The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, December 01, 2004  

Books, Recommended or Otherwise

American Taboo

Philip Weiss
New York: HarperCollins, June 1, 2004
ISBN: 0060096861
Rittenhouse Rating: Highly Recommended

In American Taboo Philip Weiss relates the too-long suppressed story of the murder of Deborah Gardner, a Peace Corps volunteer killed in Tonga by her P.C. colleague, Dennis Priven, a man who, astonishingly, still walks the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., that after playing the system, in the South Pacific and here at home, like the proverbial violin.

This is a remarkable story, most notable for prompting readers to question their hypothetical response to a tragedy involving two friends. Although not a melodrama, the bad guys in this story are plainly evident, most clearly in the persons of Mary George, a “must place” Republican hack with a penchant for religious proselytizing and bizarre hallucinations; the “Bird Lady,” a P.C. volunteer who, judging from a photograph published in the book, looks every bit the part; and, front and center, Priven, among the most despicable men to have walked the face of the earth. (Priven, by the way, works for the Social Security Administration in Brooklyn.)

American Taboo has been assigned a rating of “highly recommended,” but had Weiss’s topic been something other than the unjusticed murder of Miss Gardner, a subject that deserves ample publicity to the widest possible audience, I would have attached a rating of “recommended.”

I fault Weiss for his failure to enliven the many characters (And I mean that.) populating this story, for his idiosyncratic punctuation and sentence structure, and at least three displays of obvious homophobia. Of course, on the last point we must keep in mind that Weiss has written, and presumably hopes to continue to write, for Esquire, and we all know how uncomfortable they are with “all that.”

(Rittenhouse Reading-Room Ratings: Must Reading, Very Highly Recommended, Highly Recommended, Recommended, Not Recommended.)

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