Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Cloud of Unknowing

I had a great time reading Elmore Leonard's Killshot from 1989, which I had somehow missed. It's fabulous formula work, with great dialogue and inner thinking seen in predators and heroes alike. The story is primal American frontier: wandering lunatic killers, whom Leonard makes vivid and coherent, are defeated by ordinary blue-collar folks, whom Leonard makes vivid and funny.

"America" is left entirely to one side, partly becasue it's mostly set in Canada and also because society is never really the issue for Leonard. Not so for lots of other crime writers, and Donna Leon is one of them. I just finished Uniform Justice (2003), which is both gripping and sad. "Italy" is absolutely at the center, and particularly the Italy of profoundly and apparently hopelessly bought-off government.

We find passages like this:
Brunetti thought of Parliament in the way most Italians thought of their mothers-in-law. Not due the loyalties created by ties of blood, a mother-in-law still demanded obedience and reverence while never behaving in a manner that would merit either. This alien presence, imposed upon a person's life by sheerest chance, made ever-increasing demands in return for the vain promise of domestic harmony. Resistance was futile, for opposition inevitably led to repercussions too devious to be foreseen.
The government is not there to help, develop, and support, but to skim and control. This fact about Italian government becomes a fact about the psychology of all the actors in the story. The mystery is about a particular act of corruption, but corruption itself, at the heart of Italian public life, chews away at everyone's soul.

In the end we do know "what happened" but we also see that no one can or will do anything about it. This is a more or less unacceptable attitude in the U.S. But what if we are just repressing it here? What if Americans actually feel the same way deep down - that the country has become essentially corrupt, and there is nothing to be done? Public figures, even the more pissed off among them, aren't there yet, but they are always behind. For anyone who is already there, better to read Leon than Leonard.