04-18-12:Gregg Jones Stirs Through 'Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dreams'
A Dream Of Today From Yesterday
It sounds like the stuff of modern thrillers; ambitious politicians who plunge into front-lines battle, aging generals from past wars who manage a surprise victory, foreign insurgents buying arms with money paid by the countries they are fighting against. And in 'Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines and the Rise and Fall of America's Imperial Dreams,' it reads like a thriller as well. But it's history, compelling and frighteningly relevant to what is happening now, at this moment.
Jones' story is essentially a historical thriller that begins with an explosion aboard the Maine, a state-of-the-art American battleship anchored in Havana Bay, launching the drumbeats from a powerful yellow press so fearless of lying to the public they reported American victories before the war had even begun. Americans were terrified of a potential invasion from Spanish warships. An early warning system involved homing pigeons. By the time the story ends, America's imperial ambitions as it attempted to become a world power were being consumed in self-doubt after the revelation of torture using "the water cure" in the Philippines. Jones' book is a compelling and tragically relevant story of untaught history.
The task that Jones sets is tricky; he has a large cast of characters, many of whom show up in other guises. Some are relics from the Civil War, while his troubled protagonist, Theodore Roosevelt, hits his stride only after the climax of the events chronicled here. But Jones is clearly up to the task of giving readers historical accuracy, stunningly prescient present-day relevancy, and a great reading experience. Jones sets up his cast of characters well, with great attention to a nuanced vision. Nobody here is a mustache-twiddling villain or a knight in shining armor. Roosevelt is ambitious and obnoxious, principled and driven, and soldiers on the ground in the Philippines are complicated; well-armed, but under-supplied, stuck in a hostile jungle environment, fighting a guerilla insurgency.
Plotting in a work of historical non-fiction — getting the facts straight, in the right order and making it all interesting — is also a challenge that Jones conquers with ease. 'Honor in the Dust' gives us a number of outstanding set-pieces, from Teddy Roosevelt's heroic charge with the Rough Riders to the terrifying ordeal of the US Marines in the Philippine jungles. The political wrangling is all here too, as Republican dreams of exporting democracy crash up against the ugly reality of world politics; at home, Democrats find themselves outflanked by Republican politics and a shrieking press.
If all this sounds familiar and frighteningly relevant, it should. Jones book is consistently thought-provoking precisely because it is never polemic. He doesn't take sides, but instead lets the facts and the trials and the players speak for themselves. 'Honor in the Dust' may be the most important historical work of non-fiction not about the present that applies directly to the present you could possibly read this year. But importance be damned. Clearly we will not learn from history. We might as well enjoy reading about it. In a hundred or so years, it's likely another writer will take up the forgotten wars and politics of today. One hopes that they will manage to make our world seems as engrossing as 'Honor in the Dust.'
04-17-12:Archive Review: Caleb Carr 'The Alienist'
Editor's Note: Caleb Carr's grondbreaking work of historical fiction was a must-read when it came out,and it remains so. It makes a perfect complement to Richard Zacks' 'Island of Vice.' If you've already read the Carr novel, read 'Island of Vice.' Think of it as the non-fiction version. But if you've read neither book, then you owe it to yourself to read both; and what a treat you have in front of you!
The historical mystery was once a pretty moribund sub-genre. Sure, known genre authors such as Anne Perry operated there, and the occasional dabbler such as Mark Frost would bring life with the publication of a novel like 'The List of Seven'. But they weren't big business and they weren't big money — until the 1994 publication of Caleb Carr's 'The Alienist'. With a single novel Carr electrified the reading world like no other author since Thomas Harriss released 'Silence of the Lambs'. 'The Alienist' had an appeal that crossed boundaries from science fiction readers, who could revel in Carr's 'world-building', to horror readers, who found terror in his dark cityscapes and casual violence, to mystery readers, who could not turn the pages fast enough to find what would happen next, to readers of historical fiction, who could feast on Carr's rich details and effectively organic use of real historical figures in a fictional framework. Carr followed 'The Alienist' up with 'The Angel of Darkness', another story with the same characters and setting that to this reader was nearly as good, though not as original. There's certainly nothing like the first time you encounter a great fictional creation, and there are few creations with the verve and grit of Doctor Laszlo Kreitzler.
Set in New York City in 1896, 'The Alienist' begins as Theodore Roosevelt, then Police Commissioner of New York, enlists the aid of Kreitzler and John Schuyler Moore, a crime reporter for the New York Times. A series of murders of adolescent boys is causing a rising panic in the city. With Sara Howard, a police secretary, they will work to determine who is killing the boys by determining why the boys are being killed. It's nothing less than the birth of profiling as it is known today, in a dank and musty city of yesterday.
The potential for trite walk-on history and anachronistic problem solving is enormous in 'The Alienist', but Carr's ultra-detailed and dense storytelling style overcome these traps before the reader even realizes that they could be problems. What Carr does is to present us with a picture of the city so detailed and so different from our own sensibilities that it seems almost as if the novel is a work of fantasy or science fiction. Dripping with sewage and slime, the streets running with offal and blood, 'The Alienist' presents a picture that the writer builds brick by brick. It all seems so unusual that the reader never has the chance to question Carr's authoritative picture. It's a gripping creation.
Carr's created world is peopled by characters every bit as detailed as their environment. Kreitzler's science is met with doubt and skepticism by most he meets. He's a complicated character, self-conflicted and looked down on by his fellow scientists. John Schuyler Moore tells the story, naturally, and his reportage is not without coloration by his character. Sara is a bit on the anachronistic side, but Carr's skillful, detailed presentation and that overwhelming environment go a long way to compensate for this small sin.
Of course the model for all this Victoriana is Sherlock Holmes, and Carr does an excellent job of skirting the edges of legend. He adds many layers of detail and deceit to dirty up proceedings practically beyond recognition; but it's impossible not to recognize the sources. However, Carr's update actually enhances the enjoyment of his proceedings. If Doyle has not manages (with the help of Houdini) to escape death and bring us more tales of Sherlock Holmes, then Carr's creation will certainly measure up to and extend the legacy. It helps that he's got a plot as deliciously complex as his world, and his ability to unveil the mystery seems unusually strong. It's possible that the novel could be trimmed here and there, but the upshot of such trimming would inevitably be the complaint that it seemed to be missing something. The chances are that you've recently read one of several novels that either harkens to or hopes for the success of Carr's 'The Alienist'. If you enjoy dark, dense thrillers that feature distressing serial killers, then 'The Alienist' should be on your to-buy — or to be re-read — list.
04-16-12:Richard Zacks Visits 'Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York'
The Wild, Wild East
People and the lives they lead, the events they experience, do not necessarily form a coherent narrative. But we humans crave stories and we like them to be consistent. We want our heroes to be heroic, and always right. History may not agree, in which case it is up to the humans viewing the events, the history, to find the stories, find the characters and give us both the truth of events we need and the story of people we desire.
In the case of Teddy Roosevelt, we have our preconception; the Rough Rider and the trust-buster. But we know only what Teddy Roosevelt became; not what he was beforehand. 'Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York' by Richard Zacks, finds a story in history that we've not heard. Zacks manages to wrestle an unruly history into a compelling page-turner that shows us a man we thought we knew in a new light, and lets us have one hell of a good time doing so. 'Island of Vice' is as much fun to read as many of the events it describes, and unlike most of them, completely legal in all fifty states.
'Island of Vice' appeals on a number of levels, but first and foremost it gives us a gallery of great characters. Zacks starts the story before Roosevelt's arrival on the scene, with the crusading Reverend Charles Parkhurst, who hopes to end the rampant prostitution and illegal drinking that is regulated but not prosecuted by the police, from Captain "Big Bill" Devery to the lowliest man walking the beat. The Teddy Roosevelt who walks on stage is a hard-headed, well-heeled but rather green naïf who jumps into this cauldron of chaos, entering the political area with an excess of zeal but a surfeit of experience. Zacks is a master of crafting characters, fitting them into context and setting them loose in a wild-east landscape. Even though the cast here is large, and larger than life, Zacks makes it easy to remember who is who and what their competing and often really oddball obsessions are.
Zacks confines himself to a very strictly defined period in Roosevelt's life, that of his tenure as one of four commissioners on the Police Board in New York. It was a frustrating assignment for the unsubtle Roosevelt. He came in with a bang, but his black-and-white approach rapidly got him in trouble with most of those on all sides of the law. Zacks' portrait is striking, deep and impressive, with a lot of literary weight. We see Roosevelt change, grow and come up against forces he cannot simply steamroll over. Zacks gives a quirky and nuanced vision of a man who was neither. This is true for all the characters you find here; they're all fun to be with.
Gives the close focus, it's also impressive that Zacks is able to give readers more than one great plot arc. The basic conflict finds Roosevelt aiming to enforce laws that he doesn't necessarily believe should be in place, but he was obsessively compelled to fight the battle once he started it. Roosevelt is not a quitter, even when it seems pretty clear he should be. Running through Roosevelt's stories are those of others; each is orchestrated to fit into the overall plot of the book while they maintain their own steady courses.
The New York that Zacks creates is a world of contradictions on every level. Cops regulate vice and fight crime. Wealth and poverty rub shoulders, as do piety and perversity. The press pummels Roosevelt and relentlessly torments him, when they are not lauding the bit of progress he does make in reigning in crime. Readers will get a real feel for the streets that Roosevelt walks in disguise. Zacks knows how to build a world that has since been transformed countless times.
'Island of Vice' offers readers a sidewalk-level tour of a city by man we know, it becomes clear, in name only. For all the poverty and problems we see, there's real joy in the prose, and excitement in the storytelling. Zacks has a very nicely understated sense of humor, which he uses to capture the contradictions of the period — and the present. Marshalling his skills in prose, in plot and in character, Richard Zacks' 'Island of Vice' turns history into story, and Teddy Roosevelt into an even more compelling and complicated man of ill-advised but well-intentioned actions.
New to the Agony Column
03-11-14: Commentary : Ian Rankin Ordains 'Saints of the Shadow Bible' : Standing in the Shadow of the Past