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February 10, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | February 10, 2009 |

“I read the first sentence of this book, threw up my hands and then stayed up all night to finish.” — Liz Smith on Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, as quoted in the recently published paperback edition.

“Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.” — the first sentence of The Silence of the Lambs.

That’s a little satire dog-whistle, circa 1990. If you were a magazine reader in those days and didn’t get the joke, you were probably a Reader’s Digest afficionado. If you thought it mildly humorous, Esquire might have been your bag. But if you considered it an hilarious skewering of the lazy bloviations of “celebrity critics,” chances are you anxiously awaited the delivery of each new issue of Spy.

Spy: The Funny Years is the story of how a small group of young, witty New York writers embarked on one of the great seat-of-their-pants publishing successes of modern times — an independent, nationally distributed, celebrity-satire mag. Spy was the spiritual heir of the original National Lampoon, and the pre-Internet forerunner of “The Daily Show” and, well, pretty much every site on the Pajiba blogroll.

(Take the term “blogroll”, for example. While they didn’t invent the term “logrolling” [n. The exchanging of favors or praise, as among artists, critics, or academics], from whence “blogroll” was coined, Spy popularized the term via its regular feature “Logrolling In Our Times,” in which pairs of famous authors were revealed as craven blurb-ers of each other’s books.)

Spy took its name from the tabloid mag Cary Grant wrote for in The Philadelphia Story, and it worked the same urbane, cynical celeb beat as did Grant’s C.K. Dexter Haven. But not even Haven would have been likely to plot Katherine Hepburn’s socialite Tracy Lord on an X-Y axis of Estimated Dollar Value Of Trust Fund versus Degree Of Self-Congratulatory Anorexia, as Spy once did with various Gotham heiresses of the 1980s.

The magazine centered on the New York epicenter of American culture, and while the rhetorical blade was always drawn, its creators made no bones of Updike’s “secret belief that people living anywhere else have to be kidding.” They loved their city, and a great deal of the crazy-quilt of celeb horoscopes, phone pranks, charts and graphs, and even the occasional journalistic scoop that made up each issue conveyed an undercurrent of anger and disbelief (never stated — this was satire, after all) that the New York they had known was being given over to the wanton profligacy of “greed is good” capitalist rock stars.

So their mission was to take down a peg both the craven accumulators (i.e. Donald Trump, the “short-fingered vulgarian”), and those who would be (“The Second-Home Homeless”), while still retaining the sense of humor that kept them on the A-list party circuit, among their benefactors and their targets.

Well, so far it sounds like I’m trying to sell you the magazine, and this is supposed to be a book review. Amidst the generous helpings of material from old issues is the telling of how Spy came to be. It was the brainchild of Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, two Time magazine writers who discerned a lazy complaisance in their city between those who reported and those who were reported upon. They hooked up with young Wall Streeter Tom Phillips, who coaxed them into taking their idea from conception to reality by rounding up individual donors of like mind. This is the most impressive part of their story — that they were actually able to create a large-scale publication without the backing of Time/Life, or Conde Nast, or any other well-heeled publishing house. Such a thing was rare back then, and practically unheard of today.

Spy: The Funny Years is largely a vanity publication, but it’s hard to begrudge them the indulgence. The text is essentially a reminiscence among the creators of the magazine, and as such it might have a limited appeal outside its circle of contributors. I enjoyed its “let’s put on a show” vibe — there’s a vicarious pleasure to derive from reading about a small group of wildly inventive people who actually pulled off, for a while, something big. But even if that doesn’t interest you, there’s all the old material to sift through. From Swift, to Twain, to Spy, great satire doesn’t just age well — it doesn’t age.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of sansho1’s reviews.

Cannonball Read / sansho1

Books | February 10, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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