Bruce Fretts
July 28, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

American Rhapsody — that’s an awfully highfalutin title for such a low-down-and-dirty book. Following his basest instincts, Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas dropped out of Hollywood society a couple of years ago and became a Lewinsky-gate-obsessed recluse, ”indulging gluttonously in the national bacchanal of information and bulimia of rumor.” He proceeds to regurgitate every scrap of D.C. gossip he digested and strains to relate them to his most sordid experiences in El-Lay. The result is the Showgirls of political ”journalism” — a work of horrifying tastelessness, yet one so fascinatingly appalling that you simply cannot turn away.

Mixing fact and fiction is almost always a bad idea (see also: Edmund Morris’s Dutch), yet Eszterhas has come up with a gimmick meant to alert readers when he is and isn’t to be believed. Passages in plain type, he explains, are ”sometimes interpretative but based on well-researched facts”; those in bold type are written by ”the twisted little man inside me,” and evil twin who ”uses facts wickedly to shape his outrageous fictional perspective.”

Anyone skimming the 432-page Rhapsody for boldface interludes in hopes of finding the juiciest sections will be gravely disappointed. These are among the most skippable parts of the book, primarily faux first-person confessions by scandal players like Kenneth Starr (lampooned here as a bed-wetting porn addict). As Eszterhas’s alleged comedy An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn proved, intentional humor isn’t his forte.

Each supposedly factual chapter opens wiht an excerpt from Linda Tripp’s secretly taped conversations with Monica Lewinsky, yet these epigraphs don’t always correlate with what follows. ”You never realized whose d— you were sucking,” Tripp tells Lewinsky in a typically non sequitur intro to Eszterhas’s take on Ross Perot.

Much of the text is given over to excruciatingly detailed renderings of Clinton and Lewinsky’s Oval Office encounters. Jeez, do we really need another account of this tawdry relationship? Eszterhas employs the Prez’s apparent penile pet name, ”Willard” (”It’s longer than Willie,” Gennifer Flowers claims he told her), producing such ridiculous sentences as ”She began nurturing Willard with kisses while he was still on the phone.” Thanks; I’ll never look at Willard Scott the same way again.

The author’s showbiz anecdotes are more interesting, although their links to Clinton’s affairs are only occasionally clear. Eszterhas cleverly skewers Sharon Stone, observing that when she swore she’d been tricked into filming Basic Instinct‘s notorious leg-crossing shot, ”it was Sharon’s way of saying that she didn’t inhale.” His juxtaposition of the Paula Jones incident with a hotel-room meeting during which Eszterhas says an underwear-free Richard Gere changed clothes in front of him is less enlightening. Mercifully, he spares us a description of the American Gigolo’s Willard.

Great chunks of Rhapsody feel like yesterday’s news, whether it’s stories of Errol Flynn playing the piano with his penis or Nancy Reagan rearranging her husband’s schedule on the advice of a Merv Griffin Show astrologer. Nowhere is Eszterhas more tiresome than in his fixation on Richard Nixon. His constant attempts to conflate Tricky Dick with Slick Willie reach complete absurdity when he reports that the minister who married Bill and Hillary was named Reverend Nixon. Yes, and…?

Such crackpot revelations are to be expected from a man who takes Gennifer Flowers’ tabloid-subsidized words as gospel truth. Her writings appear to be one of Eszterhas’s primary secondhand sources, although it’s hard to tell where any of this stuff comes from, since no citations are provided. Frequent factual errors (Jay Leno is said to reach a nightly audience of 70 million Americans; the actual number is 5.9 million) and misspellings (Tory [sic] Spelling, Gary [sic] Shandling) also make Eszterhas’s purportedly intensive research a bit hard to swallow.

Despite all these flaws, Rhapsody remains undeniably readable. A former Rolling Stone staffer and National Book Award nominee for the true-crime tale Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse, Eszterhas is a more gifted prose stylist than he is a screenwriter. (Even he admits that his scripting career consists of ”a quarter century of contributing mind-numbing plot twists.”) For every one of the book’s groaners (”Bill Clinton was the wet spot on America’s bed”), there’s another smartly turned phrase (”in the battle between the sexes, many of us were war criminals”). So even as Rhapsody ends with a rap from the point of view of the President’s johnson — ”You’re a hick, I’m a p—-,” it rhymes — we can be thankful for one thing: At least this isn’t a movie. C-

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