Friday, June 1, 2012

People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Perry. 
True crime is often marked by the way a series of random events betray regular, unsuspecting people.  Girl goes to the store and never returns, girl goes on a date and is never heard from again. It is also marked by the luridness of the details once they are eventually uncovered. Girl is found desecrated in a ditch by an obsessive store clerk, girl is found stuffed in an air-vent by a jealous boyfriend.  Whether it is on television news, online journalism, or in long works of non-fiction, such as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” the public’s fascination for these stories is endless.  We tirelessly obsess and dissect these stories not just because of the grim nature of their details, but because of the hidden morality they appear to offer us. We focus on the alcohol and spring break madness that led Natalie Holloway to walk alone on the beach with a strange man, the decision of the McCann family to leave their infant child unattended in a hotel room while they ate dinner with friends.  In these moments, we can feel safe in the presumed knowledge that we know better, that we would not make those decisions. 
            The disappearance of Lucie Blackman, as told in Richard Lloyd Perry’s stellar “The People Who Eat Darkness,” appears on the surface to fit this mold in almost textbook fashion.  Lucie, a former airline stewardess in her twenties, left the comfort of her life in Great Britain for a vague job as a “hostess” in Tokyo in hopes of quickly paying off her debts. She never returned, or as the book jacket says, was “swallowed whole.”  Her disappearance, which caused a media sensation (even then-Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke publically about the case), the eventual discovery of her body, and the trial of the man accused of her murder, all point to the ways in which our lives are quickly and irreversibly defined by actions in which we cannot possibly see the consequences, but could have easily done much better. 
            But what sets Perry’s lengthy investigation apart from most true crime works is how once the details of this sadly common “narrative” arc are held up to the light, they become even more complex, bizarre, and ultimately frightening.  Perry, an investigative journalist who reported on the case for years, wisely uses the true crime structure to frame his story.  But freed from the word-limit deadline of news journalism, the small details, which could have been easily glossed over, become luminous.  Perry is an expert in explaining the differences between Japanese and British cultures.  In Japan, Lucie worked as a “hostess.” Women who work as hostesses are paid a salary to spend evenings in bars talking with Japanese businessmen.  Hostesses are encouraged to go on further “dates” with these men, outside of the bar, for which they are paid extra, by both the client and the club.  Each meeting is kept on record with the club.  Hostesses who have a large list of outside clients are paid extra, while those that do not are eventually let go.  But as Perry clearly explains, the expectation was not entirely for sex, although it could occur.  The meetings were erotic, yet not always explicit.  In the hands of a less observant journalist, a job like this could easily be labeled as prostitution, and in fact was by many in the media. It is understandings such as this that makes "People" such an exceptional read.  The facts of Lucie’s death could easily be told in a 48 minutes “Dateline” episode, but as with any life, the story of Lucie Blackman requires more than headlines.   

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Rin Tin Tin, by Susan Orlean

I grew up watching “Lassie” reruns as a child. The show ran on the Nickelodeon in the early mornings and late afternoons, long before the network found a fortune with original programming featuring animated sponges and teen singing sensations. I can vividly recall not only the show’s opening narration (“With, June Lockhart, Jon Provost as Timmy, and of course, Lassie”), but also the whole plots from episodes that really shouldn’t be remembered. After watching the show, I would beg my parents for a dog, promising to take great care of it, and praying I could have a friend just like Lassie. When I actually got a dog, it took some time before I accepted that the lovely mutt I had would never save me from an escaped convict or an escaped circus elephant. My dog would not measure up.

Susan Orlean also grew up longing for a canine creature that she could not have. Near the beginning of her fascinating and thoughtful new book, Rin Tin Tin, Orlean describes her fascination with a certain canine that she loved but could not have as a child. Her grandfather’s office contained toys that he would allow his grandchildren to play with on occasion, but one in particular was off limits: a Rin Tin Tin figurine. “I didn’t understand why this was the one treasure we could never touch; it wasn’t more delicate than the other toys, and it didn’t have any finicky mechanism. There was no explanation; it was simply not ours to have.” The memory of this forbidden toy sparked an obsession with the film and television star, an obsession that resulted in her sprawling meditation on the dog and its lasting legacy, as well as the quest for permanence in our daily lives.

To say that Rin Tin Tin was one of the biggest stars on the planet is an understatement. The dog star, which could have easily faded into obscurity, became one of the earliest stars of silent Hollywood, and had the miraculous ability not only to survive the change from silent film to sound, but also from film to television. Rinty, as he was to be known, was found on a WWI battlefield in France by an American soldier, Lee Duncan. Duncan, who grew up fatherless, and was sent to an orphanage by his mother as a child, instantly recognized the dog as a kindred, and managed to bring the dog home with him after the war’s end. German Shepherds were a new type of dog at the time, having been breed in 1899 by German Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz for their sharpness, pointed ears, and alert demeanor, in hopes of becoming a nation dog. Duncan was fiercely protective of his new friend, choosing to spend most of his time with Rin Tin Tin, instead of the humans around him. (In fact, his former wife would claim in her divorce papers that Duncan was more interested in the dog than in her.) Duncan worked tirelessly with the dog, training Rinty, and making the most out of the dog’s mental sharpness. Duncan’s attention to the dog paid off when Rinty was cast in his first film, Where the North Begins, which was an instant silent film success, and launched the dog’s stardom. A television series would follow nearly twenty years later, cementing the Rin Tin Tin’s place in history.

Orlean details Duncan and Rinty’s continual rise and fall in breathless, almost conversation prose, but with a journalist’s acuity, and a fan’s admiration. Her writing is so deceptively simple that it is impossible not be swept away with the many directions her story takes. The reader follows her through not only the history of the dog, but through histories upon histories. Her journalist’s eye takes the reader on tours of early Hollywood, television, animal husbandry, and war; alongside the surprising use of canines in every major war this country has fought; and through obsessions and devotions, both obtainable and not. Her quest to understand Rin Tin Tin is almost spiritual: “What lasts? What lingers?” she asks. “Could it be that we fill out our lives, experience all the we experience, and then simply leave this world and are forgotten?” These are the questions that haunt and propel all of Orlean’s work. For one man it might be an elusive orchid (as in Orlean’s previous work, The Orchid Thief). For another it might be a dog. Reading Rin Tin Tin, one cannot help but search for their own answers. A lasting legacy indeed.