Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
The German Girl (in Spanish, translated by Nick Caistor), is a novel with a purpose: To expose the atrocity of the S.S. St. Louis, whose 1939 voyage from Hamburg to Cuba exemplifies the fatal consequences of closed borders and failed humanity, of hope gone horrendously wrong. Armando Lucas Correa, raised in Cuba before emigrating to the United States, writes with a political agenda as well — to out Cuba not only for denying sanctuary to most of the St. Louis’s ill-fated passengers, but also for erasing the crime from Cuba’s history books. Cuba is not the only country with a selective memory. The United States, too, played a key role in the horrors that transpired, and was very late in coming to a public admission of guilt.
Correa is a journalist. Among other professional activities, he is editor-in-chief of People en Espanõl. His first book, En Busca de Emma (In Search of Emma: Two Fathers, One Daughter and the Dream of a Family) is a memoir about the arduous and emotionally fraught journey of starting a family with his male partner. The German Girl is his debut novel.
The novel alternates chapters between two narrators. The first is Hannah Rosenthal, a Jewish girl who is 12 in 1939, having lived a bourgeois existence in Berlin before the Nazis’ rise to power. Hannah experiences the world through smell. Two women on the S-Bahn give “off waves of sweat mixed with rose essence and tobacco.” Berlin after the November pogrom (Kristallnacht) — “a stench of broken pipes, sewage, and smoke.” Hannah’s childhood nanny, recalled through “the fragrance of her lemon-bergamot-cedarwood cologne mingled with the smell of sweat and spices.” Hannah also experiences the world through her beloved friend Leo Martin. Together they travel Berlin, hiding from the “Ogres” — her parlance for Nazis — and sharing a passion for adventure.
The second narrator is Anna Rosen, an American girl living in 2014. She and her bedridden, widowed mother are enshadowed by 9/11. They live a sober existence in New York. Hanna’s sections are written in the past tense, Anna’s in the present.
The parallels between the girls are many, sometimes tipping their similarities toward the contrived. Both have suffering mothers with whom they appear to have a strained emotional connection. Both idolize their absent fathers, each missing for different reasons. Both are only children. Both have a male friend their own age, though Hannah is much closer to Leo than Anna with Diego.
Hannah lives with her parents: an anxious, self-centered opera singer mother named Alma Strauss Rosenthal (faint homage to Alma Mahler, perhaps?) and her father, Max Rosenthal, an esteemed university professor. As Berlin becomes increasingly dangerous, Hannah’s family — desperate to leave — secures passage on the St. Louis. Leo’s widowed father, too, manages to book passage for himself and his son. The voyage appears to bring escape and deliverance, but instead, it is their terrible misfortune to have set sail on a doomed ship.
At the end of the book, Correa provides these facts — on May 13, 1939, the St. Louis sailed for Cuba from Hamburg with 900 passengers, the majority German Jewish refugees. It docked two days later in Cherbourg to pick up 37 additional Jewish passengers. All refugees had landing permits from the Cuban Department of Immigration, as well as U.S. entry visas. Cuba was intended as a transit point; passengers were to await emigration to the United States. A week before departure, Cuban President Federico Laredo Brú invalidated the landing permits.
The St. Louis arrived in Havana early morning May 27. Only four Cubans, two non-Jewish Spaniards, and 22 refugees were ultimately permitted to land, despite efforts by relatives, and protracted negotiations with offers of payment by Lawrence Berenson, lawyer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Ordered to vacate Cuban waters, Captain Gustav Schroeder made heroic efforts to find a non-German port to accept the refugees. He sailed for Miami, but the United States denied entry. A similar refusal came from Canada. Forced back across the Atlantic, the ship stopped in several European countries that agreed — following another intense set of negotiations — to take the passengers. Great Britain accepted 287; France, 224; Belgium, 214; and the Netherlands 181. In September 1939, Germany declared war. Other than the 287 taken into the relative safety of Great Britain, most of the rest of the passengers suffered the terrors of war. At least a quarter were exterminated by the Nazis.
In The German Girl, Anna and her mother are shaken from their depressing existence by a set of photos they receive from the 87-year-old Hannah Rosenthal, who turns out to have been one of the “lucky” passengers permitted a landing in Cuba. Having spent her whole life there, she has now reached out to her great-niece (Anna’s father was her nephew). Anna and her mother travel to Cuba, where Hannah reveals her life story in a series of largely expository chapters. Sharing her great loves and tragic losses, she generously roots Anna in her father’s family and puts Anna’s mother on a path forward.
In a recent review of Affinity Konar’s Mischling, Lisa Zeidner wrote:
The morality of fictionalizing the Holocaust has been a subject of scholarly discussion since philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Do the scaffolding of plot and invention, the linguistic embroidery, deny the actual victims their more authentic voices? Conversely, might fiction have “the power to take the narrative to places that survivor testimony cannot?” [citing Anna Richardson]
The German Girl begs a different question. Given Correa’s professional credentials, might this book have packed more punch as nonfiction? Perhaps a futile inquiry, but Correa’s journalistic instincts are apparent not just in his clear reporting on the voyage of the St. Louis, but throughout the book. For example, he introduces Jehovah’s Witnesses to make the very important point that the Nazis singled this group out for torture and brutality due to their refusal to accept totalitarian authority.
In Crossing the Borders of Time, journalist Leslie Maitland set out to find her mother’s teenage lover, lost to her when her family fled Nazi-occupied France. Her mother’s family was able to secure passage to Casablanca, and then to Cuba on the San Thomé in 1942. Describing the horrors of the St. Louis, Maitland notes the “infighting among unscrupulous officials,” Cuba’s corrupt immigration director, and the fruitless “frantic telegrams to President Roosevelt” and other world leaders.
Scholar Peter Gay describes his Berlin childhood under the Nazis in My German Question. Like many other highly assimilated and non-religious German Jews — including Hannah Rosenthal’s family — in 1933 “We had suddenly become Jews.” Deeply interested in the psychological ramifications, Gay says he cannot write autobiography, his has to be memoir. His past has proven “to be a mosaic with central pieces missing.” He recounts his father’s daring maneuvers to secure passage to Cuba. Finally obtaining visas and tickets for the St. Louis, his father, having an eerie sixth sense, took a harrowing risk to fake documents for passage on the Iberia, which sailed April 27 (two weeks earlier than the St. Louis).
The German-Jewish refugee community in Havana, numbering over three thousand, clung together and talked Germany: who was still caught up in the Nazi trap and what one could do to help….
Our ties to our former homeland…remained intimate and inescapable, a cause of wrenching anxieties.
Anxiety coupled with deracination’s fallout. A Longing in the Land, poet Arthur Gregor’s memoir of being forced as a teen to flee Vienna post Anschluss, makes clear the longing never ends:
The crack of displacement — irreparable, as I have learned — also affects our most personal relationships, often shapes or destroys them. It makes our need for them so urgent — for who but the object of one’s love can soothe this rift? — and this urgency works against them….
The anguish of this rift is not appeased.
The truth — documented — can be more powerful than fiction. And yet, doesn’t fiction provide the ultimate truth? Here’s Peter Gay:
That my mother loved me as much as she could seems to me beyond doubt, but her ability to give voice to her affection for me was compromised by her anxieties and her ailments.
Such a description fits perfectly both Hannah and Anna’s mothers in The German Girl. They are sleepless, ailing women, suffering from grief and worry. Through fiction, Correa has captured not only the unspeakable anxiety of protecting a family while fleeing for one’s life, but also the endless pain of deracination, emotions from which Hannah is never released. Speaking of her life in Havana, toward the end of the book she muses:
I can wander one last time among the colorful croton bushes, the poinsettias, the rosemary, basil, and mint herbs in the neglected garden of what has been my fortress in a city I never came to know.
Correa deploys facts to honor his fictional subjects. In a heartbreaking appendix, he lists every passenger on the St. Louis. If this ship’s manifest is insufficiently potent, Correa writes to remind us of the deadly consequences of closed borders, neglected refugees, and maligned and forgotten immigrants.
The most startling fact of William Styron’s existence is that it ended naturally. Suicide is the subject of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, a Faulknerian tragedy set in the aftermath of Hiroshima, which made him instantly famous at 26, and of Darkness Visible, his revealing and revered late-in-life memoir about the 1985 depression that found him on the cusp of pulling the trigger.
A second depressive episode would strike in 2000, and these two calamities constitute the sturdiest pillars of Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron’s memoir of the novelist she called “Daddy.” She notes that though the official cause of his death in 2006 was pneumonia, “Drowning would probably have been more appropriate,” given the anguish that engulfed him whenever he was not writing or drinking.
William Styron was from that virile mid-century caste of writer-warriors of which few remain; literature, meanwhile, has been relegated from the bar stool to the seminar table. George Plimpton, for whose Paris Review Styron was an early contributor, died in 2003; Norman Mailer, who once warned Styron that he would “stomp out of you a fat amount of yellow and treacherous shit” over some unflattering gossip, died in 2007.
Styron is more elusive, a Southerner who loved Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard and whose most memorable characters are entirely unlike him: a Catholic Holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice(his greatest novel) and a slave in the Confessions of Nat Turner (his most controversial).
As his daughter writes in Reading My Father, he was eternally occupied with the “dispossessed, disaffected, condemned to die, unable to die.” The confessional of Philip Roth was not for him: Only in his sixties did Styron turn to his own story, confronting demons (his mother’s fatal cancer foremost among them) that fiction and bourbon had muzzled.
Like many nurtured in the penumbra of genius, Alexandra Styron got a good story out of her privations. At twelve she totes Sophie’s Choice to school, only to be arrested by the novel’s lush sexuality. Arriving at “the bone-rigid stalk of my passion,” she slams it shut and, deciding that “Daddy didn’t actually do these things,” does not return until her late 30’s.
This episode was first recounted in a fine remembrance Styron (who has a novel, All the Finest Girls, to her name) wrote for the New Yorker in 2007. Reading My Father, an expansion of that article, attempts to combine self-searching memoir and literary biography, with only partial success.
For one, much of her father’s early life (Virginia, the Marines, Duke, New York) was recounted in a solid, authorized 1998 biography by James L. West III. The comparison to West would be unfair if it were not so obvious: Reading My Father recycles much of his material without improving on it.
But Styron’s child’s-eye-view is not without its triumphs, either, endearing the reader most when she is observing (and, often, pouring wine for) the resplendent characters who consort with her father and his poet-activist wife, Rose Burgunder: “Jimmy” Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller. To a teacher she announces, “Joan Baez was at my house last night.”
But despite her father’s prominence, Alexandra Styron says that he lived a “hunted and haunted” existence. He regularly focused his rage on the author, the youngest of his four children, berating her for being “a fucking princess” or suddenly emptying the house of junk food.
His later years were spent trying to replicate the success of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice with a war novel, The Way of the Warrior, that went through three drafts but remained unfinished. As Styron neared 60, frustration curdled into depression, culminating with him on the edge of suicide, only to be pulled back by “some last of sanity” (as he would later write in Darkness Visible) that brought him to the safety of Yale-New Haven Hospital.
A grown woman struggling to make her way in Los Angeles as an actress, Styron can now see her father with the fullness of vision missing from earlier chapters. Anyone familiar with mental illness will identify with her “almost surreal sensation of watching, up ahead of me, my once imposing father shuffle sadly down the sterile hallway, toward the locked door of the mental ward.”
There follow fifteen calmer years of Styron “squarely looking at himself,” writing finally about his own past in the story collection A Tidewater Morning. But while self-knowledge is restorative, it is hardly an armor. In 2000, depression again bowls him over. There are poignant scenes in Reading My Father of Styron panicking on an airplane, sinking into paranoid delusions (“I wonder if any of these hotels has a direct line to the Vatican”), berating his daughters as “sluts.” Finding her father “essentially ungovernable” until electroconvulsive therapy provides relief, Styron gives a refreshingly unvarnished account of how frustrating it is to play caretaker to madness.
But maybe Styron’s mind gave out only because it had been so completely engrossed in the creative process for so long. There is a lesson in Reading My Father for today’s writers, weaned as they are on the MFA’s anodyne comforts: “Writing is a matter…[of] dogging yourself to death,” he once said. They don’t teach that in workshop.
When you flush the toilet, do you know where your shit goes? Sure, in most cities, it flows into the main sewer system until it reaches a waste-water treatment plant somewhere on the outskirts of town. But then what happens to it? Do you have any idea? If your first response is, “Ask somebody who cares,” then you need to read David Waltner-Toews’s The Origin of Feces. Now.
Despite its goofball title and jokey tone, The Origin of Feces is a deeply serious work of environmental science that strives to do for how we think about shit what Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have done for how we think about what we eat. In just more than 200 breezy, gag-filled pages, Waltner-Toews argues that by crowding people into cities and animals onto factory farms we have turned shit from a vital part of a healthy ecosystem into a toxic waste that must be managed. “We are taking a brilliantly complex diversity of animal, plant, and bacterial species,” he writes, “and transforming them into a disordered mess of bacteria and nutrients. We are transforming a wonderful complex planet into piles of shit.”
Unlike journalists such as Schlosser, Pollan, and Malcolm Gladwell who have led the charge in recent years to popularize abstruse scientific findings for lay readers, Waltner-Toews is himself a veterinarian and epidemiologist who teaches population medicine at the University of Guelph, near Toronto. Unfortunately for American readers, Waltner-Toews is also a Canadian whose new book is published by an independent Canadian publisher, ECW Press, which means The Origin of Feces will have nowhere near the public profile of a new Gladwell or Pollan tome.
This is a crying shame. I cannot think of a more necessary work of popular science since Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which together pulled back the curtain from the American agricultural-industrial food complex and helped kick the slow-food movement into gear. In some ways, though, those books had an easier time of it. While industrial feedlots and food processing plants may be largely invisible to most consumers, we eat the results of this industrial approach to food, which in a lot of cases tastes pretty awful. You don’t have to be an organic farming purist to be willing to pay a little extra to buy whole foods that taste better and, by extension, do slightly less damage to the planet.
No matter how pure your eating habits, however, your shit still stinks, and unless you are living in a yurt in the wilderness, it still gets flushed into the same sewage-treatment system that everybody else uses. Like so many of the systems that undergird a modern industrial society, waste management is opaque to everyone outside a tiny coterie of specialists — until, of course, there is an outbreak of food-borne illness or a fish-killing algae bloom caused by agricultural runoff, in which case we run around looking for villains, who are almost by definition not ourselves.
Waltner-Toews aims to tear down the mental wall we have built between ourselves and our crap and show us that what we excrete is not simply toxic sludge, but an essential, nutrient-rich link in the life cycle of our planet. To do this, he says, we must first find a good way to talk about shit. Early on, Waltner-Toews takes his reader on a whirlwind tour through the etymology of dozens of terms we use to describe what comes out of our asses, from the profane (“shit” and “crap”) to the euphemistic (“poop” and “BM”) to the technical (“biosolids” and “fecula”). This chapter is hilarious and often enlightening. Who knew that “excrement” comes from the Latin word excernere, “to sift,” or that the Middle English word “crap” found a place in the modern lexicon in part by its association with Thomas Crapper, who popularized the use of the flush toilet?
But here as elsewhere in the book, Waltner-Toews’s purpose is deadly serious. The way we talk about shit, he points out, lays bare the way we think about this basic byproduct of human life — which is that, most of the time, we’d rather not think about it at all. Shit embarrasses us. It’s dirty and smelly, and in colloquial language it is the go-to term for everything from outrageous lies (“bullshit”) to illegal drugs (“really good shit”) and worthlessness (“a piece of shit”). But when we are forced to think about its real-world consequences, we quickly retreat to vague technical terms like “biosolids” that have the advantage of not having any real meaning to most people.
This matters, Waltner-Toews argues:
We can use precise technical terms when we want the engineers to devise a solution to a specific organic agricultural or urban waste problem…In so doing, however, we alienate the public, who are suspicious of words like biosolids. This public will need to pay for the filtration and treatment plants. They suspect that the solution to chicken shit in the water might not be a better filtration plant, but they don’t have the language to imagine and discuss what the alternatives might be.
Waltner-Toews spends the rest of the book giving his reader the language, and the knowledge, to begin imagining alternatives to our present industrially engineered solutions to our quickly multiplying waste problems. His central point is that in a healthy, bio-diverse ecosystem, shit is neither waste nor a problem. For millions of years, animals have been eating plants and other animals and shitting out whatever their bodies couldn’t use, in the process distributing seeds that have allowed stationary plants to spread and providing nutrients to fertilize the soil and feed billions of insects and smaller organisms.
But by concentrating people and the animals we eat into increasingly industrialized spaces, we have severed the vital link between shit and the natural biological processes that have been cleaning it up and re-using it for as long as there has been life on our planet. One result is pollution, which, as Waltner-Toews suggests, is just a word we use to describe what happens when a substance — carbon dioxide, say, or pig shit– gets concentrated in one place faster than the natural systems can recycle it. Another outcome is a rise in food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli, most of which are caused by animal or human shit finding its way into our food. The separation of people and animals from the surrounding biosphere also contributes to broader systemic imbalances that lead to problems like extinction of species that depend on healthy ecosystems, famines resulting from nutrient-starved soils, and widespread use of petroleum-based fertilizers designed in part to make up for the lack of natural shit-based fertilizer.
The problem of shit, Waltner-Toews says, is a classic “wicked problem,” meaning a problem that can’t be solved by straightforward science and engineering without creating a whole set of new problems. We can, for instance, pump pig shit into vast manure lagoons and pump the animals themselves full of antibiotics that help them avoid diseases derived from eating shit, but ultimately the toxic brew in those manure lagoons has to go somewhere and antibiotics have a nasty habit of creating antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
The Origin of Feces is better at describing the wickedness of this problem than at articulating solutions, which get high-falutin’ and improbable in a hurry. Drawing on the work of scientists who see the complex interactions in natural ecosystems as “panarchy,” and quoting the philosopher Arthur Koestler, who saw each living thing as a whole unto itself and also a part of something larger, which together he called a “holon,” Waltner-Toews uses the term “holonocracy,” which he says “embodies a way of interpreting nested social and ecological changes and implies a new way to think about management and governance based on those observations.”
Yeah, I know. I didn’t really follow that, either. In later pages, Waltner-Toews thankfully returns to plain English and argues that the problem of shit is merely a particularly unpleasant manifestation of the more generally unsustainable nature of our industrial age, which has created “too much shit in the world, in all the wrong places.” He details some nifty small-scale solutions involving the repurposing energy-rich shit into fuel or animal feed. But at the macro-level, he seems to be saying that a comprehensive, systemic problem of this kind demands an equally comprehensive, systemic solution, which, if I am reading him right, means seriously rethinking industrialized agriculture and urbanized population. Which — call me crazy — I don’t see happening anytime soon.
But of course the very difficulty Waltner-Toews has explaining his solutions for a non-specialist audience underscores the fundamental wickedness of the problem. The Origins of Feces is a genial book, and often a kick to read, but I put it down thinking two things: 1. I will never look at shit the same way again; and 2. We are in deep shit. That Waltner-Toews, clearly one of the smartest guys in the room when it comes to this issue, cannot explain a solution in terms I can understand makes me think we are in even deeper shit than he claims.
In his 2004 New Yorker article “The Ketchup Conundrum,” Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Jim Wigon, a hapless food entrepreneur trying to market his gourmet brand of World’s Best ketchup against the Heinz ketchup juggernaut. “He starts with red peppers, Spanish onions, garlic, and a high-end tomato paste,” Gladwell writes of Wigon’s rebel ketchup recipe.
Basil is chopped by hand, because the buffalo chopper bruises the leaves. He uses maple syrup, not corn syrup, which gives him a quarter of the sugar of Heinz. He pours his ketchup into a clear glass ten-ounce jar, and sells it for three times the price of Heinz, and for the past few years he has crisscrossed the country, peddling World’s Best in six flavors – regular, sweet, dill, garlic, caramelized onion, and basil – to specialty grocery stores and supermarkets.
Despite all this loving attention to culinary detail, Gladwell tells us, Wigon is destined to fail because unlike the many varieties of mustard and other food products whose popularity skews widely among different palates, Heinz ketchup is that near perfect food, balancing the five major taste areas – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – and beloved by toddlers so famously averse to trying new foods.
“The Ketchup Conundrum” is itself the Heinz ketchup of magazine feature articles: a near perfect example of the form, balancing wit, erudition, good reporting, vivid characters, and terrific storytelling to explore a conundrum so glaring you never thought to wonder about it. Journalism like this made Gladwell famous, but Gladwell himself has more or less stopped doing this kind of journalism. In the case of “The Ketchup Conundrum,” he asked a great question and found a bunch of smart, quirky experts to help him answer it. In his latest book, David and Goliath, out this week, he appears to have started with an answer and then gone looking for people to prove him right. All too often these days, the same thing happens when he contributes articles to the New Yorker.
In David and Goliath, as in his earlier books, Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, Gladwell displays a fondness for the classical essay form: He begins with an introduction followed by an explicit thesis statement, then sets out to prove his case with evidence, typically a variety of wildly divergent case studies taken from history or contemporary life larded with statistics and findings from economics and the social sciences. This structure suits Gladwell’s purpose, first, because it is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever taken a college composition course, and second, because the form, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, carries with it a veneer of dispassionate scientific inquiry.
The thesis of David and Goliath, a book about the limits of power and the power of limitations, is as follows: “There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources – and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.” As is often the case, Gladwell works up to this carefully, as if he were about to argue that, No, in fact the earth is flat, but his assertion is not as counter-intuitive as he seems to think. Any American who grew up during or shortly after the Vietnam War – which is to say, the great majority of Gladwell’s readers – will surely recognize that a small, determined foe can quite often defeat a larger, lumbering opponent. But given our recent history of military misadventures and fiscal hubris, perhaps it’s a lesson that bears repeating.
In his first chapter, adapted from a 2009 New Yorker article, Gladwell follows a team of twelve-year-old “little blond girls” from Silicon Valley, who despite having little to no basketball experience, end up at a national championship tournament. Their coach, Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian-born software engineer who has himself never played basketball, is appalled by the way American teams play the game, retreating back to their half of the court after each basket, thereby ceding three-quarters of the court to their opponents. If his team of inexperienced non-athletes plays this way, which reinforces the strengths of the better players, Ranadivé knows they will lose. So instead they play a full-court press, contesting all ninety-four feet of the court, and begin steamrolling far more talented opponents.
The chapter allows Gladwell to offer a deft demonstration of how culture can unwittingly favor the powerful – how else to explain why even losing teams cede three-quarters of the court to more talented foes? – but also a neat parable of why hard-working immigrants have done so well in American universities and in Silicon Valley. Gladwell is too subtle a writer to spell this out, but it is clear that Ranadivé’s bafflement with the traditional way of playing basketball and his emphasis on relentless physical conditioning to wear out opponents is of a piece with his success in the software business.
Gladwell takes this lovely little story and runs with it, setting the tale of Ranadivé’s unlikely basketball stars alongside a history of Lawrence of Arabia’s use of guerrilla tactics to help his ragtag force of Bedouin tribesmen to defeat a larger, better-armed Turkish Army during World War I. Combining these cases, Gladwell shows not only why underdog strategies work, but also why so few underdogs try them: “Underdog strategies are hard.” To win, underdogs have to reconceptualize the task before them in ways that play to their strengths, take huge risks, and work harder than their opponents. Most people – Gladwell doesn’t say it, but it’s clear we are meant to read: most lazy, overprivileged Americans – prefer to lose easy than to win hard.
But from this point on, things go downhill, fast. In chapter after chapter, Gladwell cherry-picks data, uses results from one set of circumstances to draw unsupported conclusions about other sets of circumstances, soft pedals counter-explanations, and sets up false comparisons. Early on, for instance, he compares a young woman who drops out of a highly competitive science program at an Ivy League school to the difficulties faced by Impressionist painters trying to gain respect from the French art establishment, arguing that, in both cases, those involved suffered from being small fish in a big pond.
I would never suggest, as Gladwell does, that a student aim one rung lower than she is qualified for to avoid feeling overwhelmed by her fellow students, but at least that’s an argument one can make. But one can’t argue that the Impressionists suffered because they couldn’t get anybody to pay attention to their work. It’s simply not true. As Gladwell himself notes, when Edouard Manet’s painting of a prostitute, titled Olympia, was displayed in 1865 at the famous Salon held every year at the Palais de l’Industrie, it “sent all of Paris into an uproar. Guards had to be placed around the painting to keep the crowds of spectators at bay.” The Impressionists weren’t small fish in a big pond; they were blowing up the pond.
But for me, the book’s most troubling section deals with California’s 1994 Three Strikes law, which, until it was partially repealed last year, forced judges to hand out 25-year sentences after a third offense, even if the third offense was as minor as stealing a few slices of pizza. Crime plummeted in California after the Three Strikes law passed, but as Gladwell rightly points out, crime rates “also came tumbling down in many other parts of the United States in the same period, even in places that didn’t crack down on crime at all.” He cites conflicting studies on the impact of the Three Strikes law, and concludes “[t]he state of California conducted the greatest penal experiment in American history, and after twenty years and tens of billions of dollars, nobody could ascertain whether that experiment did any good.”
He’s right, of course. I grew up in California, and I voted against Three Strikes in 1994. So I would be inclined to agree with Gladwell except that it reminded me of a chapter from The Tipping Point on New York City’s so-called Broken Windows style of policing, made famous by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In New York City, just as in California, crime seemed out of control. In both cases, the government got tough on even the most minor offenses, and crime rates plummeted. Of course, crime dropped everywhere else at the same time, and nobody really knows why. But in The Tipping Point, because Broken Windows fit Gladwell’s thesis, Giuliani and his police commissioner were heroes who brought a great city back from the brink of chaos, while in David and Goliath, because Three Strikes doesn’t fit his thesis, supporters of the law are guilty of costly and heartless government overreach.
I began David and Goliath more or less ignoring Gladwell’s preface dealing with the Biblical story of the battle between the lowly shepherd and the mighty Philistine. His pseudoscientific take on the tale is absurd even by Gladwellian standards, rife with wild suppositions treated as accepted fact. But I ended the book sensing that Gladwell’s choice to begin the book this way is telling. For one thing, it’s ur-Gladwell. Over and over in his books and New Yorker pieces, he portrays himself as a nettlesome outsider, a sort of notepad-wielding shepherd boy flinging stones – odd facts, little-known studies, startling graphs, moving stories – at a world of oafish Philistines who don’t understand the quirky counter-intuitiveness of it all.
More important, though, it helped me see that despite his classical essay structure and all the charts and graphs and interviews with eminent scientists, Gladwell isn’t interested in science. He isn’t interested in facts. He’s interested in stories. Gladwell’s books shouldn’t be read as arguments based in evidence, but as parables based in neo-liberal orthodoxy. One can’t read David and Goliath, particularly the later chapters dealing with the overreach of entrenched power, without thinking of the Bush years, of the War on Terror and Gitmo, of mortgage-backed securities and Lehman Brothers, of “Mission Accomplished” and Osama bin Laden in the Tora Bora. Gladwell never takes any of these subjects on directly, but David and Goliath often reads as one long parable against the folly of ignoring the limits of American might and power. And I agree with him. But I want to be right because I’m actually right, not because the guys on my side are better at telling stories. Stories are easy. Facts are hard. I want facts.