This Week's Reads

David A. Neiwert, David Foster Wallace, and Sarah Erdman.

 Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial and Hate Crime in America

By David A. Neiwert (Palgrave/Macmillan, $26.95) As a kid from Hoquiam, Grays Harbor County, I remember nearby Ocean Shores when it was called Oyhut, a scattering of clammers' shacks and abandoned beach hovels you could squat in for a week, skipping school, living on peanut butter sandwiches and beer bought with fake IDs, scoring $50 by digging and selling clams commercially. Ah, the good old days. Oyhut today is the leftover smattering of weather-raked cabins at the swanky entrance to what began as the Ocean Shores real-estate development in the late 1960s. Now a full-blown Left Coast city and seasonal tourist trap, Ocean Shores in its early resort days attracted Hollywood stars and professional athletes (Joe Namath stepped on my foot there getting out of an airplane). On Independence Day 2000, Ocean Shores attracted Chris Kinison, 21, and his fellow skinheads, mostly homegrown racists, earning the city a niche in the annals of memorable hate crimes. As recounted here in David Neiwert's revealing, evenhanded report (expanded from his original coverage for Salon), Minh Duc Hong, 26, of Bellevue, and two fellow Asian-American tourists were attacked by Kinison and fellow travelers at a Texaco mini-mart early on the Fourth of July. They shouted, "Gooks go home!" and waved a Confederate flag (it made sense to them). Hong, fearful, defended himself with a knife he'd obtained in the mini-mart, stabbing the taller, heavier Kinison a little more than seemed necessary: 23 times. In over­whelmingly white Grays Harbor County, the Vietnamese killer wound up facing one count of first-degree manslaughter, while none of the skinheads was charged. Hong, portrayed by prosecutors as something of a gangsta wanna-be, was ultimately found not guilty. All these facts were in the papers back then. But Seattle writer Neiwert delves deeper, detailing the prejudices that drove the killing and its aftermath. In exploring this and other cases around the U.S., Neiwert notes that, typically, a hate criminal "is not a skinhead inspired by hate groups, but is a fairly average person who otherwise fits in with his community." There are the Nazis and the rednecks, and then there are the fine, upstanding citizens—especially in small towns, where hate crimes often go unreported, says Neiwert—who nudge and wink at racist talk and see hate crimes as an economic problem, not a social one. Earlier during the long, busy tourist weekend in which Hong was attacked, Kinison and his self-styled supremacists had harassed a group of Filipino tourists. Police handled it quickly. They escorted the Filipinos out of town. RICK ANDERSON David Neiwert will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Wed., Aug. 18. Oblivion: Stories

By David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown, $25.95) Why do we read David Foster Wallace—the vanishingly small number of us, that is, who do? What is the appeal of a writer who reproduces, with exquisite accuracy, the kind of paralyzing anxieties that grip us in the small hours, the sense of evaporating self that can take possession at any hour, looking out the bus window, staring into the morning coffee? I ask as one qualified to ask, one who, fidgeting and fuming, read every damn page of Wallace's ridiculously overlong novel-without-an-ending Infinite Jest.1 And my question is not rhetorical. I don't understand myself the grim determination with which I engage gnarly, impacted Wallace fictions like the not-brief-enough Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I don't like the typical Wallace narrator any more than he likes himself. I don't like the way that, having invented them, Wallace watches them squirm on the pins he impales them on until, apparently just because he's grown bored, his attention wanders and the story stops in midtorment. Wallace finds his soul-decayed protagonists in numerous venues, but they fall into two main groupings. Some we're privileged to observe as they feel the rot encroaching on them, like the deliquescent focus-group manager in this volume's "Mister Squishy" or the desperate stringer for a supermarket glossy in "The Suffering Channel." Others come agonizingly unglued in private, observed at second- or thirdhand or even fourth, like the elementary-school teacher in "The Soul Is Not a Smithy." The narrator in "Another Pioneer" is exceptional in that he doesn't seem to realize his consciousness is shredding into confetti as he speaks. Between this gallery of harried losers and the reader is the celebrated Wallace "style," less a consistency of tone than a set of mannerisms, diverse in themselves but pretty consistently deployed in story after story. There's the patented Wallace footnote; 2 the compulsive recursive analysis that curls back on itself tighter and tighter until it disappears up its own asshole; the parallel narratives that seem to be converging to resolution until they suddenly shoot off in all directions like a box of inadvertently ignited fireworks. All right, my question initially was rhetorical, but now I'm taking it seriously: Why read someone whose literary modus operandi is recording empty lives lived out in fictive universes even more devoid of purpose than our own? After due con­sideration (the preceding sentence was written around 3:30 p.m. yesterday), I tentatively conclude that there is some kind of twisted pleasure in visiting a sensibility like Wallace's, observing him craft verbal objects as painstaking and pointless as a model of the Rouen cathedral made out of pasta, when you'd think with his attitude he'd hardly be able to get out of bed to feed the dog. The abyssal gloom of his worldview sets off his stylistic surface—the asides, the comically contorted syntax, the loopy displays of erudition—the way black velvet in Harry Winston's window sets off the glittering baubles on display. I wish Wallace would risk grappling once more with larger forms and a larger world, as he did in Infinite Jest. Despite its extravagance, about two-thirds of that doorstop of a book is powerful and memorable. The literary fiddle-dee-dee, the gratuitous sci-fi tropes, and the snarky family-from-hell passages are pushed to marginal irrelevance by the central exploration of addiction as both hell and argument with existence. Compared to it, everything else Wallace has written is vamping. It's time for him to quit playing solo tennis with the backboard. ROGER DOWNEY 1. Footnotes and all. 2. Few and far between here, compared to the hundreds in Infinite Jest, but even more irritatingly irrelevant when they occur. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village

By Sarah Erdman (Picador, $14.00) During Sarah Erdman's two years as a Peace Corps health worker in an Ivory Coast village, she often wondered what she could offer to the people of Nambonkaha in return for the immeasurable joy they gave her. Though she left them with considerably improved health care programs and facilities, perhaps her greatest gift was to publish this love-soaked account of the village and its ways. The narrative starts slowly, as did Erdman's work there. An American fluent in French and full of good intentions, she arrived in 1998 in a Muslim village that didn't know what year it was. Nambonkaha had no electricity, no watches, and little literacy. She wondered how she would teach preventive health care in a place where only a handful of educated men spoke French, where the people lived so in the moment that they used the same word for "yesterday" and "tomorrow," and where sorcery was thought to be the cause of every ailment. There were other hurdles: how to promote birth control in a community where men are respected for their large families, and where polygamy and female circumcision are still standard practice; how to introduce the Western luxury of preventive medicine in a village that couldn't always afford soap; the inevitable and ever-pressing threat of AIDS. Her solutions came out of necessity, one hurdle, one person, one lesson at a time. She started by teaching a few villagers how to reduce a fever, how to weigh their babies, even how to read. Eventually she recruited village health assistants, organized a popular "healthy baby" contest, and spearheaded and funded the construction of a new maternity clinic. She even made some progress promoting birth control and educating the townspeople about AIDS. Erdman doesn't attempt to present any overarching solution to promoting basic health care in rural Africa. She does allow her posture toward certain local traditions to evolve over time, until eventually she wonders if AIDS education on the continent would have been more effective if health workers had worked with the notion of sorcery instead of against it, presenting the widely unpopular condom as the only fetish that can protect against the dark magic of AIDS. Her narrative is often lyrical and affecting, pulsing with the joy, the energy, the music of life in Nambonkaha. It's also infused with her conflicted position as a development worker who doesn't always favor development: "I can't accept the shriek of the corn mill replacing the 'tok tok' of the pestle, because pounding is social, communal, reciprocal, and the mill just means waiting in line," she writes. When she deplores the Westernization of Nambonkaha, even the arrival of electricity, the sympathetic reader who's fallen in secondhand love with the villagers and their simple, cooperative ways may echo her cry. Yet one also can't help but feel it's a presumptuous posture for a reader, and a writer, who won't have to spend their entire lives in the dark. KATIE MILLBAUER Sarah Erdman will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m., Tues., Aug. 17. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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