Review by New York Times Review
THAT 63-year-old Tracy Kidder may have just written his finest work - indeed, one of the truly stunning books I've read this year - is proof that the secret to memorable nonfiction is so often the writer's readiness to be surprised. Of course, most writers, from daily reporters to best-selling authors, get paid for something else: knowing what they want early on, getting the goods and then anxiously turning them into something worth reading. The reason this model tends to miss more than hit is that the most precious gems gathered in any journalistic journey are frequently those found around the edges of a story. Kidder has become a high priest of the narrative arts by diving deep into an improbable subject or character with little more than a hunch as to what he might eventually find. Since 1981, when "The Soul of a New Machine" - the story of a team creating that era's cutting-edge computer - won him a Pulitzer and commercial success, he has worked relentlessly to carry on the tradition of John McPhee, sublimating ego in a tireless search for somewhere to hide, for a subject into which to vanish and live, sometimes for years. Few have been better at this than Kidder. He has followed a team of home builders ("House," 1985), a fifth-grade teacher ("Among Schoolchildren," 1989) and nursing home residents ("Old Friends," 1993), and in each case emerged - sooty, battered, blinking in the sunlight - to write books illuminated by a glowing humanism. This is a feat of increasing difficulty as an author's fame grows. The transaction between writer and subject can easily be stage-managed for marketplace effect - moments overplayed to guide readers to tears or elation or preordained insights - and prose often takes on the weight of sentimentality, the great enemy of good writing, as J. D. Salinger put it, giving something "more tenderness than God gives to it." What happened in this case? While reporting his 2003 best seller, "Mountains Beyond Mountains," a fitfully earnest book about a character almost impossible to love too much - Dr. Paul Farmer, leader of a global campaign to eradicate preventable disease - Kidder stumbled across a spectral African refugee who had signed on with the doctor's organization, Partners in Health, as a bit player, a guy helping out, answering e-mail, "performing any jobs that needed doing." His name was Deogratias, or "thanks be to God" in Latin. "Strength in What Remains" is Deo's story. And what a tale it is, opening from a passenger seat in an airliner in war-torn Burundi, where Deo, then 24, is leaving behind what once seemed a promising life in Africa as a third-year medical student. It was 1994. Burundi and neighboring Rwanda were exploding in civil wars, in which Hutu and Tutsi were slaughtering one another in one of the 20th century's most horrifying conflicts. With the help of the privileged family of one of his med-school friends, Deo is able to escape the carnage, bound for America. Soon, with only $200 and no English, Deo is struggling to survive on the streets of New York. With remarkable acuity, Kidder puts the reader in the young man's place, as he sleeps in an abandoned tenement in Harlem and gets a job for $15 a day (yes, you read that right) delivering groceries for Gristedes, the supermarket chain. Kidder lets the story unfold, staying out of the way, letting Deo's reactions and insights carry each page. Though the reader is informed that Deo witnessed horrors in Burundi, and is haunted by them, snatches from his past are unearthed solely to show what he relies on to survive - backward glances that testify to his resilience. WITH many thousands of Africans fleeing their continent's widening nightmares for America, Deo's experience can feel like this era's version of the Ellis Island migration - a story, then and now, of trauma and forward motion. The reader is pulled along, feeling rage when the Gristedes manager pokes at him with a stick "sometimes, it seemed, just for fun"; shame when the young man goes tipless, day after day, delivering groceries to Park Avenue. "You had to get tips," explained a friend at the store. "You lingered in doorways, you cleared your throat, sometimes you asked for a tip outright. But this was the same as begging, Deo thought." A reader also feels a strange kind of relief when Deo enters Central Park, sees it through the eyes of someone who grew up in forests, and finds an ideally concealed patch of grass where he can sleep. He falls into a routine, working days and living nights in the park, a canopy of stars providing a link to the fields of Africa and anything he once knew. The story seems to tell itself, but that's never the way it really happens. Strategic decisions have to be made, and Kidder seems to make all the right ones, first taking readers for a flashback to Burundi, showing the rural landscape where Deo's family farmed and tended cows, and the grandfather who told him he would get his first cow only "when you finish school" - all of it, surely, a world that would be washed away. Then it's the mid-'90s in New York, where a nun, Sharon McKenna, takes an interest in the homeless Deo. He is grateful, though he worries that he's building up a debt to her - "borrowed salt," he calls it - leaving him with a childlike neediness. One day, when she points out the birds and flowers in Central Park, he fumes, sotto voce: "I'm not 5 years old. I know what a bird is. Yes, I know that is a flower. And I know Central Park better than you do. I sleep here." This is Kidder's great feat, one that has eluded him in some of his later work: trusting the reader enough to present characters in the full splatter of unsettling complexity. This is not about presenting a holy man, a hero. His protagonist is bold, insecure, foolish, inspiring and, as the young man's memories race to catch him, there are hints that even more shades of personality will soon be revealed. After McKenna finds a place for Deo to live in Lower Manhattan with an older couple, a sociologist and his wife, an artist, the reader can't help signing on to Deo's cause. In an act of astonishing generosity, the couple eventually pay for him to enroll at Columbia University's School of General Studies. Deo is propelled, so often, by pure will, and his victories - like acing his calculus entrance test for Columbia - ummon a feeling of restored confidence in human nature and the American opportunity that Deo's journey suggests. Here, midway through the book, Deo seems to grab hold of a promising future. Then we plunge into hell. Having had only glimpses of Deo's past, we suddenly get a full-blown portrait - generating an effect that is made even more powerful by the author's earlier restraint. Kidder's rendering of what Deo endured and survived just before he boarded that plane for New York is one of the most powerful passages of modern nonfiction. Many readers may have indistinct images of what actually happened in Rwanda and Burundi, where around a million people died. Through Deo's eyes, we see how the all but indiscernible differences between Tutsi and Hutu make a harrowing mockery of the supposed distinctions of ethnicity. Hutu and Tutsi begin to slaughter one another, farm to farm, house to house, in hospitals like the one where Deo, a Tutsi, is doing his internship. He is saved and lost and saved again countless times, a skeletal figure lunging between burning buildings, glinting machetes and the bone-chilling chants of Hutu militiamen, making it seem "as if in the world there were only insanity and the silence of corpses." "Moments were the only time he knew," Kidder writes. "He spent nearly every moment worrying about the next. Six months felt like a minute, and moments when it felt like there was no time in front of him felt like an eternity." Running in the countryside among terrified refugees, he comes across a relief worker in a truck marked "Médecins Sans Frontières" - Doctors Without Borders. Deo whispers urgently that he's a medical student - "It is not safe for me. I'm afraid." It's impossible not to cry out - "Get him out of there!" But all the man can do is drive Deo to another refugee camp, so many of which are simply holding pens for Tutsis awaiting slaughter. Deo knows to flee such places, but he's faced with spirit-crushing horrors. A baby, sitting on the lap of his dead mother in a banana grove, locks eyes with him. "It must be wondering where it is," Deo thinks, in Kidder's rendering. "It must be terrified like him. But he couldn't help the baby. He couldn't even help himself." Deo can only stagger away, overcome with despair, and collapse into a heavy sleep. He's jostled awake, a day later, by a Hutu woman about his mother's age. She pulls Deo from the brush, discovers he's a Tutsi and then, at extraordinary risk, saves him from beheading by telling Hutu guards that he's her son. The scene suggests how, in the face of nightmares born of surface distinctions - of power exercising all of its destructive prerogatives - the seeds of mankind's survival lie in the unexpected acts of kinship and kindness. ONLY in the book's last third does Kidder himself appear, showing how he and Deo met in Paul Farmer's orbit and then joining the young man on his return to Burundi. Deo dropped out of Dartmouth Medical School in 2006 to carry forward a long-held dream to build a medical clinic in Burundi - another adventure story - taking readers to the book's final pages. It is fascinating to see the two men, writer and subject, together, Kidder allowing Deo to take the lead. Kidder's approach is a reminder of what can make American nonfiction so exceptional although, of late, it is rare. It's that bottom-up quality that defies big-budget marketing and calculation, the search from on high for a "sure thing." In this connected age, disruptive change - and transforming insights - bubble up furiously from the least likely places. Kidder saw that bottom-up flash of energy in the smile of a peripheral man. And we are lucky he did. Kidder dives deep into an improbable subject with little more than a hunch as to what he might find. Ron Suskind is the author of "The Way of the World" and "A Hope in the Unseen," among other books.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]