Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Review of John Lithgow’s Dumpty: the Age of Trump in Verse

(112 pages, Chronicle books)

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     John Lithgow’s acting credits range from his comedic alien in Third Rock from the Sun to his chilling role as a serial killer in Dexter. Recently he provided a much-lauded portrayal of Winston Churchill. Lithgow is an accomplished choreographer, Shakespearian actor, illustrator, and author of a half-dozen children’s books.  Given his eclecticism, I was delighted to discover that his latest publication, Dumpty: the Age of Trump in Verse, displays the full range of Lithgow’s playful, cerebral, and furious genius.  While his verses are not Shakespearean, his gibes are wont to set the table on a roar. His anger is palpable, his wit eviscerates, and his punch lines pack a wallop.                      

     All of the book’s thirty-three verses are accompanied by his own illustrations, each one stylistically well-rendered, and each verse followed by brief background notes. The whimsical nature of the verses and drawings highlight Lithgow’s catalog of presidential outrages, faux pas, tweets, political appointments, nepotism, and behavior on the world’s stage. While Lithgow’s takedowns will likely find a happy resonance with the President’s detractors, the clever nature of the verses may be enjoyed as well by Trump’s more urbane supporters. This is, after all, a funny and informative tome.
     The book opens with a short introduction by the author where Lithgow acknowledges that he penned the book for “people who oppose the president” in the hope that it would provide a brief respect from “their chronic depression.” But soon thereafter he addresses “Friends of Dumpty” or “FODs” directly:
               “In your eyes, Dumpty’s bullying is courage, 
               his bigotry is patriotism, his vulgarity is authenticity, 
               his cruelty is unbridled fun. 
               Your support for him springs from sheer infatuations, 
               it’s incomprehensible to everyone else. 
               It’s certainly incomprehensible to me.”
     The book begins on a lighthearted note with fifteen ABAB stanzas describing “The President’s Pageant,” a thumbnail consideration of the women in his life.

               For starters, Ivanka’s superior air
               Can’t obscure her demure sensuality.
               And Tiffany, too (though she hasn’t a prayer),
               Is a lock for Miss Congeniality

               ‘Picture Hicks in the spotlight! A radiant vision!
               That body, that hair, and those eyes.
               And Hope would mop up in the Talent Division
               With her skill at inventing lies.”

     Naturally, due regard is given to Kellyanne Conway and, um, Stephanie Clifford (known professionally as Stormy Daniels). In fact, very few in the president’s circle are spared from Lithgow’s pointed quill. In a Gilbert and Sullivan parody, retired U.S. Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor (January to February 2017)who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, is versified in the first-person, “I am the very model of an ex-lieutenant general. / Although my reputation is decidedly ephemeral.” Then with a nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein and a sketch of the president dancing in a field of flowers, the poem “My Favorite Lies” concludes, “When The Times bites, / When The Post stings, / When I’m feeling sad, / I simply remember my favorite lies / And then I don’t feel so bad.” The list of prevarications that precede the eventual conclusion of the verse offers a trip down memory lane, atrocities enumerated within a musical refrain – and this is the real power behind Lithgow’s book, its good humor incased tales of woe.

                One verse likens President Trump’s administration to a reality show and describes Rick Perry performing on “Dancing with the Stars,” and a mockery of Scaramouche sets a high bar for vocabulary and rhyme, “The Italians created a classic buffoon / Who was cowardly, boastful, and louche, / That slippery scamp Scaramouche!” As one might suspect, the President’s legal representatives, “Cobb, Dowd, diGenova, Kasowitz & Cohen” are replaced when “a new gang stepped up, dressed in rumpled Armani: / Giuliani, Giuliani, Giuliani & Giuliani.” Another verse skewers Stephen Miller in a style fashioned after William Hughes Mearns, “A Dumpty aide from opening day, / I wish, I wish he’d go away.” My personal favorite is “All at Sea” in the style of John Masefield, and its accompanying note. “With no experience as a public school student, teacher, principal, superintendent, or administrator, Betsy Devos assumed office as the secretary of education on February 7, 2017.” The first stanza:

“I must go down to the seas again
   To the lonely sea and sun.
I’ve got a flotilla of ten big yachts
   And I’ll pick my favorite one.
I’ll lie on the deck all slathered in oil,
   Sipping a frosty libation,
And think of all of the things I can do
   To privatize education.”

     The list of the lampooned includes Duncan Hunter and wife, Paul Manafort, Wilbur Ross, and Bret Kavanaugh (“Of all the fine judges that POTUS could choose / To sit in the company of Charles Evans Huges”). But most darkly, Lithgow goes after “Jared and Mohammed.” “Inside the Saudi consulate, / The poor entrapped Jamal / Was strangled and dismembered by / The prince’s cruel cabal.” The poem alleges that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, and Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, are heirs to their respective thrones who conspired in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Clearly, there are times when Lithgow’s playfulness seethes with disdain for the object of his versification.

     Then there are less weighty mockeries of Sean Hannity and various FOX network pundits, and time is given to Roger Stone, Alexander Acosta, Andrew Puzder, and Jeffrey Epstein, among others.                 

     On the international stage, “Seven Days in November” follows the flipping of the house, headlines involving Robert Mueller and William Barr and examines the president’s escape to France where he failed to show for the centennial celebration of the end of the Great War because “[a] prediction of rainfall gave Dumpty a scare. / He feared its unsightly effect on his hair.” The poem describes his relative isolation among world leaders, but focuses on one redeeming moment. “But Dumpty lit up like a bright chandelier! / His friend had arrived! The beloved Vladimir!” Of note is that while the book gives others on the world stage their due, to Lithgow’s credit they are accompanied by other relevant names. Kim Jong-Un is accompanied by Otto Warmbier, the student who while in North Korean custody suffered a brain injury and shortly thereafter died. Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh is accompanied by Christine Blasey Ford, and Trump’s alleged trysts are enumerated as well.
     While Dumpty is an enlivening read, John Lithgow has an audible edition available, read by the author and accompanied by amusing sound effects, whoopee cushions, cash registers, and little inserts of music. There is a friendly and familiar quality to the reading, the perfect companion for a road trip or as a substitute for cable news.
     Whether in print or in earbuds, John Lithgow’s Dumpty is amusing, informative, and clever. It offers a concise and unsparing review of President Trump’s first three years in office, and, clearly, the author is doing what he can to lessen the likelihood of a second term. Dumpty has arrived in time to enliven the Thanksgiving table, accompany the impeachment hearings, and serve as a guiding star during the winter solstice.

- Greg Gilbert, author of Afflatus

1 comment:

  1. OMG! This book is ameliorating to know I'm not the only one in my dismay of the present tenant in our Oval! The lyrics are dead on, the delineations are impeccable, and the realities shared hits the head on the nail! I got one for me

    7 one for a blessing! A lot lighter perusing than the Mueller Report; albeit each American should understand it.


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