Bruce Fretts
July 25, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

American Rhapsody

Current Status
In Season
Joe Eszterhas
We gave it a C-

American Rhapsody — that’s an awfully highfalutin title for such a lowdown and dirty book. Following his basest instincts, ”Basic Instinct” screenwriter Joe Eszterhas dropped out of Hollywood society a couple of years ago and became a Lewinskygate obsessed recluse, ”indulging gluttonously in the national bacchanal of information and bulimia of rumor.” He proceeds to regurgitate every scrap of D.C. gossip he digested and strains to relate them to his own sordid experiences in El-Lay. The result is the ”Showgirls” of political ”journalism” — a work of horrifying tastelessness, yet one so fascinatingly appalling that you simply cannot turn away.

Mixing fact and fiction is almost always a bad idea (see also: Edmund Morris’ ”Dutch”), yet Eszterhas has come up with a gimmick meant to alert readers when he is and isn’t to be believed. Passages in plain type, he explains, are ”sometimes interpretative but based on well-researched facts”; those in bold type are written by ”the twisted little man inside me,” an evil twin who ”uses facts wickedly to shape his outrageous fictional perspective.”

Anyone skimming the 432-page ”Rhapsody” for boldface interludes in hopes of finding the juiciest sections will be gravely disappointed. These are among the most skippable parts of the book, primarily faux first-person confessions by scandal players like Kenneth Starr (lampooned here as a bed-wetting porn addict). As Eszterhas’ alleged comedy ”An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn” proved, intentional humor isn’t his forte.

Each supposedly factual chapter opens with an excerpt from Linda Tripp’s secretly taped conversations with Monica Lewinsky, yet these epigraphs don’t always correlate with what follows. ”You never ever realized whose d— you were sucking,” Tripp tells Lewinsky in a typically non sequitur intro to Eszterhas’ take on Ross Perot.

Much of the text is given over to excruciatingly detailed renderings of Clinton and Lewinsky’s Oval Office encounters. Jeez, do we really need another account of this tawdry relationship? Eszterhas employs the Prez’s apparent penile pet name, ”Willard” (”It’s longer than Willie,” Gennifer Flowers claims he told her), producing such ridiculous sentences as ”She began nurturing Willard with kisses while he was still on the phone.” Thanks; I’ll never look at Willard Scott the same way again.

The author’s showbiz anecdotes are more interesting, although their links to Clinton’s affairs are only occasionally clear. Eszterhas cleverly skewers Sharon Stone, observing that when she swore she’d been tricked into filming ”Basic Instinct”’s notorious leg-crossing shot, ”it was Sharon’s way of saying that she didn’t inhale.” His juxtaposition of the Paula Jones incident with a hotel-room meeting during which Eszterhas says an underwear-free Richard Gere changed clothes in front of him is less enlightening. Mercifully, he spares us a description of the American Gigolo’s Willard.

Despite all its flaws, ”Rhapsody” remains undeniably readable. A former Rolling Stone staffer and National Book Award nominee for the true-crime tale ”Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse,” Eszterhas is a more gifted prose stylist than he is a screenwriter. (Even he admits that his scripting career consists of ”a quarter century of contributing mind-numbing plot twists.”) For every one of the book’s groaners (”Bill Clinton was the wet spot on America’s bed”), there’s another smartly turned phrase (”in the battle between the sexes, many of us were war criminals”). So even as ”Rhapsody” ends with a rap from the point of view of the President’s johnson — ”You’re a hick, I’m a p—-,” it rhymes — we can be thankful for one thing: At least this isn’t a movie.

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