Monday, January 12, 2015

Wes Moore's Very Busy Life

Wes Moore, The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters

Wes Moore has lived a varied and kinetic life. Born poor amid hardscrabble circumstances, he nevertheless enjoyed a muscular support network that hoisted him upward, smashing barriers few African American youth successfully beat. Many peers, lacking his support, faced similar challenges and collapsed, an experience recounted in his blockbuster first book, The Other Wes Moore. That book, like its author, shattered barriers. This one, well… doesn’t.

Moore’s prior volume ended with Moore headed for college, triumphant over life’s adversities. This one commences with Moore boarding a plane for Britain, a newly minted Rhodes scholar. Where his first book covered a specific theme, the struggles that guided a child out of the stark poverty that crushed his peers, this second lacks a unifying through-line. Moore expects us to glean meaningful lessons from his life experience, but he avoids making decisions about what to include, what to leave out.

From Oxford, Moore caroms into an internship at the nascent Office of Homeland Security, through a big-spending but brief career in high finance, into the peak of fighting in Afghanistan while America’s focus held on Iraq. Completing his national duty, he returns to America, assumes a career in public service, and eventually campaigns for Barack Obama. Moore has enjoyed a very active, socially engaged life. And he wants to share it all with you.

Each major portion gets equal space in this book gets an equal-sized chapter. His career in international finance, a highly remunerative but unsatisfying career characterized mainly by marathon work hours followed by frenetic London pub crawls, gets exactly the same treatment as his engagement at Forward Operating Base Khost, Afghanistan. And by exactly the same, I don’t just mean length. Moore describes everything, but everything, in an unvarying, mild, synoptic tone, frustratingly free of details.

Wes Moore
It's impossible to completely accept Moore at his word. Like most political and religious memoirs, events in Moore's story reach us through a filter of the message he hopes we'll take away. Except in Moore's case, his filter is unusually visible. Moore stuffs his paragraphs with what Duncan J. Watts calls "narrative sentences," sentences that describe, not events or circumstances, but Moore's moral message:
"I had a job that many people, especially in those days before the financial crises to come, respected, even if they didn't quite understand it. Things were good and I was lucky. So lucky that I wanted out."
Then, Moore pairs every autobiographical chapter with a matching mini-chapter about someone else whose official biography demonstrates the point he already extracted from his own story. As if his style wasn't high-handed and sententious enough. These "Profiles In Courage" draw heavily from their subjects' official press bios and Moore's interviews. Because obviously captains of industry and career bureaucrats will tell their own story honestly if you ask.

Moore's strange blend of self-mythologizing and motivational boosterism reads oddly detached. In his introduction, Moore describes parachuting into an Afghan free-fire zone, promising intimate tales of battle, and lessons learned therein. But that proves his most concrete description. His actual war experience plays second fiddle to long historical discursions, aphoristic lectures, and other people's stories. Moore himself remains curiously distant.

In my teaching days, one student, an Iraq veteran, wrote about his wartime experience. He described his vehicle getting hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), killing two men under his authority and maiming a third. He woke in a field hospital thirty-six hours later, permanently deaf in one ear. An Iraqi militant who'd lost a leg planting a miswired IED lay dying in the next bed. While he struggled to heal, my student also struggled to comprehend the moral breadth that let US doctors tend a member of the opposition who had tried to kill him.

Now that's a memoir, dammit! He needed only eight pages of detailed prose to nutshell how war shatters young men's illusions of glory. Though he recounted his difficult personal trial, he offered no pat resolution; he admitted writing was part of his healing, that the conflict remained active in his head, that no easy answers were forthcoming. He invited me along on his journey, but avoided signposting the destination. We just walked together.

Perhaps Moore thought he needed a sequel to justify his adult life. Perhaps he signed a contract, and after his debut success, his name became remunerative. But if somebody asked me to grade this manuscript in college, I’d say: needs concrete detail. This feels like an outline for several manuscripts Moore now needs to write.

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