CONTENTS | LR

Sorry Endings
Life's great secret isn't how we die, of course. The medium is the message. The pertinent question is, why do we have to?

How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter, Sherwin Nuland's contribution to the literature of anxiety, gives readers a you'd-rather-not-be-there tour. Nuland, a surgeon, offers little to look forward to in our end. Most of us, no surprise, don't succumb surrounded by loved ones with time to spare for a few pithy final words, our epitaph carved into a stardard reference work. We either get it over with rather quickly if not economically, or would have little trouble modeling for Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'. In most cases death isn't as pretty as the flowers which follow, and Nuland's bedside manner, while a calming influence, is necessarily chilling.

Nuland may have written How We Die to fill that gap in your bookshelf between Kubler-Ross's On Death and Dying and anything by Studs Terkel. He's less self-conscious than medical essayist Richard Belzer, not a drama queen like Oliver Sacks (or cuddly like Robin Williams), innocent of the plot-consciousness of The New Yorker's late Berton Roueche, and a literary shortstop to William B. Ober, MD, who hits them out of the park with Boswell's Clap and Other Essays.

He has dug a niche for himself, one in which some of Edgar Allen Poe's characters should feel strangely safe: when you are dead, Nuland confirms, you are well and truly dead.

He has a captive audience. Everybody has had a near-death experience. Just being born is a near-death experience. Besides, I already know how we die. We get in silly accidents. Our bodies self-destruct. We get old, and we have no choice.

How We Die, which I found in my local Waldenbooks in the Self Help section, deserves an inconspicuous place in your library, so as not to accidentally frighten browsers. It is, however, one boook you can safely loan to a friend. You can be sure to get it back.

------

High Rise is not for the faint of heart, either. Author Jerry Adler dons a hard hat and offers one to you. You're advised to wear it.

Fans of David Macaulay's fascinating series of lets-open-it-up-and-see-what's-inside art books (Cathedral, Pyramid, etc.) will be enthralled by the riveting minutia Adler accumulated while observing the birth, topping-off, death, and rebirth of the Bertelsmann Building at 1540 Broadway: elevators in a first class Manhattan office building shouldn't leave the morning crowd waiting for more than 31 seconds (the most-culled detail while the book was first being hyped); historic preservationists are not as powerless as may be imagined; the hole for a building's foundation will not be as deep as the hole in the assets of the bank unfortunate enough to fall for Bruce Eichner's pitch.

Eichner, a developer, is the book's anti-hero. He's interesting, energetic, and ultimately as synergistic as a black hole.

Adler is a senior editor for Newsweek and, for a journalist, a pleasantly invisible stylist. He manages to be a fly on the wall but not in the ointment. If he doesn't condemn Eichner it's only because he hardly has to. His facts are indictment enough. Where he veers into the personal he makes no judgements, and High Rise is entertaining enough that all accounts can be reckoned even: Adler's, his characters', the reader's. When you want to write about, say, spiders, then damn if it doesn't hurt if you hold one in your nervous hands and even try to like it a little.

We learn that Eichner is a venomless yet unsympathetic spider. He was and is an opportunist, good at sucking money from other people's reserviours, less good at justifyuing himself or his ambitions.

1540 Broadway was for the span of its construction the nexus of many dreams: dreams of windfalls for existing leaseholders and landlords who must be bought off at often outlandish cost so their occupancy and even air rights may be reconverted into a fantasy of profits for the developer and backers; dreams of a monument of architectural stylishness (the account of the building's prow -- which featured to be its hood ornament -- is not to be missed); dreams of hubris.

The architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, worked nonstop (and charged accordingly) to tailor their vision to their client's resources, which as we begin High Rise are considerable. But as the building fails to draw sufficiently attractive tenants, as consultant after consultant fails his audition, as construction costs soar, as the banks get nervous and start calling in loans, or at least threaten to, Eichner's prospects for an profitable conclusion to his questionable vision dwindle accordingly.

High Rise is subtitled "How 1,000 Men and Women Worked Around the Clock for Five Years and Lost $200 Million Building a Skyscraper." The eventual purchase price was $119 Million, which was less than the cost of construction alone. Bertelsmann, the German publishers, bought it lock, stock, and bolt.

Of course the banks foreclose. Of course the dream goes down the drain... But Eichner, always a winner at the finish line no matter how he places, emerges relatively unscathed. In one of life's little ironies he finds employment as a consultant to the building's new owner.

In self-examining postscript Eichner congratulates himself on being "lucky and smart enough" to escape the appropriate retribution for the 'developer' he is -- get a real job, do not pass go, do not collect laurels. Just another bargain basement dream starring a modern-day Robin Hood, or bogeyman.