Engaging Scoundrels

Come with me, dear reader, on an exciting journey through smells, sights, opportunities, lies and crimes. I will entertain, engage, challenge and confide in you. I will be a most trusted guide and nothing that I say can be believed.

A good first-person narrator can take a reader by the wrist, or wallet, or throat and lead us through all manner of adventure. A tried and true technique, it is extraordinarily effective in the right hands. Aravind Agida employs it fully in his debut novel The White Tiger.  Dark and comical, the book references, borrows and steals from all the right sources: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, but also Defoe, Rushdie and Barth. It is the story of a charming and untrustworthy man living in multiple worlds – modern India.

The overall structure is the personal history of Balram (or Munna), an Indian entrepreneur, as written in a series of letters to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabo, who is scheduled to visit Bangalore. Balram tells his own story as way of explaining India; it is a story within a story. Born in “Darkness” or abject poverty in a rural village, Balram experiences privation and disappointment despite being identified as intelligent, a “White Tiger.” He is only partially aware of his misery in his lot until he becomes a driver for a rich man with family connections to his village. He journeys to the city, “Light,” comes to understand more clearly his situation and the way that India “works.” It is a voyage of knowledge, cynicism, and advancement. Balram eventually murders his employer in order to break free and to establish a new identity, business, and future. The novel’s coda is a recount of how Balram the businessman handles the death of a child run over by one of his employees: with bribery, influence peddling and power.

Agida gives Balram great intelligence but little knowledge, and as his perspective becomes more informed, an ever greater sense of agency. Balram’s morality is thin at best. He murders in cold blood and is ruthless. One the other hand, the very sense of right and wrong is problematized throughout, as “justice” seems to be irrelevant to the world in which the characters live. inhabit. Agida’s satire is of India and Balram is the vehicle. Balram the quintessential traveler, an alien in his own land, a visible invisible man. He parodies the myth of the self-made man. Balram has access to many voices: the subaltern, the Quisling, the entrepreneur, the internal immigrant, and the business man.

And though a cold character, above all, Balram is very funny.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008, The White Tiger is the kind of literature that entertains and provokes – a good and thoughtful read.

A Little More Than a Snowman’s Chance . . . .

Some books we read to learn. Some to laugh. Some because we’re told to some because they catch our eye. Elizabeth Letts The Eighty-Dollar Champion is a book to read for pleasure,for the simple joy of a good story. Letts is an accomplished author with two novels and a children’s book under her belt. She also rode horses competitively, a background that drew her to the triumphs of an unknown horse and the Dutch immigrant who trained him into a jumping champion.

Harry de Leyer purchased a grey gelding from a knacker for $80 in 1956, with the fee including delivery of the beat up horse to the small Long Island stable. De Leyer was a poor but very talented horseman who made a living teaching riding at a girls school and providing lessons. The horse, christened Snowman by one of de Leyer’s children, was placid, easy-going and a surprising jumper. In fact, de Leyer only learned of the horse’s ability after he sold him and the gelding refused to stay in the neighbor’s paddock.

Once back under de Leyer’s tutelage, Snowman became an accomplished jumper winning national prizes. The story was picked up by the local and then national press and played for all it was worth: poor horse and horseman succeeding in the high society world of equestrian jumpers. When at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, Snowman and de Leyer even took a trip to Rockefeller Center to appear on the Tonight Show. Johnny Carson subbed that night for Jack Parr.

Letts strikes the same chords, emphasizing heart and the bond between horse and man. It is cliched, to be sure, but it is an effective tactic. She does not lay it on too thick, either, a shortcoming of  Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, a book which linked the underdog horse, his dysfunctional trainer and rider, with the Great Depression and the very health of the nation.

It was a good story in 1958 and it is a good story today.

 

 

Popular and Unpopular History

Professional historians tend to be snobs about popular history. While a well-reviewed and discussed book is a boon, historians who consistently sell books that might make it to the non-academic press carry a taint of suspicion. Only a few can manage the jump to the for-profit presses, and when they do they are rarely read in graduate seminars or referenced in conferences. And the very unusual historian who can crank out best sellers is usually cast off the island to swim in different waters.

Take Steven Ambrose, for example, whose ethical lapses validated the exclusiveness of the mandarins. With some early strong biographies on Eisenhower and Nixon, he parlayed an extraordinarily effective writing style into an industry. The scuttlebutt was that he was too prolific and cut corners. Undeterred, Ambrose cranked out a wide range of books on World War II, aviation, Lewis and Clark, and much more. He was executive producer of HBO’s A Band of Brothers. And with the success came scrutiny and the realization that Ambrose serially lifted prose from others and inserted it into his own. The man was, in fact, a fibber – something handy in storytelling but a liability in the historian’s pursuit of the truth.

But being popular does not mean that one has to lie, cheat or steal. A select number of historians are able to serve Cleo faithfully and expand the knowledge of multiple readers. Middlebrow is what the genre used to be called and it’s essential for an educated society. And when historians do not reach out and make their topics appetizing, journalists and writers do it for them.

From that larger context, a few thoughts about Evan Thomas‘s The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898. It is a well-written a timely book telling the “story” of America’s entry into the Spanish-American War in 1898 through the respective biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst. All three men’s trajectories are brought together in an almost tragic-comedic recounting of the battles in Cuba. Weighing heavily on the narrative and the structure are Iraq and contemporary international politics; the connections are almost inescapable.

For readers who know little of the Spanish-American War, who have forgotten the Maine, the book is a helpful but narrow introduction. For those that know of the conflict and have dipped into the popular history of Roosevelt, the book provides a slightly cynical take and a useful corrective. Above all, it is an entertaining read. But when it comes to historical understanding, the book falls short.

Popular history often gains readership through reducing the complex to the simple, providing clear reasons for causality. Thomas does it in the War Lovers, capturing the connections between personal ambition and national expansion, or nationalism, in the key protagonists. It is a good argument and an important factor. Missing, though, is an awareness of the larger world and the forces of imperialism shaping the globe. Economic concerns are absent and the push and pull of partisan politics is downplayed. The foolishness of the Spanish receives little attention. In fact, reducing complicated international conflicts to comparative biography can lead one down a path of simply getting history wrong. One of the fascinating things about the broad sweep of history is that it is always – always – greater than the reach of any one individual.

Thomas does not get it wrong. His reading of Lodge is good and his characterizations of Hearst and Roosevelt, two extremely interesting figures, is not far off. Thomas provides a solid account. A good historian, though, if so inclined could provided a richer, more interesting account.