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Does “30 Rock” Jack Speak for All of Us?

In W.P. Norton on July 3, 2017 at 1:39 pm



Alec Baldwin photo by Gage Skidmore

A manic Tracy Jordan’s holding a loaded gun on the roof of NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Jack Donaghe is trying to talk him down. But Or is he really talking about the might-have-beens and missed chances that nearly destroyed the film career of the great Alec Baldwin?

“Tracy, you wanna destroy the goodwill you have, so you can go back to your easy TV job? Do TV. No one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are. Even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or, worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbor. Stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. But be the biggest thing on the small screen, and you’ll still get laughed out of the Vanity Fair Oscar party by Greg Kinnear.”

The franchise is Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” series, of course — the role hijacked by Harrison Ford, who aged out only to be replaced by — God forgive him — Ben Affleck. The Streep vehicle is the rib-tickling throwaway romcom “It’s Complicated.” Civil rights? “Mississippi Burning.” Who is Baldwin in “Pearl Harbor?” Who remembers anything Anthony Hopkins said or in “The Edge?” And a gold star to anybody who can figure out the Kinnear/Vanity Fair/Oscar Party reference.

Back up on the roof, Baldwin is a modern-day Antonio Salieri — a stand-in and symbol for the mediocrity many of us fear we’ve become. Does that mean “30 Rock” Jack speaks for all of us? If so, the bright side is this: Whatever Baldwin’s Oscar hopes, there’s nobody in comedy funnier at what he does today. For proof, see the two Emmys, two Golden Globes, and seven Screen Actors Guild Awards he’s earned.

Conclusion: There are always second acts in American life. Now put the gun down, Tracy. We’re all going to have to come down off this roof someday.


AWP17 puts literature on the map in D.C.

In Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Literature, W.P. Norton on February 16, 2017 at 6:54 pm

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Still sifting through the trove of literary treasures and takeaways from the nation’s largest annual gathering of the literati, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, hashtag #AWP17.

Herewith a few visual highlights:


Meeting Viet Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer.


Only 10 percent of optioned books get made into movies. That’s the consensus of these panelists who number in that exclusive club. From left: Fobbit author David Abrams; Claire Bidwell Smith, one of whose books is being made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence; and Andre Dubus III, who penned House of Sand and Fog and Dirty Love, among others.



Members of The Anthropoid Literary Collective, a humanesque journal, make me feel welcome on conference Day 1.

Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs

In African America, Barbecue, Black America, Black-owned businesses, Charlie Robinson, Chicago history, Mike Royko, Mississippi Delta, Racism, Royko RibFest, The Charlie Robinson Story, W.P. Norton on February 16, 2017 at 2:49 pm

A reflection of an editor in Robinson’s Oak Park storefront.

The excitement of this year’s annual gathering of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (#AWP17) in Washington, DC, took me back to the first book I edited — The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts.

Charlie Robinson

OAK PARK, ILLINOIS — Chicago’s Mississippi-born baron of barbecue is sharing his story with the world.

Robinson seared his name into the Chicago annals of African-American history at RibFest 1982, where a centuries-old family barbecue recipe took him to first place over legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko.

In 2012 I finalized the editing of Robinson’s manuscript, The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts. The book is now available in limited edition.

The first book written by the Mississippi-born, Oak Park-based restaurateur looks back with surprisingly little anger on life begun in a Mississippi Delta cotton economy that seems little changed since the days of slavery.

Robinson recalls in stark detail the daily indignities of the race-based world that forced him at the age of 12 to address white children no older than him with the words “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”

You can almost feel the hundred-degree heat of Mississippi burning your skin as he describes his first job picking cotton 10 hours a day for thirty cents an hour.

But you can also share the joy of a young man whose skill on the basketball court earns him a scholarship to a Great Plains college where he learns about the world beyond the Mississippi Delta.

No less striking is the pride that shines through Robinson’s retelling of how the black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper urged the descendants of the enslaved to come to Chicago on trains staffed by black porters.

Or the sense of wonder that pours off the page when he tells how his life changed that late September day in 1982 — a moment captured by a Chicago-Sun Times photo showing Royko raise Robinson’s arm in victory as RibFest judge Don Rose and WLS-TV anchorman Tim Weigel look on.

The unforeseeable outcome of the 1982 contest I call “Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs” is a quintessential Chicago story about a newcomer who rises from obscurity to a seat at the table with room to spare for any flavor strong enough to reach toward the skyline of a city defined by its power to redefine itself.

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