Thursday, August 31, 2006



Tom Drury, The Driftless Area (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).

Tom Drury's novel is a slender one, but it takes a while to get started. His hero, Pierre Hunter, a bartender in his 20s, comes into a large sum of money almost by accident and then must worry about those who want it back, but these things do not start to transpire until almost halfway into the novel. Drury takes a while to let us grow familiar with Pierre and the little of the Upper Midwest (Iowa? Minnesota?) where he lives. Pierre has a strange encounter with Stella, who pulls him out after he goes skating across an insufficiently frozen lake, and the two start up a private romance. Unbeknownst to Pierre, Stella has unnatural secrets in her past, and these set the stage for the denouement when the prior owners of Pierre's windfall finally track him down. Reviewers compare this angle to the Coen brothers or David Lynch, but Drury has a tone all his own, and it's neither as madcap as the Coen brothers or as twisted as the best of David Lynch. In The End Of Vandalism, Drury's first novel, he told a story set on this turf in a wry and heartfelt way. The Driftless Area finds Drury back in the same neighborhood but trying out a different song.

Monday, August 28, 2006


Before the towers came down.

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (Alfred A. Knopf 2006).

For those of not employed by intelligence agencies, Lawrence Wright has written the definitive account of the road to 9/11. Wright focuses on four individuals involved in the attacks – Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, John O’Neill and Prince Turki al-Faisal – and uses them to tell the story of the creation and evolution of Al Qaeda and of the United States’ response. Wright has done a wealth of research and he tells his story well. The Looming Tower sits next to The Age Of Sacred Terror and Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies in the small library of necessary books on Islamist terror.

There is quite a bit here that I didn’t know, or that corrects what I thought I knew. Osama bin Laden’s PR has been more impressive than his military successes. For example, it has been reported that Al Qaeda operatives were in Mogadishu in early 1993 during the fighting recounted in Black Hawk Down, and Al Qaeda has claimed credit for teaching Somalis to down helicopters with RPGs, but Wright says that there were only two Al Qaeda men present and that they fled when the helicopters were shot down. Another example: When Osama bin Laden left Sudan for Afghanistan, he was broke, thanks to Sudan’s government, which used his duress to strip him of his assets. And while Wright does not contradict the reports that bin Laden and Al Qaeda were funded by private donations from Saudi Arabia, it does not appear that he was nearly as rich or well funded after his arrival in Afghanistan as had been reported, though Wright suggests that he was supported by the Pakistani government to foment trouble for India in Kashmir. Also, I had always understood bin Laden’s anti-Americanism as a means to a political and religious end, a strategy to bring Islamists to power in the Middle East. But Wright shows that bin Laden’s world view is as Manichean as, say, George W. Bush’s.

Wright’s approach is not without its shortcomings. Wright provides a more complete picture of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri than he does of O’Neill or Prince Turki, both because his access to sources concerning the institutional activities of the FBI and Saudi intelligence necessarily has been limited, but also because those institutions are far less dependent on charismatic individuals than Al Qaeda is. Wright is able to weave into his account a useful history of Al Qaeda and its antecedents, but he is far less effective at conveying U.S. counterterrorism efforts outside the context of scattered episodes. He paints a full picture of O’Neill as a person, but he is less successful at portraying how he approached his job, or how his colleagues at the FBI and in the government interacted with him, high praise from Richard Clarke notwithstanding. In this regard, a book like Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars provides needed context by focusing on U.S. policy rather than colorful individuals. When it comes to Al Qaeda, Wright has done an impressive job of gathering information about what is, after all, a secret organization. At times, he tries to do too much with too little, as with his discussion of Mohammed Atta’s will:
. . . Atta constantly demonstrated an aversion to women, who in his mind were like Jews in their powerfulness and corruption. [His] will states: “No pregnant women or disbelievers should walk in my funeral or ever visit my grave. No woman should ask forgiveness of me. Those who will wash my body should wear gloves so that they do not touch my genitals.” The anger that this statement directs at women and its horror of sexual contact invites the thought that Atta’s turn to terror had as much to do with his own conflicted sexuality as it did with the clash of civilizations.
Atta’s will is an odd document, but it is a slender reed for the weight Wright places on it. At yet this is hardly the only place where The Looming Tower hints at sexual repression behind Al Qaeda. Wright’s biographical focus on Al Qaeda’s leaders leaves the book wanting for more sustained analysis, and more context – more on Saudi society, say, or on immigrants in Hamburg, where Atta was a graduate student (in urban planning) in the fall of 1992.

But it seems ungrateful to wish that Wright had written a different book. The book he did write is worth reading.


One last puzzle for the master.

Michael Chabon, The Final Solution (Harper Perennial 2005).

When I headed to the bookshelf after finishing Austerlitz and pulled down The Final Solution, little did I realize that the plot of Michael Chabon’s book also revolves around the mysterious past of a Jewish boy from the Continent orphaned in England during World War II. This parallel was the kiss of death for my reading experience, for it exposed Chabon’s book as little more than an entertainment. Surely the comparison is unfair. While Sebald uses Jacques Austerlitz’s past to confront the Holocaust, Chabon uses his young refugee’s origins as little more than the key to a hidden treasure in a mystery starring an aged Sherlock Holmes who comes out of dotage keeping bees to solve one last mystery, one hinging on the secret of the refugee’s pet parrot.

There is nothing to dislike about The Final Solution, but although Chabon’s writing is lovely there’s not an awful lot going on beneath the surface either. Perhaps Holmes aficionados will plumb greater depths here than I did. And what was Chabon thinking with that title?

Saturday, August 19, 2006


The past.

W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz (Modern Library 2001).

It is hard to find the words to describe Austerlitz. Sebald's novel is the story of a man whose life's work is to attempt to discover where he came from. As a child in Wales, he learned that he had been adopted by his parents, and that his real name is Jacques Austerlitz, but nothing of how he came to them. I'm giving away nothing more than the back jacket of the book, and hardly diminishing the reading of it, to say that through Austerlitz's efforts to find his parents, Sebald confronts the enormity of the Holocaust. Sebald's tone is like no other writer's I've ever read, surely a credit to his translator, Anthea Bell. A sense of loss, an elegaic quality, pervades. For me, the text also is haunted by Sebald's untimely death a few years. A wonderful, incomparable book

Friday, August 11, 2006


A fall from grace.

Magnus Mills, The Scheme For Full Employment (Picador, 2002).

This is the story of The Fall. Once, there were good jobs for everyone who was in on the Scheme. Drivers, mechanics, assistants, supervisors; all get comfortable, safe jobs with regular hours and decent pay. Of course, it couldn't last. Some liked to get off early. Some fit in other work on the site. It sounds like a spoiler to say it can't last, but since Mills says as much in the novel's first few lines this hardly is giving anything away.

As a matter of style, Mills' most recent effort didn't break new ground. Perhaps it's interesting, though, that Mills' has gone from depicting a Kafkaesque distopia in his first novel to a workers' paradise -- albeit the fall thereof -- in his most recent.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Rick Bass.

Rick Bass, The Hermit's Story (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

Rick Bass has written a lot of books now in a variety of genres, but I came to him first through his short stories and so it is a small delight to see that he has a new collection. The Hermit's Story has been out for four years, and though I snapped it up immediately I haven't read it until now.

In many of these stories, Bass's characters find themselves encountering the wild, unknowable and profound. In the title story, a dog trainer recalls a winter trip in Canada years ago when the temperatures dropped and she found herself walking beneath the ice cap of a drained lake. In "The Cave," a couple shed their clothes and possessions and descend into an abandoned mine, emerging hours in a new, green world. "Swans" tells the story of a couple living in rural Montana, as Bass does; Bill, takes ill and declines, leaving Amy to care for the swans on their pond. Bass even finds the wild and unknowable in the most civilized of American built environments, Monticello, the scene for "The Distance." These stories did not excite me the way The Watch did fifteen years ago, but only because I my expectations are so high now.

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