Monday, April 26, 2010

Hellhound on His Trail

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Hampton Sides, the author of Hellhound on His Trail, in Sante Fe at a bookseller lunch. Before the meal, I had no intention of reading Sides' account of Martin Luther King's assassination. Most nonfiction books I absorb through reviews, New Yorker pieces, NPR and dinner table conversations.

I figured Hellhound would be no different. It was probably just another magazine article extended to a full-length book. Why read 400 pages when a well-written review would give me all the nefarious details of James Earl Ray's horrendous deed? After Sides' talk, I couldn't resist dipping into the book despite my natural aversion to true crime.

Eight days and several sleep deprived nights later, I finished the book and sure am thankful that Sides convinced me to pick it up. His tale of James Earl Ray's exploits starting with his 1967 jail break and ending with his abbreviated escape 10 years later is meticulously detailed, unrelentingly suspenseful and magnificently written.

Ray emerges as one bizarre, hateful guy. In the months leading up to the assassination, he takes dance lessons, goes to bartending school, enrolls in a locksmithing correspondence course and dabbles with the idea of making pornography. In a goodwill mission, he also drives from Los Angeles to New Orleans to retrieve two children for a girlfriend. He's also a master of aliases. He picks up and drops off a half dozen names throughout his fugitive days.

Sides said in his talk that because of these aliases, he didn't refer to Ray by his true name until after page 300 of the book. I thought this was a bit gimmicky when he mentioned it, but was surprised that the sleight of hand works. First Ray is known by his prison number, then by his main pre-assassination alias of Eric Starvo Galt and, finally, as Ramon Sneyd. It isn't until the FBI sifts through these various names and learns the true identity of the killer that Sides uses Ray's name.

When Sneyd is caught in London, two months after the assassination, he firmly denies being James Earl Ray. The most humorous moment of the book is when Sneyd asks to call his brother -- Jerry Ray. He didn't see anything contradictory in this. He had operated in more than one reality for so long that it didn't occur to him that he'd basically confessed.

The final months of King's life are vividly recreated. Sides uses mostly secondary sources for these details, relying on Ralph Abernathy's 1989 memoir, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, and Andrew Young's book on the Civil Rights movement, An Easy Burden. He gives us a powerful narrative of a leader on the run. King was running from the recriminations of the FBI (they knew he had mistresses and were perhaps goading him to kill himself), the black power movement that wanted him to move aside so the revolution could really start and, finally, the knowledge that somewhere out there a killer probably lurked.

Sides also did some primary research - traveling to several of the places Ray hid out, interviewing participants of events and diving deep into the congressional records. However, the true strength of the book is the weaving together of already existing records and facts into a coherent and tight narrative. I appreciate the narrow focus of the book. Sides sticks to Ray and the final months of King's life. He assumes the reader has at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Civil Rights movement.

Sides does a great job in answering the question of why King was gunned down in Memphis. His movements were so peripatetic in the spring of 1968 that Ray couldn't even track him down in his hometown of Atlanta. In Memphis, King got stalled for several days trying to organize a peaceful march for the striking garbage workers. He had no choice but to stick it out, because a few weeks earlier a march in Memphis had turned violent mortifying King and putting the moral currency of his whole movement in jeopardy.

The role of the FBI is truly fascinating. The agency head J. Edgar Hoover hated King. This is a widely known fact and it was known at the time especially by anyone close to King. When Ray killed King many people assumed that the FBI was involved. It was an almost impossible situation that the agency found itself in, yet they exhausted every lead, spared no expense and somehow tracked down the elusive gunman two months later.

At the luncheon, Sides spoke about how the book was structured around three chases. Ray was chasing King, the FBI was chasing King and the FBI was also chasing Ray. He professed admiration for the way the FBI conducted the investigation. "Once they started doing the job they were meant to do, they did it superbly." Sides said.

I knew I was in the grip of a powerful book when, in a bizarre way, I was almost hoping that Ray wouldn't get caught. Sides' has done such a superb job with the narrative that the reader gets swept up in Ray's point of view. We see his desperation as the FBI closes in, we feel his panic as his money starts to dry up and we understand the turmoil in his mind when the gig is up and he says, "Oh God. I feel so trapped."

Sides doesn't subscribe to any conspiracy theories. The evidence overwhelmingly points to Ray. He bought the gun, his fingerprints were on the gun, he was at the scene of the crime and he had been stalking King for weeks. Where he got his money isn't entirely known. His brother's possible involvement is an open question. At the luncheon, Sides didn't shut the door to the possibility that Ray had some form of aid, but certainly the evidence doesn't point to anything that could be called a conspiracy.

Don't make the same mistake that I usually do. Don't just read the articles and think you know the story, read Sides' book and discover an odd corner of American history.

Hellhound on His Trail will be released on April 27.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Devastating Secrets

Secrets and the devastation that they can cause families are at the emotional core of Melissa Newman’s powerful and evocative debut novel Sister Blackberry. Her posse of strong female characters are both entrapped and redeemed through the revelations of long buried truths.

“When you grow up around women, you know that they all harbor secrets,” Newman said. “That was one of the inspirations for the story.”

The secrets in Sister Blackberry are much more than your garden variety women’s secrets. We aren’t talking about cheating spouses, petty crimes, or even aborted pregnancy. Viola Garland is covering up the identity of a child, a murder and, most fascinating of all, the ambiguous sexuality of her daughter.

The story opens in 1936 in Reyes County, Kentucky, when Viola is eighteen and pregnant. The events that unfold around the birth of her child will have far-reaching consequences to the present day. Viola is worried because her husband, Den, a miner, might not be at home when she goes into labor. Her friend and neighbor, Janie, is also pregnant, and the two women comfort each other despite Janie’s violent husband, Bick’s, disapproval of Viola.

In this passage right before the babies are born, Viola ruminates on her concern over Janie’s situation:

“She suspected that Bick would hit Janie when he found out she and Viola had been together. There weren’t as many bruises and marks since Janie had gotten pregnant, but there were still signs. Viola couldn’t figure out how someone as sweet as Janie could be married to a man who would hit her. And what about the baby? Would Bick hit the baby?”

Bick is a truly menacing character and provides a stark contrast to the many women that populate the book.

“Bick was well thought out,” Newman said. “I wanted to see how far he would go. What would push him? What was important to him? What would lead him to violence?”

Viola and Janie give birth on the same night. Viola, alone because Den is in the mine and there is no time for her to get help. Janie is attended by the narrow-minded charismatic leader of Bick’s evangelical church and his wife. Neither birth goes as planned. In a harrowing and dreamlike passage, the lives of all the characters are altered in unforeseen ways by the two births. The secrets begin.

“I dreamt this story like a movie,” Newman said. “This is something that really disturbed me. I dreamed the characters of Viola and (her daughter) Doris. I wrote an outline and then I did a lot of research…. I wrote it before Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex came out. It sat in a drawer for a long time.”

As Doris grows up, she has a secret that she doesn’t quite understand herself. Why don’t her genitals look like her sister Nadine’s? Why aren’t her breasts developing?

Ultimately, it is the jealousy between the sisters that reveals Doris’ secret in the most humiliating way possible. Stuck in small-town Kentucky in the 1950s, Doris feels that there is no other option but to leave.

“Relationships with sisters are very complex and competitive,” Newman said. “Add a boy and it’s like fire and kerosene coming together. I drew on something that happened with me and my sister. We both liked the same boy in high school. I thought about how cruel I was, wanting to humiliate her.”

Doris’ story of surviving as a runaway is, in many ways, the strongest part of the book. The scenes of her life in Cleveland don’t have nearly the drama that some of the earlier scenes contain, but Newman is really able to delve into her character. The writing is more assured, and several of the characters that Doris meets are quickly and adeptly developed. Doris emerges in this section as a stable and wise centerpiece to the novel. Against the odds, she finds her way in the world. In a way, Nadine has done her sister a favor by freeing her to live in the wider world.
However, Doris, like Newman herself, returns to her Kentucky home. Newman, who worked as a journalist throughout the Midwest, returned to her rural Kentucky roots eight years ago.

“Doris wanted to go home,” Newman said. “We spend the first half of our lives trying to get out and the second half trying to get back home. Doris had seen it and done it and was ready to come back.”

Nadine has a tougher time. The guilt of what she’s done to her sister will haunt her for the rest of her life. She will also pass down her feelings of inadequacy to her own daughters, blaming Doris for her misery.

“Nadine got what she wanted,” Newman said. “But it wasn’t really what she wanted. She just wanted to be like Doris. Once Doris was gone she didn’t really want Edwin (the boy they were fighting over). It caused her alcoholism and her miserable marriage.”

Newman does an excellent job in teasing out these plotlines in a subtle yet powerful way. The various revelations are well-paced and suspenseful. She shows us how guilt and lying can wear down a family. The lying is something that the 87-year old Viola cannot live with any longer. It is her desire to tell Nadine’s grown daughters the truth about the family that ultimately drives this tale.

Newman is at work on her second novel and believes that she’s learned a great deal from writing Sister Blackberry. Here’s hoping she’s still got a few secrets up her sleeve.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Escape from Zombieland

I gave up on the publishing industry for a month or two there. The piles of reader's copies stopped speaking to me. The gleaming jackets of the new novels did not beguile me. The letters from publicists and the imploring stares from the reps that still have jobs did not move me. It all seemed stale, repackaged, and if it wasn't written about Zombies it seemed to be written by Zombies or written for Zombies. I am not a Zombie.

Instead I cleansed my mind by reading Madame Bovary and Notes from the Underground. Both were novels I should have read years ago. My favorite Woody Allen short story, The Kugelmass Episode, features a New Yorker going to Yonville in order to carry on an affair with the Emma Bovary. Ah... now I really get it. I enjoyed the novel but wasn't a big fan of Emma. I loved many of the minor characters, most notably Monsieur Homais, the pharmacist.

Dostoyevsky's little masterpiece was the first translation by the dynamic duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that I've read. I compared several paragraphs to the Constance Garnett translation and found the new one more lithesome and easier to grasp. The biggest difference comes in the first sentence. Garnett writes, "I am a sick man....I am a spiteful man." Pevear's reads "I am a sick man....I am a wicked man." Wicked is a much broader word than spiteful. It's particularly important because it is how our narrator defines himself throughout the entire book. To be spiteful is to merely hold a grievance. To be wicked is to dissolute to the core.

After my brief foray into the classics, I returned to the contemporary novel and read three that I really enjoyed. Actually, enjoyed is not quite the right word for Chang Rae Lee's The Surrendered. It's a harsh novel but if you can get through the first 50 pages about the destruction of a Korean family during the war, you've gotten through the toughest part. That's not quite true, there is a brutal sequence later on set in Manchuria that gave me nightmares.

Here are my latest recommendations posted in the store:

The Surrendered by Chang Rae Lee

This harrowing novel follows the lives of both Korean and American survivors of the Korean War. June and Hector are reunited despite their secret of history of violence and lost love. Lee slowly reveals their parallel tales building the novel's tension and showing us a world permanently marked by wars and atrocity.

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

The Morey family has it all -- looks, charms, wits and money, lots of it. What they lack is scruples, ethics and some basic humanity. Dee tells the story from all four of the family members' perspectives. The Morey's pathological inability to think about their past and the corrupting influence of money leads to family even less savory than their eel namesake.

All Other Nights by Dara Horn

Civil War intrigue, Jewish history and beautiful spies are the foundation for Horn's enthralling novel. Jacob Rappaport, a 19-year old private, is dispatched to New Orleans to kills his plotting uncle on Passover. That's the easiest of his assignments. Marriage to a Virginia spy is the most difficult but delectable mission. Rappaport's cunning and morals are sorely tested during his adventures.