The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

rings-of-saturnW. G. Sebald takes a walk around southeast England and ponders the inescapable decay of the world. Whether caused by humans, like Belgium ravaging the Congo, or through force of nature, as shown by a medieval town gradually eroding and falling into the sea, or weird fixtures of economics, like yet another defunct English town going down the drain after the fishing industry collapsed. Sebald draws a melancholy line through them all.

I love a good book of essays, and while that is not what I expected to find here, that’s what it is. Essays in the true Montaigne-made sense: examining singular topics to give greater insight into humanity as a whole. Rembrandt’s paintings. Portions of Chinese history I never knew of. A biography of Joseph Konrad or a continued adoration of Thomas Browne. Sebald finds trivial reasons to link these and many other topics to his wandering, and dives in it detail, then flutters to a separate topic, going through a nested set of essays several deep, before we return back to England.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht notes that an awe and respect for death is one of the lesser known aspects of achieving happiness. While I wouldn’t be thrilled watching my home or local three hundred year old cathedral plummet into the sea, reading about those unfortunate souls who did, immersing myself in the knowledge that all things must decay, perish, crumble, yes, just like the planetary wreckage that became the real rings of Saturn, eventually leads me to a place of calm serenity. 

The same can’t be said for man-made catastrophe. The sheer amount of people slain by greed and madness in the Congo is incomprehensible. Literally worked to death. Lost to history. That just leads me to despair.

SPQR by Mary Beard

spqrRome. Oft cited as the foundation of western society, and thus a topic of perennial interest. From direct rhetorical links between Cicero and modern speakers (Barrack Obama for example), to the not-exactly tenuous link between gladiators and American football, to our conceptions of liberty and democracy. We return to them again and again in all kinds of fiction.

Beard picks apart the empire’s mythical beginnings, rising and falling Republic, and dictatorial ascension. Romulus and Remus were certainly made up, but what about the old Roman kings? How did the Senate start? In chronological order, SPQR attempts to answer these questions and plenty more.

Given our current political and social times, there’s Roman arguments that feel particularly relevant. One quote from a Roman orator declaiming all the non-Romans suddenly flooding the city easily matches the hateful rhetoric that xenophobic leaders the world round are currently spewing. I bookmarked this quote but then lost the book on an airplane which is the only reason I don’t type it out here. The question of who should be Roman and should not was a question that went on and on for hundreds of years, never truly resolved. 

Beard cautions against drawing too many similarities. She cites the prevalence of slavery at the time or their horrendously inaccurate view on medicine. I’d barely agree with Beard even there, as we still have such institutionalized levels of power, if not quite to the point of ownership.

Another point that Beard nails home is that we spend so much time pondering the personalities of Rome’s emperors, their sadism, excess, philosophy, bloody deaths. Yet, how much did that actually affect the regular people of the empire? Maybe not much at all. The problem is we know so much less about the non-wealthy of ancient times — they had less so they left much less behind. As a result, even with Beard’s digging we still don’t know much about them, other than some fascinating tidbits about bar culture apartment setup.

I enjoyed the book. It put things into a linear perspective I did not yet have, with all my knowledge of ancient Rome being a hodgepodge of history books and popular fiction. But I have to admit, at the same time, I’m just not sure why this book is so celebrated and great. It was a fairly straightforward account with some fascinating points. That’s it! I’m glad I read it but far from blown away.

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

executionerssongIt’s true. There really is nothing like it.

Eleven hundred pages of narrative journalism. Gary Gilmore is released from prison, tries to re-integrate while being a nuisance to friends and families, falls in love with Nicole Barrett, murders two innocent people for no reason, is put on trial and convicted, given the death penalty, refuses to appeal, is executed. In detail both scintillating and banal.

Unlike In Cold Blood, this is not a book trying to understand why Gilmore did the things he did. He spent half his life in prison and was trouble since he was a child. Truth be told, he was a huge asshole. Selfish and racist and manipulative, often under the guise of eloquent and grandiose language. Indeed, his spiel about why he never appealed his death sentence — because he was responsibly accepting his punishment as determined by the people — was a complete farce. He just didn’t want to live out the rest of his life in prison.

Generally the defenses of capital punishment — punishment, deterrence, removing a future threat — are kind of bullshit. But the last might have actually applied to Gary. If he got out, no one would be surprised if he hurt anyone again. Also, the typical criticism of capital punishment: that the state does not have the right to kill anyone, while still true and certainly disturbing when reading of the attorney general and co. scrambling into a rickety plane in the middle of the night to sprint through the Denver circuit court to avoid a stay of execution, does lose a bit of steam when the defendant actually does not want to die.

Yet, willing or no, sociopathic asshole or no, it’s hard to describe the execution as anything other than utterly wrong. On something almost like a primordial level, before you even get to moral. Killing another human, regardless of justification, is just psychologically damaging. The body rebels. Even the people who fought for the execution, or the men who voluntarily carried it out, either felt it was wrong afterwards or had to continously convince themselves they did the right thing. It was only the conservative Utah public, far from the body and blood and gunshots, that could approve with great moral righteousness and zero qualms. Despite a cynical and hobbesian notion of human nature that many subscribe to, we are simply not well-equipped for close-quarters human-to-human violence. It only becomes easy through distance and dissonance.

Don’t get me wrong though. This is not an opinion actively espoused by Mailer. The narrative is trying very hard (successfully) to be as impartial as possible. It’s a major strength of the book. No where is this more clear than in characterization of Nicole Baker. Teen mother neglecting her children, sleeping with pretty much anybody, messed up priorities, and firmly entrenched in the web of Gary Gilmore. There’s many ways this could go wrong. But Mailer’s clinical prose, striving to make the voice as close as possible to the real Nicole, slots the reader firmly into her state of mind. Makes it possible to understand how she was sucked into Gary’s web.

The book does have one clear weakness. After Gary is convicted, several TV producers fall on the scene trying to buy up the rights to all the prominent character’s stories. Chief among them is Larry Schiller. While it’s interesting, both the parasitic nature of the media and internal conflicts between money and morality layered therein, there is way, way too much Larry. One hundred pages too many. At least. The only point I would say The Executioner’s Song bored me was when it strayed too far from Gary and Nicole and the rest.

Great stuff.

Dreamland by Sam Quinones

dreamlandHeroin like pizza and pills like candy.

This fascinating piece of long-form journalism details the simultaneous rise of heroin-dealing entrepreneurs from Mexico’s west coast and the gross spread of misinformation and corporate greed that led to doctors massively over prescribing oxycontin in the United States.

The scale of this problem, heroin/pill addiction, can’t be overstated. Largely white areas of the country have astounding levels of addiction and overdose death, well beyond deaths caused by car accidents. It can be easy to avoid if you live in a large city, but out in the suburbs and rural regions, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone addicted to heroin. I traveled to Michigan for work last month and there were commercials and billboards everywhere about treatment. Unlike a bunch of other drugs, a heroin addict needs their fix everyday, or they risk crippling withdrawal symptoms. This combined with the cheap potency of the drug make overdose a constant reality.

Quinones outlines two major triggers for this:

  1. Until some time in the 80s, prescribing opiates, the fruit of the poppy seed (along with heroin) was anathema. Doctors and other medical professionals were concerned with the very real risks of addiction. Slowly, as ‘patient-centric’ care became more of a focus and pain-management became an important aspect of medicine, this stance was relaxed, particularly for those with terminal illnesses (where addiction is less of an issue anyway, for obvious reasons).

The problem arose when a confluence of factors led to the completely baseless notion that somehow opiates were actually not addictive. Purdue, the manufacturer of oxycontin jumped on an oft-misinterpreted editorial claiming only 1% of patients have a risk for addiction from opiates and marshalled their enormous sales and marketing engine to drill that number into the heads of all the doctors they showered with gifts. (This was before the laws of the early 2000s put a stop to the worst marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies.)

Somewhat predictable result: Unprecedented numbers of people are suddenly addicted to painkillers.

2. Heroin, like all hard drugs, used to have the perception of something you’d need to brave a dangerous ghetto to acquire. Maybe you’ll get shot. Dealers from the small village of Xalisco changed this business completely. By cheaply farming poppy in their native mountains, they carried it over the border and sold it from their cars, using customer-friendly marketing techniques not unfamilar to US corporations: an easily accessible phone number that triggered door-to-door service (Uber for heroin), manned by savvy and eager young men who would offer discounts or drill down on those who seemed ready to quit.

Put these two together and now you’ve got patients addicted to oxycontin who easily make the switch to heroin because it’s cheaper to buy than oxy (or no one will prescribe it to them anymore).

It’s a ghastly business.

While a stunning tale, the book does have its problems. Namely, it’s extremely repetitive. Quinones repeats the same point many, many times. Sometimes in very similar language. I understand he spent five years of his life on this and wants to insert everything he learned but many chapters are retreads of another. Still, it was a startling and detailed read that I’d highly recommend.

The Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen

best-american-essays-2016Jonathan Franzen, much like Cheryl Strayed, has a vision of the essay as an expulsion of the ‘I’.

I am telling a story about my family.
I am telling a story about my job.
I am telling a story about my sexuality or race.

Franzen further specifies he is looking for ‘intensity’ and ‘risk’, and indeed some of these essays are gripping in their intensity. But, like 2013, it gets repetitive. I like to see essays that explore little-known topics or examine some social phenomena or world events. There’s only so many essays you can read On My Shitty Parents before they all run together. The latter essays suffer this fate. There’s one in the last third where a woman is writing both about the mating habits of salamanders and her attempt to adopt a child. At that point, I was basically like “I don’t care about your familial drama, tell me about the salamanders!”

Anyway, here’s my favorites:

Girl by Alexander Chee: Chee details his application of makeup, wig, gown in preparation for the Castro Halloween parade. It’s the best description on the appeal of dressing in drag I’ve ever read. It’s beautiful. Also another reminder of how wondrous the Halloween Parade apparently was, making me further bitter about moving to San Francisco after it was canned.

My Heart Lies between “The Fleet” and “All the Ships” by Ella Harrison: Harrison is translating ancient Greek, a language no one speaks, into English, a massive undertaking that only a very few select specialists will even be able to interpret. Mostly, it’s a dazzling reflection on language. The disparate connotations and metaphors and etymological poetry that make one word very similar or different to another, each in a separate language and spoken thousands of years apart. While still centered around Harrison’s personal experience, this is one of the least “All about me” essays in the collection. The euphoria Harrison embraces while translating is merely dipping her toes into the greater human lingual ocean.

Sexual Paranoia by Laura Kipnis: This essay is the best example of Franzen’s point on writerly risk. Kipnis is a college professor protesting the overly harsh restrictions and punishments placed on college professors having affairs with students. Not exactly a popular opinion, especially when one is part of the establishment itself. My initial reaction to this was baffled skepticism — why defend behavior that is largely old married white men abusing their social status? Kipnis’ point is two fold. One: Adult relationships are messy and you’ll learn this sooner or later (this one isn’t entirely convincing). And two: by casting professors as potentially dangerous predators, you engineer a situation of infantilized, defenseless students and tyrannical, imposing professors. The narrative established behind the restrictions becomes real in a way that it wouldn’t without them. In other words: students are taught to fear their teachers.

Bastards by Lee Martin: Of the family drama essays, this one is the best. Martin’s father lost his hands in a farming accident and his inability to work dragged the family around Illinois. A father’s anger. A mother’s kindness. Sounds trite, but this is very well written. It took me right inside this shadowy, anger-ridden house. Oppressive.

Season of the Witch by David Talbot

season of the witchI.

Every sunday during football season, I walk to an Irish bar to watch the game. The Blarney Stone. It’s one of many Irish bars in the neighborhood, indeed one of even more in the city. They’re all over.

This is what I think of when I think of the Irish-ness of San Francisco. It’s there. I wouldn’t call it an Irish city though. I grew up near Boston. That is an irish city. Walk around and you’re immersed in a goofy ass tribal pride. Nearly everyone claims to be part Irish. I visited Dublin for the first last year and while I had a great time, I couldn’t help feeling like but I’ve already been to Boston. San Francisco conjures none of these feelings.

So, as the first portion of Season of the Witch opens with the tale of working-class Irish-catholic San Francisco, of how the city was completely controlled by Irish immigrants and Irish-americans for the first half of the 20th century, of how the counterculture movements of the 70s and explosion of alternative lifestyles was as much a rebellion against the still-hanging-on Irish establishment as much as it was against the conservative mien of America at large, it required a confrontation with a San Francisco that barely exists anymore.

It’s not the kind of history that’s embraced. Possibly because everyone’s glad it’s gone. It stands as a stark contrast to the identity San Francisco cultivated and embraced in the past fifty years.

 

II.

I can walk to the Haight, though it’s a much further distance than the Blarney Stone and best saved for weekends. It’s a fun neighborhood. A good bookstore, a better record store. Good food, good drinks. Bad drinks at fun bars. There’s often some kind of spectacle — last time we strolled through, a woman caring for a wagon full of week old pitbulls was hanging out outside the bar we were at. A man strolled by with a goat on a leash. A street person was waving around dollar bills and asking passersby if they wanted any change. Just another day.

There’s still some hippies around, but the epicenter of a philosophic movement it is not. Partially because the appeal of the place — shopping, bars, restaurants — all cost money and despite how colorful it is, it’s very far from the sort of money-free egalitarian paradise that Talbot describes it as in the last 60s. Though the fact that it exists at all is only because of many people’s very hard work; while governor of California, Ronald Reagan made no secret of his seething hate of the Haight and would have prefered it to burn to the ground. The city itself did nothing to alleviate the pressure of thousands of youths converging on the city, fleeing the oppressive conservative climates of an America corrupted by McCarthyism and Vietnam. Instead, the establishment hoped it would turn to disaster and they could demolish it in the name of civic duty, like they had years before in the tragically racist destruction of the Fillmore. Season of the Witch details the efforts of the residents of the Haight to create free medical clinics, feed the foodless, and so on. At least for a little while before drugs and government meddling interfere and plunge the neighborhood into catastrophe.

I’ve come to distrust the counterculture movements of the late 60s, in large part due to Joan Didion’s essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and the sexism inextricably tied to the moment. But if there’s any question of why so many women embraced the movement, why they had to do the hard labor to support the brainchild of high and irresponsible men, it’s because what they were rebelling from was something much worse — the chief of police, a man of the Irish catholic establishment, was still publicly advocating patriarchs to discipline their children and wives with the rod while necessary. While the Summer of Love had its problems, it was favorable to an extremely rigid traditional life. Sexual freedom worked in women’s favor too of course, as famous poets of the day celebrated women’s sexual feelings and actually talked about orgasms, something woefully underrepresented in… anything, at the time.

III.

Prior to this book, all I knew of Harvey Milk was he the first openly gay elected official and he was assassinated. Of George Moscone, murdered moments before Milk, I knew even less. Just that I often passed a convention center named after him. 

I liked learning of their history, but far more fascinating and shocking was the domestic terrorism and horrors occurring during the 70s. I’ve heard of Jonestown — Jim Jones’ suicide cult in the jungles of Guyana — but I did not know just how terrible it was and all the SF politics involved that basically let it happen until I read this book. The zebra killings I had not heard of at all, playing second fiddle to the far less impactful or devastating zodiac killer. Indeed, they’re especially chilling when compared to the racial violence occurring in the US right now. The sequence of events basically went:

Ongoing systemic violence and dispossession of blacks in the city->Rise of extremist black muslim death cult and subsequent targeted murders of vulnerable white people->horrendous black profiling police practices including the shooting of innocent unarmed people.

It’s a racist construct all its own that this portion of history of so dimly known.

IV.

There’s something about the gay exodus to the city that becomes almost unremarkable when you live in the bubble that is San Francisco long enough. It feels somehow like the Castro was always here, at least for all of living history.

A few years ago, it became illegal to be naked in the city outside of private or certain designated areas, much to the chagrin of the cadre of men who were always hanging out in the buff on the corner of Market and Castro. This was not at the behest of close-minded straight prudes, but instead by the many gay folks living in the area wondering what about when my family comes to visit? Similarly, when hanging out among the friends of my wife’s uncle and his partner, I get to hear middle aged gays half-jokingly lament that there are women with children, whole families(!) walking around the Castro.

In other words, in some ways the gays have become the bourgeois. The movement succeeded. The party didn’t exactly stop, but the Castro of today is certainly not the Castro of the 70s. Even the Halloween party is no more!

Of course, the past also includes the grim specter of AIDS. There was a point in the 80s where a full fifty percent of gay men in the city had AIDS. It’s horrific to imagine, but timeline wise it basically just happened. It was a highpoint in the city’s trauma that so many people came together to care for those suffering. San Francisco raised 4x as much money as New York did, despite the much smaller population and spent more money than the entire federal government on the AIDS crisis. It’s funny/awful how the more I read about people writing about the Reagan administration, there’s apparently no ceiling on how terrible it was. Many people died, many others were persecuted due to the purposeful inaction of the president.

 

V.

Season of the Witch comes to a close with the rise of the 49ers dynasty of the 80s. Mostly by profiling the great coach Bill Walsh, author of the West Coast Offense, the modern form of football most teams play that puts an emphasis on the pass over the run. The city’s first superbowl win came at a time when the assassination-AIDS-social unrest upheavels all had run back to back to back and some relief was sorely needed.

Talbot paints Walsh as a model of San Franciscan upbring. He hired a gay trainer. He hired a controversial black mentor for his black leaders. While it’s not entirely convincing, at the very least it points out that people will get conservative about literally anything. You’ve got fools declaring the only ‘real’ way to play football is buried in the dust, grinding out three yard gains like it’s always been. They tried to feminize or gay-ify three receiver spreads even when it was winning.

The political-football crossover reached absurd heights when the 49ers, as a stand-in for San Francisco culture at large and formerly a joke and coming off a 2-14 season, blew out America’s Team/God’s Team/The Dallas Cowboys and major networks didn’t even cover the highlights of the game. Fuck the Cowboys.

 

VI.

All these highs and lows, triumphs and miseries, aren’t The City I know. Not least of all because the book wraps up before I was born. The San Francisco I know is crises of tech bubbles, housing, the homeless. And not a hotbed for revolution. 

Yet it still remains a progressive bubble of some kind. There’s a sort of baseline acceptance of people here. I’ve never met anyone personally who expressed any positive feelings about Donald Trump. Quite the opposite with pretty much everyone. As a result, it’s hard to grasp that so many people in this country will vote for him. Feelings like this follow Talbot’s notion that in San Francisco, even the right is to the left of the rest of the country. 

I would be shocked if anyone ever gave a gay friend a bad look, which certainly can’t be said for much of New England when I travel back home to family (It’s like a perennial fucking question of someone asking me “San Francisco? [pause] Are there a lot of… gay people there?). All of this was made possible through the troubles and travails of the people in this book and many others who fought through the 60s-70s-80s. And of course maintained by the people keeping it alive still.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldandmeA few days before the racial violence of the past week — the senseless murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille and the retaliatory madness in Dallas — my wife and I decided to choose an audiobook to listen to on our Oregon road trip. We chose Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehsisi Coates open letter slash memoir about racial violence & white supremecy in America. It turned out to be a grim precursor indeed: Killer evidence that Coates’ morose belief that nothing will change, that plunder is an addiction, contains truth.  

The genesis of this book: Ta-Nehsisi Coates finds his teenage son crying in his room over the absence of punishment for Freddie Gray’s murder. This leads him (Coates) to relate the story of his black life, from the violent streets of Baltimore through reaching his own personal mecca of Howard University and his own disillusioning, rending collision with police-racism-brutality when one of his friends is
set up and murdered by cops. The danger of being black in a wealthy neighborhood.

Along the way we’re treated to Coates cogent reflections on the systems of race and oppression in America. The history of America is a history of a oppression of the black body. They are one and the same. Nor does it survive purely as history but a damning present and almost certain future. The infliction of fear and control continues. Coates is criticized at-large, and surely across many goodreads reviews about not being hopeful enough. Too pessimistic, too solution averse. I try to fit myself amid this history. Surely even the systemic racism of today pales in comparison to the generations born into shackles across the tenure of American slavery, or the crashing fall of Reconstruction and institution of Jim Crowe thereafter? But a weak form of progress, with a majorly long way to go, assuming the destination is actually reachable. I can’t fault Coates stance. Clearly American racism is unlikely to quote end (or anything close) in his lifetime, and there’s not a whole lot of reason to feel sure it will conclude in his son’s lifetime either. Coates’ has a good writeup in response to this ‘hope criticism’ here.

Between the World and Me is a less a story of specific injustices (unlike Tim Wise’s White Like Me, which we also started on the drive), but a general investigation of human systems and constructs. For instance, his notion that “white” is not a race but a totally fabricated classification that allows tribal unity in the ruling class is not so much stated outright but unfolded over time and through various means. Or one of my favorite points comes after Coates’ delves into his teenage African nationalism spent idolizing African cultures, and subsequent falling out from that mindset. After initially embracing the search for the answer to Saul Bellow’s question:

Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?

Coates then comes to a sort of awakening with his response that:

Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.

It’s a powerful response that sticks with me, and speaks to a possible and neglected human unity that all the “all lives matter” reactionary racist bullshit can’t even approach.

I used to listen to audiobooks all the time when I had to actually drive to work. Now I only listen to them during vacations or holidays or other rare times spending a whole lot of time in a car. As such, I can be more discerning and I only listen to books narrated by the author. Even if they don’t have a great voice, they understand better than anyone the rhythm and cadence of their prose and it makes for a much better listen. Coates spent some time reading (bad) poetry aloud or working spoken word nights in his youth, so his narration has a particular speakerish quality to it. His repetition of words and phrases “My body”, “the black body”, “plunder”, “the people who think they are white” etc added to the fact that’s a memoirish essay made for a more compelling experience than I figure the text would. 

The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber

utopia of rulesBureaucracy! You hate it! You love it! Quite possibly your workday is clenched between its squeaky-clean cogs.

Inflexible and stupid rules. Little else can make me as furious. Someone simply saying “but those are the rules!” regardless of how stupid they are is incomprehensible to me. Non-negotiability is madness. Especially when wielded by those with real power over me.

Graeber’s essays go beyond the mere stupidity of bureaucracy into deeper, sinister territory.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • Bureaucracy is tightly coupled with the threat of violence. The rules only truly work because if you don’t follow them, men in uniform, be they police or security guards or whatever, will throw you in a cage or charge you exorbitant fees.
  • Bureaucracy used to be more a government technique, but Graeber coined the term ‘total bureaucratization’ to encompass our modern era where government bureaucracy is inextricably linked with corporate bureaucracy. See banks throwing up their hands and saying there’s nothing we can do while pointing at inflexible regulations that they themselves encouraged. Or consider work within corporations themselves, which now includes all sorts of metrics and rubrics and paperwork to measure performance. 
  • Bureaucracy, at least the current American version, stunts technology. By forcefully pointing tech and science in directions of further bureaucratization / social control, it keeps it from inventing alternate technologies that change the world and possibly obsolete capitalism or bureaucracy itself. For instance, the ‘mechanized worker’ people of the early 19th century were sure would be invented never materialized.
  • Bureaucracy totally morphs the concept of value in baffling ways. Value becomes a ubiquitous concept to be arrived at, rather than the obvious result of labor. See:

The whole idea that one can make a strict division between means and ends, between facts and values, is a product of the bureaucratic mind-set, because bureaucracy is the first and only social institution that treats the means of doing things as entirely separate from what it is that’s being done

Worst of all, as a result of all these things (and more), modern Americans now think that the hard-line, impersonal rulecraft of bureaucracy is the only correct way civilization works. Yet for the vast majority of human history, it wasn’t required at all. Somehow people got by without being able to instantly call men in uniform to threaten (&inflict) violence in the name of Rules.

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio

loiteringLoneliness.

Love.

While the essays in this collection masquerade as other topics, they all return to loneliness and love in the end. Seeking the latter while immersed in the former.

D’Ambrosio survived a tragic family life: one brother lost to suicide, another brother schizophrenic and a failed suicide, a tyrannical father unable to take responsibility. Naturally, this informs nearly every aspect of his writing, whether it be about hopping trains, the emergent culture of his hometown Seattle, an analysis of Catcher in the Rye, or pondering society’s binary judgement of a middle school teacher accused of seducing a student.

Poignant and smart and occasionally both heartbreaking and funny, but frankly exhausting. It was an endless emotional pummelling of D’Ambrosio’s life and constant searching, searching, searching. He’s camping on the coastline ostensibly writing about the conflict between the native Makah people and their traditional whaling versus the local environmentalists demonizing them, but actually it’s musings about his penis and life as a lost boy isolated on the Pacific coast. I wanted to know about the whales! About the Makah!

I’ve mentioned before that all modern essays that take the personal + topical approach are inextricably tied back to the work of Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace. Their emotional vulnerability was essential to their appeal, but they remained keen, insightful observers of the world around them. When David Foster Wallace writes, at the start of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again:

I have filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.

Not only is it a funny intro, it’s a model for the essay. We get both DFW’s deep sense of outsiderness and bafflement that a luxury cruise is supposed to be fun but this is a wonderful juxtaposition to what is actually happening on the cruise, and an overall satire/critique on vacation in general. The problem with Loitering, as well-written as it is, is that it’s so heavily skewed to the ‘Just Me’. This is not necessarily some endemic flaw, but key to how I engage with books. I love a good essay collection, but am generally lukewarm to all but the best memoir.

D’Ambrosio is a stellar writer — he has the poet’s eyes for language, his vocabulary is prodigious but the little known words he uses are intriguing to ponder and learn the meaning of. I learned some variations on words I already knew. ‘Parsonal’, which I’m not sure is truly a word, connotes all the attributes of a ‘parson’, but is somehow a far prettier word. And his life is interesting. He tells it well. I was just looking for him to tell some other things well too.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

in cold bloodThe familiar, motiveless crime: A wholesome, small-town Kansas family is brutally murdered by individual shotgun blasts to the head.

Truman Capote’s account of the slain family, the reaction of their community of Holcombe Kansas, and the sojourn of murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, as they effortlessly flee the law and then foolishly deliver themselves unto it, is a gripping, classic work. First and most obvious because we, as a society, are entranced by true crime tales, especially those as masterfully written as In Cold Blood. We simultaneously have a deep interest in moral justice as well a fascination with violent criminals.

But more important and Capote’s far greater contribution: In Cold Blood does not limit its cast to ‘helpless victims’ and ‘evil ne’er-do-wells’. The four Clutters — Mother, Father, Son, Daughter are characterized fully, though clearly somewhat fictitiously as Capote reveals thoughts of theirs he couldn’t possibly know. By digging deep into the last day of their lives he shows how abrupt it all can can end. Not a dramatic build up like a movie, but day to day chores and concerns, errands to be run and college plans to be made, and then nothing.

Many more words are spent on Dick and Perry, the cold blooded killers themselves. They’re the protagonists of this narrative, really. It’s difficult to accept both the scope of their crime and the persons described, who the majority of the time act and think like normal-ish people. Perry is concerned with improving his vocabulary and likes to play the guitar. Dick is legitimately worried what his mother will think of him even as he screws her over. Even law enforcement agents who dedicated their lives to catching them for months couldn’t work up much animosity when they finally nabbed them.  

While the voice of the narrator does not promote any particular stance, it’s difficult to read In Cold Blood as anything but an indictment of the death penalty. Many of the court processes are farcical — a dubious Kansas law of the time only allowed psychiatric professionals to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the single question of ‘Does this defendant know the legal difference between right and wrong?’ instead of the myriad and complicated answers that mental health questions demand. As a result, Dick and Perry share death row with at least one severely mentally ill inmate (later executed) who cannot truly separate the real world from his own imagination. Moreover, Kansas’ death penalty at the time was hanging by the neck, which is unbelievably barbaric. Dick Hickock takes 19 minutes to die while the bystanders convince each other he felt nothing beyond the initial drop.

But it’s far more nuanced than ‘Hanging = bad’. For one, it doesn’t take much more than to take a look at the real Clutter family…

ClutterFamily

…and read the harrowing tale of the deaths, tortured, filled with terror as their loved ones were executed one by one, and think “Yeah, okay, Perry and Dick probably should not have been hanged, but honestly who gives a shit?”

The novel makes no bones about it: While it took a confluence of factors bringing both men together to lead to murder, it was far from unlikely and if they instead went to prison for 20 years and got out on parole, it would also be far from unlikely that either man, but especially Perry, would cause major harm again. Perry, a soft spoken and intelligent man, was seriously abused as a child. We’re talking horrendous, absent or fighting parents, nuns at school nearly drowning him by holding him under iced bath water, multiple siblings killing themselves. Every position of authority in his life not only failed him but actively damaged him. He goes on to compliment Mr. Clutter as a ‘nice gentleman’ right up until he slits his throat, the reasoning of which Perry himself does not entirely comprehend. When questioned “Does severe childhood trauma lead to unknowing bursts of extreme violence?”, mental health professionals of the time emphatically replied, yes.

Dick, even harder to feel any empathy for, being an abrasive pedophile, suffered a brain injury in a car accident many years earlier. His family described him as a “different boy” afterwards. It goes without saying his brain injury went unexamined. This is hardly a passing problem either, since our favorite national sport is scarring its players’ brains on the regular, and violence as result of brain trauma is something we need to address very soon. Should already be addressing much better than we are.

But the why’s do not help answer the question of what should have been done with the two of them. The cop-out answer is that we, as a society, need to prevent them from happening in the first place. Certainly Perry at least could have been prevented. It doesn’t seem like all that much has changed in fifty years, barring perhaps the scale of violence. Mass shootings instead. We haven’t adapted to help soothe abuse ravaged minds or very specific kinds of mental illness. And again, even then, what to do when it does happen? Is there a solution beyond death or life imprisonment (in prison or a hospital) for the perpetrators? Can violently askew brains be healed?