How do you take a story with an obvious good guy and bad guy, a straightforward dramatic arc, and a happy (enough) ending, and make it unsatisfying?
Be sophisticated. Zoom out until you catch what’s murky and sad beyond the clear dramatic arc. Zoom in until goodness and badness lose their purity. Pan across the hero’s bald spot; show the monster sobbing. These are the hallmarks of contemporary storytelling: equanimity, complication, shades of gray.
So what happens when you apply this method to a fairy tale?
The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas is such a tale. It’s true—Mark Stroman, a white supremacist, really did walk into a Dallas mini-mart days after September 11, 2001, and shoot Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant, in the face. Stroman also killed two other foreign-born men, but Bhuiyan survived. Here’s the fairy tale part: Bhuiyan forgave Stroman. He dedicated himself to preventing the murderer’s execution, and Stroman and Bhuiyan called each other brothers in Stroman’s last hours. Bhuiyan kept in touch with Stroman’s children and sent them money. This all really happened, not very long ago or far away.
But it sounds so clean, so made-for-TV. The themes are obvious, the structure and drama innate. Good guy. Bad guy. Redemption. Fin. The book writes itself.
Maybe that was the problem. Maybe it was too easy. Writers aren’t used to seeing their quarry standing in a sunlit clearing, blinking sleepily beneath a 15-point rack. Whatever the reason, author Anand Giridharadas couldn’t leave well enough alone. He freights The True American with detail, laces it with cynicism, and forces it to tackle questions way above its pay grade. In trying to make the book convey more than its simple and profound story, Giridharadas nearly undermines it completely.
Rais Bhuiyan wasn’t supposed to be working the counter of the mini-mart on that rainy Friday. He was covering for a friend. That’s the kind of guy he is: good, albeit a little flaky. After attending a prestigious military school in Bangladesh and training to be a fighter pilot, Bhuiyan quit and moved to New York to get into information technology. He meant to make money and go home, but then he visited a friend in Dallas, where rent was low, computer classes plentiful, and the bathrooms were larger than his apartment. Bhuiyan moved again, intending to save up for a house and send for his beloved fiancée in Bangladesh. That’s how a formerly upper-middle-class military-school man ended up behind the counter the day Mark Stroman walked in with a gun and said, “Where are you from?”
Mark Stroman was not a good guy. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about why and whether that changed near the end of his life, but Stroman murdered two men in cold blood for the crime of seeming, to Stroman, to be Arab (they were actually Indian and Pakistani), and tried to kill Bhuiyan, all to avenge the victims of the September 11 attacks. Stroman even wrote a little poem about it:
Here sits the Arab Slayer, for what he did we
Should make him our mayor.
He has no regrets for what he has done,
Killin Arabs is just half the fun.
Stroman’s life reads like a Rorschach test for criminal justice theories. If you believe some people are simply bad seeds, you’ll notice that Stroman stole his first car at age 13. If you think children are inherently good, you’ll note Stroman lovingly feeding his grandparents’ horses. A judge decided early that young Stroman was too unsophisticated for therapy, and sentenced him to the juvenile penal system, where he endured abuse. Was the state too harsh, ruining a merely unruly boy instead of helping him? Or was the state too merciful, paroling Stroman again and again until he finally committed an unforgivable crime? Whatever your thinking, you’ll find fodder for it in The True American.
You’ll also learn a lot of things you can’t use, like the locations of Stroman’s birthmarks and the contents of his sixth-grade report card. Giridharadas knows how to do his homework, but if he’d left more of it in his notebook The True American would have been a better book. Still, all that detail does contribute to one of its stronger moments. After Stroman is convicted of murder, the jury must decide whether any mitigating circumstances warrant a life sentence rather than death. The reams of detail that Giridharadas provides about Stroman’s life—good, evil and mundane—crowd the reader’s mind. The profundity of the choice hangs there. Then the jury says no. The life described does not mitigate his crimes. Stroman will die.
After Stroman shot him, Bhuiyan was left half-blind, heavily in debt, and terrified of leaving his apartment. Yet he forced himself to get another job, saved his money, and took his mother on a long-promised pilgrimage to Mecca, where he committed himself to helping others. Eventually he decided the man who most needed his help was Mark Stroman. Bhuiyan partnered with groups opposing the death penalty and entreated for Stroman’s life, both in the Texas courts and the court of public opinion. He performed his IT job from his laptop all day, traveling and telling his story at night. He was exhausted but full of purpose.
There is nothing less than admirable about this. Yet when Giridharadas notes that Bhuiyan has grown comfortable with the media, he skewers him. “In his pursuit of holy mercy,” Giridharadas writes, “he had acquired something of the American hustler about him.”
The cynicism is jarring. It pops up with other alleged do-gooders, too. The Europeans who correspond with death row inmates, Giridharadas writes, are “rather like all those nice people in Kansas City and St. Paul who occupy themselves with the finer details of girls’ schooling in Afghanistan and abstinence campaigns in Botswana.” (The author is a New York Times columnist; apparently those issues are the East Coast media’s exclusive purview.) As for those who fought for Stroman’s life and thought they witnessed a burgeoning humanity in his last months—they just “needed to believe Mark had changed in order to recoup a respectable return on their investment of time and feeling.”
You don’t have to be a humanitarian to earn Giridharadas’ curled lip, though; you can just go out in Dallas without cufflinks. One of the city’s traits, he writes, is that “you didn’t have to wonder how to dress in public, for almost any semirespectable way of dressing would put you above average.”
This is small potatoes next to the classism of the book’s central premise. The True American is obviously, inescapably, about vengeance, mercy and the brotherhood of man. That’s a lot for any book—but not enough for Giridharadas. He asks, implicitly in the title and explicitly throughout the text, “Who is the true American?” That’s usually a great question, but not this time. If the choice here is between Stroman and Bhuiyan, most are going to pick the virtuous immigrant over the guy with swastika tattoos who shoots people, right?
But Giridharadas isn’t using Stroman to represent America’s double murderers. For the purposes of the Big Question, Stroman is made to stand in for all poor whites. As the book’s story closes a year after Stroman’s execution (Giridharadas does not know when to leave a party) the author sits in on a meal with Stroman’s adult daughters. The women talk about custody problems, money problems, their jobs and faiths and addictions more and less managed. You know, people stuff. They are poor but not broke. They have plans, some of which may succeed. Perhaps most important, none of them has or seems likely ever to shoot a stranger in the face. Yet at the end of a long section, in a paragraph unto itself, Giridharadas wonders plangently, “Where, and how, would the Stroman cycle break?”
Here, The True American maxes out its credit. Cracking on Dallas fashion is one thing. Being snide about your own hero is another. Those are choices. But using a virulently racist murderer to represent poor whites, some of whom may have conflicted feelings about immigrants, is just irresponsible. The True American is an engrossing triumph of reporting, but its accomplishments are obscured by obliviousness, prejudice, and ambition. Rais Bhuiyan—and even Mark Stroman—deserved better.