State of the Union

Vladimir Putin, Christian Crusader?

In his Kremlin defense of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin, even before he began listing the battles where Russian blood had been shed on Crimean soil, spoke of an older deeper bond.

Crimea, said Putin, “is the location of ancient Khersones, where Prince Vladimir was baptized. His spiritual feat of adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilization and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”

Russia is a Christian country, Putin was saying. This speech recalls last December’s address where the former KGB chief spoke of Russia as standing against a decadent West:

Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.

Heard any Western leader, say, Barack Obama, talk like that lately?

Indicting the “Bolsheviks” who gave away Crimea to Ukraine, Putin declared, “May God judge them.” What is going on here? With Marxism-Leninism a dead faith, Putin is saying the new ideological struggle is between a debauched West led by the United States and a traditionalist world Russia would be proud to lead. In the new war of beliefs, Putin is saying, it is Russia that is on God’s side. The West is Gomorrah.

Western leaders who compare Putin’s annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria, who dismiss him as a “KGB thug,” who call him “the alleged thief, liar and murderer who rules Russia,” as Wall Street Journal‘s Holman Jenkins did, believe Putin’s claim to stand on higher moral ground is beyond blasphemous. Read More…

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Fighting Income Inequality With Friendship

Friends meeting at the Pie Town, New Mexico Fair (LOC). Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer.
Friends meeting at the Pie Town, New Mexico Fair (LOC). Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer.

Richard Beck wrote Tuesday on friendship at his blog, Experimental Theology, arguing that “weak ties” are important to our world. He tells of a world in which individualism led to separate economic, cultural, and social worlds. Our deemphasis of friendship and its goods has created a society in which stratification erodes diverse flourishing:

In generations past the community was your insurance policy should anything traumatic happen to you. From a family death to the loss of a crop to a barn burning down. People and family would rally around you, supporting you through a difficult time.
But these cultural supports have largely vanished. For both rich and poor. The only difference is that the rich can purchase a safety net. They can buy homes and insurance. They can have investments and savings accounts. They can move to another city and another job.
So to be clear, I don’t want to lament a decline in cultural and family values and then put that decline solely on the poor. The decline cuts across socioeconomic status. It’s just that the rich have been able to insulate themselves from the historic erosion of familial and social mutuality. The rich can be self-sufficient. Thus, the social decline in America has fallen hardest on the poor.

Beck emphasizes the fact that “weak ties” in friendship are very needed. Why? Because our closest friends are usually insular groups, “bundles of sameness.” Weak ties—distant relatives, acquaintances from our neighborhood or past—are usually more diverse in their background, tastes, and employment. This wider “social web” gives us philanthropic ammunition: when you see someone in need, you don’t just bring your own talents and gifts to the table. You bring everyone you’ve ever met—”Bluntly, you might not be able to help this person in a particular situation but you might know someone else who can. In sacramental friendships you are bringing the gift of your weak ties.”

This blog post is quite timely, published during profuse talk of income inequality and its possible ties to the “decline of the family.” The emphasis on marriage as solution to income inequality has been articulated clearly and often in conservative discussion. And while this argument may have a lot of truth to it, it also may feel over-simplifying and unjust to many single parents out there. Not every single mom can or should get a husband. Not every young person ought to get married straight out of high school, or college, or grad school. Specifics matter: we cannot ascribe the entirety of our inequality problem to one cause or dilemma. And neither can we fix the problem via one set, specific solution.

Additionally, Beck is right in pointing to the role that private association has traditionally played in the realm of welfare and philanthropy. It is true that social stratification has decreased the impact that some private associations have: churches, specifically, are often isolated by their zip codes from true diversity. Voluntary civil society has never been perfect, nor has it completely provided for the needs of the American people—but it still is one of the most personable, specific, and conscious threads of philanthropy at our disposal. The government can’t fix its eye on every poverty-stricken household, to know all its particulars, needs, and weaknesses. But a neighbor down the road, friend from church, third cousin, or friend from high school can, and they can extend help in a way that the government (or even a large non-profit organization) cannot. Read More…

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Hobby Lobby vs. the Order of Justice

The Crimson White / Flickr.com
The Crimson White / Flickr.com

Ross Douthat affectionately calls out me and Rod Dreher for applauding Patrick Deneen’s moral-economic brief against Hobby Lobby and other big-box retail chains. He laments that the paleo/crunchy-con mentality tends toward self-marginalization.

Speaking only for myself, I actually agree with Ross.

I’m not Catholic. I’m not a traditionalist (if I were, I’d have a lot of explaining to do regarding that infatuation with Keith Richards). When asked to describe my politics, lately I call myself a good-government Bush 41 conservative. (I maintain that H.W. was inferior to Reagan as a communicator and politician—obviously—but at least as great, and maybe even better, a president. I think his leadership during the meltdown of the Soviet empire was brilliant, and I’d take Dick Darman over Grover Norquist every day of the week. Sue me!)

All that said, I fear I’ve muddied the waters on where I agree with Deneen, and where I part ways with him (as well as, I’m going to presume, Dreher).

I am taken with Deneen’s argument that there is an uninterrupted continuum between the Founding (“progressive” in a Baconian sense) and the present; that classical liberals and modern liberals are both liberals. If there’s anything remotely distinctive about my blogging here and at U.S. News since ’10, I hope it’s been a counterweight to the despair of both moral traditionalists like Deneen and Dreher and market purists-slash-declinists like Kevin Williamson. My gravamen, my conceit, my shtick is this: Government has grown alongside our continental economy. There is not a hydraulic relationship (one goes up, the other goes down) between markets and government. If our capitalists were smart, they’d favor effective social insurance alongside free enterprise. Etc.

While I sympathize, somewhat, with Deneen’s aesthetic recoil from Hobby Lobby and strip malls and big boxes, I don’t get nearly as exercised about such things as he does. In any case, I don’t think there’s much that can be done practically to change it at the level of policymaking. I’m all for traditionalists and orthodox believers bringing their beliefs to bear in the marketplace. To the extent that I used the Hobby Lobby case as a springboard for my last post, it was only tangentially about contraception and religious liberty. My beef is not with religious conservatives participating in modern capitalism; it is with those who conflate modern capitalism and the Constitution with Judeo-Christianity. I have a beef with them because this conflation, I believe, is one of the main drivers of our current antigovernment ferocity, the rampant and irrational fears of inflation, and the counterproductive fear over short-term budget deficits.

I could be wrong about that.

In any case, I don’t think I made this point clear in my post on Hobby Lobby (which, for the record, I had never heard of before it became news).

While I’m at it, I might as well spell out what I think about the particulars of said case. On that score, I’ll associate myself with Yuval Levin’s recent post in NRO’s Corner. He writes that conservatives:

take the arrangement of rights and liberties at the core of the liberal-democratic understanding of society to exist in the service of sustaining the space in which society thrives, rather than of taking society “forward” and away from its roots. There is room in that space for different parts of society to sustain quite different ways of living, and room for people to debate our broader society’s social and political course – which can take different directions at different times in response to different circumstances. Liberty is not the yearned-for endpoint of that story, when we will be free at last from the burdens of the past. Liberty is what exists in that space now, what allows for different people (and groups of people) to pursue different paths and debate different options, and what allows society to address its problems in various ways as they arise. Liberty is not what we’re progressing toward but what we are conserving.

Here, Levin calls to mind Garry Wills’s distinction between the progressive-liberal “order of justice” and the “order of convenience.” To sum up a complex essay, Wills believed it should not be the aim of the state to dispense “raw justice” (Chesterton’s phrase), but rather to facilitate convenience (in the John Calhoun sense of the word—to “convene” or “concur” or bring about social peace). Sounding a lot like Burke and Nisbet, Wills wrote:

For if the state arises out of man’s social instinct, then the state destroys its own roots when it denies free scope to the other forms of social life. The state, when it is made the source of justice, must be equally and instantly available to all citizens; and, in achieving this, in sweeping away the confusion of claims raised by families, economic orders, educational conventions, codes of conduct, natural gradations of privilege, the Liberal leaves society atomized, each man isolated, with all the weight of political power coming unintercepted upon him. The higher forms of organization do not grow out of and strengthen the lower, but counter and erase them. This is what happened under the Order of Justice from the time when Plato pitted the state against the family to the modern breakdown of divided jurisdiction in the centralized state. …

The state, as extending throughout all other levels of social solidarity, must have a certain neutrality towards them all, and as the order-enforcing agent, it must take upon itself a certain negative, punitive function. This neutral and negative aspect of the state will be perverted, and become a positive push—as life-giving, rather than life-preserving—if the other forms of spontaneous activity wither; or if the state officials try to use their power to call up a positive vision of their own; or if politics is considered the all-inclusive area of man’s achievement of excellence. …

A proper order of convenience would be able to accommodate Hobby Lobby’s religious objections. On this matter and others, the Obama administration seeks an order of justice. I hope, in this case, that it loses.

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“The Grand Budapest Hotel”: Ode to a World That Once Was

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

In his study of “how Europe went to war in 1914,” The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark challenges the conventional wisdom that Austria-Hungary was an empire in decline heading toward an inevitable downfall. He argues instead that during the last pre-World War I decade, the Habsburg Empire had gone “through a phase of economic growth with a corresponding rise in general prosperity” as well as experimenting with “a slow and unmistakable progress towards a more accommodating policy on national rights.” He argues that could have created the conditions for a process of political reform and devolution of power, perhaps even to the evolution of a federalized system.

Clark recalls that many of the activists and the intellectuals who, carried by the euphoria of national independence, had celebrated the dismemberment of the Austria-Hungary after the Great War admitted in later years that they were wrong. He quotes Hungarian writer Mihály Babits who, as he reflected in 1939 on the collapse of the monarchy, wrote: “we now regret the loss and weep for the return for the what we once hated: We are now independent, but instead of feeling joy we can only tremble.”

While director Wes Anderson’s latest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is not pre-occupied with such issues as the sources of imperial decay, the rise of nationalism and other political elements that brought about the collapse of Austro-Hungary, the movie does convey a certain nostalgic longing for that empire’s bygone era, meshed with a certain melancholic sentimentalism shared by those who missed it.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is actually not set in pre-WWI Habsburg at all, but in a resort town in the imaginary Republic of Zubrowka. It centers around the mythical concierge, M. Gustave H. (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes) who works at the elegant Grand Budapest Hotel during the pre-WWII years. None of the characters in the movie mention the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria that sparked WWI, or the collapse of the Habsburg Empire; for that matter, there are no references to Adolph Hitler and the rise of Nazism.

But in its soft color shades, decorative architectural style, and charming pastry stores, the fictional Zubrowka looks as though it was carved out of Austria-Hungary’s finest days, while the sense of decadence and darkness and foreboding evil conveys the horrors of the approaching World War II. And Anderson himself made it clear in interviews with journalists that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is, indeed, a bittersweet tribute to the bygone era of pre-WWI Vienna.

The movie opens and closes with scenes of a hotel that has been transformed from a monument to the majestic into what looks like charmless and crumbling guesthouse, where the current owner, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), recalls through long flashbacks the days in which he worked as a lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori) under the legendary Gustave. An educated and well-mannered concierge, Gustave exudes Old World temperament and seems to be unable to adjust to the realities of a crumbling civilizational order, as dandy aristocrats and classy ladies leave the stage and the well-mannered gentleman who headed the local police force (Edward Norton) is replaced by a ruthless Nazi-like militia leader.

Gustave was “a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity,” is the way Zero remembers his mentor. The two are embroiled in the theft of an artwork that becomes the central plot of the film involving a set of characters that you would meet in an Ernst Lubitsch film. Read More…

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A Stillborn Child Leads to a Murder Charge—With Threat of Life in Prison

In 2006, 15-year-old Rennie Gibbs became pregnant. She tested positive for marijuana and cocaine during her pregnancy. Her daughter Samiya was born a month premature, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. An autopsy on the child found traces of a cocaine byproduct, and Rennie was charged with what Mississippi calls “depraved heart murder,” a second-degree murder charge used in cases when an unintended death results from an act “eminently dangerous to others” committed with a “depraved” disregard for human life.* Gibbs’s case has wound its way through the legal system, and it is still unclear whether she will go on trial this spring; but if she does, Gibbs, now 23, will face the threat of life in prison.

These are the facts. Heartbreaking personal stories lie behind them, and broader societal stories as well. The story of Rennie and Samiya Gibbs is a story of a prosecutor with a cavalier approach to evidence; a story of scapegoating and the inability to accept tragedy; a story of the police state created by what Jim Henley calls “the war on some drugs”; and a story, too, about legal attempts to protect the unborn. “We can love them both” is one of the more inspiring slogans of the pro-life movement. What would loving them both look like, for Rennie and Samiya? I’m pretty sure “life in prison” is not the answer.

Read More…

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The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Played

Every Sunday, the rector of my church appends a brief note of spiritual guidance to the weekly bulletin. Recently, he noted that whereas “the world” encourages individuals to satisfy their desires, the Scriptures teach that we’re often to deny those desires.

That generality—“the world.”

I get it. I appreciate the New Testament connotation of the “world” as distinct from the church and its principles and disciplines. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right. “The world,” depending on where you live and which tradition you may or may not have been raised in, says a lot of different things. American consumerist culture, on the other hand, very definitely does encourage us—entice us, seduce us—to satisfy our desires. That culture is now global and, on balance, I think material human welfare is vastly better for it.

Thinking holistically of the human person, however, consumerism, with its valorization of individual choice and autonomy, is spiritually problematic.

And so it’s a great and terrible irony that the church—I should specify, a large segment of the conservative Protestant church—has invited “the world” into the church. It has embedded its economic imperatives into its doctrines. Indeed, it has elevated the marketplace into a thing affirmed and designed by God himself.

With characteristic brilliance, Patrick Deneen shone a klieg light on this “delicious irony,” with his post on the Hobby Lobby contraception case currently before the Supreme Court. A self-styled “religious corporation” seeks

to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy. Yet, the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.

Deneen of course is a conservative Catholic. I’ve yet to come across a rejoinder from a conservative Protestant arguing against Deneen’s contention that there is, or should be, a “separation of church and economy.” If no one has written it yet, someone will soon. For this is an unfortunate, ahistorical, heretical bedrock belief of the conservative base: the American economy is God’s economy. Any attempt to regulate it is contrary to the God-breathed Constitution. It is atheistic, humanistic, and tyrannical.

This could be the greatest trick the devil ever played.

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The Perils of Workplace Purges

A Syn /  cc
A Syn / cc

Two organizations stumbled into controversy this week over employment and gay marriage. World Vision, a Christian organization that provides humanitarian aid, announced it would hire staff in gay marriages (previously, this was a violation of the employee code of conduct) and then, two days later, reversed the decision. Meanwhile, at Mozilla, the open source technology company best known for the Firefox web browser, the promotion of co-founder and CTO Brendan Eich to CEO drew criticism, since Eich had made a $1000 donation in support of Proposition 8 in 2008.

Evangelical leader Franklin Graham and Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood immediately called for boycotts of World Vision after its initial announcement. Mozilla faced calls for boycotts as well, as a team of gay web developers pulled their applications from Mozilla and called for others to follow suit “until Brendan Eich is completely removed from any day-to-day activities at Mozilla.” Eich posted a reply to criticisms on his blog that made no reference to the donation or his personal beliefs but expressed his “sorrow at having caused pain” and commitment to inclusiveness.

These boycotts are intended to get a company to exclude some people from the workforce, not to change the products a company makes or what they do with their money. Consumers have the right to stop donating or buying for any reason they choose, but Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry doubts that the people lashing out against World Vision have thought out the consequences of their position:

Imagine every business is a “Christian” business (and that’s the end goal, isn’t it?) and has this policy. So when you’re in a committed same-sex relationship, the outcome is that you…don’t…work? Anywhere? Never mind the cruelty, how is this supposed to get anyone to repent of anything?

Gobry is reluctant to use employment for ideological coercion, since, as a Catholic, he’s more interested in converting the enemy than suppressing them. If the gay rights movement wants to change Brendan Eich’s mind, it’s to their advantage to keep him enmeshed in mainstream culture; after all, gay friends and acquaintances are one of the strongest predictors of support for same-sex marriage.

Balkanized businesses, which only hire employees or leaders that are politically palatable to their donors and customers aren’t economically or socially efficient. Instead of creating weak-tie relationships across ideological divides, they segregate people who disagree, fostering a fear of contamination by association. This exclusionary approach raises the stakes of political conflict dangerously high. When the losing side of a debate is blacklisted, all disputes become wars of annihilation. Tweet:

Read More…

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Why Do Americans Drink Coffee?

Khoi Vinh believes coffee drinking in the West is a self-conscious and ostentatious practice—“not just a daily habit, but a totem of conspicuous consumption”:

Once in hand, we proudly parade those ostentatiously titled cups of coffee, lidded and wrapped in insulating sleeves, around with us as we walk and drive. They’re like our hood ornaments: branded markers, symbols of our fealty to given coffee houses that, we are convinced, make us better, more informed, more authentic, more committed consumers of dirty hot water than those others who will settle for lesser brands.

But Jason Kottke argues that our coffee culture, “like almost everything else these days, is a sport.” Everyone has a favorite “team” (aka Chemex vs. French press) and preferred technique, and they often love to argue with “fans of other teams.” There are more methods to brew coffee than I ever thought possible—this Pop Chart Lab “Compendious Coffee Chart” shows a swath of them, from the “Toddy Cold Brew” and “Kyoto Dripper” to the “Neapolitan Flip.” And don’t forget the various methods of serving and drinking coffee—of course we are familiar with plain black coffee (so boring), the americano, cappuccino, and latté. But have you heard of a cortado? A galão? A Vietnamese Cá Phê?

In addition to methodology fans, there are also those who ascribe to various coffee retailers—whether it be a chain a la Starbucks, or a local indie store (usually offering thimble-size shots of espresso). Nathan Yau recently mapped the most popular coffee chains across the nation: Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts had the greatest fan base, clearly dominating on the east and west coast. Dutch Bros. and Tim Hortons also had a pretty good showing in their respective regions.

Frank Bruni wrote a column for the New York Times in 2010, describing his journey from one method of coffee making to another. While he learned to appreciate the art of French press and other various methodologies, he also came to love the beautiful simplicity of good old Mr. Coffee—to find in your kitchen “10 cups of coffee, brewed automatically, just five minutes earlier, as a consequence of a few simple steps and some alarm clock-style programming the night before.”

It seems many people are as excited about various coffee brews as they are about wines—and coffee tasting can have a similar air of self-conscious elitism as that expressed in various wine-loving circles. Some shun Starbucks with an eye-roll and a reference to its big-gulp sized, sugary drinks. Others scoff those silly hipsters who only drink their coffee with butter.

So why do Americans drink coffee? Do they truly love their cups of joe for joe’s sake, or do they claim it as a status symbol, a team activity like watching March Madness? Read More…

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Richard Powers and the Blown-Up Cultural Narrative

J Blough / Flickr.com
J Blough / Flickr.com

Andrew Leonard has a fascinating, if discursive, profile in Salon of the novelist Richard Powers. In it, Powers registers a note of discontent with the proliferation of both pop-musical content—the “insane torrent,” as he puts it in his latest novel Orfeo—and all the digital mechanisms that deliver it today.

“Suppose you were born in 1962 and you are coming into your own and music starts to become essential to you,” says Powers. “You are right on the tail end of that sort of folk rock thing, but you are aware historically of how these guys were revolting in a way against the previous generation. And because of the nature of the distribution mechanisms that you talk about, where it’s two radio stations and one record store, there’s a saturation effect for whatever is in vogue and there has to be a countervailing cultural move just to refresh our ears. And that’s the start of punk.

“So you can see these revolutions and counter-revolutions and you can see a historical motion to popular music and it’s thrilling and you want to know what happens next. The state that you just described of permanent wonderful eclectic ubiquitous interchangeable availability — there’s no sense of historical thrust.”

Leonard sums up the point thus: “Universal ubiquity has blown up the narrative.”

There’s something to this, I think. Granted, I’m pushing 40; I’m not as hip to trends as I was when I was a kid, and certainly not when I was covering them for a daily newspaper. But the point is, it’s undeniably the case that it was once fairly easy for a casual music fan to keep abreast of the latest thing. Right up until the early aughts and the passel of “The [monosyllabic plural-noun]” bands playing neo-garage rock: that’s the last time I can remember there being some kind of identifiable “movement” in rock music.

Now there is no one thing.

As a caveat, I will admit it’s somewhat rockist to think along these lines. Just because Pharrell Williams or Bruno Mars or Robin Thicke aren’t trad-rock frontmen, why can’t they be seen as the vanguard of an eclectic dance-pop revival?

Point taken.

And part of the fragmentation that Powers laments isn’t even technologically-driven; it’s generational and racial. Much of what we would’ve called rock music 30 years ago now falls under the rubric of country music. It’s Top 40 for white people. It’s blues-based rock tricked out with splashes of fiddle and pedal-steel. (Bruce Springsteen astutely noticed this recently: “country music is kind of where rock music has gone, really, at this point … It’s basically kind of pop-rock music … It’s where rock music continues to have a certain currency.”)

So, a good chunk of the energy in rock-ish songwriting is devoted to the Nashville machine, which critics don’t take terribly seriously and hence wouldn’t bother to suss out trends that fit on the continuum of Powers’s reaction/counter-reaction “historical thrust.”

All that said, I suspect Powers is right. We’ve probably seen the last of swing-turns-to-bop or prog-is-wiped-out-by-punk cultural shifts in popular music. Powers seems to quite openly admit that these shifts had been abetted by self-styled tastemakers, who have seen a drastic decline in influence over the last 15 years. He argues unabashedly that the culture desperately requires those media filters.

I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. Then again, I say that having come of age in a culture that had filters. I say I can do without them. But I was shaped by them. What about my kids’ generation: how will they know what’s good, what’s worth listening to, what (as a Clash fan would have put it) matters?

They’ll be free of a “narrative” imposed from above. Instead they will have the “insane torrent.”

Everything will be at their fingertips.

But perhaps they will miss greatness right under their noses.

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After I’m Gone: A Commentary on Crisis

“A therapist I know—” Rachel was careful not to say my therapist; only Joshua knew she was seeing someone— “says there’s a theory that traumas leave us arrested at the age of the trauma.”

“Michelle doesn’t even remember Daddy. And that would make you forever fourteen, me sixteen. With all due respect, your therapist friend is kind of a quack.”

What do moments of catastrophe or tragedy inflict on the human psyche? Laura Lippman’s latest novel, After I’m Gone, suggests a mind emotionally and cognitively “stuck” at a historical moment of pain.

Her novel tells the story of five women left bereft and embittered by a man’s disappearance, and the story of one man struggling after the death of his wife. Felix Brewer, a charming and cavalier fellow, marries Bernadette “Bambi” Gottschalk after meeting her at a Valentine’s Day dance in 1959. Bambi cares for their three little girls while Felix runs his rather lucrative, illegal business. Facing an impending prison sentence in 1976, Felix disappears—leaving his wife mysteriously impoverished and emotionally shocked.

Bambi has no idea where her husband is, or where his money has gone. She suspects her husband’s mistress, Julie, may know where the funds are—but Julie insists that she has no idea of Felix’s (or his money’s) whereabouts. Ten years later, Julie disappears without a trace. People surmise (and Bambi fears) that she has joined Felix—but in 1986, people discover her remains in a park. What happened to Julie? Was her fate tied to Felix’s disappearance?

Fast forward to 2012: Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective working on cold cases, begins investigating Julie’s murder. He realizes the case is inextricably linked to all five of the women Felix left behind: his wife, his mistress, and his three daughters: Linda, Rachel, and Michelle.

Sandy has his own life trauma: specifically, the loss of his wife Mary some time before. Their romance, marriage, and emotional struggles provide an additional narrative thread throughout the mystery.

Though each of Felix’s daughters have their own story, each is tied both to the fate of their father and their own psychological “age”: Michelle, the baby of the family, acts like one—and is always eager for the attention and approval of males. Rachel, the middle child, finds herself battling grief at every turn. Linda, the oldest, manages to perhaps get the best “grip” on life. But interestingly, she chooses a husband who is perhaps the most manipulable of the group. She chooses, in some senses, the antithesis of her father.

Each of these characters combat their grief in different ways, and slowly begin to emerge from their pain. However, there is only one character who seems to transcend that pain: Bambi. Her final musings, at the conclusion of the book, are quite poignant. I don’t want to give the story away, but it’s a good passage.

Perhaps all of us face “frozen moments” in life. Death, divorce, financial crisis, betrayal, etc.: moments of heartbreak arrest and stall us. We are like records stuck on a single phrase or note of music. We play it, over and over. This “frozenness” derails Sandy, Julie, Michelle, and many others in Lippman’s story.

In her Author’s Note, Lippman says the novel’s inspiration came from her husband, who suggested that she “write a novel inspired by Julius Salsbury, the head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore into the 1970s.” Salsbury was convicted of mail fraud, and disappeared—leaving behind his wife, three daughters, and a girlfriend. “I found myself fascinated by the idea of the five women left behind,” Lippman writes. “What is a wife without her husband, daughters without a father, a mistress without her lover?”

Despite elements of mystery and drama, this book’s strongest genre is tragedy—not because of the characters who suffered pain, but because of those characters who refused to move on from pain: the people who chose to plant their feet in the stream of tragedy, rooted in their moment of crisis.


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