November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

by Edmund Morris

Commissioned to write the official biography of Ronald Reagan, the author says he was so stymied by his subject’s blandness and lack of self-reflection that he had to invent an imaginary alter ego—one whose life allegedly intersected with Reagan’s at numerous critical points—to create the prodigiously peculiar Dutch. Throughout the book, Morris (who won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for his bio of Teddy Roosevelt) weaves the reflections and experiences of this other “Edmund Morris” into the facts of Reagan’s life and career. And as if this weren’t confusing enough, he also adds snippets of screenplays, poems and genuine (or are they fabricated?) interviews and conversations. On rare occasions the real Edmund Morris makes a cameo appearance, mostly to boast about his career or literary honors.

The result could hardly be more unsettling. Dutch dares its readers to distinguish (with the unhelpful aid of extensive footnotes on both the historical and fictional material) history from fantasy, or even to figure out what precisely is happening at any given moment. Many will be tempted to skip the “Edmund Morris” parts, screenplays and flights of fancy, to try to piece together a coherent life of the former president from the copious data and sweeping—if vague—insights that the book offers.

There are some interesting assertions here: In 1938, Morris writes, Reagan nearly joined the Communist Party. His first wife, Jane Wyman, threatened suicide unless Ronnie married her, Morris claims (citing Nancy Reagan as his source) But Dutch is finally an elaborate, maddening guessing game, constantly posing a query: What’s real and what’s not? The more compelling question is: Why bother? (Random House, $35)

Bottom Line: Bizarre bio

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