/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Thu, Jun 21 2018
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  • Mother American Night: John Perry Barlow's posthumous memoir

    Mother American Night: John Perry Barlow's posthumous memoir

    John Perry Barlow lived many lives: small-time Wyoming Republican operative (and regional campaign director for Dick Cheney!), junior lyricist for the Grateful Dead, father-figure to John Kennedy Jr, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, inspirational culture hero for the likes of Aaron Swartz and Ed Snowden (and, not incidentally, me), semi-successful biofuels entrepreneur... He died this year, shortly after completing his memoir Mother American Night, and many commenters have noted that Barlow comes across as a kind of counterculture cyberculture Zelig, present at so many pivotal moments in our culture, and that's true, but that's not what I got from my read of the book -- instead, I came to know someone I counted as a friend much better, and realized that every flaw and very virtue he exhibited in his interpersonal dealings stemmed from the flaws and virtues of his relationship with himself.

    The first thing I noticed in reading Mother American Night was Barlow's voice. Literally. I listened to the audiobook, ably read by Ray Porter. When I started listening, I thought, That guy sounds a little like Barlow, but it's not like he's doing impressions or anything.. Ten minutes later, I was like, "Holy shit, the ghost of John Perry Barlow is in my earbuds." It wasn't Porter's voice so much as Barlow's words -- his incredibly gift with language, combined with his habit of manicuring his anaecdotes to a carefully calculated rough-hewn perfection, shining through with unmistakable glory. Barlow is one of the world's great storytellers, and his ability to spin a yarn was one of the secrets of his success, letting him tunnel through his readers' eyeballs and straight into their brains, grabbing them and winning them over to his team, and then to his team's cause.

    The second thing I notice about Mother American Night was that Barlow was sure settling a lot of scores in the early chapters. Sure, we were meeting his parents and various Republican operators and the Dead and their retinue and experiencing them in all their variegated virtues and failings, but Barlow also had some sharp knives for those (mostly) long-dead friends and relatives, and he wasn't afraid to slip them in. Barlow's barbs have the air of long-mulled grievances, honed to perfection, waiting for an opportune moment to be unsheathed.

    As beautifully turned as his phrases were in these early chapters, as much as he made you feel these half-century-old disappointments and sorrows, they also felt...unworthy. Petty, even.

    And then Barlow drops the other shoe: while in one chapter he might be excoriating his father or Bob Weir or Jerry Garcia, a couple chapters later he's revisiting them with enormous affection -- often spilling details that are every bit as intimate and revealing as the dirt he had revealed a few chapters back. He lands these one-two punches with incredible grace and insight, and it changes the whole nature of the enterprise, from a well-told memoir with some bits in dubious taste to a revelation about Barlow's enormous affection for the people in his life -- not despite their myriad failings, but because of them.

    Then the other other shoe drops: because Barlow is meting out the same treatment to himself that he's subjecting everyone else in the Barlowsphere to. He's incredibly hard on himself, and also fully aware of his prodigious virtues and accomplishments. His treatment of himself is just as uneven (and sometimes unfair) as his treatment of everyone else is: some sins that shouldn't be readily forgiven are swept under the rug (in himself and others, Barlow is extremely willing to forgive sexual objectification, provided it is carried off with some kind of panache) while other human frailties are held up as examples of moral failings. Barlow's writing in a very brave and very revelatory way here.

    Though Barlow dwells on the highs and lows of many famous personages here, the most incredible (literal) bombshells are not celebrity gossip: they're things about Barlow that he never revealed to a soul -- for example, that he once planned and nearly executed a suicide bomb attack on Harvard Square with the intention of awakening people to a kind of unnameable dread that he believes was the motivation for Charles Manson (even more incredibly, he says that the administration at Wesleyan -- who headed him off before he could blow himself up and commit mass murder -- hushed up the whole incident, stuck him in an institution on thorazine for a couple of weeks, then let him finish the school year with no further incident).

    Other reviewers have discussed the details of Barlow's memoir-- the tragic loss of his true love, a woman who died of an unsuspected genetic disorder during a transcontinental flight, his brief dalliance with Anita Hill, and more. I found these stories fascinating; I had been on the periphery of many of them, encountering Barlow in various locales around the world and getting fragmentary versions of the story (we once slowly traversed the width of Black Rock City while he explained his intention to start a second family with a young woman he planned to marry) -- getting the polished, final versions, with the punchlines that hadn't happened yet, made the whole Barlow situation a lot more linear and causal.

    But for all that this is an essential, beautifully written book that is full of humor and tragedy and revelation, it's not perfect. As it reaches its final act -- everything from the founding of EFF onward -- it takes on a rushed aspect. Barlow was dying by then, and may have known that he was running out of time, or it may just be that the earlier material had been polished by many repetitions by one of the world's great raconteurs. I would have liked to hear as much about Ed Snowden as I did about despicable roadies for the Grateful Dead, and if Barlow were alive today and I was his editor, I'd tell him to add 25% to this book by fleshing out the last 25% of his life.

    But Barlow's dead, and hardly a day goes by that I don't think of him. Listening to this audiobook made me feel like I was walking the playa with him again, spinning out stories, debating, laughing, catching him defaulting to gnomic utterances when he started losing an argument and calling him on it, to his enormous delight... I miss him very much, and I'm so glad that he left us this book; it makes me sad to learn that he was as hard on himself as he was, and also happy to know that in his clearer moments, he knew just how much he meant to all of his friends.

    Mother American Night: My Life in Crazy Times Hardcover [John Perry Barlow and Robert Greenfield/Crown]

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