A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Old King Coal

The following review ran today (in a version very nicely edited for space) in the Dallas Morning News. This is the unedited version.

COAL RIVER
By Michael Shnayerson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 321 pp., $25

Court cases thread through Michael Shnayerson’s new book like veins of coal through an Appalachian hillside. In discussing one of them, he observes that that the judge made “a small point, like a caveat buried near the end of a book review.”

So let’s not bury our caveats, the most important one being: “Coal River” will make you angry.

It will make you angry especially if you’re disturbed by the Bush administration’s radically pro-business approach to energy policy and the environment. Of course, if you’re an admirer and a beneficiary of those policies, Mr. Shnayerson’s evident bias against them will also make you angry.

For while his book is billed as the story of a handful of people in the hills of West Virginia who protested the damage being done by a coal company to the mountains where they and their ancestors had lived, Mr. Shnayerson has turned it into an indictment of government policy, of power-hungry politicians and businesspeople, of bureaucratic inertia, of Wall Street’s obsession with fattening the bottom line, and of the callousness with which the poor have been treated for generations. The people of West Virginia, he writes, “are for the most part too poor and too cowed after a century of harsh treatment by King Coal to think they can stop their world from being blasted away.”

He means “blasted away” literally. “Coal River” focuses on the practice of mountaintop removal – the blasting away of the tops of mountains to get at the rich veins of coal beneath. It is a practice that became more common after Don Blankenship became chairman, president and CEO of Massey Energy, a company whose ruthlessness was a byword in the state. It was a ruthlessness that went unchecked, Mr. Shnayerson asserts, “The coal companies could set those blasts as close to homes as they liked, damaging foundations and walls, ruining wells. No law governed them in that regard.”

The result was visible and lasting damage to the environment. After the blasting began, one woman “was astonished to see the hollow’s entire animal population come foraging right by her house in the valley: bobcats and bears, squirrels and possums. … When she fed them, they hung around for more, pets whether she wanted them or not.” And environmentalists argued that the burning of coal, however obtained, “was the single greatest cause” of the looming calamities of global warming.

Those who protested mountaintop removal, who argued for laws and regulations, often found themselves outcasts in their own communities, where people who had jobs feared losing them – or that Massey would retaliate against friends and relatives who worked there. The mountain culture is “libertarian,” as Mr. Shnayerson puts it – distrustful of outsiders and collective efforts. And after years of being worn down, they simply doubted that anything could or would be done. As one of the protesters put it, “The way they’ve done it is by dehumanizing us, so that the rest of America doesn’t care about us. That’s how they got away with slavery for so long. When they say, ‘Don’t go to West Virginia or Kentucky, those people are ignorant and inbred,’ then who cares if my grandson is sleeping nights in his clothes because he’s worried there’ll be a flood or mudslide?”

Mr. Shnayerson has found an easy villain for his book in Don Blankenship, who would seem on the face of it to be the very emblem of corporate greed, a man who received “roughly $27 million in pay and perks for 2006 – despite a 30 percent decline in the company’s stock for the year.” But Mr. Shnayerson humanizes Blankenship, describing his hardscrabble childhood in the hills he was now blasting away. “Coal River” is not a simple diatribe, but rather a carefully reported and compellingly written account of a complex and intricate economic, political, social and environmental problem with no easy solutions or quick fixes.

Most of all, the book is a remarkable piece of the sort of investigative journalism that has grown sadly more rare as newspapers retrench and reshape themselves. Mr. Shnayerson is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine, where much of the material in the book originally appeared. It’s a fine irony that a publication known for its celebration of glitz and glamour, fattened with ads for luxury goods, should also be the source of such an incisive and sympathetic portrait of the exploited poor.