A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Prophet

This review appeared today in the Houston Chronicle:

SONG YET SUNG
By James McBride
Riverhead, 368 pp., $25.95

This a novel in which people say things like:

“-- With all I seen, I don’t know that I believe in God anymore….

“-- Don’t matter…. He believes in you.”

And:

“-- Every truth is a lie. I heard that said. Only tomorrow is truthful.”

But Song Yet Sung rises above its author’s sometimes clumsy attempts at profundity, because James McBride knows how to tell a story. His earlier novel, Miracle at St. Anna, is being filmed by Spike Lee, and his memoir, The Color of Water, about growing up in an interracial family, is widely read in schools.

Song Yet Sung is set in 1850 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a place of swamps and oysters, where watermen navigate the inlets of Chesapeake Bay and a handful of farmers try to control their restive slaves. The central character is a beautiful slave, Liz Spocott. When we first meet her, however, she’s not so beautiful: She has been shot in the face and is being held captive with other runaway slaves.

In her delirium, Liz has one of her prophetic dreams, “of Negroes driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber wheels with music booming throughout, and fat black children who smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their pockets and murder in their eyes. She dreamed … of colored men dressed in garish costumes like children, playing odd sporting games and bragging like drunkards – every bit of pride, decency, and morality squeezed clean out of them.”

Liz is known, for obvious reasons, as “the Dreamer,” and what she dreams about the future of black Americans is for the moment not hopeful, though much later she will dream about Martin Luther King Jr. – “he speaks to a magic pipe that carries his voice for miles. … And the people, colored and white, red and yellow, man and woman, they hold hands and weep at his words.”

As she recovers from her wound she discovers that she’s being kept in an attic with a dozen other captives. One of them is an old woman who tells her bits of “the code” – a secret method that slaves have developed to communicate over long distances. But the woman doesn’t tell her the parts of the code outright; instead, she couches them in gnomic utterances: “the coach wrench turns the wagon wheel. … Scratch a line in the dirt to make a friend. … Use double wedding rings when you marry. Tie the wedding knot five times. … And find the blacksmith if you’re gonna marry.” And so on. Liz will decipher much of the code after she and the others break out of their confinement and scatter.

Liz and the others have been trapped by Patty Cannon, who makes a living by snatching up runaways and stealing slaves, then selling them south. Patty Cannon was a real person, although McBride has fudged the facts: She died in 1829 and her house, where Liz is held captive, was torn down in 1848. Patty was said to be a large, handsome woman who could out-wrestle any man and delighted in doing so. In addition to Patty, Liz is also being tracked by Denwood Long, a man known as “the Gimp” because of his bad leg, who has been hired by her owner to bring her back.

There are killings and kidnappings and betrayals in this involving tale of flight and pursuit. Patty Cannon is a marvelously evil villain, and the Gimp turns out to be a man in search of redemption. There’s also a giant, mute, mysterious fugitive slave called the Woolman, who hides in the depths of the forest, having learned how to blend with it. There are so many characters, in fact, that Liz the Dreamer recedes into the background – she’s the cause of the action but not much of a participant in it. But along Liz’s journey, the reader discovers some of the secrets of “the code”: a system of communication based on patterns in quilts, knots in ropes, the way crates are stacked on a wharf, and the rhythms clanged out by a blacksmith on an anvil.

The chief problem with the novel is that Liz’s visions of the future often go way over the top, as in this prophetic image: “his body was adorned with shiny jewelry – around his neck, his fingers, even in his mouth. A thousand drums seemed to play behind him, and as he spoke with the rat-tat-tat speed of a telegraph machine, he preached murder, and larceny, cursing women savagely and promising to kill, maim, and destroy.” McBride, who studied music composition at Oberlin, has let his distaste for the commercialized culture of hip-hop betray him into a sour, moralizing didacticism.

For the truth is, his novel doesn’t need contemporary references, or even Liz’s clairvoyant dreams, to make its point. For he has a great and durable theme: the quest for freedom. Even his white characters are hemmed in by the peculiar institution of slavery, unable to free themselves from the constant anxiety and guilt in which it traps them. On this theme, the dialogue he gives his characters is occasionally eloquent. Here, Liz has told an old man about her vision of the preacher we recognize as King:

“-- If that preacher you seen in your dream was hollering ’bout being free … well, then, he wasn’t free, now, was he? How long that gonna take? What time of tomorrow was you dreaming about?

“-- I don’t know, she said. I said I would tell you of tomorrow. I didn’t say tomorrow wasn’t gonna hurt.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and Politics

I don't get it. Less than a week after Barack Obama's candid speech about race, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain have been caught in ... misstatements. (I'm not being candid, either.) Hillary claims she "misspoke" when she talked about being under sniper fire in Bosnia -- after videotape shows her sauntering across the tarmac with Chelsea to accept some flowers from a little girl. And McCain blames a slip of the tongue for his assertion that Iran is training Al-Qaida insurgents -- even though video shows that his tongue slipped at least four times.

What's going on here? Have these guys never heard of YouTube? It led me to imagine this scenario:

A conference room with two tables set up with computers. Both monitors are displaying the home page for YouTube. Barack Obama enters, and ushers Hillary Clinton and John McCain to the chairs in front of the computers.

Obama: Hillary, John, thanks for coming. I know how busy you are, but I really felt we needed to have this session.

McCain: Not a problem. I'm not doing anything much but watching you guys slug it out.

Clinton: Thank you, Barack.


Obama: The reason I asked you here, is that I think the campaign has gone off track. We're not getting our messages across about the issues. We're spending too much time apologizing for misspeaking.

Clinton: Right. You and your "typical white person." (She giggles.)

Obama: (Irritably.) Not quite what I had in mind, Hillary. You see, I don't think you're aware of what an influence YouTube is having on politics.

Clinton: YouTube? Oh, right. Chelsea showed me the scary hamster.

McCain: Hamster? I had to eat one of those when I was a P.O.W. in Iran.

Obama: Vietnam.

McCain: Pardon?

Obama: You were a P.O.W. in Vietnam, John. Not Iran.

McCain: If you say so. Maybe I misspoke.

Obama: Well, that's the point. Every time you or Hillary or I say something, millions of people go to YouTube and check it out to see if we're lying. Everything we say or do in public winds up there. And so does everything our friends and supporters say and do.

Hillary: Everything? (She turns to the computer with interest.)

Obama: Yes, including Rev. Wright's sermons. That's how they got me in trouble.


McCain: (Chuckles.) Really got your tail in a crack there, didn't you, son? Imagine I'll get some mileage out of that this fall.


Clinton: He wasn't my pastor. You'll be running against me.

Obama: Oh, lay off it, Hillary. Anyway, I thought you might want to know about this YouTube thing. I mean, it's really important: It helped Jim Webb defeat George Allen after the "macaca" incident.

Clinton: So you say everything's on here? How do I check up on Bill?

McCain: I want to see the scary hamster.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Speak the Speech, I Pray Thee...

Interesting. According to this quiz, I'm from the Northeast.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Northeast

Judging by how you talk you are probably from north Jersey, New York City, Connecticut or Rhode Island. Chances are, if you are from New York City (and not those other places) people would probably be able to tell if they actually heard you speak.

Philadelphia
The Inland North
The South
The Midland
Boston
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Words of Wisdom

"Immediate rest is the best remedy for a bad idea insisting to be blogged."

What I Meant to Say Was ...

I was doing some research online this week... Okay, I was Googling my own name. Like you haven't done that. Anyway, I ran across some quotations from one of my reviews in a very unexpected place: a couple of Web sites devoted to "intelligent design."

Now, I happen to think that the intelligent-design argument is hokum, an attempt to undermine the credibility of what seems to me perfectly credible: the scientific evidence for human evolution. I'm certainly no scientist, but it seems to me perfectly evident that evolution is established science and that human beings, being biological creatures, are as subject to evolutionary process as any other biological creatures.

What continually amazes me is that perfectly sane people, here in America, seem to have doubts about evolution -- at least according to pollsters (whose scientific methods I don't entirely trust).


This is the review, written some time ago for the Mercury News, that the intelligent-design hucksters seized upon. The key passages that they quoted from it are
highlighted:

THE FIRST HUMAN: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors
By Ann Gibbons
Anchor, 336 pp., $14.95 paperback

According to a Gallup poll taken in 2004, 45 percent of Americans believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago." More than 50 years after the Scopes trial, and 135 years after Darwin published "The Descent of Man," lots of people still find it hard to believe in human evolution.

But though the fuss over "intelligent design" and other anti-evolutionary arguments has made a lot of headlines lately, it barely surfaces in Ann Gibbons' colorful and readable book about the search for human origins. In "The First Human," Gibbons, who reports on human evolution for Science magazine, gives a lucid account of the science involved in finding fossils, establishing how old they are, and ascertaining whether they in fact belong to the ancestors of humankind. She also shows how difficult and sometimes dangerous the work of hunting for 7 million-year-old fossils can be. And that, like most humans, anthropologists are subject to such emotions as ambition and jealousy, especially when they're Indiana Jonesing for the next big find.

Not even the most charismatic anthropologist swashbuckles like Harrison Ford, but some of them do have touches of glamour. "With his complex character and dark humor he could have sprung from a Hemingway novel," Gibbons says of Tim White, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. In 1993 White and his team were flown from San Francisco to Ethiopia in billionaire Gordon Getty's private jet, because Getty's wife, Ann, was studying anthropology at UC-Berkeley and was a field worker in the expedition.

But White is also a no-nonsense type who likes to demonstrate the harsh reality of fossil-hunting for lecture audiences. He tells them that to re-create the conditions in the Afar rift of Ethiopia, he would have to heat the auditorium to 100 degrees, "blow in dust and sand, and bring in two dump trucks filled with scorpions, snakes, and malarial mosquitoes." In the course of his research, White has contracted malaria, Gibbons reports, as well as giardia, dysentery, hepatitis and pneumonia.

White is not the only fossil-hunter who has suffered. Richard Leakey lost both legs when he crashed his plane in Kenya, and field workers have been killed by bandits and warring tribes. Teams are often threatened by the volatile politics of post-colonial Africa, where virtually all field research into human ancestry is conducted. One researcher was expelled from Ethiopia because of suspicions that he was working for the CIA. During the political turmoil of the 1980s, all fossil research in Ethiopia was halted by the country's government for eight years.

And sometimes competing research teams are a threat to one another. Leakey virtually sewed up paleontology research in Kenya by cutting a deal with the government, and rival researcher Martin Pickford was arrested when he tried to make an end run around that arrangement. But Pickford could be equally protective of what he considered to be his turf. He once charged a Yale University team with raiding and corrupting a fossil site he laid claim to. When a Yale researcher returned to the site, she was met by a man who challenged the validity of her permits and added to the intimidation by flashing a gun tucked into his waistband.

These tensions and turf wars arise because the rewards for discoveries – foundation grants, academic tenure, awards, prizes and public acclaim – have escalated since Donald Johanson's celebrated discovery of Australopithecus afarensis, a 3.1 million-year-old hominid popularly known as "Lucy," in 1974. Lucy's reign as the oldest known human ancestor lasted for nearly 20 years. Then in 1992 a team including White and Japanese paleoanthropologist Gen Suwa discovered Ardipithecus ramidus, which has been dated at 4.4 million years old, and a string of other discoveries followed over the next decade. The latest of them, by Michel Brunet in Chad in 2002, potentially pushes back known human ancestry to 6 or 7 million years ago.

Nothing that old is in good shape, of course. We're not talking about complete skeletons but about teeth, the occasional jawbone or skull or thighbone, sometimes on the verge of crumbling into chalky dust. But in every case there's just enough to convince researchers, and their peers that review their research, that a hominid, and not an ancestor of an ape, has been found. But usually there's also little enough to provoke ongoing controversy.

Which is why the layperson asks, as a journalist did at a symposium that brought together some of the eminent discoverers: "Why do you scientists always argue about your fossils? Why don't you share the fossils?" Gibbons points out that one reason is that the fossils don't belong to the researchers, they're "the priceless property of the nations where they were found." But she also explains that consensus would be hard to reach even if the hominid scraps were gathered in one place. "Together, the fossils collected in the 1990s and early 2000s would cover a large desk and would represent a few dozen individuals at least," she notes. But too many pieces are still missing from the puzzle – including fossils of the ancestors of our closest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas – to allow for a clear picture of the evolutionary lineage.

So in the end, "The First Human" is a bit like a detective story without a conclusion, or like a detective story that puts Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, V.I. Warshawski, Easy Rawlins and Gil Grissom all in the same room, gives them a handful of clues, and lets them argue endlessly about the solution. The characters in Gibbons' book are almost as colorful and cantankerous as those fictional sleuths. Science writing is rarely this entertaining.

_____________________

It's easy to see what the intelligent designers are up to: snatching from the context of the review sentences that suggest anthropologists are scrabbling and competitive types, some of whom are not very nice, and that their evidence doesn't amount to much.

Okay, granted that that's sort of what I meant, it was hardly my intent to undermine their credibility. On the contrary, I meant to admire the persistence and the diligence with which anthropologists conduct their work, their ability to discern evolutionary change from fossils that most laypersons would casually crush under their feet. And that although tempers flare, grudges are held, and important finds are not readily shared, those are human failings, not signs that the science is fundamentally flawed.

Anyone who knows scientists, or academics of any stripe, knows that they can be petty and jealous people. But the truth will out, and the truth, as I see it, is that human evolution is a well-established fact, and that intelligent design is just an ad hoc, unscientific theory cooked up by ideologues whose earlier theory, "creationism," has imploded.

But the real lesson learned here is that I need to be more careful about tone in my reviews.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Murder Most French

The following review ran today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

MURDER IN THE RUE DE PARADIS
By Cara Black
Soho, 312 pp. $24

Cara Black loves Paris when it sizzles.

Of course, as the readers of her seven previous novels about quirky-chic private eye Aimée Leduc already know, Black just plain loves Paris.

In her latest, “Murder in the Rue de Paradis,” it’s the sweltering August of 1995, the month in which every Parisian who can deserts the city, leaving it to the tourists and those who can’t flee. Aimée is one of those who can’t – she has work to do. And then her old boyfriend, investigative journalist Yves Robert, turns up. Against her better judgment she sleeps with him, and to her astonishment he proposes marriage.

But in the morning he’s gone. Permanently. His body is found in the rue de Paradis. His throat has been slit, with a distinctive curling flourish at one end of the incision.

The police are no help: They arrest a suspect who dies in custody, but Aimée is certain that when Yves left their bed it wasn’t for an assignation with the junkie street hustler the cops had arrested. Still, the police are happy to consider the case closed, given that the force has more than it can handle with a series of bombings linked to an Islamist terrorist group.

Aimée’s attempt to find out who killed Yves will get her involved with Kurdish nationalists, their Turkish opponents and a sinister Iranian hit-woman. Aimée gets shot at, dislocates her shoulder, nearly winds up with her own throat slit, and breaks a heel on her Manolo Blahniks.

Black, who lives in San Francisco when she isn’t seeking out the pith and marrow of Paris, creates strong characters: Aimée is sort of a cross between Juliette Binoche and Angelina Jolie playing Lara Croft; her assistant, the dapper four-foot-tall René Friant, tries (and invariably fails) to keep her out of trouble. And there’s a memorable villain in the assassin Nadira, whose efficiency and ingenuity are matched by her fanaticism.

Black also crafts a well-shaped plot. Readers who are knowledgeable about the conventions of murder mysteries may spot Yves’ killer early on, but Black introduces enough ingenious fake-outs and red herrings to keep us off-balance. And even if you guess who did it, the question is why – although there Black cheats a little, having withheld the evidence that might have enabled Aimée (and the reader) to figure things out sooner.

But where Black really shines is at creating atmosphere. Her pages are alive with particulars – the sights, sounds, smells, geography, topography and history of the quartier of Paris where the novel is set. She makes the multicultural neighborhoods of the tenth arrondissement three-dimensional, providing more than just a backdrop; they serve as a framework for action, of which there is plenty.

And even better, Black makes the setting thematically relevant. For example, while seeking to understand the conflicts between Turks and Kurds and Sunni and Shi‘a that may have had something to do with Yves’ murder, Aimée is taken blindfolded to the hiding place of an exiled Turkish novelist, the object of a fatwa. After he explains who the various parties to the conflict are, she is guided from his hiding place by an elderly Jewish man. Again blindfolded and swathed in a chador, she can perceive only “the pungent smell of sandalwood incense and what sounded like muffled Hindi coming from somewhere in the hallway.”

When they pause in the old man’s apartment so she can remove the blindfold and the chador, she sees a wall filled with old photographs: “Black-and-white snapshots from the forties. … Now she noticed the yellow stars on the men’s lapels and the women’s sweaters, the uniformed Wehrmacht soldier to the side.

“Her throat caught. ‘They worked in the quartier?’

“ ‘At Lévitan, next door. And at Bassano and Austerlitz, the other labor camps on the Left Bank.’

“ ‘Labor camps? I had no idea.’

“ ‘Few do. Under L’Opération Meuble, the Boches took skilled workers from internment camps: jewelers to repair clocks, artisans to restore furniture and musical instruments, women couturiers to bleach and press linens – you name it – all looted from Jewish déportés apartments.’ ”

Leaving his apartment, Aimée “kept to the shadows and turned right into rue du Château d’Eau. The streetlight illuminated a building plaque. Jean Cazard and Pierre Chatenet, both eighteen years old and members of the Red Cross, shot by Germans, August 14, 1944. Just days before the Liberation. There were fresh lilacs in a vase fastened to the plaque. She shivered and hastened her steps. The past clung to these cobblestones and buildings as if it were just yesterday.”

Other times, other ethnic and political conflicts leading to injustice and murder. Black deftly makes the history of the city resonate with the contemporary conflicts that swarm around her characters. And by doing so, she lifts her novel out of the narrower confines of the genre in which it resides. “Murder in the Rue de Paradis” is a page-turner, but some of its pages invite you to linger and reflect.




Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Thin Line

Obama's comments today about his respect for the Rev. Wright and love of his own white grandmother, despite their racial attitudes, reminded me of something I wrote in a review reprinted in this post:

I know these men [Mississippi sheriffs shown in a photograph], or the men like them who were my neighbors, my uncles, my friends' fathers and our Sunday school teachers and scoutmasters. When I was growing up in Mississippi, they would say such appalling things about black people that even to remember 40 or 50 years later causes my gorge to rise. Yet I also know that when they weren't spewing racist filth, they could be men one could respect and even love. It was as if, in the lives of these men, a tributary of human feeling had been dammed, grown stagnant and polluted, and its foulness had seeped out and corrupted a mainstream that should have run clear.

I think lots of people, especially white Southerners of a certain generation, know this feeling -- of affection and respect for someone with whom you disagree deeply and painfully on particulars, usually concerning race. It was thrilling to hear something similar articulated so well today by a candidate for president. Whether the sound-bite-obsessed media can comprehend and accurately report the subtlety of what Obama had to say is another question.

Update: Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Eugene Robinson do an excellent job of analyzing and commenting on this particular section of the speech.



The Speech



Does anything else really need to be said?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Oops

Why is it that newspapers are better edited than books?

No, seriously. As a reviewer, I’m constantly startled by the typos, misspellings, grammatical anomalies and downright factual errors that creep into books – the kind of errors that would get most newspaper copy editors, at least on the better newspapers, beaten about the head and ears with their stylebooks. (Or would have before newspapers started laying off their copy editors.)

Now, I read most of the books I review in bound galley form, usually marked with caveats like “Do not quote for publication before checking final bound edition.” But when I do check, I often find that the errors I’ve circled haven’t been corrected. Sometimes I even e-mail the errors I’ve found to the publishers.

As an example of what I’m talking about, take the review of Artists in Exile from the Houston Chronicle below. I was delighted to see that in the printed version, some editor had taken the trouble to add an umlaut to the name of Max Ophuls – i.e., Ophüls. The truth is, I had omitted the umlaut because Ophuls himself dropped it while he was working in Hollywood. (That’s why it doesn’t show up in the blog entry, which was copied from my original manuscript, not from the Chronicle.) But some hard-working editor, struggling under a daily newspaper’s deadline, actually took the time to check the name and make the change.

Now, look at the book itself. In it, the author refers to the character “Professor Unraut” in the film “Das blaue Engel.” More than once. In fact, the film is Der blaue Engel, which was based on the Henrich Mann novel Professor Unrat. The character’s name in the film is Prof. Immanuel Rath, a teacher whose pupils call him “Prof. Unrat” – in German, Unrat means “trash.” As far as I can tell, there’s no such word as “Unraut” in German.

In the first draft of my review, I pointed out these errors, but I decided that they were picayune. It’s an excellent book, and although the mistakes bothered me, they detract in only minor ways from its excellence. But when you see mistakes in a book that you catch easily, you wonder if there are mistakes that you didn’t catch.

Anyway, an eagle-eyed newspaper copy editor noted that Ophuls was missing his umlaut. Which only makes me wonder if books are subjected to less stringent editing.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wally's World

This review ran today in the Mercury News:

WALLACE STEGNER AND THE AMERICAN WEST
By Philip L. Fradkin
Knopf, 369 pp., $27.50

Sturdy and fact-packed, Philip L. Fradkin’s “Wallace Stegner and the American West” will satisfy anyone who wants to know what Stegner did and when and where he did it. Those who want to know why and sometimes how may find themselves frustrated.

Fradkin lives near Point Reyes, has been an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times and an editor for Audubon magazine, and is the author of numerous books about the American West, including “A River No More: The Colorado River and the West.” So it’s not surprising that the best parts of his biography are the ones about Stegner as conservationist.

Stegner was acutely aware of the central problem of the American West: “the aridity that breeds sparseness and the denial of that condition, which leads to overdevelopment.” In his book “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” he examined the causes and the consequences of the exploitation of the West. As Fradkin summarizes it, “Myth, which was supported by western politicians, said there was water for everyone and every use. Science … said, Wait a minute. Let’s determine how much water there really is and what it can support. … In the end, Science was defeated by Myth.”

“Stegner could not deal with the second western constant – the first being aridity and the second rapid change,” Fradkin writes. “Change would alienate Stegner from his native place.” Los Altos Hills, where he had built his home during his early years at Stanford, changed from a rural retreat to a prime location for the mansions of Silicon Valley multimillionaires. So Stegner “decided he would seek his final resting place, his angle of repose, in Vermont.” In New England, Stegner believed he had found the respect for the land, the tradition and the sense of community that had vanished from – or never existed in – California.

Fradkin is a great admirer of Stegner, whom he sometimes refers to as "Wally." But while Fradkin does a good job of depicting Stegner the conservationist, he stumbles in his treatment of Stegner the writer and teacher. Of Stegner’s works of fiction, the only one that Fradkin deals with in any great detail is the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angle of Repose.” The novel is based on the life of Mary Hallock Foote, a writer of the late 19th and early 20th century who was married to a mining engineer. Foote’s heirs gave Stegner permission to use as much of her private papers and letters as he desired, and he borrowed heavily from Foote’s writing, sometimes with only minor changes. But when the book appeared, the family was shocked by some of his alterations in Mary’s life story, and when critics and scholars examined Stegner’s sources, there were charges of plagiarism – countered by the defense that Stegner had only creatively adapted a source that he had acknowledged, albeit vaguely. Fradkin does an excellent job of exploring the plagiarism controversy, coming down on Stegner’s side, while admitting that Stegner could have been more candid with both Foote’s descendants and his readers.

Fradkin also deals with the cavalier dismissal of “Angle of Repose” by the country’s most powerful book section, the New York Times Book Review. John Leonard, then the editor of the book review, called the novel “another in a long, apparently endless, line of Pulitzer disappointments: Forthright, yes; and morally uplifting; and middlebrow.” Yet Fradkin does little to demonstrate that the novel, or indeed any of Stegner’s novels, deserves more to be taken more seriously than Leonard did.

Comfortable in amassing the details of Stegner’s life and exploring his work as a conservationist, Fradkin seems ill at ease in discussing Stegner’s fiction, which also makes for a rather tedious account of Stegner as teacher. He tells us that Stegner’s students “constitute a virtual hall of fame of American letters (Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, and Scott Turow, to name just a few).” But that’s a “hall of fame” that apparently contains no African-Americans, Latinos or women, and to most readers will sound like a rather thin sampling of contemporary American writers. And while Fradkin quotes one former student after another praising Stegner’s “teaching technique,” no one seems to be able to come up with any particulars about what made him such a good teacher.

Stegner could be, one gathers, a bit of a porcupine, erecting his quills against even the presence of an enemy. Fradkin tells us of his fights with David Brower, the “Archdruid” whose ouster from the Sierra Club Stegner supported, and with his Stanford colleagues Yvor Winters and Albert Guérard. Eleven years after he left Stanford, Stegner’s enmity toward Guérard led him, in 1982, to threaten to take his name off the Stegner Fellowships because of the appointment of Gilbert Sorrentino – whom Stegner called “a coterie writer of minimum distinction” – as a creative writing teacher. Stegner backed down on the threat, but subsequently decided to donate his papers to the University of Utah instead of to Stanford. Stegner’s behavior reminds one of the observation that the reason academic politics are so bitter is that the stakes are so low.

But Fradkin mostly downplays this prickly, even irrational side of the man. Though he says Stegner’s son, Page, told him he didn’t want “another hagiography,” the book seems over-discreet. There is little, for example, about Stegner’s relationship with his son, except for Page’s period of rebellion in adolescence and the time an angry Stegner chased Page with a scythe. And there’s even less about Mary Stegner, his wife, who suffered from various ailments (she may have been a hypochondriac) but who outlived him. As for Stegner’s own family background, we learn that he was a “mamma’s boy,” and that he hated his ne’er-do-well father so much that, 40 years after George Stegner died in a rather lurid murder-suicide, “Stegner vowed he would never buy a tombstone for his father’s grave.” But Fradkin doesn’t use these details to give us insight into the man Stegner became or the books he wrote.

At best, what Fradkin has given us is a partial portrait of the man and the writer, set inside a fuller portrait of Stegner’s relationship to the lands he loved and defended – lands for which he mourned when he saw them transformed by a civilization unprepared to cope with their harsh demands.

Documented Aliens

Left: George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky


This review ran today in the Houston Chronicle:

ARTISTS IN EXILE: How Refugees From Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts
By Joseph Horowitz
HarperCollins, 458 pp., $27.50

Give us your talented, your proud, your harassed geniuses yearning to breathe free….

That’s not how Emma Lazarus put it, but it’s pretty much the invitation extended to European artists by American orchestras, theatrical and opera impresarios and film studios in the period from the Bolshevik Revolution to World War II. In “Artists in Exile,” Joseph Horowitz documents the profound effect these immigrants – especially Russians and Germans – had on American culture. And how the American experience changed the course of the artists’ creative lives.

For many of the émigrés, America was artistically as well as politically liberating. George Balanchine, for example, discovered his true self here. “He did not,” Horowitz tells us, “share the nostalgia for Mother Russia of many Russian émigrés.” And this enabled him to create something new: a distinctively American form of ballet, emphasizing this country’s worship of athleticism, speed and strength. It took someone trained in Russian ballet to bring it off: “No American could have achieved such an ‘American’ renewal of classical ballet,” Horowitz asserts.

On the other hand, for some émigrés, such as Balanchine’s compatriot and sometime collaborator, Igor Stravinsky, adapting to America proved more difficult. Stravinsky loved American jazz, as many of the European immigrants did, unlike some American composers such as Aaron Copland, who “claimed that two moods – ‘blues’ and ‘the wild, abandoned, almost hysterical and grotesque mood so dear to the youth of all ages’ – encompassed ‘the whole gamut of jazz emotion.’ ” Stravinsky composed a concerto for Woody Herman and his band, and his Symphony in Three Movements is heavily influenced by jazz. But on the whole Stravinsky’s American output is less highly regarded than his earlier work in Europe. Whereas “Balanchine is today remembered exclusively for his American legacy,” Horowitz comments, “Stravinsky is today remembered by Americans mainly for the music he composed before undertaking his long American sojourn in 1939.”

Indeed, Balanchine serves as something of a touchstone throughout the book. For Horowitz he represents the peak of émigré success: achieving not only his own greatest work here, but also showing Americans how to create something both new and distinctly American. Others, like Stravinsky, adapted indigenous American art forms like jazz, but failed to advance upon their earlier European achievements. Some artists, such as Rudolf Serkin and Arturo Toscanini, didn’t even try: They achieved success in America by continuing to do what they had done in Europe, not bothering to adapt and change, but rather sticking to the European classical repertoire that had made them famous. But their emphasis on that repertoire may have retarded America’s acceptance of American composers.

Others took their old style and imposed it on American genres. Erich Wolfgang Korngold had been a prodigy in Vienna, writing a cantata at the age of 9 that made Mahler call him a genius. He later dazzled Richard Strauss, and achieved international fame with his opera “Die tote Stadt.” But when he came to America he turned his attention to movie music, becoming one of the greatest exponents of that art with his lush, operatic scores for Warner Bros. movies like “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Sea Hawk” and “Kings Row.” He simply imposed his European style on the medium, or as Horowitz puts it, “the crowning irony of his singular exile is that for more than a decade America adapted to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, not the other way around.”

Though he’s best known as a writer on music, having been a critic for the New York Times and the author of seven books including “Classical Music in America: A History,” Horowitz discusses film and theater as well, and with similar insight and suavity of prose. The pages of “Artists in Exile” brim with perceptive analysis of the creations and the careers of composers (Schoenberg, Hindemith, Bartók, Weill, Varèse), performers (Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz), conductors (Klemperer, Mitropoulos, Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Walter, Kleiber), actors (Dietrich, Garbo, Nazimova), directors (Murnau, Lubitsch, Lang, Sjöström, Clair, Renoir, Ophuls, Wilder, Reinhardt, Mamoulian), writers (Brecht, Mann, Nabokov) and theatrical designers (Boris Aronson).

“Artists in Exile” sometimes feels capricious in its choice of figures to focus on: Does Edgard Varèse, for example, deserve the amount of space devoted to him? But this is a highly valuable contribution to our understanding of the shaping of American culture, and of “Americanness” in general. Again and again, Horowitz shows us how the clear-sightedness of these immigrants, their discovery of what was unique about American life, enabled Americans to see themselves.

Friday, March 14, 2008

I Spy

This review ran today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

THE AMATEUR SPY
By Dan Fesperman
Knopf, 384 pp., $23.95

Got plot?

It’s the one thing a thriller writer has to have, and the one thing a reviewer must not reveal very much of. Which makes reviewing thrillers difficult because, frankly, most thrillers don’t have much of anything else.

Dan Fesperman has two good plots in his new novel, “The Amateur Spy.” Here are their setups.

Freeman Lockhart, a retired United Nations aid worker, is blackmailed into spying on an old friend. He doesn’t even know which country he’s spying for, or what his handlers, who seem to be American, hope to find out. He just knows that if he doesn’t do what they tell him to do, he risks the exposure of a secret from his past and that of his Bosnian-born wife, Mila.

Aliyah Rahim, an Arab-American woman, learns that her husband, Abbas, a prominent surgeon in Washington, D.C., is planning to do something terrible. The suspicion and surveillance they’ve experienced since 9/11 has caused him to act more and more erratically, especially after the death of their daughter. Aliyah agrees to help Abbas with his plans, hoping that she can somehow prevent them from taking effect.

The paths of Freeman and Aliyah will cross in Amman, Jordan. But their plot lines won’t entangle until the final pages of the novel, in the usual breathless rush of a thriller’s climax. If plot is all you ask of a thriller, “The Amateur Spy” has plenty of it. In that respect, the novel sometimes feels as formulaic as a cliffhanger like TV’s “24.”

But Fesperman’s novel transcends the formulas. He uses suspense to draw you into the world in which his characters live, which unsettlingly happens to be the one we live in. As a foreign news reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Fesperman witnessed his share of the world’s conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Middle East. And he has carried his reporter’s techniques and insight into a series of novels – this is his fifth -- set in those lands and elsewhere. His most recent novel, “The Prisoner of Guantánamo,” did more than most mere journalists have done to shine a light on that dark and troubling place.

Every action of “The Amateur Spy” is rooted in a locale, whether it’s Amman or Jerusalem or Athens or Washington. And his characters are acutely sensitive to the place and the moment. Aliyah, for example, arriving in Amman for the first time, “hadn’t expected all the hills, with their crowded, blocky architecture, everything rendered in watercolor shades of tan and off-white. Or so it seemed in the slanting light. The air had a strange smell, which stirred a vague familiarity. It was the dry, smoky character, she supposed, which took her back to distant times she hadn’t revisited in ages.”

But what especially lifts Fesperman’s thriller above the confines of its genre is the author’s empathy for those caught in the crossfire of the world’s conflicts. That he makes his narrator-protagonist a former UN aid worker, a would-be neutral, is no random choice. The operative irony of the novel is that Freeman (whose name is only a couple of consonants and a little anagramming away from “Fesperman”) wants to be a free man – one without a country -- because he has seen what harm can be done by the zeal of patriots and ideologues. But when he arrives in Amman – “a city of loose talk and stealthy listeners” -- he is instantly reminded how difficult the neutral pose can be. When he orders a Coke, the waiter tells him, with “a remark that from him sounded like an admonition,” that the restaurant serves only Pepsi. And then Freeman remembers an old rumor in the Arab world that the Coca-Cola logo said “No Mohammad, No Mecca” if you turned it backward. “I had forgotten what it was like working in a place where even your most innocent choice might be held against you.”

Worse things than a waiter’s scorn happen to Freeman and Aliyah and others in the novel, but the author’s alertness to such smaller tensions makes “The Amateur Spy” come alive. Fesperman has mastered his genre, but he often breaks out of its confines. You can sense him trying to move away from Tom Clancy and John Grisham and toward writers like Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, writers with a nuanced and ambivalent vision of the world and its conflicts. (Aliyah’s plight is reminiscent of that of Winnie Verloc, the anarchist’s wife in Conrad’s “The Secret Agent,” although Aliyah shrugs off the passivity in which Winnie was trapped.)

Throughout the novel, Fesperman reminds us that the world is a lot more complicated than the TV pundits, politicians and lockstep superpatriots would have us believe. Sometimes he does it with sly wit, as when Freeman hears a group in a hotel bar celebrating their release from the daytime fast of Ramadan: “The revelers began clapping to the beat, drowning out the muezzin, and the band broke into the disco standby ‘I Will Survive.’ Interesting to think of it as some sort of Palestinian anthem.”

And more than once he reminds us of the world’s pain, as when Aliyah reflects that she can’t tell her friend Nancy “that sometimes it gave her comfort to see news footage of American mothers grieving for their lost soldier boys, killed in Iraq. It wasn’t that she took pleasure in the deaths. It was that she thought her country needed this kind of sorrow to keep it humble, because that was how it worked in the rest of the world.”

______

Since I mentioned "The Prisoner of Guantánamo" in that review, here's my review of the novel, which originally ran in the Baltimore Sun:

THE PRISONER OF GUANTÁNAMO
By Dan Fesperman
Vintage, 336 pp., $13.95

The problem with writing a novel whose story is ripped from the headlines is that the headlines keep coming after the novel is published. Obsolescence sets in.

But Dan Fesperman knows something about headlines: As a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun he was responsible for quite a few of them. And he knows something about novels: He's one of the best writers of intelligent thrillers based on contemporary events working today.

So even though headlines about Guantánamo keep coming, Fesperman's novel The Prisoner of Guantánamo hasn't lost any of its edge and urgency.

Set in the summer of 2003, before the hubris in the phrase "mission accomplished" was fully evident, the novel centers on Revere Falk, an FBI interrogator whose fluency in Arabic has gotten him assigned to Guantánamo, a place he knows well, having been stationed there as a young Marine. Falk's "pet project" is a young Yemeni, Adnan el-Hamdi, who was captured in Afghanistan. Falk has gradually earned Adnan's trust, and one day the detainee decides to give him a "great gift": the name of a key figure in Adnan's al-Qaeda cell. Falk initially hears the name as "Hussein," but Adnan insists that it's "Hussay" – which confuses Falk, because it's not a common Arabic name. The interview is interrupted before Falk can probe further.

Meanwhile, the Cubans have discovered the body of a soldier stationed at Guantánamo washed up on the shore on their side of the fence. Falk, the son of a Maine lobsterman, is an experienced sailor, and he knows that if the soldier had drowned while swimming, the currents around the bay would make it impossible for the body to drift toward the Cuban side. A boating accident seems equally unlikely. So Falk gets involved in the investigation of the death.

The Arabic-speaking interpreters and interrogators are regarded with suspicion on the base, especially by the rank-and-file soldiers, who "tended to hear from their officers 24/7 that each and every one of the detainees was a hardened killer and an experienced terrorist, who in at least some way shared responsibility for 9/11. It was part of the effort to keep them motivated and boost their morale." So when a translator working for a security contractor at Guantánamo is arrested, and there's a sudden influx of investigators from Homeland Security and the Department of Defense, Falk gets wary. He's also surprised that one of the investigators is an old friend, Ted Bokamper, from the State Department.

Falk owes a lot to Bokamper. When Falk was a Marine stationed at Guantánamo, he was curious about the Cuba just over the fence, so he made an unauthorized trip there while on leave and fell into a trap set by Cuban intelligence, who blackmailed him into passing along information about the base. But Falk had a powerful friend to help him out of this bind. Panicked, he got in touch with Bokamper, whose mentor at State, Saul Endler -- "One part Kissinger and two parts alchemist" -- recognized that it could be useful to know what sort of information the Cubans wanted Falk to provide. Bokamper and Endler helped set up Falk as a double agent. Later, Bokamper helped Falk get a security clearance to join the FBI, which doesn't know that Falk has also been spying for the State Department

So now, along with Adnan's cryptic revelation, the soldier's mysterious drowning and the translator's arrest, Falk gets word that his Cuban contact wants to meet with him. Something's going on, but what? In the course of figuring it out, Falk will learn the wisdom of the adage: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. If, that is, you can tell which is which.

There's some standard thriller plotting here, with the usual shadowy alliances and betrayals, a bit of action and some hide-and-seek chases, and the ending has something of an anticlimactic feeling. But what makes the novel work is the attention to detail, especially Fesperman's evocation of Guantánamo – a.k.a. Gitmo -- itself. He gives us the physical layout -- the 45 square miles of swamp, six square miles of which is habitable; the barracks and the detention facilities; the fences and the sea; the soldiers, American and Cuban, keeping a steady eye on one another – but he's even better at creating the emotional atmosphere, the tedium and the tension, the paranoia and the boredom.

It's the right setting for a thriller, but the trick is not to let the sensations of fiction trivialize the reality. It's pretty clear where Fesperman stands on the controversy over Guantánamo, which he views in the light of Abu Ghraib and the subsequent debate over torture. The novel's principal female character, Pam Cobb, Falk's girlfriend and fellow interrogator, has been successful enough with conventional methods that she has avoided the orders to "attempt to get information from detainees by sexually humiliating them. One of Pam's shapelier but less fortunate roommates ended up stripping to her bra and panties in one such attempt. … The subjects only retreated deeper into anger and silence. The interrogator … locked herself into a restroom for an hour, sobbing in shame."

And Fesperman obviously has no use for neoconservative hawks, "out to save the world one conquest at a time," for the novel hinges on the possibility of another "splendid little war" – as the one in Iraq was thought to be in mid-2003. He's also snarky about the jargon of power-players like the guy from Homeland Security who says things like, "Other than Iraq, Gitmo's the single most important front right now in the GWOT." The more cynical Falk interprets this for another new arrival: "Global War on Terrorism. Gitmo acronym 12-b. You'll know 'em all within forty-eight hours. I'd urge you to start using the word 'robust' within the next twenty-four."

Back in the early '90s, there was some naïve speculation that the end of the Cold War had made the thriller irrelevant, that the moral angst of John Le Carré and the flag-waving technolatry of Tom Clancy would go out of style. But the world remained scary and violent, as Fesperman himself demonstrated in his earlier novels set in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Observant, thoughtful, witty and concerned, he has robustly adapted the thriller to the age of the GWOT.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Gerry-built Argument

I was going to say something about the Geraldine Ferraro uproar, but Olbermann said it for me:

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hillary Hilarity (Sort of)


I went back and reviewed my earlier posts about Hillary Clinton, now that her campaign has been pretty widely exposed -- at least by lefty bloggers (and Andrew Sullivan) -- as both inept and underhanded. In the earliest ones, I was mostly impressed by her experience (even if some of it was vicarious). But as the campaign has dragged on, it's become evident to me that either she's incapable of leading -- of enforcing dignity and discipline upon her staff -- or that she's just plain cynical, as the video above suggests.

The Geraldine Ferraro flap, coming as it does just a day or so after the resignation of Samantha Power from the Obama campaign, only underscores the unpleasantness that has overtaken Hillary Clinton. Perhaps it has nothing to do with her ability to govern, but she has allowed a pointlessly divisive comment to stand, and it makes me even gladder that I didn't vote for her in the California primary. Keith Olbermann had some especially cogent words on the Ferraro remarks:

The Magnolia State

It's been odd hearing the word "Mississippi" uttered on TV today, especially by news anchors who've probably never been there. But it's been odder seeing Democratic candidates for president actually campaigning there, in a state that has gone Republican in the worst way.

I haven't written much about Mississippi, where I was born and raised, but this seems as good a time as any to run a couple of old Mercury News reviews that pretty much sum up my feelings about where I'm from.

I graduated from the University of Mississippi in May 1962, before the violence that accompanied the admittance of James Meredith to the university. So I was drawn to William Doyle's splendid account of that event:

AN AMERICAN INSURRECTION:
The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962
By William Doyle
Anchor, 416 pp., $16 paperback

I think of 1962 as the year the fictions died, and not just because William Faulkner died on July 6, 1962.

It was a tense summer: A black man, James Meredith, had applied for admission to the University of Mississippi, and the state tried every legal maneuver -- and some clearly illegal ones -- to prevent it. In May, I had graduated from the university, which is known as ''Ole Miss'' and is in Oxford, where I grew up. At the end of September, when I left for a year in Germany on a Fulbright grant, Meredith was about to enroll, and demons were about to be unleashed in the town.

The fictions that died that fall were white supremacy and state sovereignty. But it took a bloody riot and armed military intervention to kill them.

William Doyle's ''An American Insurrection'' is a compelling account of how the last battle of the Civil War came to be fought in my hometown. For what took place on the Ole Miss campus and in the town of Oxford in the first days of October 1962 was, as Doyle puts it, ''the biggest domestic military crisis of the 20th century.'' To end the disorder, the Kennedy administration deployed ''more soldiers than the United States had in Korea, and the peak troop strength of nearly fifteen thousand in the Oxford vicinity was three times more American troops than were stationed in West Berlin.''

Any reader of Faulkner knows how steeped Mississippi was in its own past, how white folks were caught up in tales of great-granddaddy marching off to Shiloh or Chickamauga. And that much of the state was mired in the kind of poverty that breeds the resentment, frustration, hatred and folly that Faulkner depicted. But I doubt that anyone realized how deadly the state could be until the riot happened.

Intelligent leadership, however, might have prevented it -- or even just leadership based on political cunning. The year after the Ole Miss riot, George Wallace would do what Doyle calls a ''carefully choreographed charade'' at the University of Alabama, blocking the ''schoolhouse door'' until forced to submit -- saving face and launching a national political career in the process.

But the Ole Miss disaster was the product of political indecision -- the ''dithering,'' as Doyle calls it, of John and Robert Kennedy and the utter ineptness of Mississippi's governor, Ross Barnett. To be fair to the Kennedys, they had no idea that Barnett was as dumb as a stump.

Barnett reminded my father of ''an old mud turtle,'' which with his thick neck and beaky nose Barnett surely resembled. But turtles have the sense to stay in their shells when threatened by things beyond their control. Barnett didn't.

The conversations between Barnett and the Kennedys that Doyle recounts -- available on the presidential tapes that were the subject of Doyle's earlier book, ''Inside the Oval Office'' -- show that Barnett wanted to do the kind of face-saving charade at which Wallace would be so successful a year later: a capitulation in the face of federal power, which would both allow Meredith to enter the university and make Barnett look like a martyr in the eyes of the segregationists. But Barnett couldn't make up his mind how far things should go until they had gone too far.

And they went too far on Saturday, Sept. 29, when Barnett made an appearance at the halftime of an Ole Miss football game. The crowd was already inflamed by the appearance of the world's largest Confederate flag, which was unfurled over the heads of the Ole Miss marching band. When Barnett ''strutted onto the field,'' Doyle writes, he was ''saturated with one of the most powerful crowd raptures ever given to an American politician.'' A witness remembers it as ''the way Nuremberg must have been!'' An unstoppable, tragic confrontation was under way.

My parents lived on the edge of town, and from the woods and fields behind the house, my mother recalled, strange men appeared throughout the following day, crossing our yard on their way to the campus. They were also arriving by car from as far away as California.

Imagine hundreds of Timothy McVeighs -- racist, anti-government fanatics -- blending with hormone-driven college kids, many of whom may have thought of the thing as just a big fraternity prank. Until it got out of hand, that is: Two people were killed in the night of Sept. 30 and morning of Oct. 1, but Doyle's vivid, appalling account of the riot makes it hard to believe there weren't more.

Amid the madness there was also heroism. Doyle singles out for praise the U.S. marshals and, more surprisingly, the Mississippi National Guard, which was called out to support the marshals until Kennedy could decide whether to commit troops to the scene. These weekend soldiers did their duty despite being assaulted and vilified by their fellow Mississippians.

But the most heroic figure was James Meredith. Doyle's portrait of this strange, almost quixotically courageous man is one of the best things in the book. Meredith maintained a Zen-like composure through it all -- he is said to have slept through the riots taking place only a few hundred yards from the dormitory where he was guarded by a handful of marshals.

He was a civil rights movement of his own, never identifying himself with other leaders or organizations, and his later career was, to say the least, enigmatic. He was almost killed by a sniper in 1966 during a one-man march for voting rights in Mississippi, but in the years that followed he denounced integration as a ''sham;'' worked on the staff of Sen. Jesse Helms; opposed affirmative action, welfare and busing; and even announced his support for Klansman David Duke's run for governor of Louisiana. But as Mississippi civil rights leader Aaron Henry put it, ''If any of us has earned the right to be eccentric, Jim has.''

Doyle's book has its flaws: He likes to hammer home his points, telling us again and again that the killers of the two men who died in the riot were never caught. And the chaotic events make for chaotic narrative -- Doyle struggles to keep track of what was happening when, but doesn't always succeed. Still, it's as precise and evocative an account of the riot as you're likely to get: It wasn't filmed -- in 1962 TV news was not the force it would become later, and the few photojournalists who showed up had their cameras smashed quickly.

And the book is valuable in reminding us of an event that today seems to be largely forgotten. Even in 1962 it was overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis a few weeks later. But it was one of the great turning points of the civil rights movement: If Mississippi could be desegregated, any place could.

The troops lingered in Oxford until the next summer. This worked a small hardship on my mother, who set out one day to do her shopping with a carton of Coke bottles in her car. (Those were the days of refillables.) But she had to stop at a checkpoint, where the bottles were confiscated as potential material for Molotov cocktails.

When I came back to the United States in August 1963, the troops were gone and the riot was already being forgotten. As I was going through customs in New York, the agent looked at my passport and said, ''You're from Mississippi?''

Uh-oh, I thought, self-consciously determined not to be identified with my home state's bigotry and bloodshed.

The agent continued, ''Then maybe you can answer this: Where does the Southern cross the Yellow Dog?''

He was a blues lover for whom Mississippi meant a railway crossing near Moorhead, celebrated by W.C. Handy.

History is, after all, a matter of point of view.


Times change. A black man, with the help of a largely black electorate, has just won most of the state's delegates to the Democratic National Convention. But how much have they really changed? Paul Hendrickson made an effort to measure that change with his fine book "Sons of Mississippi.


SONS OF MISSISSIPPI: A Story of Race and Its Legacy
By Paul Hendrickson
Knopf, 320 pp., $26

In February 1995, Washington Post reporter Paul Hendrickson was browsing in a bookstore in Berkeley, where he came across a book of photographs by Charles Moore from the civil rights era.

In one photo, a group of white men has focused its attention on a man gripping a wooden stick as if it were a baseball bat. He has a cigarette clenched in his teeth as he demonstrates, with evident amusement, how he intends to use this stick. Meanwhile, the man to his left, whose cigarette is dangling from his upper lip, tears a piece of white cloth into strips -- a man at the extreme right of the photo has tied one of the strips around his left arm.

Another man, with a Stetson pushed back on his head, is laughing -- perhaps at what the stick man is doing. At the left of the photo, a man with the soggy stub of a cigar in his mouth is similarly amused. In the background, a serious-looking man is apparently in conversation with a man obscured by the others.

Context is everything. When we know that these men are Mississippi sheriffs, gathered on the campus of the University of Mississippi in September 1962 just before the attempt of a black man, James Meredith, to enroll at the university, then we think we know the context. Recognition floods in: racist lawmen of a certain age and time, kinsmen of the bully cops of Birmingham and Montgomery and Selma.

I know these men, or the men like them who were my neighbors, my uncles, my friends' fathers and our Sunday school teachers and scoutmasters. When I was growing up in Mississippi, they would say such appalling things about black people that even to remember 40 or 50 years later causes my gorge to rise. Yet I also know that when they weren't spewing racist filth, they could be men one could respect and even love. It was as if, in the lives of these men, a tributary of human feeling had been dammed, grown stagnant and polluted, and its foulness had seeped out and corrupted a mainstream that should have run clear.

Hendrickson has noted this paradox, too: ''In the South, as has been observed, people who aren't victims of injustice often are victims of irony.'' Is it any wonder that so many Mississippians have written so much good fiction?

If we look at any image long enough, it begins to ''tease us out of thought,'' as Keats put it when he tried to wrest the secrets from the figures on his Grecian urn. And something kept Hendrickson looking at this image: ''I wanted to know: How did these seven white Southerners get to be this way, and how did it all end, or how is it still going on, and was there no eventual shame here, and what happened to their progeny, especially their progeny, and was it all just ineluctable?''

It seems that no one spends much time in Mississippi without trying to write like Faulkner, resorting to words like ''progeny'' and ''ineluctable.'' And Hendrickson spent a lot of time in Mississippi trying to answer the questions raised by this picture. Context is everything, but contexts have contexts, ad infinitum. Especially when you're dealing with something so integral to the American experience -- so, yes, ineluctable -- as racial conflict.

For seven years, Hendrickson searched through the contexts of this image. Most of the men in the picture were dead, but their families, as well as the two surviving men, sat down to talk with him in that generous but wary way that Southerners have. The survivors were defensive but not apologetic, Hendrickson tells us: ''Anything in the direction of atonement or expiation -- even if never named that or understood as such -- has been left to sons, or to sons of sons, or to sons of sons of sons.''

And so the most poignant profiles in his book are of the grandsons of two of the men. John Cothran's grandfather is the man with the armband in the photo, then the sheriff in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood. The grandson is a man with anger-management problems that wrecked three marriages before he was 30, a high school dropout who works as a supervisor at a Home Depot, a job that gives him more stress than gratification.

Ty Ferrell's grandfather is the man with the stick, Billy Ferrell, the sheriff in Natchez -- a job that Ty's father, Tommy, now holds. Ty has followed in the family profession, but not in Mississippi -- he's a Border Patrol agent, working out of El Paso, and is so deeply conflicted about what he's doing that it sometimes brings him close to tears in his conversations with Hendrickson. Ty exhibits ''what seemed like existential torment, as if he were meant to be a roiling repository for so many unnamed, unclaimed Ferrell family shames.''

Hendrickson understands the pain of John Cothran and Ty Ferrell, which makes the profiles of the grandsons more affecting than those of the men who appear in the photo. For Hendrickson never succeeds in answering the first of his questions: How did they get to be this way? ''It's so puzzling that a land of such charm and physical beauty, a people of such natural grace and disposition to kindness, could have so appalling a history,'' Hendrickson muses. How did a bigotry so pathological take hold of an entire region?

The best Hendrickson can do is to cite ''The Mind of the South,'' W.J. Cash's 1941 classic, in which Cash, a Southern journalist, wrote of a ''crisis of white masculinity'': ''The ultimate and as-yet-unrealized expression of the overthrow of slavery in the white male mind would be the destruction of the white sexual order.'' So Hendrickson asks about the men in the picture, ''Is it too much to suggest that there may be a faint undertone of sexualized tension in their faces?''

What I see in this picture I have seen in locker rooms and committee meetings and other all-male gatherings, where testosterone speaks to testosterone and the old primate emerges. But what I also see are the products of a closed system, of a place where opinions went unchallenged by other ways of thinking, to the point that prevailing attitudes could be swaddled in a communal bigotry. (There are many other places like this in the world, which makes understanding the Mississippi experience all the more crucial.)

By far the most potent figure in Hendrickson's book is a man who doesn'tappear in the photograph: James Meredith, who shattered the monolithic system of racial repression -- if it could happen in Mississippi, it could happen anywhere.

But Meredith stepped out to his own drummer -- after his graduation from Ole Miss, he stubbornly refused to align with any civil rights organization, starting his own solitary crusade for voting rights, including a one-man march through Mississippi during which he was almost assassinated. Later, he would shock and appall even those who had regarded him as a hero: He took a job as an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms and endorsed ex-Klansman David Duke's candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination -- Meredith even volunteered to be Duke's running mate. Hendrickson's interviews with Meredith only reinforce his reputation for eccentricity.

As the 40th anniversary of Meredith's entrance to Ole Miss approached, his son, Joe, quietly enrolled in a Ph.D. program in business at the university. Joe, who had graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, seems puzzled by his father, too. He tells Hendrickson, ''My father has an overwhelming need to be famous and so will do whatever he thinks will provide that and get him attention -- Jesse Helms, David Duke, you name it, even if it's only for a day.''

''Sons of Mississippi'' feels like a substantial, maybe even essential, contribution to our understanding not only of Southern racism, but also of the ways that the past can mark and mar. The book is sometimes over-reported -- not every detail of Joe Cothran's messy, mundane life is worth telling, for example. And complexities sometimes overwhelm Hendrickson -- his book occasionally seems like several very good magazine articles struggling to get out of the stack of paper in which they're buried.

But Hendrickson is a humane observer who can disarm the reader's impatience. And he's clearly on a mission -- you don't spend seven years researching a book if you're not. As he puts it, ''In Mississippi, nothing ever changes, and everything always changes, and sometimes it seems as if God put Mississippi on earth purely for our moral and confounding contemplation.''