Anand Giridharadas’s The True American operates on the seemingly provocative question of who is more American: the Bangladeshi air-force officer who immigrates to Dallas, hires on as a gas-station cashier, and dreams of working with computers; or the Bud-swilling, tatted, truck-driving, meth-blasted Texas peckerwood who shot him as “revenge” for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Which man more encapsulates the true core of American ideals? And, really, what are America’s post-9/11 ideals? Is our place in the pecking order of social status in this country somehow mystically predetermined, or do we really choose who we become? These are the high-concept questions that Giridharadas’s true-crime chronicle of one of the first, and most notorious, post-9/11 hate crimes dances around and shimmies at. They lend a reliably portentous scrim of capital-M Meaning to his narrative account of Mark Stroman’s shooting rampage in a Texas gas station in the bewildering fall of 2001 that left two men dead and one wounded.
But here’s another question—one that is perhaps less (capital-I) Important but that continued to drum in my head while reading The True American: Why does a story about a murder rampage have to be couched inside such a thinky premise? It seems like the story that propels Giridharadas’s book would be compelling enough on its own. Unfortunately, the author’s attraction to an outsize clash-of-cultures narrative creates a rather ponderous interpretive backdrop to what would otherwise be a taut and straightforward crime story.
So instead of, say, The Thin Blue Line, the reader gets something closer to Bowling Alone meets The Melting Pot. And rather than a simple study in the high-octane paranoia that was America (and particularly the American Southwest) in the fraught, unhinged aftermath of 9/11, readers of The True American have to reckon with the notion that these sorts of crimes take place because Americans—and especially poor white American men—are unmoored, isolated, clinging to a corrosive ideology of dominance.
To lend credence to this pop-sociological thesis, Giridharadas uses the book’s main character, Raisuddin Bhuiyan, the Bangladeshi mini-mart cashier who survived Stroman’s assault, as the wholesome immigrant rebuke to his shooter’s resentment-driven white man’s rage. The end result is a paint-by-numbers account of the psychology of a hate-crime attack. The story, pitted as it is in this grid of outsize meaning, becomes grindingly obvious and tiresome—which is a woeful thing to say about the portrayal of the travails that faced the survivor of an attempted murder. It’s a shame that Bhuiyan’s story is told in this grating fashion, since he turns out to be such a genuinely virtuous protagonist. After he had been treated for the shot that Stroman fired into his head, Bhuiyan went on a heroic campaign to get the jailed and convicted Stroman taken off of Texas’s notoriously execution-happy death row.
But it’s difficult to have much in the way of genuine insight into Bhuiyan’s character when one is marched through this grim, and not especially edifying, caricature of immigrant dislocation in our big, lonely American society as early as the book’s third page:
[Bhuiyan]’s first two years in the U.S., in New York, had grayed this black-and-white schema. There was misfortune in America; there was misfortune in Bangladesh. But to be poor together, as people were back home, seemed to [Bhuiyan] to be different from being poor alone, as people often were here on the edge of Dallas. . . . People [in Bangladesh] lived thickly in one another’s business, their presence at once invasive and soothing. The constant din of parents and siblings and in-laws staved off self-pity. . . . People threw weddings that took a lifetime to pay off, because they knew they would need a tribe even more than the money.
Ten years after the shooting, with the blessing of the other victims’ families, Bhuiyan sued the state of Texas to halt Stroman’s execution, saying his religious beliefs as a Muslim told him to forgive. Bhuiyan published a newspaper editorial that ran in Huntsville, home of the Texas correctional facility that’s executed more prisoners than any other in the United States (1,265 total, and still very much counting). Bhuiyan is without question an admirable figure. But Giridharadas’s cloying affection for his main protagonist paradoxically renders him something both more and less than a recognizably flawed and troubled human being, grappling with the real moral dilemmas at the heart of a tragic, life-changing encounter with a brutal, uncomprehending assailant. Bhuiyan all too often comes across as a sappy pasteboard version of a wise man from a foreign land.
At the opposite end of the ethical spectrum, Stroman’s odiousness compounds the sense that The True American is not much more than a thuddingly obvious Aaron Sorkin morality play. He’s thoroughly repellent from the moment we read about the bumper sticker plastered on the rear window of his 1972 Chevy Suburban: “If I had known this, I would have picked my own cotton.”
Stroman considered himself a patriot, and Giridharadas takes great pains to catalogue all the asinine and obnoxious aesthetic preferences that seem to automatically come with being a certain kind of right-wing Texan: dumb tattoos, “Show Me Your Tits” trucker hats, domestic cars, beers, and women. Before he went mindlessly firing shots in Bhuiyan’s gas station, Stroman sent out e-mails about “white pride,” and circulated something he called a “True American” manifesto, which featured insights like this: “I believe the money I make belongs to me and my family not some midlevel governmental functionary with a bad comb-over who wants to give it away to crack addicts squirting out babies.” As he awaited his trial, Stroman wrote a poem professing his love for the “peckerwood warriors,” a slang epithet often used by aspiring members of the Aryan Brotherhood, and proudly referred to himself as an “Arab Slayer.”
At his capital-murder trial, Stroman insisted on wearing a Harley-Davidson shirt when the jury came back with its guilty verdict. Because, you know, freedom?
There is a deep darkness inside men like Stroman that is beyond ideology or bigotry. But Giridharadas renders this crucial aspect of the story, too, as a pro forma litany of off-the-rack anomic ills. After he summons the bleak backstory of Stroman’s hatreds through social-worker reports, juvenile-hall records, and parole violations, he lets his narrative slip into pop-psych silliness:
Imperfect as it was, it was the state, alone among the players in Stroman’s life, that kept vigil over his growth. . . . In this long witnessing, the state was the closest thing Stroman had to a father figure, with all the Oedipal ramifications. Stroman would come to loathe the government that tracked him so closely.
So when Stroman undergoes his big transformation in the weeks leading up to his execution in July of 2011—denouncing the “stupidity” of his crime and calling Bhuiyan’s efforts to save his life “inspiring”—one still has very little sense of how he actually came to repudiate his lifelong hatreds. It feels less like a hard-won acknowledgment of shared humanity near the end of a man’s life than the hurried epilogue to an after-school special on the values of cultural tolerance.
The True American also suffers from another irritating narrative tic: Giridharadas’s consistently torpid introductions to the book’s dramatic action. He backs into many of his episodes—taking a side character or an impossibly long-view vantage on the scene at hand before he elects, finally, to narrow the focus. This gives the tale of the genuinely fascinating aftermath of Stroman’s crime an air of cultural overdetermination completely at odds with the spasmodic, incoherent nature of the actual assault.
It’s true as well that this novelistic affectation would be less distracting if Giridharadas had more of a gift for lyricism. The prose of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song has bequeathed to the authors of subsequent true-crime books a hard-to-shake inferiority complex. In order to be worthy successors to these landmark works, it seems, these books must read like novels, or at a minimum, as something grander than their core subject—in this case, the grim and senseless extermination of fellow humans on the basis of nothing more than their nonwhite status. The missed opportunity of The True American is that this story would make for a sharp and effective true-crime book, if only it were released from all its layers of fussy writerly affectation.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a blogger for Bookforum and the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America (Harper Design, 2010).