Friday, March 30, 2012

Trayvon Martin vs. Bernard Goetz—the Changing Times

Trayvon Martin's biggest crime consisted of
looking like a crowd scene extra from Law & Order
When the 911 tapes surrounding the Trayvon Martin case hit the media, pundits zeroed in on one comment from shooter George Zimmerman. In the heat of pursuit, Zimmerman audibly declares, “These assholes always get away.” This comment, coupled with the fact that Zimmerman went out armed that day and actively engaged a suspect—activities explicitly banned in Neighborhood Watch protocols—suggest Zimmerman deliberately sought a confrontation that day.

I can’t help remembering the highly publicized Bernard Goetz case. For those too young to remember, or not up on history, on December 22nd, 1984, Goetz, who had been mugged previously, used an unregistered revolver to shoot four black youths on a Manhattan subway who he claimed tried to rob him. After nine days on the run, the man the papers dubbed “The Subway Vigilante” turned himself in, and eventually served eight months on a minor gun charge.

Unlike Zimmerman, who faces near-universal hatred, Goetz became almost a folk hero. Because New York subways had become nearly synonymous with crime in a notoriously crime-riddled city, one man’s refusal to knuckle under transformed him into a potent symbol for gun ownership and civilian justice. But because a white man shot four black kids, he also embodied the racial divides that have long lingered beneath Manhattan’s urbane veneer.

Both shooters packed guns and, by all evidence, went out in search of a confrontation. Both sought to make a statement, and both became national figures for reasons that would probably not make their mothers proud. Yet where Goetz attracted heated controversy, with both supporters and detractors, Zimmerman has only shirt-tail support. And the difference is striking.

To this day, Bernard Goetz remains a hero to some,
a villain to others
The circumstances surrounding the two shootings could not differ more. Four black youths surrounded Goetz on a subway car, cutting off escape routes before demanding money. Goetz fired five times at four targets; all four victims survived to testify at his trial. Zimmerman was not cornered. The 911 tapes reveal he refused the dispatcher’s demand that he remain in his vehicle and wait for law enforcement. And his victim is no longer around to provide his own testimony.

Perhaps the divergent reactions have something to do with the relative locations each shooter struck. People don’t associate Sanford, Florida, with the kind of crime that permeated Ed Koch’s New York. Indeed, Florida attracts copious retirees in large part because crime remains localized, and limited to drug and white collar infractions. Random muggings are rare enough to attract statewide attention. So Zimmerman seems considerably less justified that Goetz.

But the problem is not regional. In the two decades before Goetz’s attack, American crime rates had skyrocketed. New York crime had nearly tripled, and was not only nearly twice as high as the nation in general, but was one of the highest in the world. Watching the Subway Vigilante hit back seemed downright justified in light of the fact that ordinary working New Yorkers walked in fear for their lives every time they used mass transit.

We can’t say the same in 2012. Since 1993, crime has trended consistently downward. Despite regional outbursts and occasional sprees, the last two decades have seen America become as safe as it has been in living memory. Goetz’s Manhattan, once an icon of lawlessness, is now a family-friendly tourist attraction. George Zimmerman’s Sanford, Florida, is so bucolic that Kenny Chesney used it as a backdrop in the video for his nostalgic song “Young.”

Goetz and Zimmerman broke the law, but under disparate circumstances. While some called Goetz a criminal, and he did stand trial for his actions, he also gave people hope that criminals wouldn’t always run America’s cities. Though morally shaky, Goetz’s actions looked heroic. Zimmerman’s actions look like the jittery outbursts of a nut fueled by Red Bull, paranoia, and half-digested online conspiracy theories.

A Kel-Tec PF-9, the variety of easily concealed pistol
George Zimmerman used to shoot Trayvon Martin
As I have said before, fear is a profound influence for some people. Isolated anecdotes about carjackings and home invasions make more compelling fuel than histograms demonstrating that the typical person, in a typical situation, is typically safe. An NPR report yesterday reveals that Neighborhood Watch, organized forty years ago as an unarmed eyes-and-ears organization, has to police itself against aspiring Batman types.

Hopefully, as tragic as Trayvon Martin’s death is, it will energize our nation to distinguish real, legitimate fears from gibbering paranoia. Bernard Goetz had a legitimate fear, and if he didn’t handle it well, he at least handled it in a germane way. Here’s hoping George Zimmerman represents the dying gasp of an outmoded avenue of thought.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

When Public Schools Become Too Public

In third grade, I lashed fallen twigs together with a broken shoelace to create an impromptu model spyplane. Abandoning the knot of kids playing tag or pickup softball, I flew daring missions around the playground perimeter. The chunky sand became vast terrain concealing hidden bases, while patches of grass became jungle thickets packed with possible NVA. Plane in hand, I jumped, ran, tumbled, and generally did what boys do.

But my reconnaissance career reached an abrupt end when Mrs. Miller hollered at me to get back with the other kids. We weren’t permitted to venture away from the group, for fear that we might be out of earshot if we needed to call for help. I was not permitted to leave the playground, nor could I play by myself. This was my first exposure to how schools force students into a mold that, by its constant noise, achieves the exact opposite of learning.

This seems paradoxical. As Susan Cain points out in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, quiet people are drawn to academia because it lets them focus on a life of the mind; extroverts often find scholarship stultifying. Yet the rules that academia creates for its students reward the noisiest, the most demonstrative and emotive, and those who flourish in a crowded environment of constant stimulation.

My fourth grade teacher believed in group learning, arranging desks in pods so close that I couldn’t lift my arm to write without elbowing the guy next to me. My middle school required all students to spend lunch on the athletic field, but forbid us to approach the secluded shade trees because (they said) kidnappers or addicts might hide there. My first high school let students sit down in so few places that we were essentially corralled in the main square like pigs in a pen.

The situation improved at the university. Because post-secondary education favors individual scholarship over classroom primacy, I had much more autonomy to learn in a dedicated and self-directed way. But even then, the emphasis placed on group discussion, in which silence is tantamount to absence, impeded my learning. Cain musters persuasive evidence that this style of learning can easily overwhelm the amygdalae of the students most disposed to learning.

These actions always had clear justifications—which, sadly, lapped into my own teaching career. My teachers had my education, my safety, or some other aspect of my well-being in mind. Whether group learning really has any pedagogical benefit (I doubt it) or I was in any material danger in a public place (certainly not) matters little. Rather, the lack of privacy inherent in public education impedes the way humans actually learn.

This is not a new development. Educational historians recount that, since the US mandated universal schooling in the 1830s, schools have always been overcrowded, regimented, and free from privacy. Silence is segregated, reticence is punished. Not for nothing has the word “dumb,” which literally signifies muteness, become a synonym for stupidity.

Paul Lockhart, in A Mathematician's Lament, describes the gulf between schooling and real learning. We learn math, Lockhart says, through a grueling process of thinking, false starts, frustration, tears, wadded up paper, and hours of personal investment that ultimately pays off in the “sudden” flash of insight. Compare this to the tedious “skillz drillz” most of us endured in grade school, and ask yourself which will result in students really internalizing the subject.

Nor is this unique to math. Though Lockhart has explicated this reality better than any other writer I know, his point applies to all disciplines. Memorizing names, dates, and maps will not show students that history is contingent. Translating literature like a series of crossword puzzle clues keeps us from understanding how books speak to the meat of our lives. I could continue.

All these insights occur in privacy. Requiring all students to be extroverted busybodies—and forbidding even the most extroverted students from spending time in quiet rumination—prevents students from ever taking ownership of the subjects they study. Many students think they can’t comprehend topics like math, science or the language arts, when in fact they simply have never been permitted to comprehend them.

This does not devalue the classroom experience. Time spent among teachers and peers provides a conducive learning environment, and guards against laziness. But if students have no opportunity to mull over their learning privately, education will remain a topic on the outside. Even students know they don’t want that.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Black Cowboy, a Vast America, and a Story Long Overdue

Review, Lisa K. Winkler, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy's Ride Across America

One September day in 2007, a dreadlocked New Jersey schoolteacher named Miles Dean mounted his buckskin stallion, Sankofa, and rode him to Manhattan’s African Burial Ground, the earliest archaeological site related to black slavery in America. After a recognition of other black horsemen, and a brief African dedication ceremony, Dean set out to ride horseback across America. He would be the first African American to do so in over a century.

Journalist Lisa Winkler recreates Dean’s historic, and grueling, cross-country journey, using him not only as a guide for a travelogue, but also to restore lost history to its rightful American place. Winkler narrates Dean’s visits to locations associated with African American history, emphasizing the conflict at the heart of being black in this country. It seems the places dearest to black American culture are also the places of deepest conflict, shame, and fear.

Like many boys, Dean fell in love with cowboy movies on afternoon TV. He dreamed of riding herd and rounding up bad guys, but there weren’t a lot of horse paddocks in Newark, New Jersey. And, though he didn’t realize it for several years, there weren’t many black cowboys in the movies, either. That is, until Sidney Poitier in Buck and the Preacher, and Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” which inspired him to challenge Hollywood’s lily-white frontier.

It seems the mythic American West was far less Caucasian than many of us believe. In the heyday of the cattle drives, African Americans comprised up to a third of working cowboys. Rodeo rider Bill Pickett invented the steer-wrestling move known as “bulldogging,” but got forced from his sport by a rising tide of racism. Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love perfected the rope tricks and sharpshooting techniques that made Roy Rogers and Gene Autry rich.

Why, then, are black cowboys missing from our myths? Miles Dean could not accept this, and set out to draw attention to this gap in our knowledge. But it seems everywhere we turn, we find another place where mythology has scrubbed American history white. Many pioneering horse race jockeys, Civil War heroes, and country singers paved the way for white successors...and then vanished from history.

Dean’s itinerary calls attention to these and other forgotten heroes from American history. His audience follows his journey as he reminds them of the free blacks who took Harper’s Ferry with John Brown; the Little Rock Nine, whose simple desire to attend high school nearly caused a second Civil War; and Dr. King, whose imprint on American history has been sanitized to a mere poster boy for voting rights.

Even Dean himself learned much on his journey. For instance, the Buffalo Soldiers he memorialized, it turns out, participated in illegal land grabs from Indians who only wanted to defend themselves. The wealthy and the powerful pitted two defenseless groups against each other, and laughed while they fought over the scraps. Yet the Buffalo Soldiers had the Army’s lowest desertion rate, and both groups set new standards for gallantry in battle.

As told in Winkler’s clean, energetic prose, Miles Dean reminds Americans that we are inheritors of a beautiful, tense, and complicated heritage. We built what some call the greatest nation on earth, but we did it on the backs of slaves. We invented enduring myths that inspire not just Americans, but generations of people worldwide, and then we purged those myths of the diversity that made them possible.

Dean’s journey took him from Manhattan to Los Angeles, covering 5,000 miles across twelve states and the District of Columbia. He rode his horse through dense cities and wide-open countryside. He traversed centuries-old trails and modern highways, through forests and prairies, across bleak deserts and up mountains so steep his life was in constant peril.

And everywhere he went, young and old, black and white, raced out to greet him and his horse. Churches held dinners and civic groups sang his praises. Strangers opened their doors to him, simply because he was doing something that reminded them of their own dreams. Dean transcended boundaries of race, location, and history, by simply enacting boyhood dreams.

Miles Dean set out to recapture a piece of black history, and he did so admirably. But he does something more, too: he reminds us that America is worth something to people of all races. And if we have regions of history we’re not proud of, that doesn’t make us smaller. It just gives us higher goals and more noble dreams, and a reason to reach after them.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Clarion Call to the Buggy Life

Review, Nancy Sleeth, Almost Amish: One Woman's Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life

Many people, within Christianity and without, realize that modern culture has not done right by most of us. And the movie Witness has become a recognized classic not for the workmanlike mystery, but because we recognize the lessons Harrison Ford learns as ones we could pursue ourselves. But most of us remain unwilling to embrace an Amish level of austerity to achieve the spiritual renewal we know we need.

Nancy Sleeth says we need not go that far. If we understand the principles underlying Amish simplicity, we can live in a manner that feeds our spirits and gives us a vision of the future. The Amish, and close relatives like Mennonites and Hutterites, live without certain modern conveniences, not because they reject the world, but because they choose to stick by principles of deliberation, mindfulness, and common bonds that much modern society has lost.

The Amish, Sleeth says, don’t so much reject technology as accept a certain range of questions. They will not adopt new processes or technologies without asking first: how will this help me build up my family? My community? My relationship with God? This results in more diversity than pop culture would admit, as different communities have different attitudes to, say, electricity or cars.

Sleeth and her husband came to what she calls the Almost Amish life by way of Creation Care, a form of evangelical environmentalism. As adult Christian converts, the Sleeths dived into faith from an angle most long-term believers seldom consider. And in seeking ways to steward the earth by reducing their carbon footprint, they discovered a lifestyle notable for simplicity and forethought that corresponds with Amish theology.

In short, anything that numbs the soul, alienates loved ones, or idolizes selfish appetites, the Amish will not accept. Many communities reject centralized electricity because it lets them consume power mindlessly. Many communities permit passive solar power or diesel generators because they require forethought and thrift. The same applies to cars, computers, and mass media.

This simple core principle, rooted in Christian Scripture, informs all aspects of Amish life. While their communities look homogenous to outsiders (and most of us know little except what we see in TV and movies), Sleeth asserts they are actually a rich and thoughtful people. Standardized moral checklists violate their most treasured beliefs, because they preclude thought and prayer.

The benefits of this lifestyle range from obvious to subtle. Divorce and violence, while not unheard of in Amish communities, are rare enough to remain shocking and strange. The vast majority of Amish families own their own businesses, and failure rates remain low enough that most Amish pass the family business to the next generation. Obesity, type II diabetes, depression, and STDs scarcely exist in Amish communities.

Sleeth denies the dreamy sentimentality that colors our perception of the Amish in, for instance, Beverley Lewis’ romance novels. The Almost Amish life, Sleeth asserts, requires hard work and constant vigilance. But that’s part of what makes that lifestyle so appealing for many true believers and earnest seekers. We fear our modern, technological, isolated life has left us both lazy and numb.

The subtitle, mentioning “One Woman’s Quest,” suggests this is a memoir of discovery. Not so. Sleeth uses personal experience to show how she discovered certain ideas, or to bolster the applicability of certain claims. But overall, this is mainly a manifesto for those who, like her, care about the life we live, and the world we’re leaving to posterity.

Though Sleeth writes from a Christian perspective, for Christian audiences, secular readers can benefit from this book as well. Her principles derive from Scripture, but they reflect underlying truths that are not unique to one religion, or indeed to any religion. Many people who lack faith share the realization that modernity, cluttered with technological distractions and awash in unwanted stuff, has become inimical to a well-rounded human psyche.

I have one trepidation. Sleeth repeatedly asserts the importance of close-knit community to live the Almost Amish life, but talks little about how to create and sustain that closeness in today’s constant hurlyburly. I recommend The Sharing Solution, from Nolo Press, to link Sleeth’s principle to practicality. This book discusses how to build community bonds, and back them with amicable contracts for our tragically litigious society.

Almost Amish life offers hope that suffocating modernity doesn’t have to end us. We have the power to reassert control in our lives. Sleeth gives us the principles; now it’s up to us to find strength and make it happen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Is This the Dumbest Fun You Can Have Between Two Covers?

Review, Kate White, So Pretty It Hurts: A Bailey Weggins Mystery

I ought to hate this book. It almost reads like a ritualistic litany of everything standard writing texts and experienced novelists forbid. Kate White handles mystery like she took an Agatha Christie plot intact, laminated it in Sex and the City chic, and peddled it as her own. Yet I polished it off in two fun evenings, putting off bedtime to finish quickly. Maybe that proves that old ways are the best ways, if you just have fun.

Crime reporter Bailey Weggins writes for a glossy Manhattan tabloid. Invited to a house party in an upstate dacha, she dives into a seething cauldron of sex, jealousy, and immense wealth. At the center stands Devon Barr, a powerful but fragile supermodel. When Bailey finds Barr dead in her sleep, the police rush to close the book on an apparent heart attack. But Bailey knows murder when she sees it, and pursues the case, even as it closes on her like a bear trap.

My criticism starts with the crime itself. Devon Barr appears in scene very little, and her death merely kick-starts the plot. The characters act as ciphers to provoke each other, and interactions consist mainly of one-on-one conversations. Indeed, the characters aren’t characters so much as walking, talking plot devices; the crime is a Chinese puzzle box, not a meaningful investigation.

White’s day job is editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, and we can tell, as she obsesses over beauty, fashion, and sex. Characters evaluate each other on looks, and ugly people don’t merit mention. Clothes serve as shorthand for wealth, status, and cachet. Narrator Bailey doesn’t blush to discuss how hot she is, and how many men want to sleep with her. A romantic subplot titillates without adding much to the story.

Plot elements feel transplanted from elsewhere. When the characters get snowed in with a body; when Bailey gets kidnapped in a gypsy cab; when she loses her job on a specious accusation; when she executes a daring escape from a burning building, I can only think I’ve read (or seen!) this before. White’s chapters end on such melodramatic cliffhangers that I almost hear the cheesy calliope music.

Characters name-drop several books and movies. The Shining, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Silence of the Lambs, Lifetime movies, and Miss Marple populate her dialogue. This lets White convey impressions by letting us do the work, but it also risks unfavorable comparisons: hey, this snowstorm isn’t nearly as scary as Stephen King’s! One character breathlessly exclaims, “Wow, that—that sounds like a damn movie!”

And how. Yet...

Yet I can’t help recalling this book with a smile. For all its dumb pretensions and feckless wanderings, White clearly had fun writing it. And if she doesn’t challenge us to new profundities and deep insights, she at least takes us out of our own mundane lives briefly for a guided tour of a New York as shady, dangerous, and exciting as downtown Beirut.

White’s first good choice was setting the story in the world of New York haute fashion. This area is not known for producing much eloquence; supermodels seldom double as novelists (White parodies this stereotype with biting dry wit). Others have skewered this industry from outside, but White tells the story from the viewpoint of people for whom fashion is neither myth nor mockery, but yet another thankless job.

She also has a strong heroine in Bailey Weggins. Not a fashionista herself, Bailey rose through the journalistic ranks by busting her chops upstate. This lets her straddle the fashion world’s boundaries, commenting knowledgeably while maintaining her outsider status. She’s at once one of “us” and one of “them.” Thus she can speak candidly, but not opaquely, to people famous for keeping their secrets.

And White tells a cracking good story. Her lickety-split pace, not mired in lengthy exposition or subtlety, probably guarantees her story limited shelf life; but it also lets us embrace her cat-and-mouse ethos. Bailey tells a grim story with understated humor, keeping us from bogging down in hip melancholy. Even her chapters, long by pop lit standards, sustain the momentum through intricate conspiracies.

Literary scholars like me famously love to make fun of popular fiction, then hide behind the excuse that “I love detective mysteries.” I’ve always made fun of that attitude. Yet Kate White’s unprepossessing sense of good, dumb fun has me wondering if I should maybe join the ranks. At the very least, it’ll give me an excuse to keep enjoying books like this one.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Robert Ward's Journalistic Time Capsule

Review, Robert Ward, Renegades: My Wild Trip from Professor to New Journalist with Outrageous Visits from Clint Eastwood, Reggie Jackson, Larry Flynt, and other American Icons

Forty years ago, when magazines still mattered and writers could move nations, young buck Robert Ward swung out of upstate New York like a sucker punch. His intensely personal journalism drew on techniques invented by James Boswell and perfected by Alex Haley, but he produced a body of work no one else could have created. And now, like a time capsule, his career-making articles now appear for the first time between one set of covers.

Ward started out as a disaffected AmLit prof, frustrated as his scholarly dreams turned to dust. (I can sympathize.) But with his academic training and his blue-collar roots, he lived a sort of bilingual life. While his fellow collegiate tea drinkers made high-handed pronouncements on behalf of “the people” they never met, and ordinary Americans languished in the disappointing end of the hippie era, Ward could bridge the gap and tell them both the story they needed.

And a hell of a story it was, too. Like his hero, Tom Wolfe, Ward didn’t pretend to be anybody’s detached reporter. He did everything journalism professors regularly forbid: say “I.” Get angry. Don’t blush when your subjects make asses of themselves. But most important, Ward never pretended that the story happened without him. He asked just the right questions to tease out the face his subject hid from the world. And sometimes that face wasn’t pretty.

For instance, Ward was the first writer to capture young Larry Flynt’s apparently pathological inability to shut up. He convinced former South Vietnamese president Nguyen Cao Ky, rusticating in suburban California, to open up on exile in a hostile culture. By standing by and listening, providing the right prompts at the right time, he got Reggie Jackson to make statements so half-cocked that the New York Yankees nearly imploded.

Some of Ward’s reports read like time capsules (who the hell is Pete Maravich?). Others continue to push against the present. His opinionated report on the late-seventies Austin music scene, flooded with rockers who went country because Gram Parsons was their coked-up messiah, reflects the cheapening of the music industry. Ward makes the Oakland Raiders’ George Atkinson an emblem of the bloodlust inherent in the NFL.

The linking essays between Ward’s original articles provide a remarkable insight into his technique. His Reggie Jackson article, which made him an overnight celebrity, came about because he just agreed with Jackson at the right moments. He asked Jackson questions implicit in his own statements, and when Jackson said something inflammatory, Ward simply write it down.

In this, Ward, like his contemporary Hunter S. Thompson, molded a new form of journalism. They personally embodied postmodernism: if all knowledge is subjective, then conventional journalistic “objectivity” was a false target. Instead, Ward threw himself into the story, ginned up his subjects, and turned something merely interesting into an event. His reports often were little better than throw-downs, in which his subjects revealed their true faces.

Moreover, Ward had no patience with bullshit. When Joe Thiessman or David Allen Coe use words to get between themselves and the real world, Ward doesn’t let them get away with it. His aggressive responses make us cheer for him. They also get him in plenty of trouble, as he has to fend off death threats. It makes me pine for the old days of Nellie Bly and Ambrose Bierce, when journalism was a true and perilous adventure.

Even then, he can get misty-eyed where it really counts. When he discusses the disappearance of Baltimore’s historic burlesque clubs, or how the Colts’ relocation tore the heart from his hometown, he persuades us that this really matters. His bold voice and willingness to take sides make even personal reminiscences on personal loss and age into something we can share.

Like William Shirer before him, Ward took journalism in new and hopeful directions. Where Shirer broke new ground in scholarly journalism, though, Ward made journalism accessible. By bringing the novelist’s gaze to journalism, Ward pushed past the limitations of each form and made both more interesting. His powerful, incisive language makes this disillusioned instructor wonder whether he could have a future in journalism.

This collection, sprawling over a wide swath of time and a range of topics, runs over four hundred pages, yet Ward’s voice propels readers along smoothly. You could read this book in one rainy Saturday and wish it was longer. When journalism has the strength to blindside you this way, it reminds us why journalism is an art and a life-affirming pursuit.

Friday, March 16, 2012

When NYC was the Frontier, and the Law was Wild

Review, Lindsay Faye, The Gods of Gotham

The legendary NYPD wasn’t always a beloved emblem of the rule of law; New York, one of America’s last East Coast cities to found a municipal police department, resisted keeping a “standing army” for years. Heaven only knows how many crimes went unsolved in that time. Lyndsay Faye discovered a crime that shocked the nascent NYPD, and spins it into an alternatingly gripping and sluggish yarn.

In 1845, Timothy Wilde loses everything in a fire that demolishes much of lower Manhattan. His brother Valentine, a Tammany Hall maharajah, saves him from a relentless funk by making him a “copper star,” a ward patrolman in the new police department. Though Timothy considers this a stopgap, he comes into his own when a poor Irish girl, soaked in blood, leads him and his fellow lawmen to a rotten brothel and a mass child grave.

Faye crafts a compelling story of law enforcement at a time of social upheaval and rudimentary technology. Set at a time when forensic science was new and untested, her story turns on subtle examinations of individual coppers’ trailblazing insight and unstinting will. Without precedent to fall back on, or technology to do the heavy lifting, procedures most TV cops would consider routine become revolutionary triumphs.

Timothy Wilde lives in a New York we would scarcely recognize. Less than one percent of its current population clings to the southern tip of Manhattan, surrounded by bucolic farms and virgin woodland, complaining about overcrowding. An explosion of poor Irish, displaced by massive potato failures, have initiated race riots, anti-Papist populism, and a two-tiered economy almost unmatched for casual inhumanity in world history.

Amid this, America still struggles to define its mature role in an industrial world. As the Revolution passes out of living memory, its principles have become a secular religion. Politics often consists, not of debate and resolution, but of bloody noses and of stolen ballot boxes fished from the Hudson. And the NYPD, far from a bastion of city heroism, is a network of patronage plums and of working stiffs getting spat on by nativist zealots.

Wilde makes inroads in a hideous crime despite mind-boggling obstacles. His superiors, connected men mostly born well, have little interest in a criminal hunting mere Irish child whores. Naked bigotry among the poor turns the city into racial and ethnic enclaves, and Wilde’s brother, who could clear the path, would rather cull votes. In spite of this, Wilde perseveres, making legal history every step of the way.

I admit, I’m the jerk who shouts the culprit out during Act II in every CSI episode. Mystery, because it relies on identical tropes reassembled like Lego blocks, tends to be very predictable. Not this one. Because Timothy Wilde and his fellow copper stars have no precedent to rely on, every situation is new. Every revelation is surprising. And at any moment, the story could literally go in any direction, or none at all.

But, as in all historical fiction, Faye performs a high wire act, trying not to bore readers explicating the obvious, while also struggling to clarify a world wildly different from our own. Many writers with longer résumés stumble on this goal, and Faye, too, leads us down some cow paths. She spends sixty pages clearing her throat and explaining her setting. We nearly reach page 200 before we even have a crime scene.

Consider this expository quote, at the beginning of the fire that realigns Timothy Wilde’s life: “‘Jesus have mercy,’ he said. ‘If the fire hits his stock of whale oil—’” Faced with a commercial fire headed for the volatiles, how many of us could construct a prepositional phrase? But in this, as in other discursive passages, Wilde as Faye’s mouthpiece must explain the world of 1845 to us tech-weaned provincials.

I wish I could say this was only a minor distraction. But Faye’s exposition, which often consists of characters explaining the world to each other, repeatedly derails the narrative. I understand that Faye must keep us apace, but if an editor judiciously trimmed the long expository passages, Faye could lighten a fairly long book by as much as a fifth. In books, as in cinema, the cutting room has saved many a story from itself.

Which is a shame, all things being equal. Faye constructs an interesting story with fascinating characters and an electric situation. If she just wielded the red pen as firmly as the black one, this book would surpass being merely good, and approach possible greatness.

Monday, March 12, 2012

How Star Wars Let One True Believer Down

Cleaning out my closet recently, I uncovered my reserve of Star Wars novels. I boxed them up prior to the last time I moved house, in 2007, and never bothered to unpack them. For a guy who grew up in the amniotic fluid of the Force, realizing I stepped away from that major influence without even thinking about it is humbling. That boxful of books forced me to reevaluate why I fell into the Star Wars fold, and more important, what drove me out again.

I was three years old, too young to understand what the first movie was, when it hit theaters in 1977. It initially became a success without my participation, or that of my family, who remain assertively outside pop culture to this day. Only after I started school, and my friends brought their action figures and movie quotes to the playground with them, did I finally see it in the 1981 re-release. Getting on board that train was a key to schoolyard acceptance.

That’s part of why, when Star Wars’ initial hipness gave way to The Transformers, and the action figures disappeared from store shelves, I felt disappointed: not because a cultural marker I grew up with had diminished in importance, but because I couldn’t purchase my way to acceptance any longer. Only when I was older did I understand Lucas’ mythic significance. As a kid, I just wanted to get on the bandwagon.

Rather than get on the constant rotating selection of bandwagons, which would require investments of energy I’d rather spend elsewhere, I chose to change tacks. Instead of being a mass movement, Star Wars became a cult. Instead of a way to get on the inside, I and my friends treated it as a shibboleth, separating the mass of ignorati from we few in the know. We started guarding our secrets from the muggles, who we kept unaware.

Then Lucas changed the game again. With the 1992 release of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, the franchise crept back into a sense of currency. Books are a different business than movies, with a mindset that lets the industry float a shot in the dark in a way that movies can’t. If Zahn’s novel, and its sequels, had died, it would have been a quiet death, unlike the original movie, which came perilously close to euthanizing its studio before becoming a hit.

I wish I could say I was glad that Zahn breathed new life into the franchise. I at least didn’t have to deal with scorn from the cool table full of people reminding me how retro I’d become. I was au courant again. Yet because books, in this pre-Harry Potter world, did not create mass movements, Star Wars was suddenly in a knife edge. Lucas could only maintain the sense of cool by pushing out new books, peaking at a rate of over one per month.

When the books became a success, they did more than just revitalize the franchise. They proved a decades-old story could still communicate with the audience. This paved the way for the prequels, beginning in 1999. But they also diluted the arc begun in the original movies. If Luke Skywalker’s “hero’s journey” did not culminate in a galaxy truly changed, what had he fought for? And, more important, why should we care?

Neal Stephenson, writing in the New York Times, blames the prequels’ diffuse inscrutability on Star Wars’ transition from movie franchise to multimedia extravaganza. You can’t understand the stories if you haven’t read the novels and comics, watched the cartoons, and played the video games. Star Wars had become oriented toward moving product rather than telling the best possible story.

But I find John Perlich’s explanation in Sith, Slayers, Stargates, + Cyborgs more satisfying. The story fell not because it became too diffuse, but because it lost its mythology. Though Perlich makes a complex, multifaceted argument, I can compress my salient points into one sentence. Rather than tapping into the roots of human psychological need, the franchise fell into the desire to titillate with rote action scenes that could come from any film.

I started buying Star Wars novels in 1992, stopped in 2001, and boxed them up in 2007. Standing over the box now, I realized I didn’t miss them. Star Wars taught me some goals were worth striving for. One such goal is Star Wars itself. Like Tolkein or King Arthur, Star Wars should stand for something. If it doesn’t, I can’t stand for it.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ben Marcus and the Disease of Incomprehension

Nobody wants to admit that the thing they most love is the thing that will destroy them. But in Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, parents can no longer deny that their children’s speech is the source of the illness slowly stripping the life from their flesh. Samuel and Claire still love their daughter, Esther, even as her language pushes them to the brink of death. So perhaps the only way to survive together is to find a new and revolutionary communication.

Literary postmodernism has proven a tough sell for general audiences, partly because any definition of the concept inevitably turns circular. The principle starts with an agreement that gaps exist between sign and signified. Therefore all information is provisional, and individuals can never agree wholly on meaning. Concepts like linear narrative and clear action become transient. Reading becomes not an action but an immersive experience.

Ben Marcus explores the parameters of this concept by taking it to the next logical step: if understanding is optional, it’s also perilous. Particularly, the communication between the generations, between those who most need to hear each other, becomes a vector for serious illness and death. That which we most long for and depend on, our children’s voices, becomes a voyage in uncharted waters. Here there be dragons, indeed.

The result, as with all literary postmodernism, depends on the audience. When conventions of structure become impediments to experience, readers accustomed to being led by the hand will get lost. Marcus demands readers willing to fill in the gaps for themselves. In essence, we become his co-authors. Not everyone will appreciate this.

But it does lend an intimacy to the story. As Samuel, Marcus’ viewpoint protagonist, struggles to love the daughter who is killing him, we glimpse a level of introspection more conventional storytelling would deny us. Even this has its murky depths: the writing becomes so personal that we wonder if Samuel really is Marcus. And as Samuel both is and is not Marcus, he also both is and is not us.

Samuel perseveres in the face of illness, as his wife courts listless death. Their daughter takes apparent pleasure in the pain she causes, even using her words on strangers with malice. Esther’s complete inability to bond with her parents, and her lack of sympathy with others’ pain, suggests autism. (In an NPR interview, Marcus reveals he has kids, but no teenagers. With this level of intimacy, one wonders if he’s admitting a fear of the future.)

In tandem with the “speech fever,” Marcus also expounds a future vision of dark Judaism. The Jews are the first victims of this spoken illness, and speculation abounds that this may be a dark Hebrew conspiracy. The Jews are not helped by the fact that they no longer worship in the shul, but in grim solitary enclaves, secret not only from the world, but from each other. It’s an arrangement almost customized to breed anti-Semitic paranoia.

But as Samuel holds forth on his own Judaism, parallels develop. His descriptions of speech fever symptoms—blood-encrusted lips, listless shuffling gait, protruding ribs—sound eerily familiar. It feels like the sins of the past are revisited, turned outward, projected onto the world. But because we are yoked to Samuel’s viewpoint, intensely introspective but not well attuned to the outside world, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

And herein lies the problem most readers will have with this book. Marcus gives us no guidance whatsoever. Though he has a story, with action and character, he does not give us any signs of what we can trust. Is Samuel the author’s voicebox, or an unreliable narrator? Is the speech fever a legitimate fear, or a fervid speculation? We don’t know. Marcus leaves it all up to us.

Marcus seems to dare us to ask whether a book must make any sense. One of his characters, a dark, enigmatic rabbi, answers explicitly: no. Meaning comes not from the words we use, but from the interstitial ambiguities between the words. But in this, as in the rest of the work, Marcus keeps his hands off, letting us decide how much to believe. We have to tell his story for ourselves.

Many people unschooled in literary theory use the word “postmodern” as a synonym for “incomprehensible.” That’s not unfair, since postmodernism regards comprehension as an accident of form. But in publishing a book, presumably author and publisher think an audience exists. Presumably. If comprehension is optional, maybe the book is its own justification.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Operation Ajax—America's First Battle With Iran

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi
As this year’s presidential challengers hold forth that America should attack Iran, backed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Americans deserve to pause and recollect history. As bad as the current Iranian regime has behaved, and as much of a threat as it poses to American interests in the Persian Gulf, it is a legitimate world power, and deserves respect enough for us to understand how we reached this impasse.

In 1953, the state of Iran essentially had a ceremonial government, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and an elected government, under Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The Shah wore a European-style army uniform, performed ceaseless ineffectual military reviews, and lived a secular bohemian lifestyle. The devout Mosaddegh lived humbly, dedicated himself to the people, and wanted to use Iran’s resources for the Iranian people.

That last issue alienated Mosaddegh from the west, because Iranian oil was, for all practical purposes, a wholly owned franchise of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Think you haven’t heard of the AIOC? After 1953, this company reorganized as British Petroleum, then, as it went multinational, as BP. And in 1951, Mohammad Mosaddegh, Iran’s democratically elected head of state, wanted to nationalize his country’s oil reserves.

This outraged the British, who, in the wake of World War II, had too little international clout left to act on it. In the post-war alignment moving into the Cold War, however, Britain had an ally in the United States, and an untested but powerful weapon in their arsenal. Britain’s legendary international intelligence agency, MI5, whispered to America’s sister agency, the CIA, that Mosaddegh had fallen into the pocket of the Soviet Union.

Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh
This was palpably ridiculous to anyone who paid attention to that region. Though economically liberal, Mosaddegh was conservative in his social and religious values, and had no patience for the atheist Soviets. He also, like other Middle East leaders, was weary of European intervention in his country’s affairs, after two world wars and countless proxy conflicts. But America, up to that point, paid little attention to Iran.

In the early Eisenhower years, America was prosperous, but war-weary. The army was desperate to put a bow on the increasingly unpopular Korean conflict, and deeply divided over whether to join the post-colonial Vietnam conflict. The nation would not have supported an overt war in a country few knew anything about. But a covert operation was not beyond the pale. The CIA dispatched Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore, to organize a coup.

What followed has the white-knuckle pace and structural intricacy of a James Bond thriller. Why no one has made a movie of this baffles me, because America’s bloodless overthrow of a democratically elected government makes both enlightening history and an exciting story. The story is too complex to recount in this short space, but I recommend Stephen Kinzer’s eminently readable Overthrow. The CIA codenamed this action Operation Ajax.

In short, by the end of August 1953, the Shah, who made lopsided alliances with the NATO powers and ruled with draconian military force, governed Iran. He organized a kangaroo court that convicted Mosaddegh of treason. The legitimately elected Prime Minister spent three years in prison, and finished his life under house arrest, reputedly dying a broken and enfeebled man in 1967.

Americans generally do not recall Operation Ajax. It’s unclear how many have ever known about it. Iranians, however, remember. When Iran calls America the “Great Satan,” it is not because of our opinions on the Islamic Republic today; it’s because the people remember the events of 1953. But under the Shah’s harsh regime, populists and leftists could not organize openly. Revolutionary attempts to modernize the country were preemptively quashed.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Revolutions could only foment in the one place the Shah refused to interfere: mosques. Though secular and westernized himself, the Shah knew his dynasty had relied for generations on clerical support, and he assumed he would have it as long as he spoke Farsi and left imams alone. He discovered in 1979 just how wrong he could be when, out of the country for medical treatment, a league of ayatollahs seized his seat of power.

Nearly sixty years after America overthrew one Iranian government, we hear calls from within and without to do it again. But this time, we have the perspective of history to predict the consequences of our actions. We can only say we have not learned from history if we have not learned about history. If we repeat Twentieth Century mistakes, we cannot proclaim ignorance a second time.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Publisher Spotlight—Crossway

                             


In a crowded Christian publishing industry, Crossway Books of Wheaton, Illinois, has recently positioned itself as the thinking Christian’s resource. I really appreciate this effort, because Christian literature has of late become inexcusably emotive. But for all the good they do, Crossway takes a terrible risk. In religion, as in politics, the more specific your statements, the more you give opponents a chance to object to.

Prolific Baptist theologian John Piper, with his assistant David Mathis, has edited the slim but rich Thinking. Loving. Doing. Utilizing Piper’s own densely scholastic but life-affirming ecclesiology, this volume unifies five celebrity Christians in a panel presentation on what it means to love God in thought, emotion, and action. Though perhaps incomplete, I predict this book will spark overdue debates in many Protestant congregations.

Rick Warren, Albert Mohler, and RC Sproul argue—in bold and diverse ways, from Socratic argument to dense academic lecture—that Christianity demands intellectual intensity. Unless we truly know Christ and His Word, we cannot act in keeping with His mission. Francis Chan and Thabiti Anyabwile say all earthly knowledge helps little if we lack a committed heart spurring us to action. After all, “the greatest of these is love.”

Piper himself advocates that knowledge and feeling matter little if they do not urge us to act. Of this book’s themes, I fear action is the most necessary in today’s rarefied Christian discourse, but the least discussed in this book. Protestants often descend into calls for civic action versus warnings against “works righteousness.” We need a sober discussion of what Christians should do. Perhaps this book will start that conversation.

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert try to close that gap in What Is the Mission of the Church? They believe that many emerging Christian leaders have promoted civic engagement over preaching the word. The church, they say, should reclaim its former emphasis on witness and evangelism, taking its cues from Christ’s public ministry, and those of the apostles. I find myself agreeing with these authors to a point.

That point comes when they apply appalling sophistry to dismantle the scriptural readings supporting liberation theology. This form of Christianity arose in Latin American Catholicism, but has found a recent toehold in African American Protestantism. DeYoung and Gilbert insist that Christ’s promise of “good news to the poor” and “release [to] the captives” is only spiritual, and political involvement cheapens the Gospel.

This lopsided gospel only makes sense to anyone who has never been poor or oppressed. Early Christianity gained ground specifically because it gave people hope—and not just that they would go to heaven when they die. These authors’ call for renewed evangelism is timely, as American Christians have grown timid about speaking Christ’s truth. But their relegation of any other mission to the chosen few is, I fear, dangerous.

Splitting the difference between the above books, Bill Clem’s Disciple summons professing Christians to look at where we derive our identity. Too often, we want to call the shots for God, deciding what God wants us to do. We have a therapeutic view of Christianity, expecting God to fix our hurts and work on our schedule. But Christ calls us to give ourselves over to God’s will; only then will we find the completion we seek.

Our identity, our community, and our mission—in short, the topics Piper et al. discuss—must come ultimately from Christ revealed. Our common complaints about God (why is there evil? why do my desires conflict with Scripture?) set us up as our own small gods. When we live as disciples to Christ, rather than slaves to our own short-term goals, we have a life full of meaning, and a mission stuffed with purpose.

I do have a problem with Clem’s vision of discipleship. Though authority comes ultimately from Christ, we do not apprentice directly to Him. Barnabas had Paul. Aquinas had Albertus Magnus. Martin Luther King had Howard Thurman. We learn to see our Heavenly Father through an earthly father (or mother) figure. I wish Clem addressed this topic more directly in his otherwise excellent guide to theology.

All three of these books have problems. All three miss the question behind the question at least once. But they also attempt to advance the Christian discussion. Too many publishers today seem content to speak the obvious or tell us what we already know. That’s why I like Crossway: when they fail, it’s because they take bold chances that would frighten most other current Christian publishers.

Prior reviews of Crossway titles:
Larry Woiwode, Words Made Fresh
Tom Nelson, Work Matters

Friday, March 2, 2012

An American Vision of Caribbean Fiction

As his tropical homeland descends into abjection and tyranny, Alexandre takes a job managing a lush but decaying estate. He struggles to maintain a normal life, avoiding politics, and striving to join the white elites who employ him. But despite his best efforts, “normal” proves a moving target. Circumstances conspire to remind him that he remains forever black. And the violence inevitably encroaches on his secluded paradise.

I’m of two minds about Christopher Hebert’s debut novel, The Boiling Season. Behind the thicket of language lies an interesting story about the gap between aspiration and reality. Alexandre tries to shed his impoverished past and become something more urbane, but he cannot escape the forces that shape him. This keeps him blind to his own tragic flaw, but also to his nation’s continuing struggle, right up to the moment he can deny neither any more.

But to reach that story, one must first penetrate Hebert’s strange storytelling choices. He hits us with the one-two punch of an unreliable narrator and a sweeping range, continually reminding us that we cannot take anything we read at face value. This makes sense when we have the tools to sort reality from fantasy, like we get from Joseph Conrad. But Hebert seems to deliberately alienate us from any outside referents.

We have no dates for events in this story— a problem compounded by the scope of the story. Alexandre, narrating his life, will casually say things like “in the spring of our second year” or “four years had passed.” As these mount up, he’ll suddenly dip into flashbacks and reminiscences, making it harder to keep events in sequence as the book goes on.

Along with time, Hebert also withholds a sense of place. Alexandre’s homeland is merely “the island,” ruled from “the capitol.” Without such a vague location, he has to describe imagery so aggressively that it threatens to overwhelm readers. Those who study history will recognize Hebert’s setting, but the verbal gymnastics he undertakes to avoid saying the word “Haiti” become pointed.

This evasion distracts from what ought to be an otherwise engaging story. The contrast between Alexandre’s elegant aspirations and the entropy around him find an excellent mirror in the estate he oversees. His struggles to turn the estate first into a suitable home for a jet-setting international businesswoman, then a world class resort, externalize the ways in which he tries to be seen by others, especially by wealthy whites.

When Alexandre first encounters the estate, it has stood derelict for decades. As the starving population has picked the rest of the island down to the roots, the estate’s walls shelter all that remains of the original rain forest. Like the woman who hires him, he is initially drawn to its pristine state. Its lush edenic qualities, interrupted only briefly by a colonial plantation house, resist the decay beyond the walls.

But he can only preserve the property he loves by turning it into a commodity. When it proves too costly for his employer to keep the large estate as a second home, she and Alexandre begin transforming it into a resort hotel. Virgin jungle gradually gives way to swimming pools, casinos, and discotheques. They have to sell their pocket paradise incrementally to pay the high cost of staving off native entropy.

Hebert tells this gripping story of alienation and identity with a strangely dry, undifferentiated style. Moments of great psychological impact spill forth in the same tone he uses to describe the weather, which he does a great deal. I had to reread several chapters to understand what happened, not because Hebert is opaque, but because his language style never varies.

And his characternyms are just too precise. Many characters’ names reflect how Hebert wants us to see the characters. Some names only make sense if you know the code, like Rossignol and Guinee, while others, like Swallows and Freeman, are so overt that they take readers out of the moment. The characters live up to their names, and no higher. Sadly, these aspects aren’t smoothly integrated.

Which is a crying shame. If Hebert did something to differentiate his writing, something to really take us on Aleandre’s emotional journey rather than just tell us about it, this would be a great book. It stands as a good story. Unfortunately, as a debut novelist, I fear he got caught up in the idea of his book as “important,” and didn’t take it nearly far enough. This book is good, but falls short of great.