongohno, who were suspicious of him at first, recognize that he has become twenty-one for the second time, and come down to see him off when he leaves, bearing gifts of the native art they have been encouraging the natives to produce. I am sure they did. But as I read this, I remembered the incorrigible Basil Seal in the African state of Azania, and grieved for Evelyn Waugh, who was also at one time a schoolteacher.

The source of the reader’s difficulty with Twentyone Twice is not a defect of literary craftsmanship—Mr. Harris is an excellent craftsman. The book is filled with detailed observations of Washington, Africa, and the singular daily life of both locales, sensitively recorded, and placed precisely in its context so as to be most richly meaningful. The difficulty is philosophical; and it lies precisely in the distinction between comedy and satire which W.H. Auden developed in his essay on Byron in the August 18th issue of this Review.

Mr. Harris writes with a wry and delightful wit; and he explicitly perceives Twentyone Twice as comic: “It has,” he says, “nothing but its own meaning rising from its comic detail.” Well, that’s quite enough. But in Auden’s terms, this means that its vision of man is sympathetic and tolerant, though pessimistic. The reader is expected to laugh indulgently with Harris and his associates as they stumble through a wayward world, doing the best they can to be human, all too human.

But American interventions into the lives and affairs of other societies, even when benign in intent, have got rather beyond the scope of indulgent humor; and American subservience to its own secret police is not funny at all. Moreover, Mr. Harris is a much better writer than he seems to realize. If the character, Harris, in Twentyone Twice is addicted to self-betrayal, the author, Mark Harris, is perhaps incapable of it. His craftsmanship takes over; the muses prevail, and what develops is a marvelous caricature—a Jules Feiffer portrait in depth—of the academic liberal pursuing his career and devoting himself to our national purpose; troubled by doubts, but proudly evading the need to confront firmly the ethical issues at their source.

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