week Richard Grenier died at 68, too soon for someone who had in
such abundance precisely what is so lacking in American culture:
deep knowledge, vast experience, keen critical sense, all harnessed
to utter fearlessness and expressed with style and raging humor.
In fact, what amazes is that Grenier's major work, one of the funniest
books ever and inexplicably left out of some obituaries, did not
get him assassinated.
In his 1983
novel, The Marrakesh One-Two, Grenier pushed to the limit
the adage that the test of a religion is whether we can make jokes
about it. In this tale, one Burt Nelson is hired by big-oil interests
to make a movie about Mohammed that will help popularize Islam in
the West. This project entailed a detailed study of the Koran, quoted
at length, and some of the curious rules and customs in places where
it is about the only required reading.
In this story,
Nelson observes that when Mohammed asks for something, you pretty
much got the idea that Allah was going to give it to him. Explains
the narrator, Allah just didn't seem to know how to say no to him.
The film raises
other issues, such as whether the prophet could be shown at all,
a real problem in a visual medium. And one of the actors, an Englishman,
is homosexual. But then there is a coup, and Nelson is taken captive.
It's all wonderfully worth reading but the Arab world does not come
out well and few readers will be encouraged to convert to Islam.
For similar tinkering, it might be recalled, Islamic clerics targeted
Salman Rushdie with a fatwa.
better writer who suspected that Ishtar might have been a
rip-off of his story, escaped such an edict but pop culture mullahs
likely wished to do him harm. He was, after all, perpetually the
man who knew too much, which prevented him from swallowing propaganda
dished up as entertainment.
While the world
was swooning over Gandhi, for example, Grenier penned "The
Gandhi Nobody Knows," about the notable emissions, such as
the Mahatma's cavorting with young girls and the way he could combine
a greeting with blunt inquiries about bowel movements. Grenier's
Commentary article outlined the Hindu practice of suttee,
banned by the British, of tossing widows onto the funeral pyres
of their departed husbands. And then there was that business about
Gandhi telling the European Jews that they should not bother resisting
The whole thing
was a pacifist tract, bankrolled by a nation that supported a nuclear
freeze while simultaneously developing nuclear weapons. But Grenier
still praised Ben Kingsley for a remarkable performance.
treatment of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, he included
some missing detail about scalping, skinning and other delights
that awaited prisoners of the plains Indians. Nothing was wasted,
Grenier wrote, the whole captive was used.
Nobody is writing
that kind of criticism now. But then, few share Richard's qualifications
and training. He was educated at Harvard and the U.S. Naval Academy,
where he earned an engineering degree. He worked for Agence France
Press and the Financial Times, and was arrested by Red Army
paratroopers while covering the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia
in 1968. He also covered stories from North Africa, the Middle East,
Asia, Cuba, and the Caribbean while finding time to write Yes
and Back Again, a 1966 novel praised on both sides of the Atlantic.
Grenier also served as a cultural critic for the New York Times,
film critic for Commentary, and columnist for the Washington
Times. He had been there and done that, and knew what cineastes
call the "back story" to every thing from Dirty Harry
to In the Name of the Father.
Not bad for
68 years but he could have done much more had he been allowed to
enter his emeritus stage. He is the only one who could have outdone
The Marrakesh One-Two. Richard Grenier was also, as they
say, a nice guy who could always find time to read a manuscript
or make his way to a friend's book event. Farewell, bonhomme Richard.