I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
The idea that Europeans discovered a pristine wilderness when they arrived in the New World, sparsely populated by loose bands of natives who lived lightly on the land in relative harmony with one another, has been waning for more than a decade—and for good reason.
In 2005, Charles C. Mann’s best-selling book, 1491, popularized a revisionist theory that the Western Hemisphere before Columbus was teeming with Indian societies many times larger and more sophisticated—and older—than previously thought, and that these indigenous peoples radically shaped the land and changed it to suit their purposes. The vast herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains, for example, were essentially a managed livestock. Indian fire cleared the expanse of prairie in the middle of the continent, “which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which is still taught in most schools, the inhabitants of the Americas “were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly marked by humankind.”
As for the Native Americans themselves, Mann argued (with the support of a growing corpus of new scholarship) that they were weakened and eventually wiped out not by European guns, but by European diseases. Typhus, influenza, diphtheria and measles tore through Indian societies, often years ahead of European explorers and colonists themselves, like weapons they “could not control and did not even know they had.”
None was worse than smallpox. In the late 18th century, writes Mann, the Hopi Indians of the southern plains “were constantly under attack by the Nermernuh (or Nememe), a fluid collection of hunting bands known today as the Comanche (the name, awarded by an enemy group, means ‘people who fight us all the time’).” The Comanche had driven the Hopi and Apache out of the plains and were planning to do the same to encroaching European settlers when a smallpox epidemic hit and the raiding stopped for 18 months. The disease decimated the Comanche, and by the late 19th century their numbers in Texas and New Mexico had dwindled to the thousands.
Philip Meyer’s new novel, The Son, subscribes to this theory of Native American societies and leverages it to explore the American creation myth. The book, a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas, follows three characters spanning five generations of the McCullough family. It opens with an account taken from a 1936 WPA recording of the family patriarch, Eli McCullough, whose life story encompasses Meyer’s theme:
Having been trounced by the aboriginals, the Mexican government devised a desperate plan to settle Texas. Any man, of any nation, willing to move east of the Sabine River would receive four thousand acres of free land. The fine print was written in blood. The Comanche philosophy toward outsiders was nearly papal in its thoroughness: torture and kill the men, rape and kill the women, take the children for slaves or adoption. Few from the ancient countries of Europe took the Mexicans up on their offer. In fact, no one came at all. Except the Americans. They flooded in. They had women and children to spare and to him that overcometh, I giveth to eat of the tree of life.
Eli, the first child born in the newly-created Republic of Texas, is taken captive by the Comanche at age thirteen. His family is killed, horrifically, in the raid and he is taken as a slave—a common occurrence in Texas at the time, by Meyer’s telling. Eventually, the tribe adopts him and he becomes a warrior, riding with his erstwhile captors on raids against Mexicans and white settlers.
A few years later he leaves not by choice, but because the tribe is decimated by smallpox. Being immune, he is among the few who survive. While digging their graves he finds a drinking cup made of pottery and, digging deeper, unearths the corner of a stone wall. Eli realizes he has “come upon the remains of some ancient tribe that had lived in towns or cities, a tribe so long extinct no one remembered they had ever lived.” This thought gives him comfort because it makes his dying Comanche tribe “seem very young; they were young and there was still hope.”
He returns to white civilization and in time becomes a Texas Ranger, hunting Indians—including Comanche—up and down the frontier. When the Civil War breaks out he’s put in command of a band of Cherokees that enlists with the Confederacy, and so goes back to hunting and killing whites. His world is blood-drenched and brutal, and although the lines between cultures and races may be blurred for him, Eli’s one constant is violence. He takes what he must, kills those who stand in his way, and feels no remorse for doing so. All men, in his view, survive by theft and murder. He first learns this not from white people but from the Comanche chief who adopts him, whose world is a place where “you only get rich by taking things from other people.” What puzzles the chief is that most white people don’t admit to themselves what they’re doing, and are surprised when you kill them. “Me, when I steal something, I expect the person will try to kill me, and I know the song I will sing when I die.”
Meyer’s Indians are not quiet, noble, Hollywood natives whose idyllic existence was shattered by appearance of the white man. They are warriors who live in a state of constant war. “Of course we are not stupid, the land did not always belong to the Comanche,” Eli’s chief tells him. “Many years ago it was Tonkawa land, but we liked it, so we killed the Tonkawa and took it from them.” When Eli must make a living after the war, he does so by rounding up as many wild cattle as he can—taking what is there for any man willing to take it. Capturing and branding the animals was hard work, but it was just as hard to keep them from being stolen: “There was always a neighbor who found it more enjoyable to spend that same year grinning up at the sun; all he had to do was come into your pastures one night with ten of his boon companions, where, in a few hours, he could take your entire year’s income and make it his.”
The other two characters Meyer follows, Eli’s son Peter and his great granddaughter Jeannie, carry the McCulloughs through the 20th century. Peter is haunted by the family’s history of violence, and Jeannie becomes the sole, stoic inheritor of the family fortune, founded on cattle and vastly expanded by the discovery of oil. But next to Eli they seem unimportant and flimsy. Their purpose, in the end, is to complete Meyer’s portrait of Eli, to give his world context by connecting it to ours, and to help the reader grapple with the questions that arise again and again throughout the narrative: who wiped out whom, and who is descended from whom, and what is the difference between the two?
On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom. For the eight thousand years between the Folsom and the Spanish, no one knew what happened; there had been people here the whole time, but no one knew what they were called. Though right before the Spanish came there were the Mogollon and when the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudo… but whether they had wiped out the Mogollon or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apache. Who were in turn wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanche. Who were in turn wiped out by the Americans.
Meyer’s aim is not to condemn white settlers or the founders of the Republic of Texas, any more than he seeks to condemn the Comanche or the Mexicans. But neither does he defend them, and everyone, in his telling, comes away with blood on their hands. No one is innocent of outright theft and cold-blooded murder, and the message seems to be that if we are to have an American creation myth, it should be written in the blood of the massacred.
It’s true, there is ample blood and blame to go around in the story of the American West. And yet there is something overwrought about this thesis, something not quite believable, and it shows in the seams of the novel—the way Meyer dwells overmuch on this or that detail, the way too many members of the McCullough family meet a violent or premature death, the way coincidences woven into the plot begin to take on a cinematic aspect. One senses important things are being left out, that there is more to be said about all this history than is being said, that there is more we ought to be thinking about. And yet one is nevertheless swept up in the realism of Meyer’s prose and the pathos of his story.
In the 1992 film adaptation of James Fennimore Cooper’s epic novel, Last of the Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis is said to have trained rigorously for his role as Nathaniel Hawkeye, a white man raised by Indians. The actor reportedly learned how to live off the land, camping and fishing, hunting with a muzzle-loading rifle he carried with him at all times. He even learned to skin animals.
Meyer did something similar for The Son. He learned to track animals at a wilderness school, spent a month in combat training with a private military firm, slept outside in southern Texas to experience all the sensations of native life. To complete his training, the author learned to hunt deer with a bow and arrow, and supposedly drank a cup of blood from a Buffalo he shot on a ranch in West Texas.
Like Day-Lewis, Meyer gives a rousing performance. The chapters devoted to Eli are enthralling and authoritative. One unforgettable passage describes, in Melvillian detail, the process of killing and butchering a buffalo:
The stomach was removed, the grass squeezed from it and the remaining juice drunk immediately as a tonic, or dabbed onto the face by those who had boils or other skin problems. The contents of the intestines were squeezed out between the fingers and the intestines themselves were either broiled or eaten raw.
It is, like the rest of the book, exceedingly well-written. But about half way through something begins to happen in this novel that is best explained by Annie Dillard in her slim collection, The Writing Life: “You can describe beautiful faces, car chases, or valleys full of Indians on horseback until you run out of words, and you will not approach the movies’ spectacle. Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor… Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens.”
That is not to say Meyer had a film contract in mind while writing The Son (although it would come as no surprise if the rights had already been optioned) only that his cinematic approach, with all its gore and gunfights, crowds out more nuanced ways of thinking about our creation myth and the trouble with human nature. That is, to understand the meaning of our bloody history requires more than simply accepting Meyer’s epigraph, quoted from Edward Gibbon, that “the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his work… buries empires and cities in a common grave.”
The truth is a good deal more complicated than that, and Meyer might have done better to cite Gibbon not on the immutability of fate, but on the prodigious task of rightly interpreting history: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”
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.