Books: May-June 2004

June 1, 2004
Voice of America:  A History By Alan L. Heil Jr. '57Voice of America:
A History
By Alan L. Heil Jr. '57. Columbia University Press, 2003. 544 pages. $37.50

In this age of satellite radio and TiVo, Internet video and digital cable, it is difficult to conjure up a time not long ago when a crackling shortwave broadcast in the middle of the night constituted the entirety of the media landscape. Or when 450 million people gathered around their radios to listen to man landing on the moon. And it is equally difficult to imagine that such a world still exists, and will continue to be an essential, vital source of information for large swaths of the people on this planet.

Both of those worlds are chronicled in great and compelling detail in Voice of America: A History, Alan Heil's account of the often unheralded, sometimes beleaguered, but always proud government agency that was one of the few forces capable of piercing the Iron Curtain. From 1962 to 1998, Heil had a ringside seat for some of the defining battles, and triumphs, of the latter half of the twentieth century. Starting as an apprentice news writer several months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Heil was a jack-of-all-trades at VOA--a brave journalist, an adept politician, and a mentor to many, including this writer. He retired in 1998 as deputy director after a career that included several stints as a foreign correspondent, at a time before satellite phones and e-mail made possible instant communications from the most remote places on Earth. In between, he was a witness to the kind of titanic political struggles that can only be produced by Washington infighting and a proponent of the simple satisfaction of a good story told well.

International broadcasting of the kind practiced by VOA and the BBC World Service may yet go down as one of the most important activities of the latter half of the twentieth century. Conceived and birthed in 1942--seventy-nine days after Pearl Harbor--to be a source of news and information for a war-torn Europe, VOA at its peak broadcast more than 1,300 hours a week in fifty-plus languages to a weekly audience of 130 million. Post-Cold War budget cuts and the explosion of media choices have diminished that number considerably. A network of transmitters and relay stations, linked now by satellite and pumping out millions of watts of power from places such as Liberia, the Philippines, and Greenville, North Carolina, sends radio broadcasts to all corners of the globe, with the largest audiences concentrated in those areas with the fewest choices. Yet, an archaic Cold War law prevents VOA from broadcasting to the U.S., though Internet radio has now leapfrogged that small bit of intellectual protectionism.

John Houseman, the actor and writer, was VOA's first director and, over the years, an accomplished and eclectic cast of characters called it home. Legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow cast a long shadow over the Voice during his brief tenure as director of the U.S. Information Agency (VOA's former "parent") and NBC Nightly News anchor John Chancellor took time out from his television career to serve as its director under Lyndon Johnson. Generals, college professors, musicians, and actors (Telly Savalas and Yul Brynner were both VOA broadcasters) have all traversed the block-long corridors of the VOA headquarters just off the Mall in Washington.

To the casual observer, VOA makes no sense. Here is a government-funded radio station, led by political appointees and staffed, in many cases, by foreign nationals from dozens of countries, some of whom bring their historic rivalries and conflicts to work every day. The station is part of the foreign policy apparatus of the U.S., yet required by law to broadcast reports that are accurate, objective, and balanced. It would seem to be ripe for abuse.

But as the book makes abundantly clear, it is the people of VOA who make it a unique and effective organization. In a rare triumph of common sense over political expediency, Heil recounts, it was the journalists of VOA who successfully lobbied Congress to put VOA's strict guidelines for objectivity and balance into law. This, despite efforts by diplomats and ideologues on both sides of the aisle to harness the agency for official propaganda purposes, regardless of the toll it would take on its credibility with listeners who have plenty of experience with state-sponsored media.

Some of the most compelling stories in Voice of America: A History are those of the writers and newscasters who made great escapes from their home countries, and who have dedicated their careers to opening up an information pipeline to those same countries. People such as George Berzins, who as a Latvian refugee child in Dresden narrowly escaped death in the Allied firebombing near the end of World War II, and Tuck Outhouk, one of the few survivors of the notorious Cambodian killing fields. Perhaps the most compelling story comes from Isabela and Zamira Islami, sisters who in 1975 fled Albania by evading security guards and swimming throughout the night to the island of Corfu. In retaliation, the Albanian authorities deported their parents to a remote village in the north of the country, where they were held until the regime collapsed in 1990.

The highway goes in two directions, too. In 2002, Ali Jalali, the chief of the Afghan services at VOA and a former government official, returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban to serve as the country's interior minister.

At the end of the day, though, the Voice of America is still the "voice of America." Broadcasting the news, "warts and all," at a time when many public and private broadcasters eschew good or even basic journalism in favor of entertainment, is an important and laudable goal that too often gets mislabeled, perjoratively, as propaganda. If that's the case, it may be the best kind, because it changes lives and the course of nations.


The Amateur Marriage By Anne Tyler '61The Amateur Marriage
By Anne Tyler '61. Knopf, 2004. 320 pages. $24.95.

Anne Tyler is an anomaly in today's publishing world: a best-selling author who does not take to the promotion trail with a hearty yee-haw! and a twenty-two-town itinerary as each new book is released. She seldom grants interviews, and those only by telephone or e-mail. She writes her books in longhand and then, after all has been put into the computer as a nod to the mechanics of the publishing process, she writes it all out again in longhand, a process, she has said, that allows her to "catch false notes."

The intensely private Tyler studied with Reynolds Price '55 at Duke before graduating at age nineteen and heading off to Columbia for graduate work in Russian studies. Her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, was published in 1964. Breathing Lessons, her eleventh, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The Amateur Marriage is her seventeenth novel, set almost entirely in Tyler's hometown and most frequent fictional locale, Baltimore.

The Amateur Marriage spans sixty years with economy and precision, moving from 1941 through 2001. Each of the book's ten chapters focuses on a specific, pivotal period in the lives of Pauline and Michael Anton, who meet just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The first chapter so effectively shows the early war fervor that it is hard to realize that Tyler, herself, was then just an infant. The city is in an uproar, an informal parade of young men is enlisting, and the impetuous Pauline jumps off a streetcar and cuts her forehead. When she's brought into the Anton family grocery seeking first aid, Michael dresses the wound with calm detachment, then marches off arm-in-arm with Pauline, who wears a red coat that comes to symbolize how wildly mismatched they are.

They squabble over matters large and small; their marriage ceremony itself is momentarily delayed as Pauline panics and tries to back out, citing all the disparities in their natures. Michael's calm prevails, unfortunately, launching a union that survives three uneasy decades before he moves out, again with equanimity, on the night of their thirtieth anniversary.

Pauline and Michael produce three baby-boom children, leave the old neighborhood for a new suburb, relocate the store, and upgrade to a gourmet grocery complete with bakery and florist. Flighty Pauline is a stay-at-home mom in Plan A of Elmview Acres, a world apart from the old neighborhood where she accidentally ends up one day: "She entered a hodgepodge of stores and houses, the stores' signs often Greek or Polish or Czech, the houses' stoops scrubbed white as soap bars and their parlor windows displaying artificial flowers, dolls dressed in native costumes, plaster Madonnas with their arms outstretched in blessing. Black-garbed, kerchiefed old women plodded down the sidewalks laden with knobby shopping bags."

Two of the children follow predictable, if undramatic, paths. The eldest child, Lindy, however, is a rebel. "Lindy spent her week of suspension watching TV in the rec room--a jagged dark knife of a person sending out billows of discontent from her father's La-Z-Boy." She runs off at seventeen. A few years later, while Lindy is in a San Francisco rehab, her parents are called to retrieve a three-year-old grandson. They bring the boy back to Baltimore without ever seeing their daughter. When she finally returns some twenty-five years later, Michael observes, "Something she wore jingled. She would be the type to favor heavy, non-precious jewelry whose purchase benefited some disadvantaged tribal craftsmen."

Through all these years of milestones and heartbreaks and triumphs, Tyler communicates the dailiness of the Anton family with exquisite detail and understanding. Pauline "descended the wooden stairs feeling the faint sense of bereavement that always overtook her when she parted from her girlfriends." "Michael woke unusually late on a Sunday morning to find his bedroom filled with an eerie white glow, and when he rose and looked out the window he saw that the trees had turned into white pipe cleaners and the cars down in the parking lot were igloos."

There are no throwaway lines in an Anne Tyler novel. Even the most casual of statements feels carefully crafted. In The Amateur Marriage, it is often Michael whose reflections feel most original. "He believed that all of them, all those young marrieds of the war years, had started out in equal innocence. He pictured them marching down a city street, as people had on the day he enlisted. Then two by two they fell away, having grown wise and seasoned and comfortable in their roles, until only he and Pauline remained, as inexperienced as ever--the last couple left in the amateurs' parade."

He considers Anna, who will become his second wife: "Her face was a series of ovals, Michael noticed--an oval itself containing long brown oval eyes and an oval mouth without that central notch in the upper lip that most people had; and then there was the smooth oval of her head with the hair turned under so neatly all around. He had never before considered what a restful shape an oval was."

Apart from Lindy, whose influence is signified mostly through her absence, there aren't many of the charming eccentrics that populate other Tyler novels. What she's done here is even harder, finding depth in characters who are relentlessly ordinary, the kind of people who in real life so often make only a glancing first impression before quietly melting away.

This is literary fiction for people who don't think they like literary fiction--a beautifully crafted novel filled with memorable characters going about the business of everyday life.