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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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THE BAY OF PIGS: DISASTER AND TRIUMPH


Tuesday March 08, 2011

 

Eugene Linden
 
At first I thought it was a version of the granfalloon, the term Kurt Vonnegut invented to describe a striking but meaningless encounter: my brother-in-law, Jim Rasenberger and I both have books coming out within two weeks of each other. My book, The Ragged Edge of the World, is a farewell tour (the places are disappearing, not me) of the most remote reaches of the planet, and it tries to evoke life at that moveable frontier where wildlands and native peoples collide with modernity. His book, A Brilliant Disaster, examines the Bay of Pigs fiasco on its 50th anniversary.  To judge by their covers, the books are utterly different, but we thought it fun to schedule a joint book party midway between the two publication dates, For the sake of family harmony, if nothing else. The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the two books investigate two aspects of the same thing: individual brilliance and collective stupidity.
 
            Jim looks at the foreign policy expression of this enduring puzzle as he explores the iconic American example of the fiasco that ensues when some of the smartest and most powerful men in the country-- the best and the brightest as David Halberstam indelibly called them-- become blinded by ideology and arrogant self-assurance (although the Iraq War is a strong contender to replace this example).  I look at what this syndrome has wrought as the march of progress continues to consume wildlands and peoples despite decades of evidence that this march-- more like a stampede, really-- leaves nothing but wastelands and disenfranchised peoples in its wake. There’s an element of black humor in both books. I tell this story through tragicomic vignettes, while, with the arch perspective of time, Jim lets the black humor of self-delusions of the times speak for themselves.
 
            Our two books converge in a more immediate way: in one chapter, I also write about the Bay of Pigs. Where for Jim, the Bay of Pigs provides a symbol of an epic fail of the intelligence and foreign policy apparatus, I look at some of the positive results of that failure. Today, the Bay of Pigs is a triumph of conservation and one of the natural wonders of the Western hemisphere. The Bay marks one boundary of Zapata Swamp, an Eden-like wetland the size of Delaware, with boundless bird-life and shimmering pure rivers. It is one of a string of great parks that make Cuba’s natural systems among the best protected in the world.
 
            How this happened is an object lesson in the ironic twists of history. The island stands today as a shining example of how a desperately poor country can preserve its natural systems. This is no endorsement of communism, a system that seems to have been designed to convert resources into pollution with minimum economic benefit. Karl Marx was focused on the control of the means of production, and was blind to environmental consequences (which is uncomfortably similar to  unregulated free-market capitalism which is focused on the private control of the means of production and simply ignores environmental consequences).
 
            The reason Cuba has not suffered the ecocide visited on the landscape by other communist governments has to do with three things: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American embargo, and, most importantly the accident of history that an illiterate farmer who saved Castro’s life during the Cuban Revolution, turned out to be a nature lover. Elevated to be one of three Commanders of the Revolution, Guillermo Garcia Frias, provided political cover for an entire generation of conservationists and scientists who now have key positions in parks and environment.  The collapse of the Soviet Union starved Cuba of funds from its former patron, and the ongoing U.S. economic embargo has forced Cuba to be both innovative and sustainable, since it has lacked access to cheap fossil fuels. For the Bay of Pigs and Zapata Swamp this means that very few pollutants flow into the area from surrounding agricultural lands.
 
            The unexpected connections that link our two books prompt another question: what might have happened had the U.S.-sponsored invasion succeeded in 1961?  Without question, many Cubans would have gotten rich as developers exploited Cuba’s gorgeous coasts, lagoons and beaches. The mob would have gotten its casinos back, and Cubans of all stripes could experience the joys of fast food and the consumer society. But Zapata Swamp, which in structure is similar to the Everglades, would long since have been channeled, converted, polluted, and otherwise exploited like most other wetlands in the hemisphere, including the Everglades. So maybe The Brilliant Disaster Jim describes was for the best. Despite the many other benighted policies of this police state, Cuba may be one of the best-prepared nations to navigate what looks like a fossil fuel constrained future that the rest of the world may soon have to deal with. Sometimes good can come from having a superpower as an enemy.
 

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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