The sheer noise and spray of rhetorical fæces produced by the swarms of pygmy wretches infecting the U.S. political system these days makes it hard, sometimes, to reconstruct the full metal weirdness of the state of the nation way back when. That would have been my teen years, in the ‘70s, that time when those of us who aspired to the writing life had to buy our slates and no. 2 chisels directly from actual carbon-based life forms. We did so while watching the triumph and collapse of the King Rat of crazed, feral politicians, the 37th of his office, our own unindicted co-conspirator, Richard Milhouse Nixon. (Cue this number.)
It’s truly hard to convey just how evil, absurd, and oddly grand Nixon was to those who have only experienced the banal corruptions and miseries of the current scene, but the trademark Nixonian mix of paranoia, calculation, and genuine aspiration to statesmanship produced public theater the likes of which I do not think we’ll see again in my lifetime. Just how odd? Well, to get a taste, just a hint of the nooks and crannies of history into which even Tricky Dickie’s most trivial by-blows could lead, check out Joe Kloc’s tale of one man’s pursuit of what might be termed Nixon’s moon-struck folly.
With the moon “conquered” and détente with the Soviet Union under way, the geopolitical prestige value of sending astronauts up to play golf on the lunar surface had cratered. So the administration cancelled the last few scheduled Apollo missions, and, with nothing better (in its collective mind) to do with what appeared to be a surplus of lunar rubble, decided to chop up Sample 70017; encase in Lucite the resulting pebbles; mount the trophies onto wooden plaques; and send them out to 136 sovereign nations. In all, according to Kloc’s count, the Nixon and Ford administrations dispatched 377 samples from the six lunar landings to various official recipients. As of 1998, when Kloc’s story truly begins, more than half had gone walkabout.
What follows is, for the most part, a hoot of a tale. Con artists had been selling fake moon rocks for decades, but in the ‘90s, the trade had picked up, to the point where it attracted the attention of NASA special agent Joseph Gutheinz. As Kloc draws him, Gutheinz is, the real deal: a cynical idealist, devoted to the idea that setting wrongs right makes a difference in the world. So, in June of 1998, when he found himself idled during a delay in a trial, he began doodling on a notepad. What emerged was the scheme Kloc will document: a sham company, advertising for moon rocks on behalf of a mythical client, and the wait to see who would walk into the trap.
To Gutheinz’s surprise, someone did: a fruit buyer named Alan Rosen who claimed to own the scrap of sample 70017 Richard Nixon had presented to the great nation of Honduras. All Rosen wanted for his prize was five million dollars.
From that initial call, Kloc neatly recreates the series of steps in Gutheinz’s sting: arranging the meet; reassuring the nervous fruit guy that no, really, he wasn’t a fed; the moment it all almost went pear shaped when the crash of a dropped tray at the bar nearly shocked Gutheinz’s partner into pulling out his Glock. Ultimately, Rosen does take the bait, and, three months into the sting, hands over the rock to an agent of the United States Customs.
At this point, we’re almost exactly half way into Kloc’s account, and it’s all been huge fun. We’re moving along at a rapid pace – Kloc divides his story into ten chapters, but each is brief, one quick scene, mostly, written in a deceptively swift and simple style. In the jargon of the story-telling workshop, Kloc’s first act ends with what every writer strives for: a clear and satisfying resolution that still leaves an opening for more narrative to come. Unfortunately that’s where the story starts to wobble. The individual scenes still have some bite. Kloc’s prose remains graceful. We learn plenty -- how Rosen’s rock was authenticated as an actual fragment of the lunar surface, for example, or the ins and outs of the issue of legal title to moon rock. But once unmoored from the straightforward thrust of a detective story, Kloc veers from informative exposition, to moments of back story, to a truncated account of a couple of Gutheinz’s later chases of other chunks of Sample 70017. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this material, except that it’s a bit scattered, and by journey’s end, it more wanders to a stop than offers a sense of have having arrived somewhere.
Even so, The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks remains worth the read. Kloc’s illustrations are engaging throughout, and even when the narrative stumbles, it still delivers plenty of smaller pleasures. I’d recommend the piece to anyone with a taste for non-lethal true crime, space, or my own pathological relish for flashback-triggers that bring back to mind the lush jungle of strange that was Nixon’s America.
That said, I’m guessing regular readers of Discover the Universe will have noticed the dog that hasn’t barked in this review. That would be, of course, my failure to mention anything “e” about this e-book. Such an omission is more striking, given that Moon Rocks comes to us via The Atavist, a publisher dedicated to producing not just e-texts, but apps, works for which the computing possibilities of the iPad allow a wide range of media to play with the humble text from which such brave new works descend.
There is plenty of such apparatus available here – video, pictures, a timeline, some documents. But within no more than a couple of chapters, the scattering of icons across the text became simply annoying. One doesn’t need to see a photograph of mangosteens as one reads of Rosen’s fruit buying job. I suppose it may help a little to be reminded who is a Customs agent, and who works for NASA. It doesn’t really matter at all where the US embassy in Cypress sits in a web of streets labeled in Greek. The video from Apollo 17 was indeed a thrill, but after three or four clicks for lesser reward, it just felt like the “enhancements” were really answers to questions I hadn’t asked. I dutifully read this text with all the chrome and chotchkes the first time; it was a great relief to turn it all off and let Kloc’s tell ne his story the second time through.
That’s no surprise, really. E-publishing is still such a young art. This is the second Atavist release I’ve read. The first one, David Dobbs’ My Mother’s Lover, made masterful use of the range of media it could bring to bear on that intimate family story/cold-case file. That work made the construction of a blended text-and-media production seem necessary, though as is (virtually) always the case with complex creative tasks, the simplicity the end user sees is the outcome of enormous effort and angst behind the curtain. The difference in the feel of that piece and The Case of the Missing Moon Rocks is the gap between doing something with intent, and doing it because one can.
Kloc’s work is still necessarily an e-text, though. It runs to that awkward length, longer than (most) magazine pieces; but not weighty enough to demand much more space; it’s certainly not a whole book. The emergence of a publishing apparatus that lets such writing find a venue remains one of the critical advances for both writers and their audiences made possible by the Web. It’s just that in this iteration that other side of the digital revolution, the ability to build computing into texts, doesn’t really add that much to what can (and probably should) simply be taken as a solid read.
Tom Levenson writes books (most recently Newton and the Counterfeiter) and makes films, about science, its history, and whatever else catches his magpie's love of shiny bits. His work has been honored by a Peabody, a National Academies Science Communication and an AAAS Science Journalism Award, among others. By day he professes at MIT, where he directs the Graduate Program in Science Writing.