In his 1908 short story “To Build a Fire,” Jack London portrays a man trekking through the snow and ice in the Yukon. The man begins his journey with great confidence, even though he is inexperienced in such a harsh terrain. He has dressed warmly and brought food; a loyal dog follows at his heels. And London’s character remains confident, even as the temperature drops to 50 below zero and an “intangible pall” hangs over the intimidating scene. Bit by bit, though, his confidence slackens as he grasps the numbing fact that he cannot fend off the tremendous cold nor cope with the “strangeness and weirdness of it all,” that his own body will become totally frozen in an unforgiving landscape of “unbroken white.”
Colm Toibin, it often seems, is everywhere. He divides his time between Dublin and Barcelona, and teaches frequently in the United States. He publishes about a book a year—novels, short stories, literary criticism—and his essays and reviews on artistic and cultural topics appear regularly in a variety of publications, including the Guardian and the London Review of Books. He lectures widely and grants lots of interviews. With the possible exception of William Trevor, Toibin is Ireland’s best-known literary figure.
William Bulger was a “throwback,” reported 60 Minutes back in 1992, one of those colorful politicians who relished his job and seemed to know most of his constituents by name. Bulger had served in the lower house of Massachusetts’ legislature and as president of its Senate, and 60 Minutes showed him in all his anachronistic glory, crooning Irish ballads and marching in South Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Billy Bulger had grown up in “Southie” and never left, thriving in his public roles by mixing patronage and charm in the manner of his boyhood hero, the four-term Boston mayor John Michael Curly (inspiration for Edwin O’Connor’s famous 1956 novel, The Last Hurrah).
Bulger, however, did have one particularly “sensitive issue,” said the show’s longtime reporter, Morley Safer. It was his older brother Jimmy, a.k.a., Whitey, who happened to be “one of the most feared mobsters in Boston.” This Bulger was rarely glimpsed in public, said Safer, sticking mainly to the shadowy underworld where only criminals and cops were likely to go. You’d never see Whitey, the black sheep of the family, strutting with a shillelagh in a St. Patrick’s Day parade.
In September 1988, Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush met in their second televised presidential debate. Moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN began by inviting Dukakis, the Governor of Massachusetts, to imagine his wife Kitty as the victim of a horrible crime. “Governor,” asked Shaw, “if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”
The question wasn’t entirely out of the blue; Dukakis’ opposition to the death penalty was well-known and Republican strategists had aimed to portray him as generally soft on crime. But clearly Shaw was not hoping to initiate a thoughtful discussion of law and order issues. The first debate had been widely described as dull; the CNN newsman seemed determined to make sure that this one was not short of dramatic pizzazz. Would the bland Dukakis squirm and sweat uncomfortably? Would he flare up in rage? Of course the question was tasteless. But a fraught response would make good TV.