A friend of mine ran the Boston Marathon last week. I only found out yesterday. She was six blocks from the finish line when the bombs exploded. Her daughter and parents were just a block from the carnage. What is that? A hundred yards from the jaws of Fate?
She told me almost as an afterthought, as we sat, chatting, on a blue velvet couch in Santa Fe. She lacked clear marks of psychological trauma, which was disconcerting. Is it possible to live through something like that and emerge healthy? I don’t know.
But the odd thing was it didn’t take long for us to both express our secret shame at feeling sympathy for 19-year-old Dzhokar Tsarnaev. We each admitted we’d thought how lonely and horrible he must have felt, alone, bleeding from the neck, waiting to die in someone else’s pleasure boat. Are we crazy?
My friend, a mother, suggested that as parents, we’re hardwired to feel for the trauma of someone’s suffering child. Perhaps that’s true. (My intestines ache just thinking about the murdered and maimed last week, especially the kids.) But I feel like it might also mark a different phase in America’s development, young as we are as a nation. I doubt there was a soul in this country who wouldn’t have pissed on the ashes of Mohammed Atta’s incinerated corpse, if given the chance. (What an -sshole that guy was.) But, twelve years later, perhaps we’re weary of the black and white politics of the War on Terror?
This would probably be a good moment to say that, like everyone, I deplore the actions of the terrorist brothers. What a pointless sh-tstorm they created. But, unlike 9/11, this event seemed slapdash; not entirely thought through. (Here, I have to link to the brilliant Onion piece that riffs on that phenomenon.)
The whole thing just felt more American; more of its time. One brother wanted to be an Olympic boxer, failed, and then seethed under the chronic underemployment that has befallen his generation. (And I can’t imagine it was easy to be a Muslim immigrant in famously-white Boston, either.)
The other: younger, more impressionable, was a well-liked wrestler, and was meant to be more assimilated. But his older brother, whom he must have idolized, led him down a hateful and horribly-destructive path. Then, in what might have been the ultimate act of last-minute revenge, or a conscious attempt to save him from police clutches, Dzhokar ran his brother over with a stolen German SUV. (Cain and Abel much?)
Where is this all headed? These guys are a figment of our collective consciousness. Car chases and shootouts with the police straight out of a Bruce Willis movie? Surfing the Internet, in spare hours, geeking out on arcane information? Bullshitting with a neighbor about religion at the local pizza joint? Lashing out at “America” for no real reason at all, just to let loose accumulated rage?
This is a country founded upon violence. Our radical DNA surfaces from time to time, and our addiction to firearms will unlikely abate. Ever. Aren’t we all wondering where these guys got their guns, and if even a terrorist attack will slow down the NRA anti-background-check juggernaut?
What else emerged from the gore last week? Strength of community and spirit. Resilience. Generosity. Determination. And a city that was shut down tight just to catch the bad guys. (Like it or not, we’re a nation of, and by Hollywood.)
It’s a huge country, America, and our cities, towns and rural outposts are so far-flung that we’ve had only myth and common language to keep the experiment together. Personally, I love the place. It’s hard to put into words, but photographs often do justice to this disparate reality.
Photographs, like the ones I saw in “America 101,” a monograph by the aptly named Arthur Grace, published late last year by Fall Line Press. The photographer has been a long-time photo-journalist, working for the biggest media outlets, but I’d not heard of him before. (Honestly, these are some of my favorite types of book-experiences: when I get to discover someone that has been out there making great work all along.)
The collection of images is entirely black and white, and spans the better part of four decades. It opens, pre-essay, with a photograph of police securing a school bus route in 1976, in…you guessed it…Boston, MA. There were many places in the US that reacted poorly to enforced integration, but this book, coincidentally, focuses on the scene in Boston, back in the day.
The narrative is non-linear, the pathos balanced with humor, and the range of people and cultural experiences is as vast as the Great Plains in Winter. The use of repeating symbols is a highlight, in particular the depiction of guns, and references to violence.
The real magic here comes in runs. The book develops momentum, like a good football game, and then inevitably loses steam, only to come back strong again. The first group that caught my attention is as follows: a diptych of Vermont hunters from 1976, followed by another diptych of violent protests in South Boston in 1974, a scene of carnival goers shooting fake guns at water balloons, a man pointing a rifle at a live raccoon at his feet, a couple of Hispanic taxidermists holding a stuffed cougar head in Albuquerque, circa 1986, John Wayne riding with soldiers in a tank in Cambridge, MA in 1974, and, finally, a group of pretend dead historical soldiers, lying in a field for a Revolutionary War re-enactment in Charlestown, MA, 1975. (Got that? If not, just read it again. Brilliant sequencing.)
There are several odes to Boston’s racial strife in the 70’s, but the book is not exclusively glum or intense, by any means. There are farmers and beauty queens, Evil Kenevil jumping vans on a high school football field, Al Gore looking like a robot in 1988, Jimmy Carter splayed out on an car roof in Ohio like a buxom model in Low Rider Magazine, and a young boxer, looking pensive, in Oahu, 1983. (I wonder if his dreams were ever fulfilled?)
The second suite of pictures that I can’t not share is sports related, that other American and Bostonian obsession. It starts with the Westminster Dog show in 1991, moves to what may be the best sports photo I’ve ever seen, in which a Cincinnati Reds outfielder is frozen in a mid-air catch, looking more than a little like a Black Jesus, followed by a no-neck, tatted-out arm wrestler in Kansas, circa 2004, and then a monstrous Texan corn-dog-eating contestant stuffing his face in Dallas, 2003. (Ah, the Bush years. So much less complicated. The government was totally incompetent, and the terrorists were perfectly unsympathetic.)
I could describe more of the photos here, many more, but then you’d stop reading. Most people would rather look at a picture than read a description of it. (Understandable.) So I’d recommend you consider buying this book, if you’d like to be reminded of the wonder and complex magnificence of the American experiment. Mr. Grace has done a terrific job, and I commend him.
Lastly, I’d like to end by stating the obvious. I have no ambivalence as to the evil of what the Tsarnaev brothers did last week. I have hugged my children more tightly since I returned from NYC the day of the bombing, and recommend you do the same. Cliché or not, we never know what awaits when we step out the front door each day. My thoughts and prayers go out to the innocent victims, their families, and all the citizens of Boston.
Bottom Line: Powerful views of America, over time
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