God Save This Book

I write this not to praise Tony Hendra, but to defend a provably innocent victim

Amazon.com is god. This is often said of Google, a mere tool. But the big-river bookstore, in its capitalistic omnipotence, actively shapes the world. Particularly the world of writers.

So when my friend Tony Hendra's book Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul was released to near-universal praise May 18, I didn't watch the numbers from Book Sense and BookScan, the all-seeing archangels of the bookselling world. I watched Amazon.

The book was set to spend its life "midlist," meaning the publisher considered it too esoteric (in this case, too Catholic), and more importantly its author wasn't famous enough to make it a bestseller. Random House printed between 10,000 and 15,000 copies, depending on who you ask. That seemed light to me, since I'd read the manuscript and knew the book resonated with even devout atheists like me. They also hadn't factored in Hendra's otherworldly ability to borrow other people's fame.

How many stars for Tony Hendra?
photo: Jeffrey Schifman
How many stars for Tony Hendra?

At 5 a.m. May 20, I sent Tony a telegram-style congratulatory e-mail trumpeting the book's Amazon sales rank: 51. "Not bad! Go, Joe!" Two hours later, Don Imus, whose seal of approval can't be bought, threatened his radio audience, "If you don't buy this book, I'll beat the hell out of you!" My next congrats was for hitting No. 4 by noon, and by midnight I was popping virtual champagne corks because Father Joe was No. 1 on Amazon.

Random House printed another 90,000 copies.

For the next few weeks, Amazon's customer reviews gushed. Five stars across the board, except the decorous four-star from an obviously planted associate of Tony's.

The New York Times Book Review's first redesigned edition under its new editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sicced conservative Catholic pundit Andrew Sullivan on the leftist Hendra's book, presumably to watch the sparks fly. But Sullivan's blindingly glowing review literally begged people to read Father Joe. The book disappeared from store shelves everywhere, so fast that the New York Post wrote that it was impossible to find a copy anywhere in Manhattan.

The print run soared to 300,000.

The Amazon customer reviews sang, laughed, and sobbed. Readers of every stripe loved this book. A minor flame war broke out when someone who plainly hadn't read the book lobbed a one-star review (the lowest possible) that claimed Father Joe was right-wing propaganda akin to the "Left Behind" books, and a couple of five-star reviews muscled in to beat down the anonymous nonreader.

It surprised me to see customer reviews for a nonpolitical book appear so partisan. In fact, just as Sullivan had spent a few sentences of his review disdaining Hendra's politics, some Amazon reviewers started focusing on the book's few jogs into '80s-era Reagan- and Thatcher-bashing. But these were aberrations in the steady stream of positive notices.

After the Father's Day rush, the book settled into a respectable Top 50 place on Amazon's bestseller list. It was destined to be a steady-selling classic, and for the best reason: intrinsic quality, not hype.

Nosing around the New York Times website June 30, I caught a preview of the shitstorm set to be unleashed the next day, in a piece by N.R. Kleinfield. Tony's 39-year-old daughter Jessica had written to the Times weeks before, alleging he had molested her when she was a child, a charge Tony categorically denied when ambushed by the Times the day before publication of Kleinfield's article. (On July 11, Times public editor Daniel Okrent wrote that the "rather late in the process" interview wasn't an ambush, which he defined as calling the accused "an hour before deadline.")

Newspapers around the country splashed cutesy mini-stories about the issue in their entertainment sections, along with Britney Spears denying that she was pregnant. The New York Post christened Tony "Molest Scandal Scribe" for a headline, his demi-fame obviously not affording him the name recognition of Jacko or Martha. Curiosity and attention pushed Father Joe up into the 20s in Amazon's sales rankings. And the Father Joe reviewers on Amazon went insane.

A flood of anonymous one-star reviews appeared, some offering sympathy to the daughter, many with vicious and unsubstantiated accusations against the father. At least one professional enemy of Tony weighed in anonymously, saying this scandal vindicated him for hating Tony all these years.

Amazon has now purged most of these slurs, but for a week or so that was all people saw when they shopped for this book, driving the sales down immeasurably. There is no equivalent in the brick-and-mortar world. People can't spray-paint "accused child molester" across the hardbacks in all the Barnes & Noble stores.

Because I'm a friend of Tony and I've been a vocal advocate for this book—I interviewed him for The Village Voice before the scandal broke (the piece never ran because of it) and have reviewed the book elsewhere—people keep asking my opinion on the allegations. I have no special insight into the matter, though. I know only one of the players, and although I shudder to imagine the charges are true, I have to admit that, this long after the alleged events, they're as plausible as Tony's denials. Judging exclusively from the Times articles and the "Molest Scandal Scribe Hits Back" piece from the Post, the daughter appears to believe she was abused, and the father appears to believe she wasn't. As far as I know, there is no legal action in the works, and they seem to have co-existed on polite terms, like any other dysfunctional, post-divorce family, for the past couple of decades.

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