Saturday, November 14, 2015

Book Reviews: Devil Dog, The Wheelman

Devil Dog
by David Talbot
The United States was created in a revolution against monarchy. So there is a long standing anti-authoritarian and anti-colonialist streak that runs weakly or strongly through huge portions of the American body politic. On the other hand many of the people who led the revolt against monarchy were slaveowning traditionalists who had no problem with colonialism and hierarchies based on race, class and other immutable characteristics. They were, even while piously making universalist claims about human rights and morality in their revolt against the British throne, eagerly engaged in exterminating or expelling the indigenous peoples in what would become the United States. And of course they wanted the ability to put down slave revolts or revolts of poor whites who got too uppity. (Shay's Rebellion/Whiskey Rebellion) To do this Americans also needed an appeal to authority, a glorification of militarism, aggressive policing, and a strong central government. So these two different streaks are both old and equal portions of the general American character. They aren't going away anytime soon. They are us. One man who may have embodied them both in equal measure at different times was Marine Major General Smedley Butler. Although a Quaker by upbringing, Butler was certainly no pacifist in his youth. He received multiple medals throughout his long military career, leading from the front long after his growing rank should have foreclosed such possibilities. He was in his early days by our current standards a racist man of the Right. Butler was best known for revealing a plot by business interests to overthrow President FDR. Devil Dog is not quite a graphic novel though it makes use of some lurid illustrations more typically associated with that genre. The book also utilizes historical photographs and primary source documentation to tell the story of Butler's life.  Butler had a front row seat to much of the imperialist wars and interventions that the United States fought. Butler gradually moved from someone who followed orders without question to someone who was disgusted with doing the bidding of the not so hidden big business interests. He became a man of the Left. Butler made this abundantly clear in the most famous quote from his book War is a Racket writing:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

Devil Dog skillfully explains together how racism, greed, naivete and jealously of European colonies led the US, having "pacified" the Native Americans, to seek its own empire abroad. This was an ugly business. Butler's hands were figuratively and often literally soaked in blood. Although it's not clear from this book whether Butler actually believed the propaganda about bringing democracy and good government to the darker peoples, Devil Dog does show Butler being increasingly disturbed by the denial of self-rule and unhinged corporate greed that usually followed any interventions in which he was involved. But it wasn't until World War I, in which he was more directly engaged in battling bureaucratic indifference and war profiteering that several lights seem to have gone off simultaneously in his head. Whatever his politics were, Butler always had a well known reputation as a man of integrity who loved his troops, which according to him is why he was approached by the plotters (backed by the DuPont family among others) to oversee an "army" which would maintain order after the coup to take down FDR. The plotters misjudged Butler's loyalty to the military. They didn't realize that his belief in following the rules and having elections was greater than his desire for glory or money. This high quality hardcover book is just under 150 glossy pages. It's a worthwhile view into a piece of our history which has mostly been forgotten.  The title refers to a nickname for a US Marine. The tenacious Butler certainly lived up to it. Always do the right thing is something that is easier to say than to embody but Butler certainly came close by his standards. Sadly were he alive today there is probably very little that would surprise him, politically speaking. If you are unfamiliar with Butler's life or the interventions throughout what today be called Third World nations you might want to check this book out. Many of the arguments, actions and justifications will resonate with today's reader.

The Wheelman
by Duane Swierczynski
I like stories with lots of twists, protagonists with limited or incorrect information, people who are either opposing or supporting each other without realizing it, and protagonists who aren't necessarily angelic. I also like authors who can give you a very strong sense of place without turning you off to the story location. Swierczynski is a Philadelphia native , author, journalist and comic book writer who has set this story in and around Philadelphia. I have never been there nor am I likely to ever visit but after reading this book I feel like I am a bit more familiar with the city. This is a very fast paced novel which is just begging to be made into a movie. If you have enjoyed such films as It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Drive, Get Shorty, Pulp Fiction, Payback, or Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels then you will enjoy this story. It will feel comfortable and not at all in a bad way. I liked how Swierczynski switched points of view through the story. His characters never have all the information that they need and as a result neither does the reader. There are double crosses, triple crosses, mistaken assumptions, betrayals that don't work out and plenty of nasty surprises for the characters and the reader. Some of these surprises I saw coming but many more I didn't. The author isn't afraid to shape events in a more realistic way. Just because you may like or identify with a character doesn't mean that they're safe. This book was about 250 pages or so. There is some comedy within but it's not really a comedic book by any means. Lennon is a professional getaway driver. He's good at what he does. He works on various heists-specializing in bank robbery jobs. Lennon is not a bank robber per se. Obviously if ever arrested he would be charged with that crime though. He certainly intends to take his share of the loot. No, Lennon stays in the car. While other people plan and execute the actual bank robbery Lennon meticulously plans the escape. He knows where the police are and how long it will take for them to arrive, the traffic flows at the time of the robbery, the layout of the local streets, what his car will do and what it won't do, and anything else he needs to know to keep himself and his partners out of Johnny Law's grasp. 
People like working with Lennon because not only is he an incredible driver but he's also mute. So if things ever go wrong, presumably it will be that much more difficult for Lennon to rat out anyone. But on this deal things go wrong very badly indeed. Instead of splitting up and reuniting as planned later to equally divide the money from the heist, Lennon and his two pals are deliberately targeted in an auto accident.  When Lennon wakes up he is on the verge of being tossed down a drainage pipe along with his dead friends. Being a resourceful man, Lennon swiftly rectifies that situation. However there are a lot of questions that Lennon must address before he can leave Philadelphia. Like for example, who sold out his team? There were very few people who knew the details of the heist.  The one person who did know all the details is the one person Lennon could not imagine betraying him. Where is the money? Why are both the Russian and Italian mobs involved as well as the Mayor? Lennon is not an implacable killing machine by any means. He makes mistakes and underestimates people. But he does want some answers. This story has very concise short punchy sentences. There aren't a tremendous number of wasted words. There are a tremendous number of plot twists. Plot, not character, drives the story. As mentioned above this story really does move very quickly. There's not a lot time given explaining who people are. I mean after all are you going to be too worried about someone's motivations if they are trying to stuff you down a pipe? This is fast food. Good fast food.
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