I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
Public Enemies is the record of twenty-eight letters Bernard-Henri Levy, the French intellectual, and Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist, exchanged between January and July of 2008. The letters are precisely dated, and a few of them contain salutations, but they otherwise bear little resemblance to the kind of letters you or I might write. There is no gossip. There is no weather. There is no talk of lovers or travel plans or works-in-progress, and scant talk of friends. Sarkozy comes up once—and then twice more when they discuss why, after all, it was better not to have brought him up more often. At one point Houellebecq actually apologizes for not being vaguer: “Okay, I’m sorry for reducing the issue to the specific, but there are some questions on which I tend to think pragmatically, though I’m embarrassed to admit it.” He doesn’t need to apologize again.
Because they leave out so much, the letters do not feel, so to speak, lived in, and reading them one begins to miss the sociable white noise of life’s minor goings-on. Correspondence is not really the right word for Public Enemies. Nor is it, as the promotional material would suggest, the literary answer to a prizefight; the correspondents mostly treat each other with kid gloves. Public Enemies belongs instead to a genre both odder and more arid, an undisciplined hybrid of memoir, literary criticism, and apercu, all composed in a key of complaint. “Someone has a little bile, a little sad passion they need to vent?” Houellebecq says. “Well, there are people you can dump on; Bernard-Henri, for example. And Houellebecq, yeah, not bad, a lot of people are dumping on him these days.” “In the end it all adds up,” Levy says, “and I can assure you that it outweighs the pile of shit that our enemies would like to bury us under.” Indeed, Public Enemies is a book much preoccupied with dumping and shit-piles and parasites, “the microparasites who can—literally—no longer survive without me.” Levy and Houellebecq hold these microparasites—their critics—in contempt. But as Houellebecq himself asks, “how effective is contempt when you are attacked by a tapeworm?” Strange to say, the tapeworm question haunts the book, and gives a measure of its limitations.
Bernard-Henri Levy, who goes by BHL, is the author of several books of philosophical nonfiction and a novel. He has made a name for himself as an intrepid humanitarian who invokes the wisdom of people like Jacques Derrida in reports from places like Darfur. BHL, who is married to an actress with a famous family, is also the kind of humanitarian whose brand of pomade distracts attention from his advocacy work. (A journalist once summed up his philosophy as “God is dead, but my hair is perfect.”) For many in France, he is the personification of champagne socialism, a wealthy and glamorous man who sermonizes to the educated classes on the insignificance of wealth and glamour. Houellebecq has different problems. A former civil servant, he approves of Sarkozy, smokes four packs a day, and lives in rural Ireland. “I am about as ill adapted as it is possible to be for a public role,” he declares toward the end of Public Enemies. Houellebecq is the most famous novelist in France—last year’s La Carte et le Territoire won the Prix Goncourt—yet he is perhaps less well known for his novels than his causticity on the subjects of sex and Islam. This causticity informs the novels but is not confined to them. In a 2001 interview Houellebecq called Islam “the stupidest religion” and was charged with incitement of religious hatred; he was later acquitted in court. As for women, his “reputation for getting drunk and making passes at his female interviewers” is widespread enough to have warranted nervous mention in the introduction to his recent Paris Review interview (again, a false alarm: the interviewer described his actual conduct as “whimsical and charming”).
So both men have image problems. As BHL says midway through the book:
You could bring all the legal actions you wanted and for some people you’d still be only a nauseating matricidal killer, a racist and an Islamophobe. I could attempt to set the record straight in every possible and conceivable way and I would only strengthen their case that I’m a bourgeois bastard who knows nothing about social questions and takes an interest in the world’s disowned only in order to promote himself . . . It’s your reputation that’s your destiny.
BHL and Houellebecq were not close when they began writing one another. It does not seem that correspondence brought them significantly closer. As Houellebecq puts it in the opening letter, “We have, as they say, nothing in common—except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.” Contemptibility is an unconventional foundation for friendship, and indeed these letters are no friendship-building exercise. What they are is hard to say. The agreed-upon purpose of the correspondence is to investigate the ill will its authors have aroused worldwide. This conceals, thinly, a great project of the ego, which is for Houellebecq and BHL to place themselves in the same category as France’s illustrious public enemies past: Voltaire, Baudelaire, Flaubert.
But BHL is no Baudelaire, and this agenda, thankfully, is not adhered to. In fact they pursue it so slackly and distractibly that it quickly recedes into the background, to be overtaken by other, stranger dramas. The book is better for this. Some readers will be stirred by the discovery that BHL considers his “ego” “fireproof, shatterproof,” and that he likes to make love in a state of lucid wakefulness, whereas Houellebecq prefers to be a little out of it—to do it in “the early hours, half asleep.” Others (all, perhaps) will be amused by the sheer Frenchness of BHL’s claim that only writing and love (“and I mean that in the strict sense, in the sense of loving women”) make life worth it: “Why do you write? Because you can’t make love all day. Why do you make love? Because you can’t write all day.” Yet these indiscretions, bite-sized and obvious, are not nearly the most interesting things in the book. Aside from the menace of the press, the two cannot touch a subject without sparking into disagreement, and they do it with entertaining regularity in Public Enemies. Though they range over much (metaphysics, aesthetics, reasons for writing, reasons for being), politics, predictably, is the only topic to tinge the letters with incivility. BHL, a humanitarian, definitionally believes in basic human dignity. Houellebecq, who is a quietist, doesn’t. He recommends a “bacterial” view of humanity, and goes so far as to wonder if the species wouldn’t be better off expunged. Houellebecq thinks the fundamental phenomenon of life is irreversibility, “the absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay.” BHL thinks it’s love.
Their most interesting clash, however, has to do with style and self-presentation. Following the example of his self-made, solitary father, BHL has become, in his own account, a hardcore keeper of secrets. “I’m a real neurotic when it comes to secrecy,” he says. And soon after: “secrecy was as indispensable to me as the air I breathe.” At one point he actually scolds Houellebecq for “surpassing yourself when it comes to enormous, provocative confessions that will give the blabbermouths something to talk about.” Yet just as BHL is not a little bombastic about his “horror of bombast,” so he paradoxically effuses about his love of secrecy. Indeed, he blabbers on about it: “Without saying so, we all . . . dream of the ultimate mystification, the one that will render speechless those of our contemporaries who have been the least deceived and will allow us, poor clowns tired of our own comedies, to be reborn in a new guise, a new skin, another family novel, another novel period.”
It is difficult to tell whether this contradiction stems from lack of self-awareness or, more simply, the incoherence of bad writing. BHL is at least occasionally guilty of the latter. His metaphors, for instance, are so mixed and shambolic they read like parodies: “The shaft of light thrown by the work of words is the bright spot in the dark that finally nails down the idea.” Either way, Houellebecq, who declines to brag about his own elusiveness, is by far the harder of the two to get a read on. He is also the better writer. In these letters as in his novels, his prose displays the same blend of lassitude and lyricism, the same vexed sensitivity to modern life, and here as there it is a pleasure to read him. Houellebecq makes music out of scorn. He describes the “Soviet-style displays of enthusiasm by those in charge” of little poetry journals and, more stingingly still, the prose of another writer:
Everything about the man rings false, his every sentence oozes speciousness and affectation. The restrained emotion, the walks across the moors ‘lashed by the bitter wind’ . . . you feel like you’re in a BMW commercial
Scorn, however, is not Houellebecq’s best or only key. Here he is, with loopy splendor, on existence:
We are only passing through here on earth, I understand that perfectly now; we have no roots, we bear no fruit. In short, our mode of existence is different from that of trees. That said, I’m very fond of trees, in fact I’ve come to love them more and more; but I am not a tree. We are more like stones, cast into the void as free as they are; or if you absolutely insist in seeing the glass half full, we are a little like comets.
BHL is a game and expressive writer, and his activism seems sincere, but he strangely comes off as less serious, as buffoonish even, compared to Houellebecq. At any rate, it is Houellebecq that has the most memorable line in this odd, aggrieved, surprisingly entertaining little book: “If someone believes they know me, they are simply lacking information.”
“Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted,” Robert Louis Stevenson once noted, “certain coasts are set apart for ship-wreck.” And so we find ourselves on working class Loyalty Island, the setting for Nick Dybek’s potent coming of age novel, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man. Cal Bollings was born and raised on this minor peninsula in Washington state, a town small in size, in mentality and imagination, where the local civic monument is a statue of a nameless drowning man, someone to stand in for the living as well as the dead.
The novel looks back at the year Cal turned 14, when John Gaunt, the man who owns the fishing company on which most of the men — and thus by extension the town’s existence — depend, suddenly died. With his father gravely ill, Gaunt’s wayward son Richard has returned, and upon the old man’s demise almost immediately threatens to sell the fleet out from under them, partly as revenge on a town which never let him fit in.
Cal’s father is one of the many local fishermen who sail off to the Bering Sea every fall, working that vanishing class of jobs which trade on rough masculinity. “I don’t want to romanticize their work because I’ve never done it,” Cal narrates. “But they romanticized it because they suffered for it… It had to be part of some larger destiny, the fight to stay awake and alive had to be turned, somehow, from drudgery to heroism.” These men are ugly as a bunch of pirates, scarred, limping, with fingers bitten off by bait feeders and crooked features, and Dybek draws them with vivid characterizations. Richard in particular is snotty, witty, lost, a poignant and pathetic figure, self-centered, self-aware but incapable of steering his own life. As much as Cal is used to idolizing his father, it is with Richard that he shares too much in common, both black sheep who may or may not possess the courage to make lives for themselves elsewhere. Cal isn’t exactly plucky. More authentically boyish, he’s morose and bored, sensitive, confused, and mean-spirited; conflicted about his father and as lonely for his mother as he is angry at her disloyalties.
Cal’s mother, a schoolteacher from Santa Cruz with a taste for foreign films and jazz, made an uneasy transition to Washington state from the start, never even making a friend there save John Gaunt. Like any good adventure hero, Cal is effectively orphaned early on in the book, when his father ships out for the season and the boy refuses to accompany his mother as she splits back to California. Marooned in a social and physical landscape imbued with violence, Cal is soon stalked by a moral danger when his father and a group of local men decide they’re willing to do anything to save the fleet. “The problem” with life, he comes to suspect, “was that choice was a cruel illusion.”
The book’s title refers to an invention of Cal’s normally taciturn father. Pressed upon years ago by his Treasure Island-besotted son, the elder Bollings concocted bedtime adventures about the murderously greedy Captain Flint. These tales focused on Flint’s early days, a time before Stevenson’s famous villain lost his ethical footing, foreshadowing the storyteller’s own slide.
Dybek’s not the only author to recently call upon Stevenson as a point of departure. Where Sara Levine went resplendently over the top in Treasure Island!!!, among other things making a farce of contemporary narcissism, Dybek has gone darker, clothing his story in a classically romantic aesthetic.
This romantic aura gives Dybek — who isn’t just alluding to Stevenson, but also riffing on Richard II, and something of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer while dropping in Japanese auteurs and Greek mythology — room to wield his references portentously, to weave in heavily freighted dreams and the vaguely supernatural. Dybek conjures his island with rich physical details, with crashing and shrieking, rain thrumming, waves tumbling, prose steeped in an atmosphere that occasionally borders on Gothic: “fog sank through the trees and onto the cemetery paths,” and every once in a while goes baroque: “The sea a gray mouth, waves poking like tongues.” Dybek avoids getting mired in style, however, marshaling the narrative along with an almost flawless sense of timing and pace.
Written from the point of view of 14 years hence, it is also peppered with melancholy questions: “Who decides what we keep and what we lose?”; “Why do we want to be closest to people in their most private moments?”; “How can I be more like you if you don’t help me?” Though positioned as recent history — the year is 1986 — its hint of the 19th century seems a fitting register for a mournful novel concerned with the weight of tradition. Cal is keenly aware of the ways communities define themselves through fictions, and Dybek’s impressive debut acknowledges how hard it can be to grow up when to cling to Loyalty is to go down with the ship.
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.I recently bought Aleksandar Hemon’s latest book, The Lazarus Project, on a whim. Always a sucker for fiction with photographs I had not heard of the book, Hemon’s name a vague item on a mental list of contemporary authors I’ve been told to read. The jacket copy raves about Hemon’s ability to invigorate the English language, his second language, telling the two stories that comprise the novel.The book’s title makes itself an obvious choice as the two parallel narratives unfold: one shadows Vladimir Brik, an expatriated Bosnian living in Chicago under the pall of the war on terror; the other makes fiction of a historical event, the 1908 killing of Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbuch by the Chicago chief of police. Both stories concern themselves with returns that unlike the title’s biblical namesake cannot be resurrected.We meet Brik at a Chicago celebration of Bosnia’s Independence Day where he unexpectedly reunites with his old friend from Sarajevo, Rora, who unlike Brik suffered through the Bosnian War. Married to an American neurosurgeon, writing a newspaper column about expatriate experiences and working on a novel, the American life Brik has built for himself since his 1992 arrival in Chicago is one of a self-inflicted, guilty complacency. Rora, a photographer, shares a worldview more aligned with a resignation to struggle indicative of something that not even America’s abundance can slake: “a poor people’s affliction: the timeless feeling that plenty never means enough.”Brik receives a grant so he can travel to Eastern Europe to research his novel about Lazarus Averbuch, planning to retrace the immigrant’s path to America, which is signposted by pogroms and refugee camps. Brik decides to bring Rora along, and the journey becomes a homecoming of sorts. What both narratives share in common is the fact that home is not a place one can always return to, or find it easy to create elsewhere.Using newspaper clippings and imagination, Hemon’s examination of the circumstances resulting in the death of Lazarus focuses on Olga, the only person in Chicago that really knew her brother. Speculation about anarchist leanings and the persistent bigotry that neither Olga nor her brother could escape cloud the actuality of what really happened to Lazarus, the police and the press favoring their assumptions over the facts.It is here at this intersection of history and imagination where the two stories weave in and out of one another. For Olga, as news of her brother’s slaying evolves into an issue of great civic import, she has no way of knowing what really happened to her brother, and therefore cannot fathom how to break the news to their mother, who is still in Europe. The lack of any objective clarity about Lazarus inspires speculations about the man he had become, the friends he made, the meetings he attended, as contrasted with her memories of their happy pre-pogrom upbringing. On a grander scale, this inability to connect the dots, or even discern them, speaks to the development of the American experiment during the early 20th century, something that was in full swing but nearly impossible to decipher.For Brik, his imaginative indulgences not only make stark the rift between history and imagination, but also reveal his solipsistic selfishness. The ostensible reason for this trip is to learn about the past, the personal history that delivered Lazarus to his demise. But before Brik and Rora leave, intimations are made that for Brik, it is only about him. Rora’s presence is not so much about companionship but to serve as a foil for Brik to absolve his guilt about not staying in Sarajevo.Discovering Lazarus Averbuch’s past becomes a secondary activity as Brik and Rora shuttle through the Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bosnia. As Rora does little more than drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and snap photographs, Brik is either considering his marriage or needling Rora about the sordid details of wartime life. Both lines of questioning reveal the inadequacies Brik sees in himself, though it doesn’t seem that anyone else sees them in him.The photographs in the book – a mix of images shot by Velibor Bozovic and culled from the Chicago Historical Society – separate the chapters, which trade back and forth between the two narratives. The photographs do correspond with the two plots, but they also insinuate vagueness. Rora and the photographs he takes serve in the same capacity within the context of the book. Photographs rely on the imagination of the viewer. Whatever photographers see in a scene they shoot, whatever they do or do not capture, they are present at the moment of the photograph, but the viewer is not.Before Brik and Rora depart, Brik reminisces about his pre-American life: “The one thing I remembered and missed from the before-the-war Sarajevo was a kind of unspoken belief that everyone could be whatever they claimed they were – each life, however imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside.”This internal validation defines Brik and his quixotic quest. His endless string of questions for Rora (which for most of the book Rora deflects with jokes) finally results in Rora calling out his travel companion: “Even if you knew what you want to know, you would still know nothing. You ask questions, you want to know more, but no matter how much more I tell you, you will never know anything.”After a booze-fueled argument with his wife, Brik is locked out of their home, leaving him to wander. Having nowhere to go gets him thinking about “home.” Without home, everywhere is nowhere. Later, he defines home as a place where people miss you when you are gone. But, where Brik wants to be missed is a place where no one knows him.In The Lazarus Project, birthmarks rhyme with eye color; sparking bottles overflowing from a dumpster elicit pleasure; twiggy arms emerge from sleeves like tongues; Jesus is either “Mr. Christ” or a “nailed gymnast;” sunflowers are coy, despair “brick-thick.” The lively writing makes for a vivid read that casts a glaring light on the horrors of pogroms and the Bosnian War and what was left in their wakes. Some of the book’s most intriguing ideas are not followed through, however, because of Brik’s single-mindedness, which eclipses the Lazarus Averbuch story, leaving us with a character who cares only about himself.
Alexander Maksik told Dwyer Murphy of Guernica in a recent interview, “I’m terrified of writing the same novels over and over again.” It’s an admirable sentiment given the reception critics afforded his first novel, You Deserve Nothing. He might easily have returned to the same furrow, made adjustments, perhaps even improvements, and savored another round of approval. Instead his new book, A Marker to Measure Drift, stands at a great remove from his debut and suggests Maksik’s stance on rewriting the same book repeatedly was more than an idle remark.
In A Marker, Maksik gives us Jacqueline, a young woman who is the only survivor of a privileged Liberian family, now displaced by the country’s civil war. We encounter her on a Greek island, in need of food and shelter, and at pains to confront the terrible events not so far behind her. It’s a risky proposition for Maksik, an American writer whose first book centered on an affair between a teacher and a student at an international high school in Paris. He welcomes another layer of risk by opting for a pared-down prose, often far from the lyrical style he employed in You Deserve Nothing, a choice evident from the outset:
Now it was night.
Jacqueline hadn’t eaten since the flattened chocolate bar she’d found on the step outside the pharmacy.
God’s will, her mother said.
The fortune of finding food when it was most needed. Just when she didn’t think she could stay upright any longer, here was food.
The writing is clear and economical, and to Maksik’s credit it never competes with Jacqueline’s ongoing plight. Add a plot so tightly focused on her immediate hardships and the unbreakable link to her mother, whose voice comes to her in memory with advice both wanted and unwanted, and Maksik seems to have set up an absolute gauntlet for himself.
James Salter — a writer Maksik admires and who at times seems to be one of his literary forbears — has noted his love for short novels, “books which were brief but every page of which was exalted…It is like the middle distances for a runner. The pace is unforgiving and must be kept up to the end.” A Marker to Measure Drift aspires to inclusion in this rarefied category. In the same Guernica interview, Maksik mentions cutting 30,000 or 40,000 words about a French-American couple on the way to isolating Jacqueline as the heart of the novel. His initial hesitance to strip away this layer of narration is understandable: it leaves only a young refugee woman, isolated amid tourists. Improbable as it sounds, Maksik works within these strictures and emerges with something stark and essential.
An effort to render the horrors of a civil war, moment by moment and page after page, could easily feel gratuitous and numbing to readers. A Marker to Measure Drift is built instead around the day-to-day realities of Jacqueline’s physical needs, a choice that at first glance appears ill-considered, but Maksik is playing the long game here. The intimacy with Jacqueline’s many small decisions, everything from where to sleep to how she might go about making even a pittance with no legal documentation, gradually pushes all other concerns to the margins. She begins giving foot massages to tourists on the beach — a pound per five minutes at first, later two pounds per. It’s a skill she honed at her sister’s whim, over the span of their childhood together. A nearby cave is home for a time. Later she finds abandoned structures, unfinished construction, and claims them briefly. We remain aware that something awful happened to Jacqueline’s family in Liberia, but Maksik withholds the particulars, releasing hints and glimmers at well-timed intervals. He introduces a few carefully chosen incidents and images, some of them repeatedly. When Jacqueline is on her way out of the country, the car she’s traveling in is stopped by a group of rebels, a ragtag bunch of young men. The smell of their cologne stays with her in memory: “She thought of them passing the bottle around, shaking it onto their palms, slapping it onto the backs of their necks, smoothing it over their cheeks. Like boys preparing for a dance.” These same boys have stretched a man’s intestines across the road to block traffic.
Much is revealed via Jacqueline’s imagined conversations with her mother. The episodes betray tension between the two of them, but her mother generally offers well-intentioned advice. When Jacqueline is studying in England, her mother makes her promise to never return home. When she graduates, her father arranges a job for her in the government, a tourist liaison role, and she accepts it, to her mother’s chagrin. Her father is charismatic and handsome but not, it transpires, such a benign figure. His work as a minister to then-President Charles Taylor and his denial of the seriousness of conditions in the country, of the implications of power changing hands, prove fatal to all in the family but Jacqueline. He maintains a rosy view of the situation even as danger draws near, joking with Jacqueline’s sister:
They are listening to the news of their country in chaos. Government soldiers terrorizing Gbah. Executing men refusing conscription, raping girls as young as eleven, the BBC reports. The LURD rebels closer and closer to Monrovia.
When the power goes out for the fourth time in an hour the sound vanishes and her mother says, “Plug it into Saifa.”
Her father hands her the cord and Saifa fits the plugs into her nostrils.
“Still doesn’t work,” he says. “Must be something wrong with the radio.”
The civil war in Liberia spanned 14 years. It claimed something on the order of a quarter of a million lives. In the aftermath, Charles Taylor was charged with human rights violations by the International Criminal Court in the Hague and sentenced to 50 years in prison. A Marker to Measure Drift stays well clear of these particulars, perhaps because engaging too fully with them would overwhelm any one individual’s story. That is to say, paraphrasing the old saw, that the focus remains on a single tragedy and its consequences rather than a sterile body of statistics.
In fact, Jacqueline’s family tragedy remains an untold story much of the way, to both the reader and the people around her in the novel. By suppressing the details of this one crushing narrative, Maksik foregrounds the power and purpose of storytelling. It’s this great repression that finally drives home how fully Jacqueline is cut off from other people. She’s marginalized due to her refugee status, and a number of interactions demonstrate how far removed her experiences are from those of the people she meets. The name Liberia often meets with blank looks. One couple believes it’s in East Africa, and Jacqueline has to correct them. For a long while, she is wary and resentful of people she encounters, even those who might help her. She lies to them in an effort to save face and maintain distance, but eventually we see her halting progress toward some small familiarity with the waitress who serves her breakfast each day. It’s a poignant sequence, and it builds to a series of tense, startling moments in which Jacqueline bears witness to the horrors her family and her country endured, a retelling which feels harsher still for the fact she unfolds the tale in idyllic surroundings. To say more would be a disservice to Maksik and the reader alike.
Recently Maksik has served as guest editor for Afterword in Canada’s National Post, a task for which he composed four short pieces about different places he lived on the way to establishing himself as a writer. Among his few hundred words about Paris, he points to the period when he first gained confidence in his work. “I discovered what it meant to believe deeply that I was capable of something,” he writes, “without ever once succeeding in doing that thing.” No doubt he still faces obstacles in his work, missteps and uncertainty from day to day. A book in print doesn’t cure all ills. With A Marker to Measure Drift, though, Alexander Maksik’s deep belief proves warranted: he has succeeded.