This Week's Reads

Norm Stamper, Matt Taibbi, Nick Hornby, and Michael Finkel.

Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Street-Smart Approach to Making America a Safe Place—for Everyone

By Norm Stamper (Nation Books, $26) It's easy to rag on former police Chief Norm Stamper—last week's Seattle Weekly cover subject—as a hippie cop, a classic example of muddleheaded Seattle liberalism gone awry. He had a reputation as a guy determined to turn every street cop into Officer Friendly. While Seattle dug his niceness, there was still a question in many minds: Can you be a nice guy and a good cop at the same time? The WTO debacle seemed to answer that question: Stamper couldn't get the job done when it counted. In his new memoir, Stamper rebuts that conclusion. While he admits mistakes—many of them—over the course of his long career (which ended with his forced retirement in the wake of the WTO riots), he attempts to lay out what he was trying to do, and why and how law enforcement in this country needs to change. For years he's been concerned about the steady militarization of policing—even more so since the war on terrorism was declared. Breaking Rank is part confessional, part game plan for how to reorganize law enforcement in the name of justice and democracy. Stamper's career, which began in San Diego in the 1960s and ended in the streets of Seattle, is the tale of a good old boy turned maverick; of a young cadet steeped in the racism, homophobia, and violence of cop culture yet who later evolved into a passionate reformer. Breaking Rank is at its best when Stamper takes you inside the station house, for better or worse. He tackles tough issues head-on, as in chapters like "Why White Cops Kill Black Men." He makes the case against the death penalty in "Capital Punishment: The Coward's Way Out." The chapter titles are designed to grab attention, and they do, but Stamper does not let himself off the hook. Not only does he love policing and police officers, but he's willing to cop to his inner bad cop—he claims, for example, that he was an abusive husband. He also tells the excruciating story of how he shot and killed a distraught man Stamper thought was about to shoot his own son during a hostage standoff. (He turned out to be unarmed, but the shooting was later ruled justified.) Though Stamper is silent on his psychic damage from this tragedy, the story and its epilogue stand as a dramatic example of the excruciating decisions we ask police officers to make every day, with life-and-death consequences for victims and survivors. Stamper's love of policing is a tough love: He believes that no profession has greater potential for changing lives. We hire the police to deal with society's dirty laundry, but Stamper believes cops can and must become a frontline force for social change. Beyond advocating gun control and decriminalizing drugs and prostitution, Stamper has been one of the foremost advocates of community policing, which seeks to more fully integrate law enforcement into the lives of the citizens they protect and serve. It's not enough to Sidran-ize the streets; cops can act as catalysts for bringing neighborhoods together to help attack the root causes of crime. That requires some major shifts in police culture, which is hierarchical and riven by turf wars between management and unionized street cops. Reform, as Stamper has come to realize, isn't easy. Instead of walking away, however, Stamper is hanging in with this manifesto. Rather than outing its author as some fuzzy-headed liberal, Breaking Rank reveals instead an advocate for the kind of progressive social justice that Bobby Kennedy would have loved—a cop with guts enough to admit his own mistakes, learn from them, and remain a voice for changing the institution that both made and broke him. KNUTE BERGER Norm Stamper will appear at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-624-6600; $5), 7:30 p.m. Thurs., June 9. Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season

By Matt Taibbi (New Press, $24.95) "So, you're doing a Boys on the Bus thing, right?" other journalists on the 2004 presidential trail asked Matt Taibbi, referring to Timothy Crouse's cynical media insider account of the 1972 Nixon-McGovern contest. That's the problem, says Taibbi, with trying to call bullshit on our vacuous political process—calling bullshit causes nary a ripple because it's already an accepted "thing." Even The Daily Show is just another domesticated, affectionately regarded part of the process. Because not only are we inured to the idea that politicians feed us focus-group-tested sound bites and preposterous sporty/ macho/sensitive photo ops aimed at various demographics (remember Wesley Clark's image-softening, women-friendly sweaters?), we are inured to sardonic commentary on these things. But our glib meta-awareness brings us no closer to a political system based on something more than cynical posturing and shrill rhetoric about the same half-dozen (at most) hot-button issues. And this is exactly what drives Taibbi absolutely nuts. In Spanking the Donkey—which is based on '04 campaign pieces he wrote for Rolling Stone, the New York Press, and The Nation—he writes of increasingly desperate tactics to break through to a more authentic way of talking about the campaign. When he interviews Bill Clinton's one-time deputy drug czar, David Morehouse, while tripping on LSD and dressed in a Viking costume, he knows that's totally a Hunter S. Thompson "thing." But despite his vodka-guzzling, psychedelics-gobbling ways, Taibbi actually has little in common with Thompson, other than being very, very funny. In place of Thompson's feverish cartoon vision and gratingly insistent self-mythologizing, Taibbi tries to realistically capture the actual strangeness of what he sees. He describes how, spotting John Kerry "casually" tossing a football on the tarmac, "all photographers and cameramen will drop everything and run full speed to completely encircle him, so that he has to catch and throw the ball from inside a closed loop of humanity. . . . [F]rom a distance this looks like a bit of a biological phenomenon, like viral cells attacking a drifting mitochondrion." This is not a fully realized book. It falls into various chunks—in addition to the campaign diary section, there's a priceless account of an undercover stint as a Bush volunteer in Florida—that Taibbi fails to connect with an oddly humorless introduction and a tacked-on epilogue. But, though I was definitely not eager to relive an election season that filled me with the deepest dread from beginning to end (perhaps you know the feeling?), Spanking delivered a strangely invigorating experience—I discovered that I am even more angry about the whole thing than I realized. This might be just another "thing," but it's still what you might call a good start. DAVID STOESZ Matt Taibbi will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 5 p.m. Fri., June 10. A Long Way Down

By Nick Hornby (Riverhead, $24.95) Nick Hornby's latest novel proves again that he's deservedly one of England's best-loved yet least-important writers. If Oprah were a man, he'd be her favorite author. That's not to equate chick lit with Hornby's patented smart-populist brand of lad lit. His references, musical tastes, and characters are too hip for that. I mean that he's an essentially optimistic writer, generous toward his creations, compassionate in a way you don't associate with his compatriots Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. They might leave a character to drown in his own words or misdeeds, while Hornby invariably flings a lifeline. He's tremendously accessible, sympathetic, and kindhearted. He has a genuine gift for expressing the inner decency and dignity of his characters—even when they have precious little else to offer. The four lost souls of A Long Way Down meet while trying to fling themselves off a London rooftop on New Year's Eve. It's a hilarious scene, a perfect movie opener; and, of course, the novel has been optioned for a film (like About a Boy and High Fidelity before it). Middle-aged Maureen is despondent and alone, exhausted from caring for her brain-dead son. Eighteen-year-old Jess is distraught after being dumped by her boyfriend. Educated TV host Martin has lost family and career after a tabloid sex scandal. The lone American among the morose quartet, JJ can't imagine living after the failure of his rock and roll band. As their plans comically collide (no one can decide who should jump first), the decisive moment passes, and they agree to form a loosely defined "gang"—not a support group!—of like-minded depressives. In effect, they form an antisuicide pact, which sustains them through the next three months related in the novel, all of them sharing the first-person narration, alternating chapter by chapter. It's a great setup, and Long Way Down is, like all Hornby, a pleasure to read. JJ, reduced to being a fast-food deliveryman, wonders why there isn't more "pizza- related violence" among his co-workers and ungrateful customers. He makes a list of people who are too sensitive to live—Plath, van Gogh, Woolf, Cobain—versus those with a robust life force: Bush, Schwarzenegger, bin Laden. He's got a point—which group would you rather join? JJ is the most Hornbian of the would-be jumpers, constantly referencing bands and pop culture, although the author has a shaky grasp of idiomatic American. (When was the last time you heard someone say a failed enterprise was "shipping water"?) Sheltered Catholic Maureen is somewhat shocked by her new buddies (she delicately repeats their speech as "f___this" and "f___ that"); though later they teach her to appreciate Nick Drake. Foul-mouthed nihilist Jess slags on everyone and everything, though Hornby does grant her some insights into human nature. But the male characters are more convincing and funny. Martin says of one dope, "He's at the chocolate teapot end of the competency scale." And he—like this reader—is skeptical of happy endings: "In my day, people got shot at the end of films, after learning only that life is hollow, dismal, brutish, and short." But that's not why people read Hornby, or see Hornby-derived films. If you smell life-affirming epiphanies around the corner, you would not be wrong. A Long Way Down is somewhat confusingly constructed by its four narrators ("if you're reading this in the future," says Jess), as if they're co- authoring a newspaper story or an antisuicide note. Hornby never really clarifies the framework; since the novel is chiefly made up of dialogue and direct address (as opposed to actual literary description of how things look and how people behave), it reads like the outline for a movie. And, I might add, a movie I would happily line up to watch. BRIAN MILLER Nick Hornby will appear at the Neptune Theater (1303 N.E. 45th St., 206-634-3400; $5 or free with book purchase), 7 p.m. Tues., June 14. True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa

By Michael Finkel (HarperCollins, $25.95) I don't plan to murder Michael Finkel, but if I did, I might be acquitted by a jury of my journalistic peers. Finkel got one of journalism's sweetest deals, writing long, literary stories for The New York Times Magazine from the most interestingly troubled places on the planet. He got notoriously sacked in 2001 after he blended several actual African cocoa plantation workers into one fictitious composite character. He's didn't make up everything, like fellow fired Times-man Jayson Blair, but he did screw his legendary editors, and every less-lucky stiff in our beleaguered profession. Then Finkel was informed that a maniac, Christian Longo, had murdered his own family, fled to Mexico, and lived under an assumed identity: Finkel's. One day, Longo was a failed con man with a wife and three kids; the next, he was puffing pot with topless Norse beauties on a beach in Cancún, bragging about his (Finkel's) big scoops until the feds swooped in to nab him. Balding, dough-faced Finkel notes that hunky, charismatic Longo had better luck than his: "Any time someone answering to the name Michael Finkel has been skinny-dipping with Scandinavians, I was nowhere around." A zillion true-crime writers were pounding on the killer's cell door with more passion than Cancún babes gone wild, but Longo decided to reject them and focus on the real Finkel, pouring out his alleged heart—remember, he's a con man—in dozens of astoundingly intimate letters and phone calls. Now Finkel has combined those confessions with his, creating this fascinatingly bizarre two-part tell-all. (More reasons for my murderous envy: True Story has been optioned to Brad Pitt's production company for a deal in the high six figures; that's worth about 15 years of an average Seattle reporter's salary.) True Story is an infinitely better-written apologia than no-talent Blair's shameless, worthless nonapology, Burning Down My Master's House. Finkel blames himself, not his master. He also indicts his own ambition, amphetamines, an inclination to fib, and a milder version of the vice that, according to Longo's parents, made him turn monster: an "overpowering desire to have others think well of you." Given the scrutiny he's now under and the independent researcher he hired to vet his manuscript, I'll bet his memoir is free of fictional characters. Finkel's professional mea culpa is, however, vastly the less interesting of the book's contrapuntal narratives. What's riveting is his weirdly intimate relationship with Longo. Finkel spills his guts to Longo: his disgrace, his dreams, his love life. Finkel puts Longo on the phone with his fiancée and claims to have become honestly fond of the guy. Fond or not, Finkel doggedly attempts to get Longo to come clean about his life of crime. Longo claimed to have been "92.88 percent" good and decent, just as Ted Bundy angrily defended the authenticity of the charming public Ted who didn't kill. Like Bundy, Longo longed for social status and intellectual achievement, and had real gifts—probably a higher IQ than Bundy's, but less education, because for most of his life, Longo lived in the sealed-off Jehovah's Witnesses cult. Finkel fact-checked what he could of Longo's autobiography, but the crucial testimony of his wife, MaryJane, is missing, because he zipped her naked corpse in a suitcase and flung her into an Oregon pond. It's fascinating to see Longo improvise under Finkel's questioning, ingeniously inventing new ways to make himself look better, even startlingly altering his account of that fatal day. Finkel writes an exceptionally fine true-crime page-turner. But is it truly true? He says that he never lied aside from the composite-character story that got him fired. "I wrote creatively at times; I condensed plots and simplified complications and erased some chunks of time, but I was sure I'd always stay within the boundaries of nonfiction," he allows. Which makes me suspect that, though he may not have falsified verifiable facts in this book, he could have shaped uncheckable things for literary effect. Was he really as trusting of Longo for as long as he claims, only to be disillusioned when he finally hears Longo (unconvincingly) implicate MaryJane at the trial's finale? Finkel's own character arc is so satisfyingly rendered it could make him a million bucks after a movie star impersonates him (and another impersonates Longo impersonating him) on the big screen. (Paging Charlie Kaufman for the screenplay.) Still, you do buy Finkel's insights into an upwardly mobile liar with Silly Putty ethics. It takes one to know one. TIM APPELO Michael Finkel will appear at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Wed., June 15.

 
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