great secret isn't how we die, of course. The medium is the message.
The pertinent question is, why do we have to?
How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, Sherwin
Nuland's contribution to the literature of anxiety, gives readers
a you'd-rather-not-be-there tour. Nuland, a surgeon, offers little
to look forward to in our end. Most of us, no surprise, don't succumb
surrounded by loved ones with time to spare for a few pithy final
words, our epitaph carved into a stardard reference work. We either
get it over with rather quickly if not economically, or would have
little trouble modeling for Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'. In most
cases death isn't as pretty as the flowers which follow, and Nuland's
bedside manner, while a calming influence, is necessarily chilling.
Nuland may have written How We Die to fill that gap in your
bookshelf between Kubler-Ross's On Death and Dying and anything
by Studs Terkel. He's less self-conscious than medical essayist
Richard Belzer, not a drama queen like Oliver Sacks (or cuddly like
Robin Williams), innocent of the plot-consciousness of The New
Yorker's late Berton Roueche, and a literary shortstop to William
B. Ober, MD, who hits them out of the park with Boswell's Clap
and Other Essays.
He has dug a niche for himself, one in which some of Edgar Allen
Poe's characters should feel strangely safe: when you are dead,
Nuland confirms, you are well and truly dead.
He has a captive audience. Everybody has had a near-death experience.
Just being born is a near-death experience. Besides, I already know
how we die. We get in silly accidents. Our bodies self-destruct.
We get old, and we have no choice.
How We Die, which I found in my local Waldenbooks in the
Self Help section, deserves an inconspicuous place in your library,
so as not to accidentally frighten browsers. It is, however, one
book you can safely loan to a friend. You can be sure to get it
Rise is not for the faint of heart, either. Author Jerry Adler
dons a hard hat and offers one to you. You're advised to wear it.
Fans of David Macaulay's fascinating series of lets-open-it-up-and-see-what's-inside
art books (Cathedral, Pyramid, etc.) will be enthralled by
the riveting minutia Adler accumulated while observing the birth,
topping-off, death, and rebirth of the Bertelsmann Building at 1540
Broadway: elevators in a first class Manhattan office building shouldn't
leave the morning crowd waiting for more than 31 seconds (the most-culled
detail while the book was first being hyped); historic preservationists
are not as powerless as may be imagined; the hole for a building's
foundation will not be as deep as the hole in the assets of the
bank unfortunate enough to fall for Bruce Eichner's pitch.
Eichner, a developer, is the book's anti-hero. He's interesting,
energetic, and ultimately as synergistic as a black hole.
Adler is a senior editor for Newsweek and, for a journalist,
a pleasantly invisible stylist. He manages to be a fly on the wall
but not in the ointment. If he doesn't condemn Eichner it's only
because he hardly has to. His facts are indictment enough. Where
he veers into the personal he makes no judgements, and High Rise
is entertaining enough that all accounts can be reckoned even: Adler's,
his characters', the reader's. When you want to write about, say,
spiders, then damn if it doesn't hurt if you hold one in your nervous
hands and even try to like it a little.
We learn that Eichner is a venomless yet unsympathetic spider. He
was and is an opportunist, good at sucking money from other people's
reserviours, less good at justifyuing himself or his ambitions.
1540 Broadway was for the span of its construction the nexus of
many dreams: dreams of windfalls for existing leaseholders and landlords
who must be bought off at often outlandish cost so their occupancy
and even air rights may be reconverted into a fantasy of profits
for the developer and backers; dreams of a monument of architectural
stylishness (the account of the building's prow -- which featured
to be its hood ornament -- is not to be missed); dreams of hubris.
The architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, worked nonstop (and
charged accordingly) to tailor their vision to their client's resources,
which as we begin High Rise are considerable. But as the
building fails to draw sufficiently attractive tenants, as consultant
after consultant fails his audition, as construction costs soar,
as the banks get nervous and start calling in loans, or at least
threaten to, Eichner's prospects for an profitable conclusion to
his questionable vision dwindle accordingly.
High Rise is subtitled "How 1,000 Men and Women Worked Around
the Clock for Five Years and Lost $200 Million Building a Skyscraper."
The eventual purchase price was $119 Million, which was less than
the cost of construction alone. Bertelsmann, the German publishers,
bought it lock, stock, and bolt.
Of course the banks foreclose. Of course the dream goes down the
drain... But Eichner, always a winner at the finish line no matter
how he places, emerges relatively unscathed. In one of life's little
ironies he finds employment as a consultant to the building's new
In self-examining postscript Eichner congratulates himself on being
"lucky and smart enough" to escape the appropriate retribution for
the 'developer' he is -- get a real job, do not pass go, do not
collect laurels. Just another bargain basement dream starring a
modern-day Robin Hood, or bogeyman.