Category Archives: Book reviews

Mohsin Hamid Rises to the Occasion

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Discontent and Its CivilizationsMohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), gained the Pakistani writer a measure of well-earned global notoriety and indicated the scope of both his ambition and his ability. But, really, it was only a jumping-off point. Hamid has a great deal more to say than he has said in three short novels to date, or really than is possible to say in novels.

A writer’s occasional pieces are the flip side or reverse image of his or her fiction. As such, they hold a legitimate and even important place in his or her body of work, which can be defined as the statement that he or she spends a lifetime striving to make. Hamid’s novels are concise literary gems, self-consciously crafted in a manner reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro, and therein lies not only their durable merit but also their limitation. Hamid’s un-Ishiguro-like willingness, between novels, to put himself on the line by writing explicitly about current events brings to mind a truly great writer who for many decades wrote exquisite novels of global and lasting value with one hand and, with the other, stood always at the ready to leap into the breach with what one critic approvingly called “thin-skinned responsiveness”: Graham Greene.

Like Greene, Hamid rises to the occasion. At 44 he is still young, which bodes very well because his wonderfully-titled new collection Discontent and Its Civilizations suggests the potential for him to give us books of even greater importance, both literary and topical, for many years to come. And we will need him in those years, just as we need him now. For now this book is plenty important enough, and for David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times to praise it faintly as a “mash-up” lacking “weight” and “staying power” is to miss the point that rightly compelled its publication now. The times we’re living through are not conducive to staying above the fray, and indeed the relative slightness and datedness of some of the book’s pieces are also very much to the point; to read them collected in book form serves as an apt reminder of just how fast history is moving these days, how alert we must try to be.

The world’s peace party needs for its thought leaders to be as active and assertive as the bullies among both the terrorists and the imperial apologists. Mohsin Hamid’s reputation as a novelist grants him presumptive access to an American audience beyond the usual suspects of East Coast and academic “policy” types – those intellectuals who sell or rent their brains and command of language to the North American imperial state – and he puts that access to good use. I remember only too well my own lunch with a literary agent in New York circa 2004, soon after my book Alive and Well in Pakistan was published in London (that book could not have been published in New York). When I told him that I had written a book about Pakistan, the agent’s immediate question was: “What’s your argument?” As if writing about Pakistan required having an argument. The rejoinder that I lacked the presence of mind to offer at the time was: I’m not making an argument; I’m telling a story.

Pakistan deserves more telling of its stories, and far less hard-nosed, bloodless analysis. There is no half-baked notion in today’s world that’s more tiresome, indeed pernicious, than the notion that Pakistan exists primarily as a policy puzzle or problem for D.C.-based think-tank thinkers to think about. Pakistan – good, bad, and ugly – exists in its own right. I know this because, over two decades of traveling (and, for one five-month stint, living) there, that messy, damaged and complicated but fascinating country and its peoples have earned my love and respect.

Mohsin Hamid knows it more fundamentally because he is Pakistani, and he writes about it as a stubbornly hopeful liberal patriot. He loves his country; he is entitled to do so; and he is generous enough to take time out of his busy novel-writing schedule to explain to us the nature and meaning of that love. In today’s world Pakistani patriotism is a very important subject for us to understand. If Mohsin Hamid is kind enough to help us try to do so, the least we can do is to meet him halfway by hearing him out with curiosity and without prejudice.

The real problem, as Hamid rightly says, is that “both sides of the alliance between the U.S. and the Pakistani military share blame for the violence currently afflicting Pakistan.” An ancillary problem is that until we Americans are prepared to accept this correct premise, we will fail to understand well-informed explanations like this one Hamid offers:

By backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and then failing to include a meaningful representation of Pashtuns in a power-sharing deal in Kabul, the U.S. not only sided with India in the Indian-Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan, it also elevated a coalition of Afghanistan’s smaller ethnicities above its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Conflict was inevitable, and since twice as many Pashtuns live in Pakistan as in Afghanistan, it was also inevitable that this conflict would spill over the border.

Or this one:

The problem, for those who wish Pakistan to take more responsibility for itself, is that these conspiracy theories [cherished by many Pakistanis] are not necessarily false. Indeed, many have elements of truth. India likely is striving to exacerbate the violent discontent in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, to the south of the tribal areas. (That discontent is rooted in the Pakistani state’s long-term mistreatment of the province’s local population.) Afghanistan has in fact refused to accept the territorial integrity of Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and Iran do back Sunni and Shia militant proxies in the country. The U.S. has used a vaccination campaign as cover for an intelligence operation on Pakistani soil.

It’s a shame, but a sign of the times, that I have felt compelled to give over the lion’s share of this review to topical subjects rather than literary ones, such as Hamid’s admiration for Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Antonio Tabucchi, the Italian author of the unjustly obscure anti-fascist novel Sostiene Pereira (“I have never agreed with the claim that art must be kept separate from politics,” remarks Hamid in his piece on Pereira).

The particular value of Discontent and Its Civilizations is the way its selection and arrangement highlight the way Mohsin Hamid’s occasional writing has concerned itself with both literary and topical subjects, and how those interpenetrate and overlap. That, combined with the remarkably cosmopolitan perspective he brings to his humane concerns, is the sweet spot that defines his special value as a writer in these times.

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An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

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An Officer and a SpyRobert Harris is one of the most intelligent English-language novelists of our time to aim for a popular audience. His debut novel Fatherland was a gripping murder mystery set in Berlin in the year 1964, in an all too plausibly depicted alternate reality in which the Nazis  won the Second World War, with all that implies for the dictum that the winners write the history books. Pompeii was wonderful. The Ghost was a devastating depiction of a high-minded but calculating former British prime minister bearing an all too credible resemblance to Tony Blair.

The Fear Index is a fascinating thriller about the dangers of computerized stock trading. And then there are Imperium and Lustrum (retitled Conspirata in the U.S.), the first two volumes of his promised trilogy on the politics of ancient Rome, narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. As bracing as the variety of his subject matter is, there is a unity of sensibility to Harris’s novels, and he always delivers on his promise of bracing erudition and historical, moral and political substance and perspective. In short, Harris always gives us plenty to think about, even as he entertains us magnificently.

An Officer and a Spy is as excellent as any other Robert Harris novel, with the added element of being a fictionalization of real events that have already been thoroughly documented in many nonfiction books: the notorious Dreyfus case that convulsed France in the 1890s. By choosing such a famous historical episode as his subject, Harris not only constrains himself, but paradoxically also grants himself the novelist’s license to imagine and portray the personal and moral lives of its personages. By extension, he also offers us the opportunity to reflect on how such a travesty of justice can have been perpetrated on an innocent man by a society determined to avert its eyes from its own corruption and bigotry.

The further point of such a choice, of course, is implicitly to invite us to draw parallels and implications for our own time and society. That is the real relevance of An Officer and a Spy, the real reason it was worth writing and is well worth reading now: it cuts very close indeed to the bone. If a national government’s highest officeholders are determined to collude in scapegoating a minority group and propagating a cover-up, what is the duty of an official serving under them? Indeed, what are the duties of a citizen?

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France and Muslims: What Camus Would Say

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Algerian ChroniclesAmong other things, Albert Camus would remind his fellow Frenchmen of the poisonous legacy of the Algerian war that did great damage to society in both Algeria and metropolitan France, as the French empire unraveled in the 1950s. He is in fact reminding us of the bitter history that he – an Algerian-born Frenchman – lived through, via the 2013  English translation of his fascinating, long-forgotten book Algerian Chronicles.

His decision to compile the book – a collection of his journalism from rural Algeria dating back to the 1930s and his urgent occasional writing  as the situation deteriorated through the 1940s and 1950s – was an act of integrity and of faith, unrequited at the time, as its publication sank like a proverbial stone because radicalized factions on all sides were refusing to hear voices of moderation. But the translation by Arthur Goldhammer and publication by Harvard University Press amplify the great moralist’s enduring relevance by displaying the power, or at least the human value, of moral and intellectual clarity and honesty, even when these qualities are demonstrably ineffectual in political terms.

What Camus saw clearly above all was the moral vacuousness of us-versus-them factional rhetoric. “The truth, unfortunately, is that one segment of French public opinion vaguely believes that the Arabs have somehow acquired the right to kill and mutilate, while another segment is prepared to justify every excess,” he wrote. “Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries.”

The proximate occasion for my publishing this short appreciation is, of course, the terrorist murder of a dozen staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7. But Camus speaks to us far beyond France, and beyond any particular event. To those Americans who are still confused about or oblivious to the implications of the recent Senate torture report, he has this to say:

 The reprisals against the civilian population of Algeria and the use of torture against the rebels are crimes for which we all bear a share of responsibility. That we have been able to do such things is a humiliating reality that we must henceforth face. Meanwhile, we must refuse to justify these methods on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain. One cause is as good as another, and pointless warfare, unrestrained by the rule of law, consecrates the triumph of nihilism.

The tragedy and poignancy of Camus’s writings on Algeria is that few on any side listened to him at the time. But therein also lies his relevance to us right now, half a century later. He refused to “grandstand for the sake of an audience,” as he put it: “I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent and to deepen the divisions in a France already poisoned by hatred and factionalism.” In today’s world, a writer like the Pakistani novelist Bina Shah is in a similar position. We can hear echoes of his attitude in her January 7 series of tweets :

I refuse to condemn/apologise as a Muslim. The people that did this stand for the polar opposite of what I believe in. … Those of you asking us “peaceful Muslims” to condemn terrorists rather naively assume they’re actually going to listen to us. … I do not apologise for Islamist terrorists because I live my life in opposition to everything they stand for. That is braver.

Camus’s credibility, then and now, lies largely in his willingness to deploy his moral authority, as both a prominent French liberal and a longtime public sympathizer with the Algerian cause, to condemn terrorism explicitly and forcefully:

The massacres of civilians must first be condemned by the Arab movement, just as we French liberals condemn the massacres of the repression. Otherwise, the relative notions of innocence and guilt that guide our action would disappear in the confusion of generalized criminality, which obeys the logic of total war. … When the oppressed take up arms in the name of justice, they take a step toward injustice.

Most poignant, and most relevant, to us and our times, and what comes through most clearly in Camus’s Algerian writings, is the writer’s humanity. In her 1985 essay “The Essential Gesture,” reflecting on the variety of ways to involve oneself, as a writer, in events and the times and activism, Nadine Gordimer reminds us that it was Camus who famously said, “It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write.”

Much of the enduring human appeal of Camus lies in his unwillingness to distance himself as an intellectual from his own visceral and particular loyalties – and why should he? Why should any of us? The correct version of the response he gave to an Algerian student at a press conference in Stockholm in 1957, much misquoted and misunderstood at the time, illustrates how his moral and political positions arose directly out of his personal agony as a pied noir or Frenchman born in Algeria: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

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Has Our Interest in Haiti Peaked?

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To mark the fifth anniversary of the massive earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010, I’m republishing this review of Amy Wilentz‘s book Farewell, Fred Voodoo, originally posted in April 2013.

Farewell, Fred Voodoo coverThe lengthening aftermath of the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti is at a telling moment in its history, as an occasion for international humanitarianism and as a public event in the awareness of the American public. On one hand, more than three years after the horrific event itself, enough time has passed that it’s possible to begin describing and assessing its impact on Haitian society and – at least equally – the impact of the massive international response. On the other hand, sad but not surprising to say, the American public’s attention has turned elsewhere. As a New York literary agent guilelessly told me in early 1995, in the wake of a previous Haitian crisis, “people’s interest in Haiti has peaked.” Thus, just as what can only be called the glaring and culpable failure of the international community’s response to the earthquake is being documented with irrefutable authority, it’s becoming more difficult to interest most Americans in that failure, what it means for Haitians, and what it says about us.

Did you text ten dollars to the American Red Cross after the earthquake? Half of U.S. households “gave to Haiti” then, an astounding factoid about what was not only a shocking natural disaster but also a phenomenon of 21st-century communications technology and global electronic interconnectedness. Americans do deserve credit for empathy and generosity, but we’re too quick to congratulate ourselves on that point. The phrase “self-indulgent overkill” may be harsh, but it sprang to my mind fairly soon after the earthquake, and it took on an especially pointed significance half a year later, when the annual monsoon hit Pakistan late and with unusual and abrupt severity, at one point leaving some two million people homeless and 20 percent of that large country underwater – and the American public scarcely noticed or, to the extent it did, felt free to dismiss human suffering in that case as unimportant or somehow deserved. (If you think I’m overstating this, read some of the comments on the Huffington Post version of my article “Pakistan Floods: Why Should We Care?”)

I addressed that contrast, which tells us little about either Haiti or Pakistan and all too much about ourselves, elsewhere some two years ago. The gist is in the connotation of the title of Paul Farmer’s book The Uses of Haiti: We Americans allow ourselves to use other societies as repositories for our own baggage – Haitians as objects of pity, Pakistanis as bearded bogeymen. Since then, others have produced documents that should spur all of us who “gave to Haiti” and/or watched it on TV to reflect on our role and our obligations. Unfortunately, much of what they’re documenting is unedifying and hard to swallow.

I haven’t yet read The Big Truck That Went By by Jonathan Katz, but people I trust recommend it, and the title is perfectly apt. I have read Farewell, Fred Voodoo and heard its author, Amy Wilentz, speak at Town Hall Seattle in January, and I’m relieved and grateful that it and she have given me an occasion to lay aside the misgivings I’ve long felt about the outsized influence her previous writings exerted, if not on Haiti’s own politics and recent history, then certainly on the parameters of allowable views on Haiti among bien-pensant Americans.

The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier (1989) was a good book, but its timing, bent, and reception conferred on Wilentz far more authority than should ever properly be granted to a young journalist and her first book. Perhaps Wilentz shouldn’t be faulted for having made the most of that opportunity to advocate for what was essentially a secular leftist Manhattanite’s understanding of Haiti; other willful (mis)understandings of Haiti – the cornfed Protestant “lay Jesus on ‘em” school, for example – have done more damage over a longer period. But throughout the crucial 1990s, Wilentz’s was, if not the only voice in the American debate, such as it was, on Haiti, certainly one of the most audible and influential. For the positions she advanced then, she should be held accountable. On the eve of the long-delayed U.S. invasion of Haiti in October 1994, for example, her conditional verb tense – arguing in The Nation that what we should hope for was “the transformation that would [my emphasis] come about when this regime is toppled from within, under pressure from the outside, and not for the cosmetic quick fix of intervention” – betrayed a moralistic wishfulness that the political and brute power of an imperial state could (because it should) be exercised on behalf of the helpless people of a poor and tiny nearby country. She was arguing, that is – albeit reluctantly, but quite explicitly – that, to serve a political purpose, Haitians should have continued paying the deadly human cost of the economic embargo that, in the real world, finally ended with the invasion.

But that is, on some levels, a very dated nit to pick at this point. Both tellingly and appropriately, at her Seattle reading the once ubiquitous and poisonous rhetorical war – “debate” is too polite a word – over the former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide didn’t rear its head until I asked her about him, in the final question of the q-and-a session. “He largely hijacked my first book, is how I put it,” she answered. Then she went on to give Aristide his due: “He was a great spokesman for the Haitian people. … Whatever Aristide is personally he still is, for many Haitians, a symbol of their possible power. And that’s what [many elite Haitian and American] people fear.”

Aristide may have hijacked The Rainy Season, but it’s Wilentz’s book and she let him do it. By the same token, The Rainy Season was and remains crucially useful as perhaps the only thorough documentation of Aristide’s early career as a renegade populist priest, before his eleventh-hour decision to run in the December 1990 presidential election, which he won with 67 percent of the vote. Wilentz spent much of the ensuing painful and damaging period of recriminations and far worse that finally culminated, sort of, in Aristide’s February 2004 second overthrow courtesy of the Bush administration (“We’re glad to see him go” – Dick Cheney) awkwardly backing out of the corner into which she had painted herself. She eventually became very critical of Aristide, thus alienating him, but it was too late for her to regain the confidence of others who had been warier sooner about whether Haiti’s problems could be helpfully addressed in straightforwardly political ways.

Haiti Where Did the Money GoWhy does any of this matter, at this late date? In some ways it doesn’t, because other issues have become much more urgent, such as what exactly the vaunted “international community” has achieved with all its power, money, and suffocating presence in Haiti since the earthquake. In Farewell, Fred Voodoo, Wilentz addresses and partially documents the failure and, even more appalling, the damage wrought by international organizations and personalities who came to save Haiti and then overstayed their welcome. The title alludes to the dismissive monicker Wilentz heard fellow journalists using to refer to the hypothetical Haitian man on the street during her first stint in Haiti in the mid-1980s. Explaining the title at the Seattle reading, she said, “I wanted to be insulting; I wanted to be in the face of everybody. … These people who all thought they were helping, they were saying, ‘Fred Voodoo.’ … Outsiders thought they were fixing Haiti, remaking Haiti.” Anyone who has loved and learned from Haiti as long as I have can sympathize with Wilentz’s exasperation. It’s not for us to fix Haiti, and anyway, who’s to say Haiti is what needs to be fixed? Sometimes it’s important to get in people’s faces, or at least not to go too far out of one’s way to be polite.

Farewell, Fred Voodoo is not a tightly structured or fully coherent book, but it’s an honest and earnest one, and its publication represents the consummation of a long-cherished personal commitment. Any topical writer’s attention to the subject matter – that is, to the suffering human beings and societies – that he or she stumbles on early in life should be not only incisive but also sustained, as well as morally and intellectually honest. Farewell, Fred Voodoo thus is a triumph in a way The Rainy Season could never have been. “I thought I was done, and then Aristide became president,” Wilentz said in Seattle. “I thought, ‘Now I’m done, I’ve had my babies, I’ve written two other books.’ And then the earthquake happened. I felt I had an obligation to go back down to Haiti, see it all again.”

Farewell, Fred Voodoo hits hard on some truths that Americans need to hear, but – or rather, and – it’s not only (per its subtitle) a letter from Haiti, but a love letter to Haiti. If you “gave to Haiti” but haven’t read a book about it, start there and then keep going. Please do keep going; there’s a lot that you need to know. An excellent next stop would be the documentary film Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? directed by the journalist Michele Mitchell.

The hour-long documentary released in 2012 doesn’t answer its own question completely, but it certainly asks the hard question bluntly and effectively. In other words, it does what any work of journalism is supposed to do. Mitchell and her colleagues at Film at Eleven are not longtime Haiti hands, but they didn’t need to be to ask the question we all should be asking. The short answer is that a lot of it went to feed the bureaucracies of some of the most prestigious international organizations and the self-indulgent lifestyles of many of their employees. If that sounds harsh, watch the film and judge for yourself. The American Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services come off looking especially bad, but that might be partly a function of their hapless availability to the filmmakers; other groups Mitchell didn’t catch on film might well be just as bad.

And then there’s the United Nations, whose soldiers introduced cholera into Haiti, and which refuses to take responsibility for a bridge that one of its shipping containers destroyed near the new Partners in Health-run teaching hospital outside Mirebalais, when it came loose upriver. (I discuss the bridge, as well as the cholera epidemic, with Dr. David Walton of Partners in Health in my book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, pp. 294-95.) “Every one of those ten thousand NGOs are here to live their own dream,” says the Dutch journalist Linda Polman, one of the film’s most thoughtful voices. “[Haitian] people are very poor, but they’re not stupid. They know that the money was raised from their suffering and their poverty, and it’s not being spent on them. … Like everything in life, it comes down to politics.” Adds Dr. Barth Green of the University of Miami and Project MediShare: “I can tell you that most of the money did not leave the United States.”

Another of the film’s memorable voices, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, says of the Red Cross: “They’re like the Halliburton of disaster relief, right? But that’s still no excuse. … There has to be some demand from the people for accountability from these organizations.” Clarke means in this case not Haitian people, but those American people – half of U.S. households – who “gave to Haiti” after the quake. She’s saying that there’s a responsibility implicit in our having done so. At screenings I attended in January in Seattle and Bellingham, Washington, Mitchell echoed this point: “Take the time to follow your money,” she urged. “It starts with the donor. If we start holding them accountable for what they did with our money, then things can start to change.”

Late last year, to their great credit, Mitchell and her colleagues returned to Haiti, not to film but to screen the documentary in the camp where they had filmed much of it. The camp’s residents enjoyed seeing themselves and each other onscreen, she told us at the screenings I attended; and they told her, “Thank you for not forgetting us.” For her part, Mitchell said, “I didn’t want to be another white chick journalist who shoved a camera in their face and didn’t come back.”

Haiti: Where Did the Money Go? is an important film because it has a hope of reaching some measurable fraction of the American public with a truth that I know from my own Haitian experience and friends to be true: that the earthquake provided a novel occasion for the affluent outside world to do what it has always found an excuse to do, which is to use and exploit Haiti and Haitians. It’s fitting that those Haitians should be given the last word in this essay. “The NGOs pretty much focus on Port-au-Prince,” my remarkable friend Gerald Oriol Jr. told me as early as August 2010. “It would have been an opportunity for people to rebuild their lives in provincial towns. But the emergency period wasn’t well planned. Everybody was like, ‘Hey, Port-au-Prince is where all the journalists are,’ and since everybody wants to get their logo on national TV, the NGOs pretty much centered relief efforts on the capital.”

“Do you think it’s that cynical?” I asked him.

“Well, maybe I am being cynical,” he allowed. “But sometimes that’s the way you have to view it.”

My equally amazing friend Edrice Dely was more blunt. When I asked him about UN soldiers, he replied, “Peyi kote Nasyonzini ale nan mond, gen pwoblem.” Countries the UN goes to in the world have problems. “It’s not security that they provide,” he went on. “They look for the beautiful women, beautiful beaches, nice houses. If there’s insecurity, they’re happy. It’s their job: per diem, salary, car. Wherever there’s UN intervention, it creates problems. They give arms to twelve-year-old children. They trade arms with young boys for marijuana. They destabilize the economy. They make prices rise, because they have American money.”

As we talked, sitting on the grass near the picturesque ruin of the Sans Souci palace outside Cap Haitien, someone was broadcasting a speech over a loudspeaker in the market area nearby. I asked Edrice to help me understand what the person was saying.

“They’re talking about the reconstruction of the country,” he said.

“Is it political?” I asked.

“It’s the UN who’s talking.”

“Is it good or bad?”

“Good words,” he replied. “Bel pawol sans aksyon. Beautiful words, with no action.”

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Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Forty Signs of RainI discovered the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson a year or so ago through his magnificent Mars trilogy and have become a big fan of his signature blend of speculative science, politics, and character-driven narrative. Forty Signs of Rain is the first in a different and earthbound trilogy about the science, politics, and real-life impacts of global warming. Published the year before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, it’s remarkably prescient and realistic in its portrayal of a similar flood hitting Washington, D.C.

The fact that D.C. is the capital of the United States is not coincidental; in fact, the fact that it’s both the seat of American power and a notably vulnerable city, infamously and ill-advisedly situated in low-lying swampland, is central to the story Robinson has to tell. We tend to think of Washington as an abstraction, the place where the politics happens. Robinson brings home its topographic and meteorological realities vividly and with verve, as only he can do, in the novel’s dramatic final chapters.

The fictional narrative in Forty Signs of Rain calls to mind two first-rate nonfiction books I’ve read recently: Straw Dogs by the British philosopher John Gray – Robinson’s characters reflect often on how human beings are, after all, animals like any other – and Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. One recognizes the behavior of real human beings early in the climactic storm, before the worst has happened, when one of the main characters stops in at an Iranian-owned deli near his office near the National Mall:

The Iranians nodded silently. Five years earlier they would probably have been closing the deli, but this was the fourth “perfect storm” synergistic combination in the last three years, and they, like everyone else, were getting jaded. It was Peter crying wolf at this point, even though the previous three storms had all been major disasters at the time, at least in some places. But never in D.C. Now people just made sure their supplies and equipment were okay and then went about their business, umbrella and phone in hand. Charlie was no different, he realized, even though he had been performing the role of Peter for all he was worth when it came to the global situation. But here he was, getting a pastrami sandwich with the intention of going back to work. It seemed like the best way to deal with it.

“It was strange,” reflects the same character a few pages later about himself and his officemates, “to see how they were directly involved in an obviously historical moment, right in the middle of it in fact, and yet they too were watching it on TV.”

In my review of A Paradise Built in Hell and in my recent speech at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus , I reflected that

Solnit shows that those in power respond to disasters by circling the wagons to protect their own interests both institutional and personal and by sending in the troops, not to rescue victims but to control and even criminalize them, whereas ordinary people often quite spontaneously rescue and comfort each other and assemble themselves into communities of mutual aid and support.

Part of the interest of Forty Signs of Rain lies in how it illustrates how even the powerful are, in the end, hapless and vulnerable creatures like the rest of us. In a scene that directly illustrates a major theme of Solnit’s book, a different Robinson character leaves his office at the National Science Foundation to join the many volunteers trying to protect Arlington National Cemetery from the flooding Potomac:

Frank nodded at anything said his way, not bothering to understand, and worked like a dervish. It was very satisfying. He felt deeply happy, and looking around he could see that everyone else was happy too. That’s what happens, he thought, watching people carry limp sandbags like coolies out of an old Chinese painting. It takes something like this to free people to be always generous.

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Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America

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CarsickEvery American road trip is different; thus every American road trip book is, and should be, different from every other. The beauty of such books done well has much to do with the nature of the country itself: so enormous and diverse, and so (if we’re honest) contingent and arbitrary in its history and geography, that any trip across or around it is bound to have as much to do with the personality of the road tripper, and the happenstances inherent in the act of traveling, as with any putative qualities of the vast abstraction that we call America. This is as it should be.

Still – and regrettably –  any of us who drive around America and write a book about it do so in the long shadow of a very famous writer’s very famous book. Reflecting on his own planned trip in his prologue, John Waters makes the requisite reference, though he makes it with an admirably critical eye and purpose:

Or could I just make up the whole book and say it was true? How would anybody know? It took years for scholars to figure out that John Steinbeck’s supposedly nonfiction Travels with Charley: In Search of America, a well-reviewed bestseller published in 1962 (and still in print), was in fact total bullshit. Instead of driving cross-country in a pickup, staying in campgrounds, and chatting up the locals, as the author claimed, he actually had company with him, stayed in motels and luxury hotels, and made up the conversations. According to writer Bill Barich, quoted in a recent New York Times article, Steinbeck was “discouraged by everyone from making the trip.” He was too old, “trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of knight-errant.” Uh-oh. Could that be me?

But – before I tell you how wonderful Carsick is, which it is, I’m compelled to take Waters to task for a sloppy reading of the New York Times coverage of the unmasking of Steinbeck’s fraud. Bill Steigerwald, the man who busted Steinbeck, is a friend of mine. And the reason he’s a friend of mine is that, after reading the same April 2011 Times article that John Waters read, I was so impressed that I made a point of stopping in Pittsburgh and taking Bill to lunch on my own drive around America for my book Home Free. Bill deserves credit for a genuine mighty feat of reporting, and he rightly seizes every opportunity to claim the credit that he deserves. It wasn’t the New York Times, and it certainly wasn’t the cozy coterie of scholars Bill dubs the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex, who painstakingly read the original manuscript of Travels with Charley at the Morgan Library, then doggedly drove around America and documented Steinbeck’s specific failures and evasions in a wonderfully entertaining book aptly titled Dogging Steinbeck. It was retired Pittsburgh newspaperman Bill Steigerwald who did those things, and no one else.

So I hope that Waters sees fit to give Bill due credit in future editions of Carsick. That said, Carsick is a wonderful American road trip book in its own right. Apropos the passage quoted above, it really is three road trips in one: two fictional, one real. The book’s first section imagines “The Best That Could Happen,” the second “The Worst That Could Happen,” and the final section relates Waters’s actual trip. Waters would no doubt be amused to learn that a friend of mine (who is gay, which is relevant to much of the sometimes profane subject matter) read the prologue inattentively and got almost through the first section before realizing – or rather being told by me – that it was made up. The first two-thirds of the book is no less enjoyable for being fictional; in fact, both the “Best” and “Worst” trips are jaw-dropping, page-turning exercises in imagination (sexual and otherwise).

After all the shocking and appalling made-up misadventures, it’s a relief to read about Waters’s actual trip, which was plenty adventurous enough for a man of sixty-six, especially when you remember that Waters didn’t even drive but hitchhiked. Bill Steigerwald traveled at a similar age and also, as he puts it, doglessly. I agree with Steigerwald’s dictum that, if you’re planning to make an American road trip and write a book about it, you shouldn’t take either your dog or your wife (or, if we must be explicitly gender-inclusive, your husband/spouse/partner/whatever). What Steigerwald means is that traveling alone helps you stay alert. Steinbeck took both (though only his talking pedigree French poodle appears extensively in his bad book). The journalist and novelist Philip Caputo, well known for his classic Vietnam book A Rumor of War, took his wife and two dogs in a vintage Airstream trailer, and the effect in his 2013 book The Longest Road is of spending a very long evening at the senior center watching the vacation slides of a kindly but self-involved and dull retiree couple.

Caputo’s whole conceit is that the same flag flies over Key West, where he and his wife and dogs started their trip, and Nome, where they ended up, and isn’t that swell, with precious little reflection on how that fact illustrates that the United States of America is, effectively, an empire. My own very different summing-up at the end of Home Free  is that “while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.”

Caputo’s book is not fraudulent like Steinbeck’s, but it is dreadful. Both show that being a Famous Writer doesn’t suffice to write a great, or even good, American road trip book. Carsick is a triumph because Waters had sufficient humility, sense of humor, and perspective on his own fame to turn it from an obstacle into a literary device. Throughout the book he frets alternately about whether he will or won’t be recognized, and he carries – and once or twice makes use of – an actual “fame kit” that he had his staff put together for him. “I just signed a book deal resulting from the shortest pitch ever,” he informs us at the beginning. “I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens. Simple, huh?”

The happy paradox is that it’s precisely by maintaining a light touch and not taking himself or his quixotic project too seriously that Waters has written what might well be something of a minor masterpiece. “The CHECK ENGINE light continues to add a touch of anxiety,” he writes somewhere in the desert in Nevada, near the end of the real trip, “but we’ve risen above that – just that we’re still moving is proof we’re okay.”

I could quote endlessly from Carsick, which tells you something. Enjoy it for yourself. Among its greatest pleasures are the many paragraph-length gems of narrative whimsy, so true to the reality of American road-tripping (and so very different from anything either Steinbeck or Caputo offers). Here’s just one from Waters, temporarily stranded in Bonner Springs, Missouri:

I see the dreaded Holiday Inn but don’t go near it. I stumble into a convenience store and buy two giant bottles of Gatorade and another bottle of Evian. Exiting, I spot a Taco Bell, the only fast-food joint I’m ever tempted to patronize in my real life. I enter, plop down my even heavier bags now that the liquids are inside, and get in line to order. I flash on Lana Turner, who, her daughter Cheryl Crane once told me, was an early financial backer of Taco Bell, and think how I couldn’t be any further away from Hollywood glamour than right now. All the normal people on their lunch break look like aliens to me. I’m almost jealous of their lives. I order two tacos and sit by myself in a booth awaiting my number to be called, hoping to be recognized, but customers just stare back at me blankly. I guzzle down an entire bottle of Gatorade, then another. I feel like sobbing as I walk up to get my order but control myself, sit back down, and eat my tacos. With lots of hot sauce, they’re pretty tasty. I hope Lana Turner’s estate made a small profit.

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