Media Jones

media jones, reviews, books, film, music, michela wrong, in the footsteps of mr. kurtz, mobutu, congo, blind boys of alabama, michael franti, ethnic stew and brew, roy campbell, hooked, lonny shavelson, holding back the sea, christopher hallowell, little

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In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo. By Michela Wrong. HarperCollins. $26. 338 pages.

In the destruction of Congo there are countless guilty parties: the Belgians, who colonized and looted, and then whitewashed their past; the French, whose imperial dreams died hard in the 20th century, leading them to embrace some of Africa’s worst tyrants, including Mobutu Sese Seko; the Americans, who installed Mobutu and sustained him as a strategic ally until the end of the Cold War; Western intellectuals and journalists, who decided that Mobutu, in his Parisian-made leopard-skin hat, represented authentic African rule (just listen to Norman Mailer and George Plimpton in When We Were Kings, the documentary film about the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight in Kinshasa); the international lending institutions, which kept financing the country’s pillage long after they knew the loans were going down a sinkhole of corruption; multinational corporations, which continue to profit from that corruption by preying on Congo’s vast natural resources; the sizable class of Congolese—essentially, anyone who did more than survive—that made itself the tool of Mobutu’s ambition; and the central African neighbors, whose armies are now feeding off the gigantic carcass that was Zaire. In the case of Congo, it took a global village to ruin a country.

The story is depressingly familiar to anyone interested in Africa, and is hardly unique to Congo. But Michela Wrong, the Financial Times correspondent in Kinshasa during the final years of Mobutu’s rule, has researched and reported it in imaginative detail, and she tells the story with uncommon grace and a wry sympathy that humanizes even Mobutu himself. “The Leopard” ignored Machiavelli’s famous dictum about ruling through fear and love. There was plenty of intimidation, but he seems to have governed largely through magnetism and money: “By the end of his life, whether they loathed or loved him, those who had brushed against Mobutu rarely forgot the experience. All remarked on an extraordinary personal charisma.”

In charting Mobutu’s three decades in power and his eventual collapse, Wrong convinced a remarkable array of questionable figures to speak to her openly, if self-justifyingly: Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief who cultivated Mobutu against Soviet influence; Mobutu’s sinister top security adviser, aptly nicknamed “The Terminator”; unapologetic World Bank and IMF officials; Mobutu’s luxury-dazzled Belgian ex-son-in-law; and, finally, one of Mobutu’s sons, the only character in the book who seems to have had no ulterior motive in trying to get close to Papa.

The scale of Mobutu’s theft was staggering, suggesting the imperial excesses of Rome or Persia. At the low end, a chartered plane that ferried his daughter’s four-meter-high meringue-and-cream wedding cake from Paris to Mobutu’s private estate in northern Zaire cost $65,000. Perhaps most remarkable is that Mobutu spent his billions almost as fast as he stole them: When investigators scoured Swiss bank accounts after his death, they found that no more than $4 million remained. In the end, one senses that the abuse of power was in control of him more than he was of it.

Wrong’s nuanced portrait of Mobutu’s decline—prostate cancer and pathetic self-delusion—shows him secluded in his native village of Gbadolite and slipping back into the role of local chief, even as the country he had plundered and neglected for 32 years was returning to bush. But her final judgment is harsh: “Whatever bloody deeds were carried out on his orders, this will always constitute Mobutu’s worst human rights violation: the destruction of an economy that quashed a generation’s aspirations.”

The most imaginative reporting and powerful writing of In the Footsteps comes out in the tragicomic passages describing the survival skills of ordinary Zaireans: the debrouillards who learn to get by on their wits through minor graft; the stylish sapeurs who affirm themselves by spending money on fashionable luxuries rather than dreary necessities; the ferocious cripples with hand-pedaled tricycles who dominate commercial trade on the ferry between Kinshasa and Brazzaville; and “the man who stood in the middle of Avenue Colonel Lukusa day after day, gesturing melodramatically at the hole in the road he had filled with sand for the benefit of passing cars and demanding, in increasingly outraged tones, to be paid for his efforts.”

Confronted with cases like these, a Westerner is tempted to think that human ingenuity is endless—that these people represent, in the words of the publisher’s flap copy, “a celebration of the irrepressible human spirit.” True; but they also represent its ugly distortion, energy turned to desperate pursuits that are better not to sentimentalize. An undeniable passivity marks the mental world of Mobutu’s subjects; in Zaire, everyone was forced to become part of the rottenness. Even the revolution of Mobutu’s successor, the recently assassinated Laurent Kabila, only “replaced Mobutu with Mobutuism,” to quote one European politician. In the face of the world’s current indifference, this legacy of rot is as great an obstacle as any to the country’s resuscitation. —George Packer


Hooked: Five Addicts Challenge Our Misguided Drug Rehab System. By Lonny Shavelson. The New Press. $24.95.

If drug addiction is a frightening proposition, so is the process of kicking a habit. For three years, journalist and physician Lonny Shavelson immersed himself in the bowels of San Francisco, tracking five people from the streets through a series of rehabilitation programs—and back again. His subjects represent a diverse range of personalities and treatment issues: from Darlene, the schizophrenic speed freak, to Crystal, a fast-talking crack addict. But most compelling is Mike Pagsolingan, a charismatic plumber who was sexually abused as a child.

The book opens with Mike shooting heroin while driving his car down California Highway 101. Shavelson follows him to a prestigious rehab house called Walden, where recovering addicts adopt a militaristic lifestyle geared to help them control their drug urges. For a time, Mike seems a model pupil, but Walden eventually kicks him out for a series of behavior infractions. He lapses back into heroin use; and by the end of the narrative he faces 25 years in prison. Mike’s story illustrates Shavelson’s critique of the rehab world. First, too many clinics boot addicts for relapsing, essentially giving up on the hardest cases. Second, drug-treatment programs often ignore deeper psychological issues, like Mike’s childhood sexual abuse. Finally, treatment by humiliation—Walden’s method of choice—earns sharp reproof. Shavelson tells his story with compassion, even overstepping journalistic boundaries to befriend his subjects. He has plenty of vitriol, however, for Byzantine bureaucracies that confound addicts seeking help and a federal government that spends more money fighting Latin American drug lords than treating addicts at home. —Keith Meatto


Holding Back the Sea. By Christopher Hallowell. HarperCollins. $26.

Oyster lovers, beware! The Louisiana swamps, source of a quarter of the nation’s catch of the tasty mollusks, are in grave danger. Also at risk are 20,000 miles of gas and oil pipelines that crisscross the wetlands; the remnants of Cajun culture; and the entire population of New Orleans. In Holding Back the Sea, Christopher Hallowell provides an exhaustive account of why the Gulf of Mexico is consuming these wetlands at the alarming rate of a football field every 15 minutes—from the entombment of the Mississippi in cement levees, to the vast mazes of canals dredged by oil companies, to the effects of global warming. He speaks to the people affected—to the oystermen, shrimpers, and alligator hunters whose way of life is quickly fading; the New Orleans officials planning for “The Big One”—a hurricane that could drown the entire city and that healthy wetlands would help prevent; and a cast of bureaucrats who busy themselves fighting one another as much as fighting their common problem. If he sometimes gets bogged down in the details, Hallowell provides a nuanced portrait of an eco-catastrophe in the making. —Ben Ehrenreich


Little America. By Henry Bromell. Knopf. $24.

Henry Bromell’s Little America is a spy story within a spy story, almost. The novel’s narrator, Terry Hooper, is a history professor and son of the CIA agent who presided over the imaginary Middle Eastern nation of Kurash in 1958, when Kurash’s young king was killed— rumor has it, by his CIA protectors. Terry becomes obsessed with learning What Really Happened and begins playing spy himself to uncover the long-buried truth, which he unfolds for the reader as he learns it. The Kurash story is a solid political thriller, peopled with real historical figures (creepy cold-warrior kin John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles) inserted into real historical events. Except for a few sentimental misfires—the overwrought affection between Terry’s dad and the child king of Kurash—the novel provides a convincing and exciting peek into the bizarre WASP world of Cold War diplomacy, where “rheumy Episcopalians from Yale and Wall Street held sway, projecting onto the world their own vision of churchly virtue.” The back story, though, never fully comes together—as spy intrigue, father-son drama, or meditation on history—leaving Little America feeling like half the novel it wants to be. —Ben Ehrenreich



Spirit of the Century. The Blind Boys of Alabama. Real World.

Gospel’s Blind Boys have been testifying for more than 60 years, though you’d never know it from the exuberance of Spirit of the Century. Fronted by the grizzly Clarence Fountain, the group lets loose ecstatic outbursts that suggest an unharnessed force of nature, thrilling and a little intimidating. Satan doesn’t stand a chance against the joy of “Soldier,” while the Boys’ gently anguished version of Ben Harper’s “Give a Man a Home” is simply heartbreaking. Kudos to the bluesy players, especially to Danny Thompson, whose funky upright bass provides the perfect counterpoint to the Blind Boys’ soaring attack. —Jon Young


Stay Human. Michael Franti. Six Degrees.

Franti’s first studio album in four years is an ambitious blend of retro soul songs and fictional newscasts that speak to the injustice of the death penalty. Although the spoken-word segments form a compelling narrative, the music has greater staying power. Stay Human is a throwback to ’70s artists who combined rich melodies and empowering lyrics: Franti echoes Curtis Mayfield on “We Don’t Mind” and suggests the sweet spirituality of Earth, Wind and Fire on the title track. But this is more than a nostalgia trip: Franti’s richly textured voice, capable of both outrage and intimacy, makes Stay Human as vital and immediate as today’s headlines. —Jon Young


Ethnic Stew and Brew. Roy Campbell. Delmark.

When musicians try to fuse jazz with sounds from around the world, the result is often unimaginative borrowing. But trumpeter Roy Campbell and his trio, bringing a background in avant-garde jazz and a fluency in African rhythms, make each of the varied tracks on Stew sound like a musical first language. The group slides easily between cheery reggae and ethereal jazz with Asian influences. And in a cut simply called “Amadou Diallo,” a mournful Latin groove comes to a thunderous close with 41 straight staccato hits. Far from a gimmick for Campbell, world music becomes a point of departure for powerful expression, political and artistic alike. –Andrew Rosenblum



Unfinished Symphony. Bestor Cram, Mike Majoros. 58 minutes. Northern Light Productions.

In 1971, U.S. veterans back from Vietnam pointedly retraced Paul Revere’s freedom ride in “Operation POW,” a protest that resulted in 410 arrests on charges of civil disobedience. Reexamining that event through vivid archival footage (including images of straight-laced suburban Massachusetts citizens joining the fray), this documentary makes it clear that this and other antiwar protests were as much a part of the American mainstream as of the counterculture.

The film itself, however, is radically styled all the way. In lieu of voice-over narration, the story is told in three 20-minute parts, each set to a movement of “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” by Polish composer Henryk Gorecki. The brooding music lends an almost excruciating poetry to the images—of bombs devastating the Vietnamese countryside, of children bearing the scars of war, and of veterans agonizing over atrocities the war forced them to commit. —Rob Nelson


Chain Camera. Kirby Dick. 90 minutes. Cinemax Reel Life.

How’s this for cinematic high concept? Take 10 L.A.-area high school kids and give them Hi-8 camcorders to document their lives for a week before passing them to another 10 students, and so on, and so on, throughout a school year. The resulting 90-minute film (edited from some 700 hours of tape) might be too raw for “Dawson’s Creek” devotees—with its exceedingly candid (self-)portraits of sex, drugs, poverty, racism, and companionship among teens of all colors—but it will have the rest of us riveted.

“I go through a lot of pain,” says one 17-year-old Asian girl, an aspiring stripper who displays her scarred wrist for the camera. Other subjects include Cinammon, a lesbian who proudly takes her cross-dressing girlfriend to the prom, and Jesse, an epithet-spewing Latino boy who eats discarded food as a political gesture. In a film that’s loaded with humor, it’s perhaps funniest that these kids’ stomping grounds at John Marshall High School are a mere two miles east of Hollywood, because their stories are worlds away from anything the dream factory has ever seen fit to put on screen. —Rob Nelson


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