So I ran across Dennis LeHane’s latest in the new book shelf at the Atlanta Ponce library. His Mystic River was first rate – so says James Lee Burke. But he wrote one where I felt so suckered I vowed not to read him again. But this one drew me in, thought I’d give it a chance. The first hundred pages read like a book club book: serious, smart writing, psychologically insightful, lot of research to make the world he’s portraying credible. A young woman grows up with an intense single Mom and, losing her in an accident, seeks out her biological father, even hiring a private detective who later becomes a major character in the story. The book suddenly becomes crime fiction, a mystery that keeps you befuddled, careening from event to event, from mental breakdown to recovery and back again in a very dark world. A good read but with one or two credibility flaws you’ll have to overlook if you want, at that point, which you will, to finish.
I’ve encountered the respectable political writer Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone Magazine and ran across his book I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street about Eric Garner, the 2014 fatal victim of police brutality in the Bronx. I wondered, how do you write a whole book about one street killing? Taibbi uses it as a means to explore the dynamic of police departments, prosecutors, judges, politicians, and the varied people they’re supposed to be serving. This was definitely Matt’s focus, sympathetically portraying the victims of racism and poverty, and not so sympathetically sketching the police perpetrators, demonstrating racism at all levels of the bureaucracy and its poisonous effect, both in elevating white fear of dark people and perpetuating it with their draconian tactics. He covers the phenomenon called “Broken Windows,” a police strategy based on the theory that aggressively attacking minor crime will reduce total crime. Not quite buying it, Matt describes it as a belief that if you go after graffiti vandals the murder rate will somehow drop. He cites an incident in 1971 Arkansas where a cop shot a black man between the eyes for the crime of requesting a receipt for a traffic fine. The cop was of course acquitted. This he ties in with the killing of Eric Garner and the police coverup (a little more difficult than usual since it was video-taped) and prosecutorial grand jury manipulation leading to no indictment. The cop who did the killing had a long history of citizen complaints and a police department/bureaucracy that seemed willing to dismiss any and all charges. Not a book with a happy ending unless you identify with villains – the prosecutor goes merrily on to a successful run for congress, the officer goes unimpeded on his violent trail to a nice retirement. Maybe karma will take care of it all, the justice system certainly didn’t.
In Kansas, 150 years earlier, the same ignorance and casual violence was at work, though, as portrayed in Tom Clavin’s book, Dodge City, there was significant, and somewhat successful, resistance in the form of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, their brothers and friends. The “good guys” weren’t exactly choir boys as the saying goes, but they had an integrity, at least in Clavin’s coverage, not evident in Taibbi’s book. They were surrounded by corrupt lawmen, politicians, cattlemen, reckless cowboys and vicious sociopathic outlaws differentiated from today’s mobsters only by horses instead of Lincoln Town Cars. Women fit into the story only peripherally, mostly as prostitutes. “Taming the west” involved colossal injustice for natives: the stealing of their land; forced removal to “reservations”, often the least habitable areas around, which were stolen again whenever precious metals were discovered; the wanton slaughter of the magnificent buffalo to near-extinction, on which the natives were dependent for food. The “good guys” Wyatt and Bat did little on this illegal front, standing on the wrong side of it in fact as their early work was killing buffalo for the hides, well, the money for the hides – ain’t it always so. Daniel Quinn, in the novel Ishmael, asks the reader to – Imagine yourself in 1930s Germany; what would you do? Extending the question to the western United States in 1870, or hell, to our 2017 world, points up the immense difficulty confronting those who would intervene in the relentless trajectory of rapacious patriarchal greed.
That brings us to another book I’ve been dipping into, Eckhart Tolle’s, The Power of Now, the book that brought him fame. It provides the hope lacking in these other books. In the form of questions from Tolle’s clients and his answers, it covers basically the same ground as his wonderful A New Earth (I like to say, the most important book ever published). In a nutshell, the hope consists in realizing that human dysfunction, at the root of all that ails our civilization… greed, conflict, war… is a mental construct he calls ego. Even the reformers, the activists who dream of and work for peace are often captured by it. The ultimate form of activism is to become the observer, of the thoughts and emotions, the mind chatter, that drifts across our field of awareness, observing rather than being them, avoiding mistaking them for us. Our real selves, in essence, is that observer which is consciousness. Bringing the light of consciousness to those thoughts and emotions, they are transposed into presence. In presence is joy of being and eventually comes an impulse to creativity, an ego-less act aligned with the intelligence, the source of being. We don’t decide to be good, to act according to some ethical creed, we get present and our behavior, aligned as said, is ethical, sensitive, caring, compassionate and respectful of the miracle of life, recognizing that the essence, consciousness, is where we all meet. I did say, “in a nutshell” – Tolle’s books and talks elaborate on these appealing ideas which are newly articulated but hardly original, having been stated, and mostly misunderstood, in many, often esoteric, forms, by rare and singular individuals throughout history.