John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
In his Brenner and God, recently issued in translation by Melville House, Wolf Haas presents us with one of the most thoroughly likeable characters I’ve come across in a very long while. Simon Brenner is an ex-detective, a man in middle age who has decided after trying out more than 50 professions that he was born to be a chauffeur. Although actually, “chauffeur” doesn’t seem exactly the right word for his current employment: he’s almost, when you come right down to it, a sort of Autobahn-based nanny. His job involves ferrying a two-year-old, Helena, over the 300 miles that separate her parents’ respective businesses.
Helena’s father is a wildly successful construction magnate — a Lion of Construction, in the parlance of the book — with headquarters in Munich. Her mother is a physician with a small clinic in downtown Vienna. Both have any number of enemies, the father because Construction Lions always have enemies and the mother because she performs abortions. A permanent crowd of protestors menaces patients by the clinic’s front door. They feel safer having their small daughter in the care of a former detective.
Brenner is devoted to his charge. He feels that he can tell Helena anything, and keeps the car impeccable for her benefit. He runs the windshield wipers ever so often in perfectly clear weather, because the windshield wipers delight her so. As for Helena, her first word: “Not ‘Mama,’ not ‘Papa’ — ‘Driver.’” Theirs is a perfectly happy friendship.
Former Detective Brenner is on a calmer keel than he used to be. He used to have some inclination toward flying off the handle, the book’s unnamed narrator tells us, but that’s all changed since he took a less stressful job and started on the anti-depressants. He takes his pills, maintains his car, and carefully ferries his charge 300 miles each way up and down the Autobahn. He likes his life. His employers are delighted. Until the day when he stops at a gas station — he always gases up the car the night before but this one time he forgot — and decides to dash in quickly to get Helena a chocolate bar, even though chocolate bars are specifically forbidden by her parents on the grounds that they’re bad for her teeth, because she does after all love chocolate and those are after all only her baby teeth.
But while he’s on the gas station, the girl disappears from the car. He’s dismissed from his job and loses his chauffeur’s apartment above the garage. And just like that, ex-detective Brenner is a detective again.
There are, at least, no shortage of leads. Given the parents’ respective professions, the main problem lies not in finding someone with a motive, but in narrowing down the list of plausible suspects. There’s a questionable congressman whose phone number is unaccountably programmed into Helena’s mother’s cell phone, a somewhat shady bank director who works with Helena’s father, and Knoll, a fanatical abortion-clinic protestor who once obliquely threatened the child.
There’s something Brenner should know, Knoll tells him: Helena’s mother once performed an abortion on a 12-year-old girl. He has a blurry picture of the girl entering the clinic, and there’s 10,000 euros in it if Brenner can find her. Who was the 12-year-old, and is she connected in some way with Helena’s disappearance?
The story is told by a narrator who is never named, but who manages nonetheless to be curiously intrusive. Mostly it’s charming, a narrator who continually hectors us to pay attention (literally, as in “Pay attention: I’m only going to say so much”) and who conversationally drops in his opinions every so often (“By this point…Brenner himself wasn’t placing any large bets on his life. And me neither, to be honest.”) It has to be said, though, that you can only be extorted to pay attention by your narrator so many times before the novelty starts to wear off, and by the three-quarter mark the device has gotten a little cute.
And yet, stylistic flaws notwithstanding, the book is a meticulously plotted, dark, and often very funny ride.
With the prospect of a Democrat in the White House, paired with a continued Democratic majority in Congress, many old and new ideas on the liberal agenda are poised to come to fruition in 2009. One item likely to be on the to-do list is the future of international trade.In Freedom From Want: American Liberalism and the Global Economy, author Edward Gresser says progressive politicians must return to their liberal roots and recognize the benefits, both foreign and domestic, afforded by reduced tariffs and greater participation in the world economy. In short, knocking down trade barriers will create peace and prosperity for all.Gresser, director of the Trade and Global Markets Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, argues that modern-day liberals have betrayed the Democratic party’s former pro-trade policies – initiated by Grover Cleveland, advanced by Woodrow Wilson and solidified by Franklin D. Roosevelt – by flirting with protectionist measures once trumpeted by Republicans such as William McKinley and Herbert Hoover.Over the past 30 years, he says, labor unions and environmental groups have brought about an ideological shift that now has many Democrats pushing for a kind of economic isolationism fortified by high tariffs to protect against global competitors such as China.Sadly, the matter of free-trade agreements is dismissed summarily by Gresser, who calls them “a bad combination of large controversy and small consequence.” Seeing as how the United States has free-trade deals pending with Colombia, Panama and South Korea – all likely to cause a political showdown on Capitol Hill – it’s unfortunate the pacts aren’t considered discussion worthy.But before addressing contemporary issues such as the rise of China and the influence of the WTO, the book offers an historical perspective – nearly half of the book’s 230 pages – on the impact of various trade policies on the United States and the world at large. Though he often belabors the point that trade benefits economies, the timeline is an informative and entertaining read offering a colorful account of how societies have valued certain goods over the years and the ingenious methods employed by entrepreneurs to transport those items.The book does an impressive job of reconstructing the political atmospheres that caused the ebb and flow of protectionism in the United States over the years. But while the text adequately explains why liberals began to abandon Roosevelt’s trade policies, little attention is given to how this ideological about-face played out. Was there a serious debate among party leaders?Eventually, the discussion turns to today’s trade structure, at which point the experience of one garment worker in Cambodia is used to let the reader know all is well in the factories of the developing world. Despite numerous reports detailing abysmal working conditions in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, accusations of worker exploitation are discarded en masse by pointing to the experience of this one woman, as well as a few others in China who speak highly of factory conditions. While it seems fair to say workers’ conditions vary by factory or country in the developing world, the scenario presented here leads one to believe that calls for enforceable labor standards are unnecessary, and unions that push for regulations and threaten tariffs are essentially the economic isolationists reminiscent of the early 20th century.But not all trade critics are proponents of protectionism. Instead, many seek to strengthen or establish labor and environmental standards – objectives Gresser says are unreasonable demands to place on large countries like China or poor countries like Papua New Guinea – for the sake of foreign workers and the ecosystem as a whole.Yet Gresser is not unsympathetic to the victims of established trade policies, and he acknowledges the system needs fixing. He rightly points out that the lower class in the United States bears the brunt of the tariff system; essential goods such as food and clothing carry disproportionately higher tariffs than luxury items.However, on several occasions the author is guilty of the sin of omission, particularly when it comes to using statistics. For example, when describing the increase in U.S. exports to China, it’s noted that by 2006 they had risen from $13 billion to $50 billion. In one year? Over the course of five years? There is also no mention of the trade deficit between the two countries, which, for better or for worse, is a number often cited by trade critics.Similarly, some facts and figures go unreferenced. For example, a lengthy quote from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni about the trade obstacles facing developing countries receives no citation. Did the author conduct the interview? Did Museveni make those remarks in front of the U.N. General Assembly? The reader should not have to ask such questions.Perhaps most disappointing, though, is how the book is filled with literally dozens of grammatical errors, typos and inconsistencies. At one point we read that the “hopes and worries of the 21th century are not new.” Other times it’s not even clear what century is being referenced: “The -century liberals who designed this system were far-sighted, optimistic, rational, and right.”It’s unfortunate that a book with a provocative premise struggles to articulate its assertions.