[W.W. Norton & Company, 336 pages]
I saw Anand Giridharadas on a CNN panel one evening several months ago. I marvelled at how articulate he was! I was between books at the time, and when a sign flashed on the screen saying that he was the author of a book called The True American, I went to my computer and ordered it from my local library.
The True American is the story of Rais, a young Bangladeshi immigrant who worked at a convenience store in Dallas, Texas at the time of 9/11. His life was upended and nearly ended in the month after that disaster took place, by a ne’er-do-well American shit-kicker named Mark Stroman. Mr. Stroman, who besides his near-fatal shooting of Rais, killed two other Asian men he also mistakenly believed to be “Arabs,” thought of himself as an avenger of the wrong that had been done to America.
The non-fiction story developed into an obvious gold mine for the right author. Giridharadas researched the material meticulously, and for the most part, does a fine job of reporting. He goes into great detail, with background on both major figures: Rais, who practices “American” values such as resiliency and self-sufficiency, and makes a life for himself after recovering from being shot in the face; and Mark, who ends up on death row, where it’s possible (but not certain) that he finally begins to realize the gravity of what he’s done, and to feel remorse.
Stroman’s life had veered off the rails and into the Texas juvenile correction system during his teens. The wealth of information from its files that documented new beginnings, hopeful observations, and then more acting-out and criminal behaviour will lead many readers into deep contemplation about “nature and nurture.”
One of my other main takeaways from the book came from reading the transcript of Stroman’s initial statement before trial. This twisted document of self-justification displays, for all time, how easily a person can delude himself to the point of insanity. The statement ends: “I, Mark Anthony Stroman, felt a need to extract some measure of equality and fairness for the thousands of victims of September 11, 2001, for the United States of America.”
What makes The True American particularly unusual is that Rais makes a vow just after being shot. He vows that if God allows him to survive, he’ll give his life to the service of others. His service takes the form, finally, of forgiving Mark and trying to prevent his execution.
The author follows the story, beyond Rais’ attempts to save Mark, into his later effort to make a difference with Mark’s children, who are living rather at-risk lives themselves. This last third of the book simply doesn’t have the striking impact of the first two-thirds. But those first two-thirds of The True American amount to a powerful read.