Friday, May 30, 2014

David Fuller

David Fuller's first novel, Sweetsmoke, was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author, as well as being shortlisted for a John Creasy "New Blood" Dagger Award in Great Britain. It was a Discover Great New Writers pick for Barnes & Noble, and an Original Voices pick for Borders.

Fuller's new novel is Sundance.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I was lucky enough to hear Stephen Carter speak back in 2008 in Nashville, and one of the things he said was that the dirty little secret of novelists is that they don’t read novels.

There is an element of truth to that. I rarely get to read novels unless I am between projects. I dislike having other writers’ voices in my head while I’m writing, and most of the time I’m doing research for my next project. Generally that means non-fiction.

I am always reading a dozen or more books at the same time. I am researching a new project, and I have recently finished two books that I enjoyed. They are fine pieces of work.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz is one of those books that, once I saw my first novel in print, people thought would interest me. At that point, I was pretty much done with Civil War books. But time has passed, and it called out to me from my shelf.

I was particularly taken with Chapter 5, set in Kentucky, entitled Dying For Dixie. A white young man named Michael Westerman was driving his red pickup, flying a large rebel flag from a post in the bed of his truck. This was on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. It annoyed some nearby African American young men. It is possible that Westerman flipped them off and used a word that tends to incite outrage. Westerman’s wife, who was in the truck with her husband, claims they said and did nothing. Other black passengers, in the vehicles that chased them, say they did. Nevertheless, Westerman was shot during a high speed chase and subsequently died.

Westerman saw the rebel flag as decorative, thinking the colors looked good with his red pickup truck. He had no sense of the historical significance of the flag. The blacks who chased him were equally uninformed about the rebel flag. They perceived that whites used it just to annoy them. Horwitz makes clear in his narrative that this was a senseless act on everyone’s part. As he peels back the layers of the story, we find that no one was as they were being portrayed in the media.

Horwitz eloquently explains that something curious had happened to Todd County, where the incident took place, an act of what psychologists might term ‘recovered memory.’ Locals had reclaimed a past of their own creation, in which Todd County was staunch rebel territory. In reality, Todd County hadn’t been rebel country at all. During the Civil War, most of the county supported the Union. Yet, today, almost all whites proclaimed their county rebel territory, believing it had always been so.

The victim’s biography then underwent a rewrite, says Horwitz. Westerman was given a Confederate profile, and his use of the rebel flag was now a symbol of ancestral pride, a family history in which he had never had any interest when he was alive. Part of this was the family’s attempt to give larger meaning to a senseless death. Meanwhile, poor whites used the death to blame blacks for wanting to take away their pride and white rights. The blacks wondered how it had come to this, when before the shooting, blacks and whites had lived together genially. The KKK and Aryan Nation moved in, using Westerman’s death to recruit new members. Horwitz interviews all of them, and it is to his credit as a writer and as a man that he finds the humanity in everyone with whom he speaks. Yet these misunderstandings and grievances grow and seethe.

It is a complex and sad and human and painful story, and Tony Horwitz does a fine job reporting it. But as much as I learned, as much as I admired the book, it also made me sad for my country.

The other book I recently finished is The Presidents Club, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. In some ways, it is the antidote for the sadness I felt while reading Confederates in the Attic. The Presidents Club goes into detail of how former presidents of the United States regularly support the president in power. It begins with Hoover saving Truman’s presidency. Gibbs and Duffy write: “Truman’s needs and Hoover’s gifts were perfectly matched. Across a devastated Europe, a hundred million people were at risk of starvation.” In May of 1945, when Truman had been in office less than two months, a week after the German surrender, the world faced the most stupendous feeding problem in history. A “hideous famine facing 100 million European civilians.” “One in three Belgian children was tubercular; one in four children in Belgrade died before their first birthday.” Hoover had made his reputation as the man who saved millions from starvation as Woodrow Wilson’s food czar during the First World War. Hoover did it again, saving millions by knowing how to get food to the starving. The relationship between the two men was complicated, but Hoover often came to Truman’s aid, even when Truman found it politically expedient to campaign against Hoover’s presidency, knowing all the while that he was unfairly maligning Hoover.

The book gives perspective to the problems we face as a country by detailing recent history, and showing how presidents attempted to handle their crises, often with the help of the only other human beings on the planet who could possibly understand their crushing burden. Learning that former presidents, no matter their perspective or political party, were and continue to be willing to reach out and help the current president, gave me a small inner glow. Details of how important Eisenhower was to LBJ, the friendship and bond that developed between Carter and Ford after they were both out of power, the importance of Nixon to Clinton, all these astonishing stories made me feel better about my country, and positively hopeful. The support Obama currently receives from former presidents is encouraging, and I suspect, no matter your political beliefs, that you may find yourself hopeful as well. I recommend it as a salve, in the face of the bitter divisiveness that confronts us all.
Visit David Fuller's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Sweetsmoke.

The Page 69 Test: Sundance.

--Marshal Zeringue