Excerpt from Spectacular Happiness by Peter D. Kramer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Spectacular Happiness

by Peter D. Kramer

Spectacular Happiness
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2001, 320 pages
    Jun 2002, 320 pages

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Print Excerpt

Putting obsessionality to use, I checked and rechecked in order not to tell that story. I practiced an anarchism of overcaution. I believe that uptightness can lead to explosions with their full measure of wit. Terror may be the wrong word for what I have practiced -- many people seem less frightened than amused.

Our story, the comedy produced by Sukey, is a satire on the fruits of capitalism, satire epitomized in the collapse of the Giampiccolo house. By now everyone has seen the video: the monstrous mock-Victorian, a seaside abomination, imploding on itself and slumping ignominiously to earth, like a condemned Atlantic City hotel. The sequence has become a visual word in our national vernacular.

The inherent humor and rightness of that word, the incarnation of haughtiness going before a fall, the self-evidently overweening brought to its knees -- all that is the fruit of Sukey's talent for what your mother used to call détournement, diverting an object from its conventional purpose, allowing it to be seen afresh. That was what we talked about in the sixties, your mother and her friends and I, gestures that might use the products of capitalism to strip capitalism bare, though we never made those gestures. To cause the Giampiccolo house to quake and totter and capitulate is to ask what it was doing on the sand in the first place. By what right had it desecrated the water's edge?

Sukey knows that I have always felt inadequacy in the face of my father's work. Heinrich "Sam" Samuels, the man after whom you are named, was a fine finish carpenter. Sam could replace a scallop on a Goddard highboy with such precision that an expert might not know the chest had been damaged. When the Kuykendahl collection went to auction, more than one piece he had restored was cataloged by Sotheby's as Excellent condition, no repair or replacement. He could dovetail joints that met at odd angles, measuring by eye and using hand tools to make the cuts.

My father never taught me his trade. He meant to. Beyond starting me off as a real American, his naming me Chip was a joke that contained a father's hopes. But my clumsiness frustrated him.

I learned nonetheless, in the way that a child whose parents speak another language to each other will pick up the accent, even if the words remain foreign. What I got from my father was familiarity with clamps and jigs and bench vises. My particular knowledge comes from public television, The New Yankee Workshop and This Old House and The Woodwright's Shop.

Seeing my father at work made me aware of the importance of skill, persistence, and exactitude. But I am not certain that carpentry was Sam's calling. Perhaps drink was, or romance -- he was a gruff man who was capable of devotion to women. The sign of a calling is the life it brings. I think of those lines from Henry James: We work in the dark -- we do what we can -- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.

Comforting, to know that our most masterly writer understands doubt rather than abundant talent to define calling. My recent work has taught me the importance of passion and of tolerance for uncertainty. I say this to you as one whose skills, when you were a young child, were often called into question.

When Sukey signaled that we had found our time and place, I thought she meant merely that Johnny "Little John" Giampiccolo was a storybook villain: bully, polluter, manipulator, Mafia front man. Ruthless, with a facade of charm. In the 1980s, Giampiccolo headed a company suspected of dumping hospital needles in the waters off Long Island beaches. He was someone the press could revile even when he was wronged. In telling a story, it helps to have a bad guy. But Sukey's wisdom went deeper. She knew the bind Giampiccolo was in. And she knew how the Giampiccolo house would affect me.

Copyright © 2001 by Peter D. Kramer

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