Following the New River North
the co-host of National Public Radio's All Things Considered,
did something that appeals to many of us in our idle moments
(though we never act on it): he parlayed his interest in the
New River into a series of journeys downriver by bike, canoe
and whitewater raft from North Carolina's Snake Mountain to the
Gauley Bridge in West Virginia (the site of the internationally
renown Bridge Day, when, among other things, hardy souls leap
from the bridge and hope their parachutes open up before they
hit the water).
As Adams writes in Far Appalachia, a casually paced,
enjoyably relaxed account of his trips, "One day, looking
at the atlas, I noticed the thin, blue traces of the New, and
realized the river could be the slower way into the country that
I'd been looking for." Slower, that is, than the lamentably
fast pace by which the river is passed by motorists on the Interstate,
and slower than the pace which Adams had to set when he returned
to his native Appalachia for ATC stories on coal mine
strikes, strip mining and the like.
The fact that Far Appalachia is drawn from several
different trips rather than a single, climatic one doesn't hurt
the account. Far Appalachia isn't about Adams taking a
metaphorical journey in which he learns something New Agey about
himself. True to his journalism background, he delivers a simply
if elegantly written book about the river itself, and, in keeping
with ATC's pronounced interest in the sounds inherent
in a story, Adams often focuses on the music of the river
and its inhabitants: the roar of whitewater rapids; women singing
harmony over a gospel guitar; the imagined sounds of a now abandoned
textile mill running at full tilt. Together, the essays--anchored
around thirty-two points along the river--have a quietly poetic,
meditative quality that captures quite wonderfully the river's
This being a book about Appalachia, Adams would be remiss
if he didn't address Appalachia's poverty--and in particular,
its mining industry. Coal has been, at best, a double-edged sword
for the region. Here, Adams recounts an ATC interview
he did with the director of West Virginia's Environmental Protection
At the airport I thanked him for the tour and asked an oh,
by the way, question. What would have happened if coal had never
been discovered in the state? He paused. My meaning was clear:
the real money from the minerals had been made by out-of-state
business people and West Virginia was finding it tough to even
clean up the mess. I had a tape recorder running so I was surprised
by his answer: "I've thought many times about what West
Virginia would be like if Mother Nature or God had not put coal
in these mountains, and I frankly have had to conclude that perhaps
the state would have been better off without the coal."
Fittingly, Adams's trip ends at the Gauley Bridge, down the
road from the Hawks Nest Tunnel, whose construction began in
1930 and which became the site of the nation's first recognized
industrial disaster: the mountain through which the tunnel was
drilled, blasted and dug was almost pure silica, and the dust
that filled the tunnel caused silicosis.
The company denied there was a problem with silica dust, even
though [Union] Carbide officials who toured the job site would
have to wear respirators. The company blamed poor nutrition and
said the men would stand around in bad weather in front of open
fires, gambling, and that Negroes were especially prone to catch
Pneumonia was indeed a cause of death. The tiny silica particles
are absorbed by cells in the lung. The lungs are scarred. Breathing
becomes difficult, disease comes easily.
Martin Cherniak, a physician and occupational medicine specialist,
wrote a book about the project, The Hawk's Nest Incident.
He sums up his research with this estimate of death: "Within
five years after its completion, the Hawk's Nest Tunnel would
have claimed a total of 764 victims to silicosis, or to other
less provocatively named causes of death from dusty lungs."
The legal struggles for settlement stretched on for decades.
But soon you won't be able to find people, the old people in
Gauley Bridge, who can tell you about the ambulances and their
silent daily trips up over the mountain.
(Full disclosure: my paternal grandfather was one of the hundreds
of workers who died from exposure to Hawk's Nest silica dust.)
The juxtaposition of the area's natural beauty and the economic
strife its residents have suffered through is telling, and Adams
rightly takes time away from a beautiful setting to explore it.
Back to Archived Short
translated by Linda Coverdale
On January 9,
1993, a fire broke out at the home of Jean-Claude Romand, a high-ranking
physician with the World Health Organization in Geneva. His wife
and two children were found dead in the house; the doctor himself
was unconscious and taken by ambulance to a local hospital. It
seemed like a simple, tragic fire until the doctor's grief-stricken
best friend (a doctor himself) ran his hand through the dead
wife's hair and found a suspicious wound at the base of her skull.
A fireman thought it had been caused by a beam falling in the
fire. Then an uncle went to break the news of the fire and deaths
to Romand's parents...and found them both shot to death in their
home. Medical examinations subsequently found that Romand's wife
had been bludgeoned to death, and his children shot to death--before
the fire broke out.
At first, police suspected unknown enemies had struck out
against Romand, but once they began to search for suspects, they
made a startling discovery: Romand did not, in fact, work
for WHO, and he wasn't a doctor at all. As it turns out, he'd
never even finished medical school--and he'd successfully fooled
family, friends and neighbors for eighteen years. But, as investigators
slowly discovered, the ruse had been about to run its course,
and rather than accept the shame, Romand had simply killed the
people he couldn't face with his secret truths.
Why didn't he simply escape--leave his family and flee with
whatever money remained from his embezzlement schemes? It would
have been a heartless act, of course, but certainly nothing compared
to killing his family. So why not? "The problem," Emmanuel
Carrère suggests in his brief but fascinating account,
The Adversary, "was that he would still be alive
and that alone, even with money, he wouldn't know what to do
with his life. Shedding the skin of Dr. Romand would mean ending
up without any skin, more than naked: flayed."
Carrère, a critically acclaimed French novelist best
known in English translation for his psychological suspense novels
Class Trip and The Mustache, found Romand's story
so compelling that he wrote to him directly and asked how he
would feel about being the subject of an extended Carrère
study. Two years passed before Romand responded (his lawyer had
thought it was a bad idea to write during the preliminary investigation).
They struck up a correspondence, and as Carrère followed
the trial, at least some of the pieces came together.
Far from a standard, bloodthirsty True Crime account, The
Adversary is a contemplative study of character, an attempt
to understand the 'why' behind the 'what.' It's obviously a novelist's
work; questions of motivation and backstory and the urge to visualize
emotionally intriguing scenes (where did Romand go during his
'office hours'?) drives the text far more than do the lurid details
of Romand's crime (which Carrère passes by so squeamishly--if
movingly, nonetheless--that he makes Ann Rule's books look like
autopsy reports). In place of gruesome details, Carrère
gives us the sort of stuff Raymond Chandler famously suggested
was what most crime-genre readers are really after, whether they
know it or not. Here, for example, Carrère describes the
death of Roland's mother:
Then he went to get his mother. She hadn't heard the gunshots,
fired with a silencer. He had her go into the sitting room, which
they never used. She was the only one who was shot from the front.
He must have tried, by showing her something, to make her turn
around. Did she turn back sooner than expected to see her son
aiming the rifle at her? Did she say, "Jean-Claude, what's
the matter?" or "What's the matter with you?"
as he stated during one of the interrogations, only to claim
later that he didn't remember that anymore and knew of it only
through the case file? With that same uncertainty, trying like
the rest of us to reconstruct the scene, he says that his mother
lost her false teeth when she fell and that he put them back
in for her before covering her with a green bedspread.
The Adversary is a lean text, and it's often rather
coldly analytical, particularly when Carrère isn't actively
musing over motivation. It reminded me of how French New Wave
directors--thoroughgoing romantics, all of them--managed to inflect
a scientific rationalism into their projects. (Alain Resnais's
Mon Oncle d'Amerique particularly came to mind.) The rational
/ romantic juxtaposition is chilling, to say the least.
For readers who are used to more traditional True Crime efforts,
The Adversary is eye-opening. Readers who prefer more
rarified intellectual texts will happily find it's as riveting
as any Ann Rule title without ever feeling like a guilty pleasure.
Back to Archived Short
Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan
late nineteenth century," Will Ferguson writes in his delightfully
entertaining Hokkaido Highway Blues,
a British scholar noted that if one could just reconcile the
lofty heights of Japanese ideals with the earthly limitations
of its people, one would truly understand the essence of this
beguiling nation. Not surprisingly, he left Japan a bitter and
frustrated man. Me, I don't even begin to understand the countless
contradictions of Japan, but when the cherry blossoms come every
spring I am swept away nonetheless.
Indeed, he is so swept away that he once announced to his
fellow teachers (they worked on the remote Amakusa Islands) that
he intended to follow the Cherry Blossom Front as the cherry
blossoms bloomed north up the 1,875-mile length of Japan. He
was drunk at the time, he reports (cherry blossom viewing parties
tend to revolve around alcohol), but his supervisor held him
to the announcement. After three years, Ferguson was thus shamed,
finally, into making the month-long trip north--by hitchhiking.
"Now, I will admit," he writes, "that mooching
rides across Japan is not a major achievement--I mean,
it's not like I paddled to the Amazon or discovered insulin or
anything--but I am the first and so far only person to do this,
so allow me my hubris."
Ferguson, who is the great-great grandson of Doctor Livingstone
("the legendary explorer of 'I presume' fame"), manages
to make travel decidedly more humorously entertaining that his
ancestor did. Among a variety of comically charged encounters,
he is mistaken for a Brazilian soccer star, visits a sex museum
and drinks shõchu, "a form of alcohol so pure it
shows up on some Periodic Tables."
Hokkaido Highway Blues is the sort of book you expect
to deliver a joke on every page, and Ferguson doesn't let his
readers down. Best of all, there's a decidedly Edwardian sparkle
to Ferguson's wit. Read this passage, for instance, and ask yourself
how out of place it would be in Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men
in a Boat:
The boat was paint-peeling white, and the motor was disproportionately
loud for such a slow putt-putt of a vessel. Our captain had to
yell to be heard above it.
"There are about ninety monkeys on the island,"
he shouted. "They are called the Wisest Monkeys in Japan."
"How so?" I shouted back.
"Well," he said, "they wash their potatoes
before they eat them."
I was going to ask him how washing potatoes qualified them
as "wise." I mean, I wash my potatoes all the time
but no one refers to me as being particularly wise. Maybe
"the Cleverest Darn Monkeys in Japan," might be a more
accurate title. But I felt I had annoyed enough people for one
day, and I wisely decided to keep my comments to myself. It is
one thing to be kicked out of a car, it is quite another to be
kicked out of a boat.
The Edwardian wit is slightly updated, of course. Of one man
who gave him a ride, Ferguson writes, "He was a repulsive
little man, and I will change his name to--ah, fuck it, he'll
never read this. His name is Sukebe Hashimoto." (Click here to read WAG's online edition of Three
Men in a Boat.)
Hokkaido Highway Blues isn't all feather-light fun.
Where the waggish Edwardian traveler assumes a cloak of ignorance
of 'the foreign,' Ferguson offers an impressively well-informed
take on his environs. He knows Japan, and he quietly offers intelligent
takes on both its landscape and its sociological patterns. (The
ambivalence he feels as an outsider--a status the Japanese seem
unable to stop pointing out--is particularly interesting.)
Ferguson is a natural storyteller, and his writing is stunningly
smooth and effortlessly readable. And he has a special knack
for amusing cliffhanger endings. An example: the tenth chapter
of the Sado Island and Tohoku section ends thus: "And that's
when I was captured by leprechauns."
Now, I defy you to reach over and cut off the nightstand's
lamp immediately after reading that.
Back to Archived Short
Looking for Lovedu
Alfred A. Knopf
On a press junket
canoe trip down the Zambezi, the American travel writer Ann Jones
and a British photographer named Kevin Muggleton hatch the idea
of together driving the length of the African continent. The
two hardly know each other, yet what begins as something between
a joke and a dare somehow coalesces into an agreement and then
"The Queen," writes Jones in the opening sentence
of her book, Looking for Lovedu, "was an afterthought."
The Queen in question is Modjadji V, Queen of the Lovedu,
a people said to live by traditionally "feminine" values
of cooperation, compromise and peace and ruled by a Queen with
the power to call forth the rains.
A road trip--particularly a road trip with sponsors and a
book contract--needs a point, and the Queen of the Lovedu (pronounced
"Low-BAY-doo"), whom Jones learns of by accident, in
"a tiny dependent clause buried deep in the middle of [a]
paragraph" of a caption on a display case in the Hall of
African Peoples in the Museum of Natural History in New York
city, becomes the Jones-Muggleton Expedition's point. Sort of.
Because from the start Jones is animated by the idea of looking
for a "land where women rule," whereas Muggleton seems
at best a reluctant convert to the idea.
And in truth, there isn't much searching to the search; by
the time the trip begins, Jones already knows where to find the
Lovedu, "in the northeast corner of South Africa."
The only question remaining is whether there are any Lovedu left
to be found.
The Jones-Muggleton expedition starts badly and goes downhill
from there. Contrary to their initial expectations, hatched on
a leisurely guided canoe trip, the "aging female" Jones
and the gung-ho Muggleton (who, as Jones points out, is half
her age and twice her size) make lousy travelling companions.
Jones wants to meander. Muggleton wants to conquer. Jones hankers
after community and a spirit of mutual cooperation with everyone
they meet along the way. Muggleton wants to prove they can do
it alone, angrily charging through country after country as though
settling a score with the entire continent. They roar south,
Muggleton almost always at the wheel, rattling their 1980 army-surplus
Land Rover to pieces on--and off--badly maintained roadways,
before miring miserably in a seemingly endless series of deep
mud wallows in Zaire. Muggleton is stricken with malaria. Jones's
feet turn gray and her toenails fall off. The expedition, like
the Land Rover, comes asunder.
Although the book jacket gives away pretty much the whole
story, I'll refrain. Suffice it to say that Jones discovers unexpected
ironies and still less expected epiphanies on her journey. The
last line is lovely. And it seems a piece of generosity very
much in the spirit of the Lovedu that the line is not Jones's
Looking for Lovedu, ostensibly a travel-adventure narrative,
is surprisingly hard to categorize. Since no one dies or even
loses a limb, it's a quieter book than some that have topped
the bestseller lists in recent years. Jones is willing to pass
judgement, repeatedly revisiting the point that Africa is a continent
where women have virtually none of the power yet seem to do most
of the work; some (Muggleton, for one) might find the theme wearing
after a while.
Yet in the midst of their helter-skelter southward scamper
(Muggleton's word), Jones also manages some poignant observations
on a land and a dignified people struggling to endure despite
the ravages of colonialism, post-colonialism, despotism, drought,
environmental devastation, civil strife, bloodshed, AIDS and
a thousand other insults. To a reader comfortable in all the
trappings of Western civilization, Africa seems like a hard place
to love. Clear-eyed, never romanticizing, Jones somehow manages
nevertheless to show us the ravaged beauty of the place. When
they cross the border from ruined "bloody Zaire" and
enter the recovering nation of Uganda, Jones writes, "And
the elephants, which had fled, were wisely returning from Zaire.
I could imagine the great creatures, coming on in long files,
the matriarchs in the lead, their trunks swaying, their huge
feet rising and falling steadily, soundlessly, moving out of
the dying forests of Zaire, crossing the border, whispering themselves
as we had, 'Yes.'"
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