Terrorists, Miners, Swamps And Tourists

John Freeman
6 min read
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Eat The Document

Unlike so many other countries in the world, America does not have an active movement of homegrown terrorists. But it once did. In the ’70s, members of the Weather Underground set off bombs, broke Timothy Leary out of prison and dodged one of the largest FBI manhunts in the nation’s history.

It’s beginning to seem like the greatest legacy of that period might be literary. In recent years, a flurry of excellent novels about former revolutionaries have hit the shelves, from Russell Banks’ The Darling to Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance, which recalled the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

But neither of these books has quite the topical feel of Dana Spiotta’s scintillating second novel, Eat the Document, which meditates on what happens when the revolutionary spirit gets funneled into suburbia’s cul-de-sacs.

As the book opens, Mary Whittaker goes underground to avoid detection, dumping her past and identity like a sack of stolen goods.

Fast-forward into the future, and Mary is now Caroline, a single mother raising her son in the Pacific Northwest. Her former paramour, Bobby DeSoto, has become Nash, the manager of a leftist basement bookshop, which he runs on the cheap for a former Vietnam War veteran.

Flashing back and forth across time and between generations, Spiotta creates a mesmerizing portrait of radicalism’s decline. Watching the counter at his store, Nash looks the other way as rich “activist” kids shoplift books in a pathetic gesture of sticking it to the man. Caroline’s son tunes into music without any sense of its cultural context. Style has indeed triumphed over substance in America, Spiotta suggests, as the left-wing young who should have inherited the values of their parents consumed them instead.

Lost Mountain

A few years ago, Erik Reece got in a plane to fly over his native state of Kentucky. What he saw from the sky made his stomach drop.

“All I could see below me was a long gray flatland, pocked with darker craters and black ponds filled with coal slurry. It wasn't just here and there—the desolation went on for miles. The tops of the mountains had been blasted away with the same mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel that Timothy McVeigh used to level the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.”

In Lost Mountain, Reece describes the year he spent on a mountain destined for a similar fate. Month by month, Reece chronicles the songbirds and streams about to be buried, detouring into a mini-history of the coal industry as well.

Not surprisingly, it's not a pretty picture. Many coal companies that lop off mountain tops don't even bother to save the timber—they just burn it. And Appalachia is home to the oldest and most diverse forest in North America. Indeed, many naturalists refer to the area as “the rain forests of North America.”

A hundred tons of coal are extracted every two seconds in America. Any hopes of reversing this trend are looking increasingly futile. Borrowing a page from Enron's books, large companies set up shells to do smaller work and then default on their loans (and environmental obligations). And as Reece convincingly argues, the working people pay the price.

The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida And The Politics Of Paradise

Sometimes it seems that humans just ruin everything they touch. In the early 19th century, as Florida's new ruler, the United States, was trying to empty the former Spanish territory of the Seminole tribes, no more than a few dozen white people called South Florida home. The Everglades was just a huge swamp. By 2000, there were seven million residents and nearly six times that number of tourists coming through every year. The phenomenal growth of the area has had a devastating effect on the Everglades—which has been drained, filled and polluted in the name of progress—and its indigenous wildlife.

In this page-turner, Washington Post reporter Michael Grunwald describes how in a rare moment of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans got together at the end of former President Bill Clinton's tenure to reverse the damage this encroachment had cost, launching the biggest environmental project in American history.

In the process, Grunwald spins a vast and profoundly enlightening history of the region, showing how the very forces that ruined the Everglades are now being employed to resurrect its grandeur. Success is not assured. “Most of all, the Everglades is a moral test,” Grunwald writes. “It will be a test of our willingness to restrain ourselves, to share the earth's resources … If we pass, we may deserve to keep the planet.”

There & Then

One of the great falsities of “travel literature” is the idea that we lurch into strange lands, eyes turned mostly outward. The truth is quite the opposite: Staring out at passing landscapes often turns us inward, as do the static hours spent waiting for connecting flights or buses.

James Salter seems to understand this. In There & Then, a collection of his occasional travel writing, the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author of Dusk and Other Stories spends most of his time attending to shades of light and mood. Here are a visit to the Hamptons, skiing in the Alps and a biking trip across Japan as experienced by a literary impressionist.

As a result of Salter's light touch, some of these pieces read like prose poems. He recalls the turn of seasons in Colorado, the swirl of life in postwar Paris. His essays on France are the only sour note in the book, their snobbery curdling to something slightly acidic.

The best pieces here make Salter's memories feel like our own. “A long hot bath, half a bottle of wine and a chicken pie at the pub just down the road seemed as great a luxury as I can remember,” he writes in a piece about walking across England, “and I fell into bed with the rain pouring down.”

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