Anthony Doerr ruined my vacation. He also destroyed the confidence of blossoming writers and set an impossibly high standard for other novelists.
What’s the matter, Tony? Winning the Pulitzer wasn’t enough?
Doerr is the author of All the Light We Cannot See, the lyrical, compassionate, hauntingly gorgeous novel that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
And it’s kept me indoors on vacation. Fleeing the Miami heat and humidity, my wife Marcia and I escaped to Boulder, CO. My intentions were sincere. I’d hike, bike, sample the local brews. But instead of enjoying the glorious Colorado outdoors, I’ve been hunkered down on the porch, immersed in All the Light We Cannot See, reading and re-reading many of its elegant passages.
“All the Light We Cannot See” an Epic Tale
The novel is an epic masterpiece of fate and love, myth and imagination, humanity and inhumanity, tenderness and cruelty, and what happens to dreamers during the utter insanity of war. It’s the story of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy and how they’re destined to come together during the darkest of times. Indeed, it’s a novel of light and darkness.
The portrait of 1940 Paris, on the eve of war, rings true. SPOILER ALERT: Germany invades France. SECOND SPOILER: The French put up as much resistance as an éclair to a butcher’s knife.
All the Light We Cannot See overflows with melodic phrases, magical imagery and dazzling wordplay. Of the blind girl who learns to navigate the streets from scale models lovingly built by her father: “She walks like a ballerina in dance slippers, her feet as articulate as hands, a little vessel of grace moving out into the fog.”
Most writers struggle to describe characters’ voices in original ways. Not Doerr, who floored me with this: “His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”
There is even a rumination on the possibility of life after death. In less than a page, the author posits a theory more persuasive than a thousand Sunday sermons. HINT: Souls travel on electromagnetic waves.
Oh, the Damage to Writers’ Fragile Egos!
So here I sit – on the front porch – entranced as I finish this unforgettable novel. But I complain not just on my behalf. Consider the young writers studying their craft at Stanford, Iowa, and the back booths of countless Starbucks. Does Doerr comprehend the fragility of their egos? The plenitude of their neuroses? Even without this daunting book, they fear their work will just add to the tsunami of swill, the endless tide of mediocrity pouring from laser printers and overflowing publishing platforms.
So, yes, I blame Doerr for nipping the buds of blossoming writers. And what about the environmental damage? The hardcover I purchased is from the book’s 37th printing. That’s a lot of felled trees, Mr. Doerr. Consider that, too, the next time you sit down to work your literary magic.
Several years ago, I wrote “Ballistic,” a novel in which an Air Force missile base in Wyoming was attacked by terrorists. The story raised the fear of “loose nukes,” nuclear weapons in the hands of those who would use them. Or, in the shorthand language of flap copy:
A Nuclear Missile…
A Band of Terrorists…
And Only Two People Who Can Prevent Armageddon.
The set-up for the novel was that U.S. Air Force “missileers” — the personnel in underground launch control capsules who enter the codes and turn the keys — doubted their services would ever be used. Discipline was poor, equipment was obsolete, and the missile silos were vulnerable to attack.
So what’s been in the nuclear weapons news lately?
“On a recent tour of one of the nation’s Air Force nuclear missile facilities in Wyoming, Leslie Stahl of CBS’ ’60 Minutes’ made the surprising discovery about the archaic state of technology inside the facilities. Dana Meyers, a 23-year-old missileer working at the facility, told Stahl of the floppy disks: ‘I had never seen one of these until I got down in missiles.’
“In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. government built several facilities like the one Stahl visited to operate and conceal its Cold War-era Minuteman missiles. Most of the technology hasn’t seen a hint of upgrade since then. For example, the missileers use analog phones for communication, as shown in the CBS report. The computers that would receive a launch order from the president to deploy one of the missiles are Internet-free, bulky and painted a retro-inspired muted yellow.”
The “60 Minutes” piece also showed a drill in which specially trained U.S. commandos attacked a missile silo overrun with “terrorists.” That was exactly what I had written years earlier…although the heroes of “Ballistic” were a lowly, drunken Air Force sergeant and a terrified female psychiatrist who had been tasked with testing the mental state of the missileers. (Yes, that was based on a real study involving the safety of our nuclear weapons).
Then there’s this humiliation. Earlier last month, General Michael Carey, the man in charge of all 450 Minuteman missiles was forced to resign after a rowdy, drunken trip to Russia, of all places. As explained by Huffington Post:
“Investigators determined that Carey had engaged in ‘inappropriate behavior,’ including heavy drinking, rudeness to his hosts and associating with “suspect” women, according to the investigative report made public last December.
“After the Russia trip, a member of his delegation lodged a complaint about Carey’s behavior. That person, described as a female staff member in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, asserted to investigators that on the delegation’s first night in Moscow, Carey was drinking and speaking loudly in a hotel lounge about how he was ‘saving the world’ and that his forces suffer from low morale.”
“To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand, and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California.” —Dedication of “Illegal” by Paul Levine
The following is true…with some dialogue editing.
“Let me get this straight,” the Hollywood producer said. “You dedicated your book to an illegal alien?”
“An undocumented immigrant,” I said. “A Mexican woman who floated up the New River on an inner tube with her little boy.”
“I didn’t know rivers ran north.”
Odd, I thought. Focusing on the flow of water rather than the flow of people. “Some rivers do,” I told him. “The Nile. The Monongahela. The New River between Mexicali and the Salton Sea.”
The producer licked his thumb and turned to the dedication page. We were sitting in his bungalow on the Warner lot. Outside the window, I had a fine view of the water tower. He read aloud: “‘To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand, and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California.’”
He looked puzzled. That happens to people who don’t know rivers can run north. “I still don’t get it.”
“The boy and his mother. They’re the heart and soul of ‘Illegal.’”
Then I told him the story behind the story.
Several years ago, the news was filled with horror tales of border crossings gone bad. The life of an illegal alien often ended tragically.
Families heading north were attacked by Mexican bandits or robbed by their own ‘coyotes.’ People locked inside truck trailers literally baked to death. Women were beaten, kidnapped, and forced into sexual slavery. The hellish desert took its own toll, leaving the Border Patrol to rescue illegals as well as arrest them.
I wanted to write a novel set against the backdrop of illegal immigration and human trafficking, but what story would I tell? With me, the characters come first. When their lives are etched in my mind like petroglyphs on a cave wall, they tell me the story. I already had the protagonist. Jimmy (Royal) Payne, a down-and-out Los Angeles lawyer, would cross borders of his own while encountering immigrants, coyotes, corrupt cops, and human traffickers. But what was the spine of the story? I didn’t know.
An Illegal Alien Warning Sets the Dangerous Tone
On a day of blast furnace heat, I drove south through the desert, roadkill armadillos roasting on the pavement. To the east was the polluted Salton Sea. To the west, the Borrego Badlands. As I neared Calexico, the yellow “Caution” signs started popping up. Silhouettes of a father, mother, and daughter scampering across the road. The message: Be on the lookout for “pollos.” Cooked chickens in border slang. Coyotes are “polleros,” or chicken wranglers. Many of the signs were peppered were gunshots.
Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos. Yes, welcome indeed.
I thought of Freddy Fender singing “Across the Borderline,” an achingly sad tale about the “broken promised land.” (You might remember the song — written by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and James Dickinson — from the Jack Nicholson film, “The Border.”
“And when it’s time to take your turn
Here’s one lesson that you must learn
You could lose more than you’ll ever hope to find.”
Near the border, I took a wrong turn onto a side road that dead-ended at the New River, a steaming current of raw sewage and toxic runoff that carries hepatitis, typhoid, polio, and cholera. Tree limbs bleached the color of skeletons floated in the water, which bubbled with a poisonous foam. Knowing of the Border Patrol’s reluctance to dive in, some hardy – or foolhardy – illegals swim with the current, white garbage bags over their heads to blend in with the noxious foam.
Getting out of the car, I saw no swimmers this day. But a large inner tube was grounded in the shallows. A striking, dark-haired woman in her early 30’s and a boy of 10 or so were picking their way across the rocks to shore. Backpacks, sneakers, and a gallon jug of water. Judging from the ease with which the woman hefted the jug, it was nearly empty.
I shouted out a friendly “Hola.” The mother froze. The boy stepped in front of her, a gesture of protection, the child on the verge of becoming a man. I ducked into my car, came out with a Thermos filled with iced tea. I held it up, a universal offer of friendship to travelers. They stood motionless. I walked toward them, but they started backing up…toward the river. I stopped short, placed the Thermos on the ground, dug into my wallet and placed several twenties under the Thermos. A puny gesture, given the enormity of their task.
I returned to my air-conditioned car and headed for the main highway. Through my rear view mirror, I saw mother and son walking north along the dusty road. The boy carried the Thermos.
I didn’t know their names, so I gave them new ones. Marisol and Tino Perez. I imagined them wrenched apart in a border crossing gone-to-hell. They completed my trio of main characters. A shady lawyer. A missing woman. A lost boy. Their antagonist would be a wealthy California mega-farmer with a twisted vision of his own power.
“Illegal” is about choices. Will Jimmy Payne risk his life for two strangers or retreat into his own solitary world? The book is also about greed and corruption, revenge and redemption, all set in the dark world of human trafficking.
When I was finished, the producer said, “Why’d you help those illegals instead of calling the Border Patrol?”
“The Bible says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this, some have entertained angels.’”
“Don’t go biblical on me. Biblical doesn’t sell, except for Mel Gibson, and he’s so yesterday, he’s last year.” (This conversation took place before 2014’s spate of religion-themed movies).
The producer looked out the window where a motorized cart was hauling two-by-fours to a set under construction. “This book got some blood and guts? Like ‘No Country for Old Men.’”
“The hero gets horsewhipped.”
“That’s good. Like Marlon Brando in ‘One-Eyed Jacks.’”
“But it’s more like ‘Chinatown,’” I said, figuring movie analogies kept the producer in his comfort zone. “The abuse of power. Corruption of the flesh.”
He seemed to think it over a moment. “Can we lose that polluted river?”
“Why? Because it flows north?”
“Because no one will believe those illegals would risk it. Just why the hell would someone do that?”
“You nailed it,” I said. “The reason for the book. The reason for the dedication. It makes you ask, ‘Why the hell would someone do that?’”
The two heavyweights of legal thrillers, John Grisham and Scott Turow, have new novels out at the same time. We examined Grisham’s blockbuster “Sycamore Row”in a prior blog. Today, let’s take a look at the books of Scott Turow, starting with his law school memoir and concluding with his current bestselling “Identical.”
First, a bit of Turow’s background. He graduated with high honors from Amherst, studied and taught writing at Stanford and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. He is also president of the prestigious Author’s Guild and still practices law part-time. According to Wikipedia, “Turow works pro bono in most of his cases, including a 1995 case where he won the release of Alejandro Hernandez, who had spent 11 years on death row for a murder he did not commit.”
The Books of Scott Turow
(1977) Basically a journal of Turow’s first year at Harvard Law, it is still in print and required reading for anyone contemplating the rigors (and mortis) of law school.
(1987) My favorite legal thriller of all time. Prosecutor Rusty Sabich goes on trial for the murder of his colleague…and mistress.
THE BURDEN OF PROOF
(1990) Sandy Stern, the defense lawyer in “Presumed Innocent,” suffers a tragedy when his wife commits suicide and thus begins a journey of self-discovery and another foray into the criminal justice system.
(1993) Money and a star litigator go missing from a law firm, and it’s up to an ex-cop turned lawyer to find them…and trouble.
THE LAWS OF OUR FATHERS
(1996) Judge Sonia Klonsky, from “The Burden of Proof” narrates a complex tale involving a murder trial. As is frequent in Turow’s novels, secrets of the past emerge in explosive ways.
(1999) A P.I. lawyer with a penchant for bribing judges gets nabbed. Wearing a wire to trap others, he is supervised by FBI agent Evon Miller (who will re-appear in “Identical”). Their relationship is the heart of the tale.
(2002) This one has it all: a man on Death Row, a reluctant defense lawyer, and possible new evidence that can exonerate the condemned. Not an original concept, but in Turow’s hands, a richly woven tale.
(2005) Family secrets are again at the heart of the story, but this one is a change of pace as a man searches for the truth about his father’s combat and court-martial during World War II.
(2006) The shortest of Turow’s novels, “Limitations” was originally published in The New York Times Magazine. A judge, a rape trial, and questions about morality are at the center of the story.
(2010) Rusty Sabich from “Presumed Innocent” is back. Now, he’s a judge having an affair…and accused of killing his wife. One of my favorites.
Which brings us to…
(2013) A state senator runs for mayor just as his identical twin is released from prison, 25 years after pleading guilty to the murder of his girlfriend. The novel is said to take its inspiration from the myth of Castor and Pollux, identical twins born to Leda, after she was raped by Zeus. (I have to confess I had no idea Zeus was such a lout). Early reviews have been mixed. Writing in “The New York Times Book Review,” Adam Liptak complained:
“‘Identical” is stuffed with so many themes and reversals that readers may end up feeling the way you do after a long family meal with too much talk and food: disoriented, logy and a little nostalgic. Turow has many gifts. He might consider being a little more parsimonious in doling them out.”
At another point in the review, however, Liptak states:
“Still, the rich, sharp courtroom scenes, always Turow’s specialty, are the best parts of the book. He is particularly good at showing how judges use minor rulings to nudge a case to their preferred outcome.”
Now, Turow doesn’t need my help selling books. But, as always with reviews, it’s better to read the book…and make your own decision. What’s your verdict on the books of Scott Turow?
John Grisham, the king of the legal thrillers, has a new book out. So, what’s new about that? For more than two decades, Grisham has been writing about a book a year, starting with “A Time to Kill” in 1989. We’ll consider both the new book and all Grisham books in order.
You’ll remember that riveting first novel was a story of race, violence, and small time prejudices. In some ways, it echoed the themes of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (The film version starred a young Matthew McConaughey as lawyer Jake Brigance, Samuel L. Jackson as his client, who had killed two men who raped his daughter, and Sandra Bullock in a supporting role.
According to Wikipedia, the idea for the first book came from a real case:
“As he was hanging around the court, Grisham overheard a 12-year-old girl telling the jury what had happened to her. Her story intrigued Grisham and he began watching the trial. He saw how the members of the jury cried as she told them about having been raped and beaten. It was then, Grisham later wrote in The New York Times, that a story was born.
Musing over what would have happened if the girl’s father had murdered her assailants,
Grisham took three years to complete his first book, ‘A Time to Kill.’ Finding a publisher was not easy. The book was rejected by 28 publishers before Wynwood Press, an unknown publisher, agreed to give it a modest 5,000-copy printing.”
Now, defense lawyer Jake Brigance is back in “Sycamore Row” in another racially charged trial. I’m looking forward to meeting Grisham on that familiar terrain. Now, let’s move on to the Grisham books in order.
Grisham’s themes are clearly defined. Corruption, greed, and untidy justice permeate his work. Large corporations and Big Money exert cruel power over the weak…until a lawyer (usually flawed) takes up the cause. This rings a bell with me. Behind the judge’s bench in every Miami courtroom is the sign, “We Who Labor Here Seek Only Truth.” You can see the sign, barely, in this goofy publicity shot of me when I was flogging my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” many years ago.
My fictional lawyer, Jake Lassiter, examined the sign and cracked, “There oughta be a footnote. Subject to the truth being concealed by lying witnesses, distorted by sleazy lawyers, and overlooked by lazy judges.” I think Grisham’s protagonists would agree.
But back to Grisham’s oeuvre. It was Grisham’s second novel, “The Firm,” that rocketed him to the top of the charts and spun off the hit Tom Cruise movie. A young attorney is seduced by the pay and perks at a Memphis law firm that is actually a front for the mob. Chaos and murder ensue.
The rest, as they say, is history. Omitting the “Theodore Boone” young adult books and some non-fiction, here are:
GRISHAM BOOKS IN ORDER
A Time to Kill (1989)
The Firm (1991)
The Pelican Brief (1992)
The Client (1993)
The Chamber (1994)
The Rainmaker (1995)
The Runaway Jury (1996)
The Partner (1997)
The Street Lawyer (1998)
The Testament (1999)
The Brethren (2000)
A Painted House (2001)
Skipping Christmas (2001
The Summons (2002)
The King of Torts (2003)
The Bleachers (2003)
The Last Juror (2004)
The Broker (2005)
Playing for Pizza (2007)
The Appeal (2008)
The Associate (2009)
The Confession (2010)
The Litigators (2011)
Calico Joe (2012)
The Racketeer (2012)
Sycamore Row (2013)
GRISHAM BOOKS IN ORDER: A FAVORITE QUOTE
Yes, the man is prolific. Just typing all those titles wore me out. I’ll leave you with a quote from young lawyer Rudy Baylor, a classic Grisham underdog in “The Rainmaker,” who takes on a massive insurance fraud case against overwhelming odds. “I’m alone and outgunned, scared and inexperienced, but I’m right.”