Against the Odds
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.
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.
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 — summon 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.
“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.
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.
By Tracy Kidder
277 pp. Random House. $26