Fallows and Rosen

Fallows and Rosen

New books dissected over email.
Feb. 1 1999 9:29 AM

Fallows and Rosen

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Hello Jeff--

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(We haven't met, but such are the informalities of e-conversation.)

I was fussing with various ways to sidle into the discussion we're about to have. But I couldn't figure out a better approach than being direct: Something about this book really annoyed me. My ambition in this next couple of days is to clarify exactly what that something is, either through your sympathetic agreement or through some clash of ideas about the book. We should probably point out to Book Club members that we haven't been assigned, Crossfire-style, into Loved-It/Hated-It teams on this subject. I hadn't read the book when we were signed up for this exercise, and I don't think you had either. I am curious whether you liked it better than I did.

I also think we should start by giving Book Club members an idea of what the book is about, even though it will take most of this installment to do it. Many details of the story are important for understanding the way Malcolm has handled it.

In the late 1980s, a con man named Bob Bailes was being tried for bank fraud. Sheila McGough, a woman in her forties who had only recently graduated from law school, represented him. Even while she was representing him in this case, he undertook what seemed to be yet another fraud. He sold (apparently) phony insurance-company charters to shady-seeming "investors"--and asked them to wire the $75,000 payment to the trust account at McGough's law firm. He (apparently) told her that he was simply using her account as a convenience, since he didn't want to set up a new bank account to receive the payments. She promptly passed the money to him, except for $5000 she kept to cover fees he owed her. Bailes had (apparently) told the investors a different story: that McGough was holding the money in trust, until they could see that the deal was bona fide. The deal was anything but bona fide; the money disappeared; and investors came after McGough, contending that she had been in on the scam all along. The investors actually got the $75,000 back, since McGough's insurance company agreed to cover their loss. But one vindictive investor decided that McGough should be driven from the profession. He revved up federal prosecutors to indict her as a party to the fraud. She was tried and convicted, and she served two and a half years in jail.

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In 1996, soon after she got out, she contacted Malcolm and said that she'd been framed. Malcolm ended up agreeing. McGough's central points were (a) that of course she was not participating in a fraud, and (b) that prosecutors were mad enough to indict her because she'd been so relentless in trying to save Bailes. Malcolm's main point about McGough's behavior is that she refused to take the stand at her trial not from fear of self-incrimination but out of reluctance to say anything that would reflect badly on her client. (i.e., The more she insisted that she'd never known she was supposed to hold the money in trust, the more she'd emphasize the totality of Bailes' role in the fraud.) Because Bailes had already been convicted in the $75,000 fraud, McGough's determination to avoid incriminating him was unusual. Malcolm presents it as a heroic literalmindedness about a counselor's duty to a client. "The crime that Sheila McGough was convicted of in 1990 was the crime of not letting go." Malcolm emphasizes that McGough spoke to her (as she had not to the court) only because Bailes was now dead.

Here is the question that kept popping up in my mind as I read The Crime of Sheila McGough: What is the probability that this book would have been published, if it had come over the transom from an unknown author. I think the answer is "Zero." That sounds more sweepingly harsh than I really mean, so I'll backpedal for a minute. The publishing world is unreasonably hard on unknown authors, so maybe this is not a fair standard. Also, it's legitimate for publishers to give weight to a writer's past work in considering the current one. Not only do past books build an audience; the knowledge that a certain intelligence has been applied to subjects X and Y increase the interest of how it deals with subject Z. (A Man in Full is more interesting because of Bonfire of the Vanities.) Also, there are many individual sentences and passages here that are written with great concision and insight. (Details as the week goes on!)

Still, even if a publishing house did accept a book on this subject (rather than saying, "You're really talking about a magazine article here..."), I cannot imagine any editor I've worked with publishing the book in this form--if they had leverage over the author, that is. Instead I can hear them saying, "The subject has potential, but we have a lot of work to do."

What would the work entail? I'm already over the space limit, so here are the highlights:

  • One of Malcolm's central themes, which unites this book with her previous work, is the utter impossibility of capturing real "truth" in narratives--journalistic, legal, historical, whatever. At some level we all know what she's talking about. But in the structure and reporting of this book, she seems to have used it as an excuse not even to try. The information is presented--or at least seems to be presented--more or less the way it came to her in interviews, rather than in a "first this, then that" sequence that would make things clearer to the reader. Many factual matters that are fundamental for judging the case are simply left hanging: Were the insurance company charters really fraudulent? What exactly did Bailes tell her about the money? Did the government really indict her just because she was "irritating"? Even if you agree with Malcolm that complete "truth" is impossible in a narrative, you can do your best to help the reader along.
  • Notwithstanding her diffidence about offering the "truth," Malcolm is completely axiomatic in insisting on Sheila McGough's innocent purity. But she essentially asks us to trust her on it--trust her instinct and judgment about the people she has met. The details will wait till later, but many little apercus in this book actively made me mis-trust her human instincts.
  • Malcolm is simultaneously unconvincingly idealistic about Sheila McGough's motives, and condescending beyond belief about the tacky details of her life. Malcolm chronicles her voyages from Manhattan to the D.C. suburbs as if on an anthropological field trip (including patronizing praise for McGrath's mother's meat loaf and wondering asides about her father's bolo tie).
  • The writerly self-indulgence factor is at modern-record levels. Skeptics may consult the "Coda" to the book, which begins as a scene of pastoral splendor on a mountain and builds to its climax: the journalist sitting on the hillside and noting down the wonders she had seen.

I've broken several rules of Malcolm's "truth" so far, by summarizing the narrative in a way the book never does. I've broken some rules of my own, by complaining without giving enough illustrations for the reader to get the idea first-hand. But that's it for tonight. Over to you, Jeff.

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James Fallows is the author of
Breaking the News and is currently designing software at Microsoft. Jeffrey Rosen teaches law at George Washington University and writes for the New Republic and The New Yorker. This week they discuss The Crime of Sheila McGough, by Janet Malcolm.