Monthly Archives: June 2016

‘The Big Sheep’ Plays Hardboiled Sci-Fi To The Hilt


It’s not hard to parse the two main influences on Robert Kroese’s new novel The Big Sheep. The title itself mashes them up: Raymond Chandler’s 1939 hardboiled masterpiece The Big Sleep and Philip K. Dick’s 1968 post-apocalyptic classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis of the film Blade Runner). The question is: Does Kroese’s book transcend the obviousness of that literary portmanteau? Thankfully, yes. While Kroese draws deeply from Chandler’s gritty atmosphere and Dick’s gonzo concepts, he adds his own third dimension — humor, and plenty of it.

The Big Sheep takes place in a near-future Los Angeles, following an economic collapse that’s fractured the area into the city proper and a section known as the Disincorporated Zone, or DZ, that’s reverted to barbarism (with a tip of the hat to John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.) In this brave new city, two detectives, Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler, are hired to solve the mystery of a missing sheep, genetically modified to incubate human organs for transplant. Soon after, the pair get another job: In this increasingly entertainment-reliant version of our world, a superstar actress named Priya Mistry fears she’s the target of an assassin.

As the two investigations dovetail — a bit too predictably, but not without some finesse; Kroese weaves plots like a master — the tribal politics of the DZ boils to the surface. An over-the-top, would-be warlord who calls himself Mag-Lev is trying to seize power, and it’s causing a ripple effect that threatens to upend Keane and Fowler’s cases. Meanwhile, the mega-conglomerate Flagship Media exerts its own gravity on the investigation — all while Keane guards a secret past and Fowler is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend Gwen.

Kroese’s story is intricate, and his pace is refreshingly relentless, but what really carries The Big Sheep is the laughs. Clever, wry, and not above a little groan-inducing wordplay of the very best kind, the book’s humor not only keeps the mood light, it cements Keane and Fowler’s characters. Their dialogue is pistol-whip sharp, and it quickly becomes clear that Kroese is pulling from a third major influence: Arthur Conan Doyle. The dynamic between the mad-genius Keane and the no-nonsense Fowler is pure Holmes-and-Watson, right down to Fowler’s first-person narration. In one of the novel’s driest understatements, Fowler calls his boss “an unconventional thinker”; Keane prefers the term “phenomenological inquisitor” over the mundane “private investigator,” and the philosophical ruminations fly fast and furiously. And funnily. At one point, Fowler — in the grips of a villain — remarks, “It was never a good thing when a bad guy started quoting Nietzsche.”

There’s no doubt that Kroese pays loving homage to his influences, but there’s a spark to The Big Sheep that transcends them. Even when the word “sheep” from the book’s title winds up assuming a multiple meaning that’s a little heavy-handed, Kroese handles it with a wink and plenty of wit, poking America’s obsession with celebrity with a pointed, satirical stick. Dystopian novels these days continue to be pumped out faster than greenhouse gases, but The Big Sheep offers a welcome break: a tale of our miserable tomorrow that’s simultaneously sobering and fun.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

In ‘Hustling Hitler,’ A Jewish Vaudevillian Scams The Third Reich




ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Walter Shapiro grew up hearing stories about his great-uncle Freeman Bernstein, incredible stories – stories about Bernstein’s friendship with the Hollywood sex symbol Mae West, stories about how he fleeced Nazi Germany in a scam deal for Canadian nickel.

Shapiro, who has written and reported for USA Today, Time, Newsweek, Esquire, Salon, The Washington Post – he now writes for Roll Call – trained his ample research and reporting skills on this figure of family legend and produced the book “Hustling Hitler.” It’s the story of Freeman Bernstein. Welcome to the program.

WALTER SHAPIRO: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: First the lead – the stories you grew up on turned out to be true (laughter).

SHAPIRO: And it’s something I could not believe. My father was a Connecticut city planner going to zoning board hearings. When he told me some stories about his uncle, my great-uncle, born in Troy, N.Y., I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense. It was like him taking me aside and saying, you know son, you’re a direct descendant of Sitting Bull.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) I’m trying to imagine your great-uncle’s resume – amusement park owner, seller of fake jewelry, vaudeville producer, boxing promoter, card shop – horse race fixer and writer of bad checks and all around bon vivant.

SHAPIRO: A bon vivant and a man who once organized an Irish Festival in Boston under the name of Roger O’Ryan. Mr. O’Ryan disappeared with the gate receipts, and the Boston papers had a wonderful time tracking down Mr. O’Bernstein.

SIEGEL: The full title of your book about your great-uncle Freeman Bernstein is “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer.” So tell us the gist of the Hitler story.

SHAPIRO: My uncle cheated Adolf Hitler in a nickel deal. In 1936, Canadian nickel, which you need for lining guns, particularly if you want to invade Poland and France, was impossible to get on the market. There was a de-facto boycott to Germany.

And Freeman and his corrupt metals dealer partner in Toronto sent the word that they had Canadian nickel, but it had to be labeled as scrap metal. Once people agree to a fake bill of lading, every single part of the scam would work.

And when the cargo arrived in Hamburg, the Nazis were not happy. Through the middleman in New York, they got him indicted for grand larceny. My great-uncle Freeman immediately took off for the Orient where he had crowned himself the jade king of China.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yes.

SHAPIRO: It was a very stirring investiture. And a year later, he was arrested in Hollywood at midnight in the back of a chauffeured limo having just left Mae West’s apartment.

SIEGEL: But the key point was since he was scamming the Nazis by selling them scrap metal, he really wasn’t selling them nickel, so he wasn’t violating a ban.

SHAPIRO: No, that – which is how the cargo got out of Canada. As near as I can tell, Freeman Bernstein never possessed more than 20 pounds of nickel. It was very high-grade nickel. It was bought in a small shop in lower Manhattan, and this was salted on the top of the cargo. So whenever the cargo inspectors looked after being given $5,000, they would always look at the top of the right barrel and write a glowing report.

It helps that you’re exporting nickel from Halifax in March of 1936 where the temperature is 7 below zero, which sort of cuts into your incentive to inspect the cargo closely.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Or to do anything else for that matter. You are writing about your great-uncle Freeman Bernstein from the safe perspective of a few decades. I wonder whether you come away really wishing that you could have known him or whether this is the kind of person who just might have driven you nuts had you been part of the family in those days.

SHAPIRO: Oh, no, I would have loved to have known him. In fact, I would have killed to spend an hour talking with him because he was charming and there was a sense of fun about him. He loved inventing scams for just the artistry of inventing them. He talked about a dating bureau – that nobody should be lonely when Freeman Bernstein is around – back in 1912 in Variety.

SIEGEL: The numbers of lonely men and women in New York he calculated and felt he could bring them together.

SHAPIRO: Exactly. I mean, in 1916, shortly before the insurance fire that ended his career as a silent movie producer, he tried to sell the Democratic Party on doing a movie boosting Woodrow Wilson’s reelection called “Prosperity.” Had it been produced, it would have been the first political commercial in American history.

SIEGEL: How did his life end?

SHAPIRO: It ended sadly but also characteristically. He was broke. He was living by himself in Hollywood in 1942. And he was in the office of a major movie director, and he was felled by a heart attack. The sad thing is, I visited his grave in a small Jewish cemetery right outside of Los Angeles. I had to move about two feet of debris, dead leaves before I found this paperback book-sized footstone that said F. Bernstein.

He didn’t even have money for Freeman Bernstein, and I needed to say something. And I’m not religious, so I couldn’t say a Jewish prayer. So I said probably the words that I thought this famous, flamboyant grifter would like to hear from the great beyond. You are remembered.

SIEGEL: Walter Shapiro, thanks for talking with us.

SHAPIRO: Thanks so much.

SIEGEL: Walter Shapiro – his book about his great-uncle Freeman Bernstein is called “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer.”

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

‘The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear’ Echoes Real-Life Republican Race




ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Stuart Stevens is one of the country’s leading Republican operatives. He’s worked for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. This election cycle, instead of advising a candidate, he wrote a novel. Our co-host Ari Shapiro talked with him about it.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Stuart Stevens’ new novel is called “The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear.” It is set at a contested Republican convention. It seemed a bit over the top until events in the real-life presidential race became nearly as jaw-dropping.

STUART STEVENS: When I wrote this book, I thought I was pushing things out to the edge to give us a sense of what could happen and also for comic effect. I finished it, you know, over a year ago. I think I probably underplayed reality.

SHAPIRO: I asked Stuart Stevens about his thought process as he sat on that finished manuscript and watched reality conform to the fiction he had created.

STEVENS: I find this race very dispiriting. And I seem to be the majority of Americans on that. I was of the opinion that Donald Trump would lose the primary. I thought that he was a very easy candidate to defeat in the primary. I wish he had been defeated. I think there were a lot of better people running. So I kept thinking, well, someone is going to step up and just point to the ridiculousness of Donald Trump and that will be that. But it never happened.

In the book, like we’ve seen in real life, there’s a big debate moment, and it occurs in New Hampshire. And the narrator, J.D. Callahan, is – just been hired as campaign manager for the sitting vice president, who’s just lost Iowa and is about to lose New Hampshire to this very charismatic governor of Colorado, who’s strong and anti-immigration – sort of a xenophobe populist. J.D. Callahan advises the vice president to confront the governor and say to him, have you no shame? What is it that you are saying about America and saying about us as Americans? And that begins to turn the tide for him. It resonates. It’s a moment I wish had occurred in the Republican primary.

SHAPIRO: In the real-world Republican primary.

STEVENS: In the real world.

SHAPIRO: If you were writing the book today having seen what’s happened in reality, do you think you would have written it any differently?

STEVENS: That’s a great question. In the book I had this after an economic crash to sort of use it as a triggering factor to accelerate this desire for a strong man. We haven’t needed that, and Trump has emerged. I think that perhaps I might not have written it with the economic crash.

SHAPIRO: So what you’re saying is you thought the country would need some real push, a kick, in order to lean towards a Trump-like figure…

STEVENS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: …In your fictional world. And in the real world, the country went for Donald Trump even when the economy is doing relatively well.

STEVENS: Yeah, I think this is a great paradox here. Traditionally those on the center-left have been better at talking about those left behind than those on the center-right. But I think for the last seven years, a lot of those voices have been muted. Part of it is a desire to support the president. Part of it is not to help Republicans. So I think that there has been more of sort of a conspiracy of silence about how many people are hurting.

I mean we don’t have a John Steinbeck now. We have a Jon Stewart, who’s a, you know, smart suburban social critic. But he’s not John Steinbeck. You know, we don’t have a Studs Terkel anymore. And I think that the lack of even having these discussions that we have is hurting our national consciousness. We need to talk about all these people out there, and it’s a majority of Americans who still are very much hurting after the Recession.

SHAPIRO: As a vocal member of the Never Trump movement, how worried are you about the country right now?

STEVENS: Well, I think everybody’s worried. I don’t know anybody that looks around and says (laughs) well, this is going great. This is really working out well. I think it’s very troubling. I mean, look; to be an American you sort of default to optimism. And, you know, it’s a big, noisy, contentious country. So to have a big, noisy, contentious election I think is not a bad thing.

But I think it’s important that we keep reminding ourselves – what about the best of America? Because ultimately, I think our leaders need to represent the best of America and lift us up. I mean, we all have a part of us inside that feels disappointed by this or cheated here – I didn’t get a good chance here. And when we feel best about the country and best about a leader is when someone lifts up out of that.

I mean, I think certainly John Kennedy did this. I think Ronald Reagan did this. I think that there’s moments if you look at what President Bush – after 9/11 when he stood in the National Cathedral – he certainly did it in those moments. And that’s really what’s different about being president than any other office. It’s more the soul of the nation that it reflects.

SHAPIRO: Well, Stuart Stevens, thanks for coming into the studio.

STEVENS: Great to see you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Stuart Stevens is a political strategist and author of the new novel “The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear.”

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Remembering Michael Herr, Whose ‘Dispatches’ Brought The War In Vietnam Home




TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “APOCALYPSE NOW”)

MARTIN SHEEN: (As Captain Ben Willard) I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable. Plugged this straight into Kurtz.

GROSS: Martin Sheen’s voiceover narration in the film “Apocalypse Now” was written by Michael Herr, who died last Thursday at the age of 76. Herr also co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film “Full Metal Jacket.” Herr went to Vietnam in 1967 to report on the war for Esquire and to write a book. He stayed over a year, but he didn’t publish the book until 1977, a couple of years after the war had ended. “Dispatches,” his hybrid of memoir and fiction, was hailed as one of the most important books about the war describing the experiences of disillusioned young American soldiers there.

We’re going to listen back to the interview I recorded with Michael Herr in 1990. He told me why he had wanted to write about the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MICHAEL HERR: You know, I’m a writer so I have a prejudice. You know, I mean, I went to Vietnam in the first place because the assumption that this was television’s war and that was the medium that was going to tell the story. And I believed it wasn’t telling the story that it required writing to tell the story. So I don’t know, there sure are a lot of Vietnam films. But very few of them have moved me.

GROSS: Do you make a point of seeing all the movies about Vietnam…

HERR: No…

GROSS: …And reading all the books that come out?

HERR: …I make a point of not seeing any of them.

GROSS: Why?

HERR: The subject. I can’t tell you how the subject has come to – you know, there’s a kind of overload, you know? And that comes with the book as well. You know, and that goes for the books as well. That’s – I’m not obsessed with Vietnam, you know? There are other things that interest me a great deal more. It was a long time ago. I put in a lot of time. I paid a lot of dues. I don’t want to keep going back and opening those wounds all over again.

GROSS: Is that one of the reasons why you moved to England, so that you could get to get away from the culture of the war?

HERR: That’s – yeah, that did have a lot to do with it and a great deal to do with it. And – to get away from and to get away from the sort of persistence of popularity of that book, the peculiar kind of popularity it had.

GROSS: What do you mean peculiar?

HERR: It was intensely felt. You know, people felt strongly about it.

GROSS: Phone calls, letters?

HERR: Yeah, yeah. And it was…

GROSS: Upsetting ones?

HERR: Frequently, yes.

GROSS: What would be upsetting about that contact?

HERR: People calling you up and spilling your guts on the phone or letters from widows and orphans and, you know, sisters of guys killed in Vietnam, veterans with more problems than they could even begin to deal with. And assuming that I could be of help when in fact I couldn’t.

GROSS: You know, in “Dispatches,” you wrote that…

GROSS: Whenever you were asked – why did you go to Vietnam ? – you’d say blah, blah, blah, report on the war…

HERR: Yeah.

GROSS: …Blah, blah, blah, write a book, as if you were maybe not completely sure yourself (laughter). Now that, like, years and years have gone by, are there reasons that you understand more now than you did then…

HERR: Sure

GROSS: …About why you went?

HERR: Sure. I mean, I think, in many ways, I went for the same reasons that a lot of teenage American kids went, you know. I mean, I was older than they were, better educated than they were, let’s say, more sophisticated than they were. But in certain ways, our motives for going there were the same.

GROSS: Which motives are you thinking of?

HERR: Well, this is tough to break down. But it has to do with a certain – out ritual American passage, courage, testing yourself, going to see it, going to someplace really terrible to look at it, look into it.

GROSS: You said that when you went to Vietnam, you were on a different frequency from the rest of the journalists who were there. What were you looking for that was different from what they were looking for?

HERR: Well, what I like to think of is the long view, you know. I mean, I was looking for internal voices. I was looking for – I wasn’t there for news stories, to write the war story, to write about the day-to-day current events of the war. I was there to write the sort of – the formal story of the war.

GROSS: When you were traveling with troops, what did you do during battles – during fighting?

HERR: Normally, I got as close to the ground as I possibly could with my head down. There were one or two occasions where there was no choice but to take a weapon.

GROSS: So you didn’t carry a weapon with you?

HERR: No, not normally. It was, you know – it was considered a sort of a breach of conduct for a journalist to carry a weapon.

GROSS: Did you ever feel that the soldiers felt that they had to protect you as a journalist?

HERR: I don’t know how they felt about it. But I felt that they had to protect me. I mean, it’s a point I go into in the book, where, in effect, they were my guns, you know. They were my armed escort. And it left me with a feeling of enormous obligation to tell a certain kind of truth about what they were going through.

GROSS: “Dispatches” and “Apocalypse Now” were, I think, in terms of, like, American literary and film culture, the first book and movie to really make the connection between the war in Vietnam and rock music as the constant soundtrack. When did you start to realize the role that rock music had in people’s lives who were fighting the war? I mean, I can think of a scene in the beginning of “Dispatches” where you’re talking about how people, like, took off their ponchos and the smell of, like, festering flesh…

HERR: Well, I mean…

GROSS: …Came across the air. And you’re hearing Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs singing “Little Red Riding Hood.”

HERR: You didn’t really have to be an astute social commentator, you know. I mean, it didn’t require a Tom Wolfe eye and ear because every place you went, there were guys with transistor radios or cassette players. And it was as though, you know, the Vietnam War had been scored by Motown and Phil Spector and The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. And there was a way in which I came to feel that the war and the music were both coming from the same fountain, you know? The same impulses in the culture that were in the air were manifesting in this place together of violence and a kind of beauty all at the same time.

GROSS: Are there records that will set you up thinking about Vietnam when you still hear them now?

HERR: Only if I hear them by accident. You know, if I programmed a piece of music, it wouldn’t have any effect on me. If I’m driving around in the car and a piece of music comes on, you’re going like a rocket, you know? You have no time to defend yourself against that connection. And then it can remind you.

GROSS: Which records do that to you?

HERR: Anything by Jimi Hendrix will do it, you know?

GROSS: I think it took around 10 years for “Dispatches” to be published after you returned.

HERR: Well, it took about nine years. That’s because it took about eight years to write it.

GROSS: How come it took so long?

HERR: That’s a long story, you know? It just took a long time. It took what it took, you know? I was afraid to finish the book.

GROSS: Why?

HERR: I don’t know. I don’t know. It was some obsessive retentive – you know, I had some very private, intimate business to go through before I could let that book go.

GROSS: And is that why you felt so strongly maybe too about putting it behind you once it was done?

HERR: That’s right. That’s right. It’s still awkward for me to talk about it.

GROSS: Right. Well, listen, I appreciate your having talked about it…

HERR: Oh, it’s OK. That’s cool, you know.

GROSS: We’re listening to a 1990 interview with writer Michael Herr. He died Thursday at the age of 76. We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the 1990 interview I recorded with Michael Herr, who died last Thursday. He wrote “Dispatches,” the 1977 now classic book about the Vietnam War. He wrote the voiceover narration for “Apocalypse Now” and co-wrote the film “Full Metal Jacket.”

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You once said that you modeled your early life on Hemingway?

HERR: Well, I mean, that’s complicated. But he certainly was a major inspiration for a long time through my adolescence.

GROSS: What effect did he have on how you lived your life?

HERR: I think he had a lot to do with my going to Vietnam, you know? I think I bought that sort of public version of who he was.

GROSS: And where did that lead you besides Vietnam?

HERR: It led me into a kind of a protracted state of breakdown where I was required to rummage through these various pieces and determine for myself what I believed and what I didn’t believe. You know, that the after effects of that kind of behavior are not particularly healthy or wholesome or conducive to making good art.

GROSS: So did you have to figure out, like, how much of your life you were leading in some kind of pose?

HERR: Sure, sure. The kind of, you know, it’s really the kind of question that rarely comes up in my life anymore except in the course of interviews, you know?

GROSS: Right (laughter).

HERR: You know, where you’re suddenly chiding your – you know, in a public way, honking, you know.

GROSS: Right, and taking your temperature all in time, yeah (laughter).

HERR: Exactly, your pulse, you know, and how am I doing, you know? And…

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, one more of those questions. Was this whole sense of, you know, like, was this a pose or not, did that come after you returned from Vietnam?

HERR: Yeah, it came about 18 months after I returned because I came back high. You know, I came back not only feeling a kind of survivor’s exultation, but with really a very underdeveloped sense of what I’d really just been through and with a kind of horrible glamour value among my crowd in New York City because none of the people I knew in New York even knew anyone who had been to Vietnam.

Everyone was talking about it and thinking about it and trying to locate their feelings about it. But it happened that among, you know, 50 or 60 people in New York, I was the only one who had actually been there.

GROSS: What changed after the 18 months?

HERR: Well, friends of mine began dying in Vietnam. I began to unfreeze certain feelings that had remained frozen from the day I arrived in Vietnam. And I began to make a kind of life or death search for the language to write this book in.

GROSS: You know, in some ways, I think this badge has helped define what the language would be in the future to describe Vietnam. And it was one of the first books that really had a big impact. I mean, for years, as we all remember, there weren’t many books or movies that really came to terms with the war…

HERR: But, you know, it’s – I mean, it’s very strange what happens and how things work because there’s a guy sitting alone at a desk with his head in his hands for, you know, from 4 to 6 hours a day living this isolated, intensely private, inwardly directed life. And the product of that penance, almost, you know, that sentence that you’re serving comes out and it causes certain ripples in the culture.

That’s wonderful, but that has nothing to do with the guy sitting at the desk, you know? It’s out of his hands, beyond his control and is, in a way, absolutely not personal. You know what I mean?

GROSS: I think I know what you mean.

HERR: You know, it’s like you perform this act and people then define it and try to make you subscribe to their definition.

GROSS: I see what you mean (laughter).

HERR: And it’s…

GROSS: OK.

HERR: It doesn’t really work, you know?

GROSS: Well, I wanted to thank you a lot for talking with us.

HERR: Oh, you’re welcome.

GROSS: Michael Herr recorded in 1990. He died Thursday at the age of 76. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, how the FBI identifies and tracks those on their terrorism watch list and why the killer in the Orlando nightclub massacre had been taken off the list. We talk of Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story of the NSA’s wiretapping program. I hope you’ll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER”)

JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief. Business men, they drink my wine. Plowman dig my earth. None were level on the mind. Nobody up at his word. Hey, hey.

GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I’m Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

‘Nobody Is Immune': Bracing For Zika’s First Summer In The U.S.


Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which have been known to carry the Zika virus, buzz in a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia.i

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which have been known to carry the Zika virus, buzz in a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP


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Ricardo Mazalan/AP

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which have been known to carry the Zika virus, buzz in a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which have been known to carry the Zika virus, buzz in a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP

The mosquito-borne Zika epidemic is headed for its first summer in the United States. New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that if the virus is ever going to hit hard in the U.S., 2016 will be the year.

“No one in the population has had the disease before, so nobody is immune to it, nobody has antibodies to it,” McNeil says. “After this year, a fair number of people will be immune, and each year immunity will grow.”

In his new book, Zika: The Emerging Epidemic, McNeil explores the origins of the Zika virus, as well as how it spreads and the best means of protecting ourselves from it.

When it comes to the virus’ transmission in the continental U.S., McNeil notes the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, are mostly concentrated in Florida and the Gulf Coast. But, he adds, the fact that the virus can be transmitted sexually means that Zika has the potential to spread more broadly.

“Scientists are just gobsmacked” by the virus’ sexual transmission, McNeil says. “Viruses mutate like crazy, but one thing they don’t normally change is how they’re transmitted. … You don’t expect a mosquito-borne virus to become something that can be transmitted through an act of unprotected sex. But this one is.”

Interview Highlights

Zika

The Emerging Epidemic

by Donald G. Mcneil

Hardcover, 160 pages |

purchase

On where the Aedes aegypti (Zika-carrying) mosquitoes are now, in relation to the U.S.

They’re all over Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. The mosquitoes that can transmit Zika are the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the yellow fever mosquito, is strong or numerous all over Florida and the Gulf Coast, and there have been previous small outbreaks of dengue virus and chikungunya virus in Key West and Marin County, Fla., and Texas and in a few places like that.

The mosquitoes in very hot, wet summers can range as far as New York City and a touch north. It’s not like they’re very numerous up here and it’s not like they’re here every month, and it’s not even like they’re here every summer. But they have been found up this far north, so the potential for transmission is there, although it’s low outside of the tropical Southeast.

On whether mosquitoes can fly long distances

There is no mosquito that typically flies far distances. They’re really inefficient fliers, and one of the best ways to keep mosquitoes off you if you’re having a barbecue is to keep a fan blowing on everybody, because most mosquitoes are lucky if they make it a mile in their lives. I mean, once in a while they fly onto a jet and they make it from Africa to Paris, and that’s why you have occasional cases of airport malaria in Paris, but most of the time mosquitoes only get a few blocks.

On the World Health Organization’s recommendation to not cancel the Olympics

The World Health Organization is not paying attention to the polluted bays, and not paying attention to the crime rate or anything like that, they’re paying attention only to Zika. And their decision — it’s only a recommendation on their part — but what they’re saying is they don’t think that [the threat of] Zika is so great that anybody ought to avoid going to the Olympics, or that the Olympics ought to be canceled, unless you’re a pregnant woman, in which case pregnant women should avoid that, or unless you’re somebody who is having sex with a pregnant woman or a woman who wants to get pregnant. …

The basis for this is that August is winter in Rio and even though winter in Rio means temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees, it is the low mosquito season. If you look at the transmission of dengue or chikungunya in Rio, you see that it’s roughly 5 percent of what it is at its height in January and February and March. So they figure the risk is fairly low, and the Brazilians have convinced them that they’re going to do everything they can to empty standing water. … I think fogging is mostly a semi-useless exercise, but they’re going to do what they can. The recommendation is that it’s OK to go unless you’re pregnant or having sex with somebody pregnant.

Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a global health reporter for The New York Times.i

Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a global health reporter for The New York Times.

W. W. Norton & Company


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W. W. Norton & Company

Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a global health reporter for The New York Times.

Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a global health reporter for The New York Times.

W. W. Norton & Company

On how Zika is mostly a mild disease

Zika is a mild disease in 99.9 percent of cases, so it’s not as bad as dengue or chikungunya, for example. It’s not nearly as bad as malaria. It’s one that if you’re an otherwise healthy person, you shouldn’t worry about. There’s about 1 in 4,000 to 5,000 chance that somebody will get Guillain-Barre syndrome.

On seeing Zika cases pop up in the U.S. from being sexually transmitted

We don’t have to wait for the Olympics for that to happen, it’s happening right now. It happened in Texas in January. The virus can be transmitted sexually. That’s a game-changer.

It’s not clear how often it happens, but it happens often enough so that it’s the second most common form of transmission. Right now, in New York City, despite all those subway posters saying “watch out for mosquitoes,” frankly, those subway posters ought to have good-looking guys on them, because good-looking guys who have just come back from Puerto Rico or Brazil or the Virgin Islands or any place else are a bigger risk factor for Zika in New York City than mosquitoes are right now. There are no Aedes aegypti mosquitoes here, but there are good-looking Puerto Rican guys who might, in remote chances, be carrying the virus.

On how Zika can be sexually transmitted

We know it can be transmitted through vaginal sex. We also know it can be transmitted through anal sex. … There is some suspicion that it can be transmitted through oral sex, because there’s one case of a couple in France and it looks like she was infected through oral sex, so that may be a possibility, too. So basically any sex involving mucus membranes is dangerous. …

It’s only transmitted from men to women, or from men to other men. There is no known instance of a woman transmitting the disease to a man or a woman. The assumption is that the virus gets into either the prostate or the testes and sets up an infection there, and it can persist for a long time. We learned this with Ebola, that once a virus breaks into the immunologically privileged parts of the body, which are separate from the rest of the body and have their own sort of fluids — the eyes are immunologically privileged and the testes are immunologically privileged — once a virus gets in there, it’s hard for it to break in, but once it gets in, it’s hard for the body to get rid of it, because antibodies and white blood cells can’t get in there to kill it.

Related NPR Stories

On microcephaly, a birth defect caused by the Zika virus

It means a tiny head and generally a very underdeveloped brain. The babies have tiny, smooth brains and there are varying degrees of microcephaly. In the most severe, the baby dies or the baby is born unable to swallow, may have repeated seizures, and may die from those seizures and may never learn to walk, never learn to talk, never learn to control his or her bowels.

There’s a whole range of ills that come out of it, and also along with that comes, since it’s a virus that attacks the growing brain, things like the nerves that connect the eyes to the brain or the ears to the brain are often damaged along the way, so the baby will end up blind or deaf, but you may not know that when the baby is born, the eyes will look normal, but you suddenly realize they’re not following objects or they’re not hearing noises.

On the development of a Zika vaccine

It’ll probably be two, three, four years until there’s a vaccine. Most scientists who know vaccines say this is a disease that will be relatively easy to make a vaccine for because we have one for yellow fever, we have one for Japanese encephalitis, there’s a new one for dengue. These are all related viruses. You could literally take the spines of those vaccine viruses and snip out the genes that code for the outside of the yellow fever virus and attach with DNA technology, the genes for the outside of the Zika virus, and make a pretty good vaccine. Some of those vaccines have already been made, but now the testing process begins, and testing takes pretty close to two years at the minimum.

On the Roman Catholic Church’s position on contraception because of Zika

The church isn’t speaking with one voice entirely on this issue. … We have to draw a distinction between abortion and contraception here. No Catholic bishop and the pope … are [ever] going to come out in favor of abortion, and their argument would be it’s better to suffer from raising a child with severe handicaps than it is to take an innocent life.

On the other hand, there’s been a fair amount of disparate statements within the church about contraception, in this case. The archbishop of Puerto Rico quickly spoke out against contraception when the health secretary of Puerto Rico suggested that women might want to delay pregnancy and say women should practice self-discipline. …

But the pope, in a conversation with reporters … was asked a question about Zika and said that under the doctrine of the lesser of two evils, it might be possible that contraception could be acceptable in a case like this, because it would prevent a great evil, like deformity and suffering of a child. He drew the parallel to Pope Paul VI allowing the use of contraceptives by Belgian nuns in the Belgian Congo, because so many of them were being raped during the liberation struggle of the 1960s. … It was kind of shocking, but it opened the door to the possibility that contraception might be OK in what would be considered an extreme case like this.

‘The Big Sheep’ Plays Hardboiled Sci-Fi To The Hilt


It’s not hard to parse the two main influences on Robert Kroese’s new novel The Big Sheep. The title itself mashes them up: Raymond Chandler’s 1939 hardboiled masterpiece The Big Sleep and Philip K. Dick’s 1968 post-apocalyptic classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis of the film Blade Runner). The question is: Does Kroese’s book transcend the obviousness of that literary portmanteau? Thankfully, yes. While Kroese draws deeply from Chandler’s gritty atmosphere and Dick’s gonzo concepts, he adds his own third dimension — humor, and plenty of it.

The Big Sheep takes place in a near-future Los Angeles, following an economic collapse that’s fractured the area into the city proper and a section known as the Disincorporated Zone, or DZ, that’s reverted to barbarism (with a tip of the hat to John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.) In this brave new city, two detectives, Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler, are hired to solve the mystery of a missing sheep, genetically modified to incubate human organs for transplant. Soon after, the pair get another job: In this increasingly entertainment-reliant version of our world, a superstar actress named Priya Mistry fears she’s the target of an assassin.

As the two investigations dovetail — a bit too predictably, but not without some finesse; Kroese weaves plots like a master — the tribal politics of the DZ boils to the surface. An over-the-top, would-be warlord who calls himself Mag-Lev is trying to seize power, and it’s causing a ripple effect that threatens to upend Keane and Fowler’s cases. Meanwhile, the mega-conglomerate Flagship Media exerts its own gravity on the investigation — all while Keane guards a secret past and Fowler is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend Gwen.

Kroese’s story is intricate, and his pace is refreshingly relentless, but what really carries The Big Sheep is the laughs. Clever, wry, and not above a little groan-inducing wordplay of the very best kind, the book’s humor not only keeps the mood light, it cements Keane and Fowler’s characters. Their dialogue is pistol-whip sharp, and it quickly becomes clear that Kroese is pulling from a third major influence: Arthur Conan Doyle. The dynamic between the mad-genius Keane and the no-nonsense Fowler is pure Holmes-and-Watson, right down to Fowler’s first-person narration. In one of the novel’s driest understatements, Fowler calls his boss “an unconventional thinker”; Keane prefers the term “phenomenological inquisitor” over the mundane “private investigator,” and the philosophical ruminations fly fast and furiously. And funnily. At one point, Fowler — in the grips of a villain — remarks, “It was never a good thing when a bad guy started quoting Nietzsche.”

There’s no doubt that Kroese pays loving homage to his influences, but there’s a spark to The Big Sheep that transcends them. Even when the word “sheep” from the book’s title winds up assuming a multiple meaning that’s a little heavy-handed, Kroese handles it with a wink and plenty of wit, poking America’s obsession with celebrity with a pointed, satirical stick. Dystopian novels these days continue to be pumped out faster than greenhouse gases, but The Big Sheep offers a welcome break: a tale of our miserable tomorrow that’s simultaneously sobering and fun.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

In ‘Hustling Hitler,’ A Jewish Vaudevillian Scams The Third Reich




ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Walter Shapiro grew up hearing stories about his great-uncle Freeman Bernstein, incredible stories – stories about Bernstein’s friendship with the Hollywood sex symbol Mae West, stories about how he fleeced Nazi Germany in a scam deal for Canadian nickel.

Shapiro, who has written and reported for USA Today, Time, Newsweek, Esquire, Salon, The Washington Post – he now writes for Roll Call – trained his ample research and reporting skills on this figure of family legend and produced the book “Hustling Hitler.” It’s the story of Freeman Bernstein. Welcome to the program.

WALTER SHAPIRO: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: First the lead – the stories you grew up on turned out to be true (laughter).

SHAPIRO: And it’s something I could not believe. My father was a Connecticut city planner going to zoning board hearings. When he told me some stories about his uncle, my great-uncle, born in Troy, N.Y., I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense. It was like him taking me aside and saying, you know son, you’re a direct descendant of Sitting Bull.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) I’m trying to imagine your great-uncle’s resume – amusement park owner, seller of fake jewelry, vaudeville producer, boxing promoter, card shop – horse race fixer and writer of bad checks and all around bon vivant.

SHAPIRO: A bon vivant and a man who once organized an Irish Festival in Boston under the name of Roger O’Ryan. Mr. O’Ryan disappeared with the gate receipts, and the Boston papers had a wonderful time tracking down Mr. O’Bernstein.

SIEGEL: The full title of your book about your great-uncle Freeman Bernstein is “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer.” So tell us the gist of the Hitler story.

SHAPIRO: My uncle cheated Adolf Hitler in a nickel deal. In 1936, Canadian nickel, which you need for lining guns, particularly if you want to invade Poland and France, was impossible to get on the market. There was a de-facto boycott to Germany.

And Freeman and his corrupt metals dealer partner in Toronto sent the word that they had Canadian nickel, but it had to be labeled as scrap metal. Once people agree to a fake bill of lading, every single part of the scam would work.

And when the cargo arrived in Hamburg, the Nazis were not happy. Through the middleman in New York, they got him indicted for grand larceny. My great-uncle Freeman immediately took off for the Orient where he had crowned himself the jade king of China.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yes.

SHAPIRO: It was a very stirring investiture. And a year later, he was arrested in Hollywood at midnight in the back of a chauffeured limo having just left Mae West’s apartment.

SIEGEL: But the key point was since he was scamming the Nazis by selling them scrap metal, he really wasn’t selling them nickel, so he wasn’t violating a ban.

SHAPIRO: No, that – which is how the cargo got out of Canada. As near as I can tell, Freeman Bernstein never possessed more than 20 pounds of nickel. It was very high-grade nickel. It was bought in a small shop in lower Manhattan, and this was salted on the top of the cargo. So whenever the cargo inspectors looked after being given $5,000, they would always look at the top of the right barrel and write a glowing report.

It helps that you’re exporting nickel from Halifax in March of 1936 where the temperature is 7 below zero, which sort of cuts into your incentive to inspect the cargo closely.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Or to do anything else for that matter. You are writing about your great-uncle Freeman Bernstein from the safe perspective of a few decades. I wonder whether you come away really wishing that you could have known him or whether this is the kind of person who just might have driven you nuts had you been part of the family in those days.

SHAPIRO: Oh, no, I would have loved to have known him. In fact, I would have killed to spend an hour talking with him because he was charming and there was a sense of fun about him. He loved inventing scams for just the artistry of inventing them. He talked about a dating bureau – that nobody should be lonely when Freeman Bernstein is around – back in 1912 in Variety.

SIEGEL: The numbers of lonely men and women in New York he calculated and felt he could bring them together.

SHAPIRO: Exactly. I mean, in 1916, shortly before the insurance fire that ended his career as a silent movie producer, he tried to sell the Democratic Party on doing a movie boosting Woodrow Wilson’s reelection called “Prosperity.” Had it been produced, it would have been the first political commercial in American history.

SIEGEL: How did his life end?

SHAPIRO: It ended sadly but also characteristically. He was broke. He was living by himself in Hollywood in 1942. And he was in the office of a major movie director, and he was felled by a heart attack. The sad thing is, I visited his grave in a small Jewish cemetery right outside of Los Angeles. I had to move about two feet of debris, dead leaves before I found this paperback book-sized footstone that said F. Bernstein.

He didn’t even have money for Freeman Bernstein, and I needed to say something. And I’m not religious, so I couldn’t say a Jewish prayer. So I said probably the words that I thought this famous, flamboyant grifter would like to hear from the great beyond. You are remembered.

SIEGEL: Walter Shapiro, thanks for talking with us.

SHAPIRO: Thanks so much.

SIEGEL: Walter Shapiro – his book about his great-uncle Freeman Bernstein is called “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer.”

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

‘The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear’ Echoes Real-Life Republican Race




ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Stuart Stevens is one of the country’s leading Republican operatives. He’s worked for George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. This election cycle, instead of advising a candidate, he wrote a novel. Our co-host Ari Shapiro talked with him about it.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Stuart Stevens’ new novel is called “The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear.” It is set at a contested Republican convention. It seemed a bit over the top until events in the real-life presidential race became nearly as jaw-dropping.

STUART STEVENS: When I wrote this book, I thought I was pushing things out to the edge to give us a sense of what could happen and also for comic effect. I finished it, you know, over a year ago. I think I probably underplayed reality.

SHAPIRO: I asked Stuart Stevens about his thought process as he sat on that finished manuscript and watched reality conform to the fiction he had created.

STEVENS: I find this race very dispiriting. And I seem to be the majority of Americans on that. I was of the opinion that Donald Trump would lose the primary. I thought that he was a very easy candidate to defeat in the primary. I wish he had been defeated. I think there were a lot of better people running. So I kept thinking, well, someone is going to step up and just point to the ridiculousness of Donald Trump and that will be that. But it never happened.

In the book, like we’ve seen in real life, there’s a big debate moment, and it occurs in New Hampshire. And the narrator, J.D. Callahan, is – just been hired as campaign manager for the sitting vice president, who’s just lost Iowa and is about to lose New Hampshire to this very charismatic governor of Colorado, who’s strong and anti-immigration – sort of a xenophobe populist. J.D. Callahan advises the vice president to confront the governor and say to him, have you no shame? What is it that you are saying about America and saying about us as Americans? And that begins to turn the tide for him. It resonates. It’s a moment I wish had occurred in the Republican primary.

SHAPIRO: In the real-world Republican primary.

STEVENS: In the real world.

SHAPIRO: If you were writing the book today having seen what’s happened in reality, do you think you would have written it any differently?

STEVENS: That’s a great question. In the book I had this after an economic crash to sort of use it as a triggering factor to accelerate this desire for a strong man. We haven’t needed that, and Trump has emerged. I think that perhaps I might not have written it with the economic crash.

SHAPIRO: So what you’re saying is you thought the country would need some real push, a kick, in order to lean towards a Trump-like figure…

STEVENS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: …In your fictional world. And in the real world, the country went for Donald Trump even when the economy is doing relatively well.

STEVENS: Yeah, I think this is a great paradox here. Traditionally those on the center-left have been better at talking about those left behind than those on the center-right. But I think for the last seven years, a lot of those voices have been muted. Part of it is a desire to support the president. Part of it is not to help Republicans. So I think that there has been more of sort of a conspiracy of silence about how many people are hurting.

I mean we don’t have a John Steinbeck now. We have a Jon Stewart, who’s a, you know, smart suburban social critic. But he’s not John Steinbeck. You know, we don’t have a Studs Terkel anymore. And I think that the lack of even having these discussions that we have is hurting our national consciousness. We need to talk about all these people out there, and it’s a majority of Americans who still are very much hurting after the Recession.

SHAPIRO: As a vocal member of the Never Trump movement, how worried are you about the country right now?

STEVENS: Well, I think everybody’s worried. I don’t know anybody that looks around and says (laughs) well, this is going great. This is really working out well. I think it’s very troubling. I mean, look; to be an American you sort of default to optimism. And, you know, it’s a big, noisy, contentious country. So to have a big, noisy, contentious election I think is not a bad thing.

But I think it’s important that we keep reminding ourselves – what about the best of America? Because ultimately, I think our leaders need to represent the best of America and lift us up. I mean, we all have a part of us inside that feels disappointed by this or cheated here – I didn’t get a good chance here. And when we feel best about the country and best about a leader is when someone lifts up out of that.

I mean, I think certainly John Kennedy did this. I think Ronald Reagan did this. I think that there’s moments if you look at what President Bush – after 9/11 when he stood in the National Cathedral – he certainly did it in those moments. And that’s really what’s different about being president than any other office. It’s more the soul of the nation that it reflects.

SHAPIRO: Well, Stuart Stevens, thanks for coming into the studio.

STEVENS: Great to see you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Stuart Stevens is a political strategist and author of the new novel “The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear.”

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Remembering Michael Herr, Whose ‘Dispatches’ Brought The War In Vietnam Home




TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “APOCALYPSE NOW”)

MARTIN SHEEN: (As Captain Ben Willard) I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet. Weeks away and hundreds of miles up a river that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable. Plugged this straight into Kurtz.

GROSS: Martin Sheen’s voiceover narration in the film “Apocalypse Now” was written by Michael Herr, who died last Thursday at the age of 76. Herr also co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film “Full Metal Jacket.” Herr went to Vietnam in 1967 to report on the war for Esquire and to write a book. He stayed over a year, but he didn’t publish the book until 1977, a couple of years after the war had ended. “Dispatches,” his hybrid of memoir and fiction, was hailed as one of the most important books about the war describing the experiences of disillusioned young American soldiers there.

We’re going to listen back to the interview I recorded with Michael Herr in 1990. He told me why he had wanted to write about the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MICHAEL HERR: You know, I’m a writer so I have a prejudice. You know, I mean, I went to Vietnam in the first place because the assumption that this was television’s war and that was the medium that was going to tell the story. And I believed it wasn’t telling the story that it required writing to tell the story. So I don’t know, there sure are a lot of Vietnam films. But very few of them have moved me.

GROSS: Do you make a point of seeing all the movies about Vietnam…

HERR: No…

GROSS: …And reading all the books that come out?

HERR: …I make a point of not seeing any of them.

GROSS: Why?

HERR: The subject. I can’t tell you how the subject has come to – you know, there’s a kind of overload, you know? And that comes with the book as well. You know, and that goes for the books as well. That’s – I’m not obsessed with Vietnam, you know? There are other things that interest me a great deal more. It was a long time ago. I put in a lot of time. I paid a lot of dues. I don’t want to keep going back and opening those wounds all over again.

GROSS: Is that one of the reasons why you moved to England, so that you could get to get away from the culture of the war?

HERR: That’s – yeah, that did have a lot to do with it and a great deal to do with it. And – to get away from and to get away from the sort of persistence of popularity of that book, the peculiar kind of popularity it had.

GROSS: What do you mean peculiar?

HERR: It was intensely felt. You know, people felt strongly about it.

GROSS: Phone calls, letters?

HERR: Yeah, yeah. And it was…

GROSS: Upsetting ones?

HERR: Frequently, yes.

GROSS: What would be upsetting about that contact?

HERR: People calling you up and spilling your guts on the phone or letters from widows and orphans and, you know, sisters of guys killed in Vietnam, veterans with more problems than they could even begin to deal with. And assuming that I could be of help when in fact I couldn’t.

GROSS: You know, in “Dispatches,” you wrote that…

GROSS: Whenever you were asked – why did you go to Vietnam ? – you’d say blah, blah, blah, report on the war…

HERR: Yeah.

GROSS: …Blah, blah, blah, write a book, as if you were maybe not completely sure yourself (laughter). Now that, like, years and years have gone by, are there reasons that you understand more now than you did then…

HERR: Sure

GROSS: …About why you went?

HERR: Sure. I mean, I think, in many ways, I went for the same reasons that a lot of teenage American kids went, you know. I mean, I was older than they were, better educated than they were, let’s say, more sophisticated than they were. But in certain ways, our motives for going there were the same.

GROSS: Which motives are you thinking of?

HERR: Well, this is tough to break down. But it has to do with a certain – out ritual American passage, courage, testing yourself, going to see it, going to someplace really terrible to look at it, look into it.

GROSS: You said that when you went to Vietnam, you were on a different frequency from the rest of the journalists who were there. What were you looking for that was different from what they were looking for?

HERR: Well, what I like to think of is the long view, you know. I mean, I was looking for internal voices. I was looking for – I wasn’t there for news stories, to write the war story, to write about the day-to-day current events of the war. I was there to write the sort of – the formal story of the war.

GROSS: When you were traveling with troops, what did you do during battles – during fighting?

HERR: Normally, I got as close to the ground as I possibly could with my head down. There were one or two occasions where there was no choice but to take a weapon.

GROSS: So you didn’t carry a weapon with you?

HERR: No, not normally. It was, you know – it was considered a sort of a breach of conduct for a journalist to carry a weapon.

GROSS: Did you ever feel that the soldiers felt that they had to protect you as a journalist?

HERR: I don’t know how they felt about it. But I felt that they had to protect me. I mean, it’s a point I go into in the book, where, in effect, they were my guns, you know. They were my armed escort. And it left me with a feeling of enormous obligation to tell a certain kind of truth about what they were going through.

GROSS: “Dispatches” and “Apocalypse Now” were, I think, in terms of, like, American literary and film culture, the first book and movie to really make the connection between the war in Vietnam and rock music as the constant soundtrack. When did you start to realize the role that rock music had in people’s lives who were fighting the war? I mean, I can think of a scene in the beginning of “Dispatches” where you’re talking about how people, like, took off their ponchos and the smell of, like, festering flesh…

HERR: Well, I mean…

GROSS: …Came across the air. And you’re hearing Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs singing “Little Red Riding Hood.”

HERR: You didn’t really have to be an astute social commentator, you know. I mean, it didn’t require a Tom Wolfe eye and ear because every place you went, there were guys with transistor radios or cassette players. And it was as though, you know, the Vietnam War had been scored by Motown and Phil Spector and The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. And there was a way in which I came to feel that the war and the music were both coming from the same fountain, you know? The same impulses in the culture that were in the air were manifesting in this place together of violence and a kind of beauty all at the same time.

GROSS: Are there records that will set you up thinking about Vietnam when you still hear them now?

HERR: Only if I hear them by accident. You know, if I programmed a piece of music, it wouldn’t have any effect on me. If I’m driving around in the car and a piece of music comes on, you’re going like a rocket, you know? You have no time to defend yourself against that connection. And then it can remind you.

GROSS: Which records do that to you?

HERR: Anything by Jimi Hendrix will do it, you know?

GROSS: I think it took around 10 years for “Dispatches” to be published after you returned.

HERR: Well, it took about nine years. That’s because it took about eight years to write it.

GROSS: How come it took so long?

HERR: That’s a long story, you know? It just took a long time. It took what it took, you know? I was afraid to finish the book.

GROSS: Why?

HERR: I don’t know. I don’t know. It was some obsessive retentive – you know, I had some very private, intimate business to go through before I could let that book go.

GROSS: And is that why you felt so strongly maybe too about putting it behind you once it was done?

HERR: That’s right. That’s right. It’s still awkward for me to talk about it.

GROSS: Right. Well, listen, I appreciate your having talked about it…

HERR: Oh, it’s OK. That’s cool, you know.

GROSS: We’re listening to a 1990 interview with writer Michael Herr. He died Thursday at the age of 76. We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to the 1990 interview I recorded with Michael Herr, who died last Thursday. He wrote “Dispatches,” the 1977 now classic book about the Vietnam War. He wrote the voiceover narration for “Apocalypse Now” and co-wrote the film “Full Metal Jacket.”

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You once said that you modeled your early life on Hemingway?

HERR: Well, I mean, that’s complicated. But he certainly was a major inspiration for a long time through my adolescence.

GROSS: What effect did he have on how you lived your life?

HERR: I think he had a lot to do with my going to Vietnam, you know? I think I bought that sort of public version of who he was.

GROSS: And where did that lead you besides Vietnam?

HERR: It led me into a kind of a protracted state of breakdown where I was required to rummage through these various pieces and determine for myself what I believed and what I didn’t believe. You know, that the after effects of that kind of behavior are not particularly healthy or wholesome or conducive to making good art.

GROSS: So did you have to figure out, like, how much of your life you were leading in some kind of pose?

HERR: Sure, sure. The kind of, you know, it’s really the kind of question that rarely comes up in my life anymore except in the course of interviews, you know?

GROSS: Right (laughter).

HERR: You know, where you’re suddenly chiding your – you know, in a public way, honking, you know.

GROSS: Right, and taking your temperature all in time, yeah (laughter).

HERR: Exactly, your pulse, you know, and how am I doing, you know? And…

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, one more of those questions. Was this whole sense of, you know, like, was this a pose or not, did that come after you returned from Vietnam?

HERR: Yeah, it came about 18 months after I returned because I came back high. You know, I came back not only feeling a kind of survivor’s exultation, but with really a very underdeveloped sense of what I’d really just been through and with a kind of horrible glamour value among my crowd in New York City because none of the people I knew in New York even knew anyone who had been to Vietnam.

Everyone was talking about it and thinking about it and trying to locate their feelings about it. But it happened that among, you know, 50 or 60 people in New York, I was the only one who had actually been there.

GROSS: What changed after the 18 months?

HERR: Well, friends of mine began dying in Vietnam. I began to unfreeze certain feelings that had remained frozen from the day I arrived in Vietnam. And I began to make a kind of life or death search for the language to write this book in.

GROSS: You know, in some ways, I think this badge has helped define what the language would be in the future to describe Vietnam. And it was one of the first books that really had a big impact. I mean, for years, as we all remember, there weren’t many books or movies that really came to terms with the war…

HERR: But, you know, it’s – I mean, it’s very strange what happens and how things work because there’s a guy sitting alone at a desk with his head in his hands for, you know, from 4 to 6 hours a day living this isolated, intensely private, inwardly directed life. And the product of that penance, almost, you know, that sentence that you’re serving comes out and it causes certain ripples in the culture.

That’s wonderful, but that has nothing to do with the guy sitting at the desk, you know? It’s out of his hands, beyond his control and is, in a way, absolutely not personal. You know what I mean?

GROSS: I think I know what you mean.

HERR: You know, it’s like you perform this act and people then define it and try to make you subscribe to their definition.

GROSS: I see what you mean (laughter).

HERR: And it’s…

GROSS: OK.

HERR: It doesn’t really work, you know?

GROSS: Well, I wanted to thank you a lot for talking with us.

HERR: Oh, you’re welcome.

GROSS: Michael Herr recorded in 1990. He died Thursday at the age of 76. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, how the FBI identifies and tracks those on their terrorism watch list and why the killer in the Orlando nightclub massacre had been taken off the list. We talk of Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story of the NSA’s wiretapping program. I hope you’ll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER”)

JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There’s too much confusion. I can’t get no relief. Business men, they drink my wine. Plowman dig my earth. None were level on the mind. Nobody up at his word. Hey, hey.

GROSS: FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I’m Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

‘Nobody Is Immune': Bracing For Zika’s First Summer In The U.S.


Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which have been known to carry the Zika virus, buzz in a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia.i

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which have been known to carry the Zika virus, buzz in a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP


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Ricardo Mazalan/AP

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which have been known to carry the Zika virus, buzz in a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which have been known to carry the Zika virus, buzz in a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP

The mosquito-borne Zika epidemic is headed for its first summer in the United States. New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that if the virus is ever going to hit hard in the U.S., 2016 will be the year.

“No one in the population has had the disease before, so nobody is immune to it, nobody has antibodies to it,” McNeil says. “After this year, a fair number of people will be immune, and each year immunity will grow.”

In his new book, Zika: The Emerging Epidemic, McNeil explores the origins of the Zika virus, as well as how it spreads and the best means of protecting ourselves from it.

When it comes to the virus’ transmission in the continental U.S., McNeil notes the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the Zika virus, are mostly concentrated in Florida and the Gulf Coast. But, he adds, the fact that the virus can be transmitted sexually means that Zika has the potential to spread more broadly.

“Scientists are just gobsmacked” by the virus’ sexual transmission, McNeil says. “Viruses mutate like crazy, but one thing they don’t normally change is how they’re transmitted. … You don’t expect a mosquito-borne virus to become something that can be transmitted through an act of unprotected sex. But this one is.”

Interview Highlights

Zika

The Emerging Epidemic

by Donald G. Mcneil

Hardcover, 160 pages |

purchase

On where the Aedes aegypti (Zika-carrying) mosquitoes are now, in relation to the U.S.

They’re all over Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. The mosquitoes that can transmit Zika are the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the yellow fever mosquito, is strong or numerous all over Florida and the Gulf Coast, and there have been previous small outbreaks of dengue virus and chikungunya virus in Key West and Marin County, Fla., and Texas and in a few places like that.

The mosquitoes in very hot, wet summers can range as far as New York City and a touch north. It’s not like they’re very numerous up here and it’s not like they’re here every month, and it’s not even like they’re here every summer. But they have been found up this far north, so the potential for transmission is there, although it’s low outside of the tropical Southeast.

On whether mosquitoes can fly long distances

There is no mosquito that typically flies far distances. They’re really inefficient fliers, and one of the best ways to keep mosquitoes off you if you’re having a barbecue is to keep a fan blowing on everybody, because most mosquitoes are lucky if they make it a mile in their lives. I mean, once in a while they fly onto a jet and they make it from Africa to Paris, and that’s why you have occasional cases of airport malaria in Paris, but most of the time mosquitoes only get a few blocks.

On the World Health Organization’s recommendation to not cancel the Olympics

The World Health Organization is not paying attention to the polluted bays, and not paying attention to the crime rate or anything like that, they’re paying attention only to Zika. And their decision — it’s only a recommendation on their part — but what they’re saying is they don’t think that [the threat of] Zika is so great that anybody ought to avoid going to the Olympics, or that the Olympics ought to be canceled, unless you’re a pregnant woman, in which case pregnant women should avoid that, or unless you’re somebody who is having sex with a pregnant woman or a woman who wants to get pregnant. …

The basis for this is that August is winter in Rio and even though winter in Rio means temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees, it is the low mosquito season. If you look at the transmission of dengue or chikungunya in Rio, you see that it’s roughly 5 percent of what it is at its height in January and February and March. So they figure the risk is fairly low, and the Brazilians have convinced them that they’re going to do everything they can to empty standing water. … I think fogging is mostly a semi-useless exercise, but they’re going to do what they can. The recommendation is that it’s OK to go unless you’re pregnant or having sex with somebody pregnant.

Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a global health reporter for The New York Times.i

Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a global health reporter for The New York Times.

W. W. Norton & Company


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W. W. Norton & Company

Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a global health reporter for The New York Times.

Donald G. McNeil Jr. is a global health reporter for The New York Times.

W. W. Norton & Company

On how Zika is mostly a mild disease

Zika is a mild disease in 99.9 percent of cases, so it’s not as bad as dengue or chikungunya, for example. It’s not nearly as bad as malaria. It’s one that if you’re an otherwise healthy person, you shouldn’t worry about. There’s about 1 in 4,000 to 5,000 chance that somebody will get Guillain-Barre syndrome.

On seeing Zika cases pop up in the U.S. from being sexually transmitted

We don’t have to wait for the Olympics for that to happen, it’s happening right now. It happened in Texas in January. The virus can be transmitted sexually. That’s a game-changer.

It’s not clear how often it happens, but it happens often enough so that it’s the second most common form of transmission. Right now, in New York City, despite all those subway posters saying “watch out for mosquitoes,” frankly, those subway posters ought to have good-looking guys on them, because good-looking guys who have just come back from Puerto Rico or Brazil or the Virgin Islands or any place else are a bigger risk factor for Zika in New York City than mosquitoes are right now. There are no Aedes aegypti mosquitoes here, but there are good-looking Puerto Rican guys who might, in remote chances, be carrying the virus.

On how Zika can be sexually transmitted

We know it can be transmitted through vaginal sex. We also know it can be transmitted through anal sex. … There is some suspicion that it can be transmitted through oral sex, because there’s one case of a couple in France and it looks like she was infected through oral sex, so that may be a possibility, too. So basically any sex involving mucus membranes is dangerous. …

It’s only transmitted from men to women, or from men to other men. There is no known instance of a woman transmitting the disease to a man or a woman. The assumption is that the virus gets into either the prostate or the testes and sets up an infection there, and it can persist for a long time. We learned this with Ebola, that once a virus breaks into the immunologically privileged parts of the body, which are separate from the rest of the body and have their own sort of fluids — the eyes are immunologically privileged and the testes are immunologically privileged — once a virus gets in there, it’s hard for it to break in, but once it gets in, it’s hard for the body to get rid of it, because antibodies and white blood cells can’t get in there to kill it.

Related NPR Stories

On microcephaly, a birth defect caused by the Zika virus

It means a tiny head and generally a very underdeveloped brain. The babies have tiny, smooth brains and there are varying degrees of microcephaly. In the most severe, the baby dies or the baby is born unable to swallow, may have repeated seizures, and may die from those seizures and may never learn to walk, never learn to talk, never learn to control his or her bowels.

There’s a whole range of ills that come out of it, and also along with that comes, since it’s a virus that attacks the growing brain, things like the nerves that connect the eyes to the brain or the ears to the brain are often damaged along the way, so the baby will end up blind or deaf, but you may not know that when the baby is born, the eyes will look normal, but you suddenly realize they’re not following objects or they’re not hearing noises.

On the development of a Zika vaccine

It’ll probably be two, three, four years until there’s a vaccine. Most scientists who know vaccines say this is a disease that will be relatively easy to make a vaccine for because we have one for yellow fever, we have one for Japanese encephalitis, there’s a new one for dengue. These are all related viruses. You could literally take the spines of those vaccine viruses and snip out the genes that code for the outside of the yellow fever virus and attach with DNA technology, the genes for the outside of the Zika virus, and make a pretty good vaccine. Some of those vaccines have already been made, but now the testing process begins, and testing takes pretty close to two years at the minimum.

On the Roman Catholic Church’s position on contraception because of Zika

The church isn’t speaking with one voice entirely on this issue. … We have to draw a distinction between abortion and contraception here. No Catholic bishop and the pope … are [ever] going to come out in favor of abortion, and their argument would be it’s better to suffer from raising a child with severe handicaps than it is to take an innocent life.

On the other hand, there’s been a fair amount of disparate statements within the church about contraception, in this case. The archbishop of Puerto Rico quickly spoke out against contraception when the health secretary of Puerto Rico suggested that women might want to delay pregnancy and say women should practice self-discipline. …

But the pope, in a conversation with reporters … was asked a question about Zika and said that under the doctrine of the lesser of two evils, it might be possible that contraception could be acceptable in a case like this, because it would prevent a great evil, like deformity and suffering of a child. He drew the parallel to Pope Paul VI allowing the use of contraceptives by Belgian nuns in the Belgian Congo, because so many of them were being raped during the liberation struggle of the 1960s. … It was kind of shocking, but it opened the door to the possibility that contraception might be OK in what would be considered an extreme case like this.