Trial by Goudie, Part 2

A suspect arrested for a sensational crime is innocent in the eyes of the law, guilty in the eyes of the state, and copy in the eyes of the media.

You might expect this copy to be written with measured care. What we often get instead is the reporter in the pose of junior detective.

Perhaps we’re a little sensitive on the subject because we just received the paperback edition of Gone in the Night, the study of the Dowaliby case by David Protess and Rob Warden. David and Cynthia Dowaliby became thrilling copy as soon as they were charged with the murder of their daughter, and one of the several virtues of the book is the authors’ ear for hanging broadcasters.

Here they come again, hanging Helmut Carsten Hofer. On January 21 Channel Seven reported that the “baffling murder of a North Shore socialite appears on the verge of being solved,” the socialite being Suzanne Olds of Wilmette, the prime suspect being Hofer, a gay German model and a business partner of Olds’s estranged husband, Dean Olds.

On February 9 Chuck Goudie reported that “Channel Seven has uncovered the evidence that has brought suburban police close to cracking the case.” Goudie revealed the evidence as boot prints found near the victim’s home, where she was murdered December 28.

Despite these assurances of an imminent bust for murder, when Hofer was briefly held in February it was for writing a bad check. Channel Seven again made hay. There was a visual of Roscoe’s, the bar from which he was led in handcuffs. There was a visual of the check. Somehow Seven had wangled a look at the check even though Hofer’s bank hadn’t. We’ve met Hofer, and one of the documents he showed us was a letter from Boulevard Bank acknowledging that “the check that you inquired about . . . was not presented for payment.”

A month ago the state’s attorney dropped the spurious check-kiting charge, and Hofer made plans to go back to Germany. On May 10, the day before he intended to leave, he finally was arrested for murder.

Anchor Diann Burns announced the next night, “Now Channel Seven’s Chuck Goudie reveals how police cracked the case.”

Goudie came on to report that Dean Olds was under suspicion himself. “Sources say he is still a suspect in the plot.”

Plot? Cracked the case? Well, it’s certainly vivid, made-for-TV rhetoric. Unfortunately, an arrest doesn’t prove a plot, let alone that a case has been “cracked.” Cops and prosecutors might tell reporters otherwise, but reporters aren’t supposed to take this gloating seriously. After the trial maybe we’ll know if the police truly “cracked the case.” And maybe we won’t. When the Dowaliby trial was over we still had no idea.

Last February, as Goudie broke the story of the mysterious boot prints, Channel Seven lingered for nine seconds on a pair of black boots with a high, Cuban-style heel. Goudie reported, “We’ve been told that authorities have now determined the sole pattern was made by boots like this–cheap imitation military-style high-tops.” After Hofer was arrested Seven showed these boots again, and Goudie revealed that police had been told last December that “Hofer bought a pair of these storm-trooper-style boots.”

Isn’t “storm trooper” an elegantly neutral tag to apply to a case involving a young, blond German suspect? At any rate, what’s not disputed is that Hofer and a friend went into a Payless shoe store on Division Street and bought a pair of boots for about $20. Richard Hardman, who managed the store at the time, turned the receipt over to the police. He tells us Hofer bought Doc Martens knockoffs, boots with a flat sole that disappeared from Payless stores so quickly that when the Wilmette police asked to see another pair he had none to show them. The police had to send all the way to Colorado to find a double.

Channel Seven hasn’t just been careless with its language. It’s also been showing us the wrong boots.

Staples and Bellow, an Odd Couple

In recent days we’ve spotted Brent Staples putting in a good word for Saul Bellow, and Bellow denouncing everything he may think Staples stands for. It’s the oddest mentor-protege relationship going, and we decided to call Staples for an update.

Staples is the New York Times editorial writer (and former Reader contributor) whose book Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White dwells on his preoccupation with Bellow back when he was a grad student in Hyde Park and Bellow was the local eminence. On the one hand, Staples wanted to consume Bellow’s skills as a writer; on the other, the black characters in Bellow’s novels offended him–each seemed to serve the lowly role of baleful penis. Staples took to standing outside Bellow’s window hoping to force some sort of confrontation. “Perhaps I’d lift him bodily and pin him against a wall. Perhaps I’d corner him on the stairs and take up questions about ‘pork chops’ and ‘crazy buffaloes’ and barbarous black pickpockets.”

Parallel Time received high praise, but a backlash came swiftly. A Wall Street Journal review of a new collection of Bellow essays began by noting that “critics rightly chided Mr. Staples for childishly confusing an author with his characters.”

The New Republic lectured Staples like a child. “Those ‘pork chops’ and ‘crazy buffaloes’ come from Humboldt’s Gift, where they’re the awful appellations for black people uttered by a tawdry little hood named Rinaldo. Not Bellow; Rinaldo.”

And Bellow himself responded sharply, if obliquely, in a New York Times essay: “You may take the word of a practicing novelist for it that not all novel readers are good readers. . . . No writer can take it for granted that the views of his characters will not be attributed to him personally.”

So there stood Staples, accused of the sophomoric fallacy of confusing a writer with his characters. A writer can be judged by his books, and his books by their characters (“cardboard,” “complex,” “vividly drawn,” “improbable”). Yet from the characters directly to the writer the critic cannot pass.

Last Sunday, reviewing V.S. Naipaul’s new novel, A Way in the World, for the Times Book Review, Staples grandly dropped in a plug for his erstwhile prey–“If history teaches us anything, it’s that the darker view (Dostoyevsky, Saul Bellow, fill in the others yourself) is by far the most penetrating and literary.”

And last week we spotted an interview Bellow gave to the New Yorker in which he got on the subject of racial politics. “There seems to be such a taboo on open discussion that no habits of discussion have developed, no vocabulary for discussion, no allowance made for intellectual differences, because you are immediately labelled a racist,” Bellow said. “There are certainly many blacks with whom you can talk openly. And they do the same. There’s none of this poisonous stuff. With Ralph Ellison you could say anything, just speak freely, as he did. Or Stanley Crouch now, who is clear on all these questions, or William Julius Wilson, at the University of Chicago. But there are very few people in general who don’t respond to the taboo.”

Staples is dead certain he’s what set Bellow off. “I think that clearly you can see structurally what that piece is talking about,” he told us. “I’m the lacuna at the heart of that piece.”

Yet Staples also is someone who can be spoken freely to. He’s one of the great giggling jabberers of our experience.

“It’s a real shame,” he was saying. “We have so much in common, really. I’ve bent over backwards to point out to people the narrative skills I have are all some version of his. Quite deliberately I set out, when I did my first narrative pieces for the Reader–they were quite self-conscious narrative styles derived from the novels. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that on Charlie Rose, on NPR, to reviewers around the country. I’ve never cast a sour word in his direction. But people in Hyde Park warned me about this. ‘While you may intend this as adolescent idol worship, he’s going to take offense at it. You watch.’

“[Bellow] needs to understand that my book, which is going to go into its eighth printing soon–this chapter, ‘Mr. Bellow’s Planet,’ is the largest chapter in the book, and it’s got the most notice. And actually I’m carrying him into the future.”

In our fondness for Staples we succumbed to a chuckle, which did not elude his ear.

“You find me a book in the last 20 years,” he went on insistently, “that so thoughtfully and I think so affectionately considers a great writer’s style from close up. Hey, it’s been rough, but I’m bearing up.”

News Speak

Last week the publisher of the Sun-Times, Sam McKeel, posted an open letter to employees addressing the subject of reductions in the work force. A laser couldn’t have topped his hair-splitting.

“When the Sun-Times Company recently was acquired,” McKeel wrote, “I told you that the acquisition–in and of itself–would not result in layoffs. That remains true.

“However, to assist with our restructuring, American Publishing [the new owner] has created a one-time fund of $10 million to help implement our severance and buyout program. This fund allows us to accelerate our staff reduction program.

“Today the Chicago Sun-Times is laying off 16 employees . . . ”

The Bosnia Question

Another missed opportunity in the Balkans!

“Two years of dirty war in Bosnia, and still few dances inspired by it. Why?”–headline in last Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jason Smith.