Covering the world of books as a newspaper reporter was an upbeat job. Authors were intelligent, publishers appreciated the attention and booksellers welcomed the free advertising.
In 1989, that world changed for the worst when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in his dying gasp leveled a fatwa, or death sentence, against novelist Salman Rushdie for writing "The Satanic Verses." Anybody connected with the publication or sale of the book was covered by the threat, so when I started calling bookstores to check on the supplies of Rushdie's novel, I sensed fear in the voices of the staffers.
"The book isn't here and won't be anytime," one told me, then asked that I not use her name. Her reaction was common and uncharacteristic of a business that was built on the concept of freedom. Now that concept was compromised, if not in jeopardy. It was a time not easily forgotten.
The recent violence and killings in the Mideast remind us that the forces behind the reaction to "The Satanic Verses" remain just as powerful. Rushdie himself appears to have forgotten nothing from his decade living in secret and guarded by British security -- especially the celebrities he partied with, from well-known writers to top government officials. He drops names like a wet dog shaking off drops of water. After a few dozen, we're no longer impressed. (The book's title, "Joseph Anton," is Rushdie's pseudonym during his period of hiding, inspired by his favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.)
In its most elemental, "The Satanic Verses" pits good against evil. Rushdie's memoir mirrors that dichotomy; there's the good Rushdie, expansive, fatherly, steadfast in his principles in the face of death, and the bad Salman, settling scores, cheating on wives, petulant and demanding.
And annoying, egotistical and tone-deaf. Written in the third person, the memoir ridicules another writer who refers to herself in the third person.
Rushdie is a superb novelist, magical, intellectually satisfying and with a singular style that lures readers to his fantastical worlds. He seems to view the memoir, however, as granting him the license to be a pedestrian writer and his ordeal as giving him the right to say what he pleases, to insult former lovers and friends and to justify, despite some self-flagellation, his bad behavior, especially cheating on his wives. Somehow, it was their fault.
For gossip fans, there's dirt on wife No. 4, Padma Lakshmi, the Food Network star whose ego was -- amazingly -- larger than Rushdie's, if he's to be believed. He dumped No. 3 for her when their son was 2.
Given the extraordinary nature of his decade in exile, Rushdie dwells on the uninteresting details rather than how his exile changed him as an individual and a writer. Luckily his literary accomplishments and defense of artistic freedom will survive the unappealing portrait he painted of himself in "Joseph Anton."
Bob Hoover is retired books editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.