Journalists and writers of narrative nonfiction have more or less the same job. They tell stories - true stories. Their importance in the scheme of things is to let us know what's really going on in the world. The best ones are great reporters and fine writers. Their job is to inform, entertain and enlighten.
It comes as no surprise to fans of Tracy Kidder that the man does it all in his new book, "Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness." Part 1 of this work is a 145-page masterpiece. Part 2 is solid piece of journalistic memoir about the way Kidder went about getting the story.
As someone who has spent the past few years trying to turn his journalism into narrative nonfiction, I tremble at the idea of telling Tracy Kidder how to write a book. This New England author is one of the masters of the art, a winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. I do have a few suggestions, but let's start with the good news.
"Strength in What Remains" is the story of a young African medical student named Deogratias. The book follows Deo, as he is called, through the genocidal horror that terrorized Rwanda and the lesser-known nation of Burundi in the early 1990s. We follow his escape to the streets of New York City, where one of Africa's brightest prospects goes through another kind of nightmare - the struggle to survive in an American city when you have no money, don't know a soul and speak no English. Deo survives his African nightmare only to go on to be abused and exploited American style. He makes a few dollars an hour delivering groceries to some of the finest penthouses in Manhattan. Meanwhile, he tries sharing a Harlem squat with a dysfunctional family of junkies, crack addicts and hookers. When that doesn't work out, Deo starts sleeping in Central Park.
Thank God the story does not end there. Deo has the good fortune to meet a former nun on one of his grocery deliveries, an inner-city saint who - along with a couple she knows - practice the sacred act of hospitality. They see the human potential in Deo. They take him into their lives and into their flat, and help him make the connections that get him into Columbia University and then into medical school at Dartmouth. In the end, Deo returns to Burundi to open a medical clinic.
What separates Kidder from the nonfiction pack is the compassion and deep humanism that shine through his prose. This real-life parable is the perfect story for him to tell. And does he ever tell it. We read about the adolescent Deo rushing through the jungle to his simple classroom to avoid being late and getting whipped for his tardiness. Headlong down the hillside, legs brushing through knee-deep grass, across the muddy bottomland, and gingerly across slippery logs spanning the stream, trying to make his feet prehensile, praying, "Please, God, don't let me fall. Please, God, don't let me be late."
Kidder foretells the horror to come with quick images that stick with the reader long after the book is closed. A dog trotting through a village, proud to have a severed human head dangling from its jaws. A baby sitting in the lap of her massacred mother, clawing at her breast, but, strangely, not crying.
We see New York City through African eyes. Deo is amazed at the constant motion of the place. Always going going going. Running like a river. He thought of all the people hiding out in abandoned buildings, all the people burrowing into little corners of the park. There was always space for someone. It was an amazing example of human organization, deeply flawed, but still amazing ...
What makes Part 1 of this book such a wonder is the way Kidder gets into the head of his main character. We put the book down knowing what it feels like to be Deo.
Kidder is not guessing how Deo feels. He spent two years reporting this story, spending countless hours with Deo and accompanying him on a trip back to Burundi. We read about all of this in Part 2, which is fascinating in its own way - especially to a writer wondering how Kidder pulls it off. But, as a reader, I wanted another 100 pages in the compassionate, mythic voice of Part 1.
Yes, it is fascinating to see the story behind the story, but I almost wish I didn't know it. Kidder is a magician in Part 1. Then he goes and tells the audience how he did the trick. He breaks the spell in Part 2. But in the end, we forgive Kidder for this bit of memoir, this journalistic detour, because the mythic power of the book is what stays with us. It's the strength that remains.
This article first appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, October 4, 2009