The Road to Promotion

Lewis Lapham's last lap

Harper's editor and social critic Lewis Lapham descended upon his old hometown last week to hawk his new book, Hotel America, at Green Apple Books in the Richmond District, Cody's Books in Berkeley, and … Stewart Infiniti on auto row in Colma.

Lured to the dealership by complimentary cabernet and Camembert, a reading by Lapham, and a free copy of Hotel America in return for test driving an Infiniti, I rub elbows with folks grazing the tables spread with food, drink, and copies of Harper's. At one end of the showroom a $43,000 butter-colored Infiniti J30 draws curious singles and couples, who sniff the creamy sweetness of its leather interior. Most here are early 30s-ish, jeans-wearing, white male urbanites; one bespectacled reporter scribbles notes. Excepting some professorial types, the crowd looks like a pack of unshaven writers, making it easy to discern the Infiniti salesmen.

Yet one man stands out in this field of automotive luxury: Lapham himself, in blazer and tassel loafers, looking the part of a respectable New York editor. He sips chardonnay, chuckling amiably with a few fans. He is tall but not imposing, a Jason-Robards-meets-Johnny-Carson figure with dark-circled eyes and crooked teeth, handsome if slightly rumpled.

The Reader's Digest for midbrows, Harper's presents a monthly critique of the American Empire with feature articles, annotations, excerpts from documents and other periodicals, its much imitated Index, icon-busting dispatches from Washington, and fiction. A bus ride of fine prose, its tone is set by Lapham's Notebook column, from which Hotel America is drawn. The column skewers Republican and Democratic agendas, pokes holes in inflated Gingrich- and Limbaugh-isms, and examines democracy as mirrored in an Oklahoma bombing, a Disneyland, a George. Not so oddly, it never shills for Infiniti.

After noshing, we settle onto the showroom floor — the Stewart sales team bristling when a few dare to lean against the J30 — and Lapham begins to read in a languid, low rumble, first a eulogy for editor Otto Friedrich, then a funny retelling of Dickens' Christmas Carol that transforms Ebenezer Scrooge IV from a reformed liberal into an icy-veined conservative businessman. Though previously published, both prose pieces are reborn in the writer's voice. Only once during the reading does a squawking PA system interrupt him: Larry Herrera, line one! Larry, line one!

Afterward, Lapham fields questions from the audience, who solicit his opinions about the Internet, American futures under the Contract With America, Bosnia, the role of education, AFL-CIO leadership, and books he's currently reading. Like many wordsmiths, Lapham writes better than he extemporizes; still, he's informed on a dazzling range of subjects, discussing a “Constitution that allows paralysis” and students with “Filofaxes and great resumes but frightened of the future.” Yet no one asks what I've been wondering since I got here, nor addresses the setting's incongruity — the contradictions of this liberal gathering in the heart of Republican mall culture. I notice Lapham checking his watch, making time for only a few more questions, so I ask mine: What kind of a car does he drive?

With a quick glance at his publicist, Lapham is only momentarily caught off guard: “At the risk of …,” he begins, then smiles. “I myself drive a Volvo,” he says deliberately, keen to both the situational irony and the audience's trust, “but that's because I've never” — he gestures toward the J30 in a sweeping mock-endorsement — “had the privilege” — everyone's laughing with him — “of driving an … Infiniti.”

The publicist for the event, Harper's ad manager Jeffrey Davis, explains later: “Infiniti is a marketing partner with Harper's and were kind enough to bring Lewis to his readers,” he says, then confides: “I leased one, and they're absolutely amazing cars. You'd be stunned by the sound system.”

The free-book-qualifying Infiniti I take for a test spin the following Thursday is an I30, which salesman Greg Harmon curiously calls “prosaic” and which sells for $30,000 — roughly double my annual writer's income. It includes myriad extras — climate control, in-dash CD player, radio transmitters for separate garages — and is, once I shut off the 200-watt, six-speaker stereo system Davis recommends, silent as a coffin. Fully aware that I'm in no market to buy, Harmon politely indulges my mile-long whirl. When asked if he thinks a test drive is fair trade for a book, he answers without hesitation: “Absolutely.” I don't ask which he thinks is more valuable.

Later, my salesman's true feelings about Lapham are revealed.
“When he was telling that Christmas story,” Harmon says, “did you notice all the Infiniti employees had gone outside? I couldn't stand it — he was calling for revolution, and I thought everyone was going to whip out their communist cards.”

When asked what he thinks of the promotion, Harmon just shakes his head.
“I think they should use money writers.”

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