The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

The titles listed in Bloomsbury’s 100 Must-read Classic Novels (actually 99 novels plus Chekhov’s short stories, which is totally cheating) were largely familiar to me before I’d even started working my way through the list, skewing strongly toward classics of British literature (42 of the 100 titles were by British authors, plus five by Irish authors). The list’s creator, Nick Rennison, did show one clear and regrettable bias in his selections, however, with several titles that advocate political change toward socialism, generally to the detriment of their value as works of literature. News from Nowhere was one such title, a dreadful utopian novel that, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, is the prose equivalent of an actuarial table. Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, published three years after the author’s death, resembles an actual novel more than News did, with real characters and proper plots, but there is so much sermonizing and so little character development that the book amounts to little more than 600 pages of didactic sludge.

Tressell, the nom de plume of the Irish-born writer Robert Croker (later Robert Noonan), based The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in large part on his own experience as a house-painter, working for subsistence wages while the merchant class and politicians grew rich off his and his colleagues’ labors. The title refers to these workers, who give so freely of their efforts to enrich others and seem, in Tressell’s view, to acquiesce to a system that is designed to exploit them and perpetuate that exploitation for generations. In that, Tressell was partially right – England’s labor laws were heavily stacked against the working class until the Labour Party took power in the 1906 election, before which a trade union could be held liable for losses resulting from collective actions such as strikes. Even as Tressell was writing his manuscript, completing it in 1910, the situation was only beginning to improve for the “philanthropists” of Great Britain.

Labor protection proved the solution to many (but not all) of the ills Tressell attacks in his novel, but his extreme naivete about human nature led him to advocate strong socialism, with little or no ownership of private property and penalties on savings or investment, rather than fair labor practices. Tressell has the two socialist characters, Owen and Barrington, deliver tiresome lectures to their fellow painters about the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, all founded on now-discredited beliefs that people would still continue to expend maximum efforts when all incentives for good work or for ingenuity have been removed. By removing the possibility of large gains for the large sacrifices involved in inventing or developing new goods or processes, innovation will slow, and funding for high-risk projects (like most startups) will flow to countries where the potential for high returns still exists. Socialism as Tressell describes it has been tried and failed in countless economies, so reading his prescription for a command economy like those that collapsed across Eastern Europe and that have only enriched those in power in Africa is sadly comical.

Tressell’s awkward satire is actually more effective when he attacks the hypocrisy of those who profess to be Christians, mouthing the words of their Messiah while doing quite the opposite. Tressell limits his attacks on the religion itself – although I’d infer from his text that he was a nonbeliever – and instead focuses on those who preach the Gospel while doing nothing to help the less fortunate, and often would use their working hours to keep the lower classes in need of basic assistance like food, lodging, or medical care. Tressel’s primary antagonist, the painting-firm owner (and thief) Rushton, is found in the streets spreading the Good News – and making sure he uses these words to keep the poor and unemployed from banding together to try to improve their situation. It’s easy to see a parallel in the sliver of the U.S. electorate that professes ardent belief in the same religion and yet votes against programs that might help the very people Christ implores His followers to help.

Tressell also falls into one of the worst traps for the would-be satirist, violating what is now Roger Ebert’s First Law of Funny Names: Funny names aren’t funny. Tressell populates his novel with obvious and unclever puns, like rival painting outfits Pushem and Sloggem, two-faced philanthropists Crass and Slyme, the ineffectual city councilor Dr. Weakling, and the venal landowner and MP Sir Graball D’Encloseland. Satire need not be hilarious to be effective, but the failed attempts at humor here only serve to further insult the intelligence of the reader who might not have already given up in disgust at the author’s ignorance of basic microeconomics.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story of the Indian-born mathematician Ramanujan, whose brief life was marked by enormous insights into number theory despite his lack of any formal education in the field.

Kipps and Dangerous Liaisons.

Last week’s ESPN content included a look at a few top prospects who were called up and a Klawchat. I also contributed to the new Future Power Rankings by naming a “new #GUY” prospect for each system, ignoring players who were just drafted in June or who were previously on my top 50/100.

I’d only read one H.G. Wells novel, his sci-fi/social commentary classic The Time Machine, before encountering Kipps The Story of a Simple Soul on the Bloomsbury 100. Another novel of deep social criticism, Kipps represents Wells’ attack on the gulf between haves and have-nots in late 19th century England while simultaneously rejecting socialism as a solution, wrapped in the envelope of a rags-to-riches-to-rags romance that works effectively on its own and as a delivery mechanism for Wells’ polemics.

Kipps himself is Arthur “Artie” Kipps, who has been shipped off by his mother (with his father unknown) to be raised by his Puritanical and simple-minded aunt and uncle. While attending a useless primary school, he falls in love with Ann, the sister of his best friend Sid, only to lose track of her when he begins his apprenticeship as a draper at age 14. The drudgery and limited outlook for working-class children sent into this sort of indentured servitude comes under Wells’ fire, as does the factory system’s wide latitude for employers to cheat their helpless employees. Kipps ends up the recipient of a windfall inheritance, seeking then to raise himself up above his lower-class upbringing, yet also struggling with questions of moral responsibility associated with his newfound wealth, many raised by the minor character Masterman – an ardent socialist dying of tuberculosis. Kipps’ fortune disappears almost as quickly as he obtained it, and it is in his response to this turn of events that his inner character emerges from the facade of the semi-polished and utterly superficial Kipps of the book’s middle section.

Wells wrote Kipps with a satirist’s pen, mocking people with wealth and power at every turn yet never sparing those poor in all but ideas. Masterman’s polemics on capitalism are somewhat undercut by Wells’ decision to make the novel’s one socialist – or its only real philosopher of any sort – terminally ill with a disease known at the time as “consumption.” Kipps’ sudden acquisition of wealth changes the way nearly everyone in his life treats him, turning many supporting characters into comic relief, while also throwing him into many situations he finds embarrassing that are also send-ups of the circumstances that created them, such as a scene in the fine restaurant of the hotel he’s inhabiting, where walking in with the wrong shoes is just the first of his problems. The reader can only feel badly for Kipps, who is a stranger in the strange land of privilege, while scorning the various aristocrats who’d look down on him for his naivete.

The romance plot is the overarching storyline in the book, covering Kipps from childhood till the point when he loses his fortune (in predictable, but yet somewhat amusing fashion), even though it functions as a subplot under the more academic themes relating to Kipps’ career and time as one of the idle rich. Kipps’ childhood romance with Ann lasts until he turns 14 and leaves for a career in fabric, after which he ends up with a crush on the more sophisticated Helen Walsingham, who views him sympathetically but without much interest until his inheritance turns up. The way in which Kipps acquires that money doesn’t fit neatly into either plot line, but also provides one of the book’s most entertaining passages, particularly because the non-drinker Kipps goes on a lengthy bender that leads to an improbable connection to the lost money, while leading into a lengthy fish-out-of-water passage where Kipps flops and flounders his way through upper-class society.

Wells mimics lower-class speech in Kipps’ dialogue, with liaisons like “a nactor” for “an actor” and elisions like “mis’bel” for “miserable,” which can make reading the text a little slower, but he more than makes up for it with direct, modern prose that avoids the sluggishness that I’ve encountered in some of the other Bloomsbury 100 novels, even contemporaries of Kipps. It’s funny, cutting, sweet, and still quite relevant in a time of rising income inequality in capitalist societies yet in a world where socialist economies have failed.

I also knocked out Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons*, which appears on both the Bloomsbury and Guardian lists, although it took a solid week to get through the tedious prose and absurdly long letters between the main characters. Focusing on a romantic rivalry between the rake the Viscomte de Valmont and his quondam paramour the Marquise de Merteuil, both gleefully free of morals and engaged in multiple intrigues simultaneously. Their rivalry leads Valmont to “seduce” (rape, in modern terms) the 15-year-old ingenue Cécile de Volanges, which in turns sets their mutual downfall in motion.

*Not to be confused with “Dangeresque Liaisons.”

For a work involving sex (most of it of the consensual variety) and betrayal, Dangerous Liaisons is a plodding read, as the entire book comprises letters between the various characters floridly describing what they just did, or what they might do next, or (in Cécile’s case) what they would just like to do. I assume Laclos was moralizing in two ways, over promiscuity/infidelity but also over those who treat others as mere pawns for their own gains or pleasures, as both Valmont and Merteuil treat multiple lovers (or victims) in this way over the course of the novel. Yet Laclos makes the novel so one-sided that it fast becomes boring, in the way that Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward wears out its welcome with sermonizing on how the world should be.

I haven’t seen the Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons (a film adapted from a play adapted from a novel) starring John Malkovich (really?) as the roué Valmont, but I did watch the 1989 adaptation Valmont, with the far more believable Colin Firth in the role of the cad. That version altered the ending far too much to be considered a reasonable adaptation, crafting happy-ish endings for several characters and avoiding the more serious aspects of the novel’s depictions of Valmont and Merteuil (played by Annette Bening, also a solid casting choice).

Next up: Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, another selection from the Bloomsbury 100, and a novel that has appeared on at least two lists of the most important novels in the German canon.

Last Man in Tower and The Member of the Wedding.

Aravind Adiga’s first novel, The White Tiger, won the Man Booker Prize and was a late cut from my last book ranking, earning a very positive review from me when I read it during spring training in 2010. His second true novel, Last Man in Tower, replaces some of the bitterness and irony with a more open-ended approach to characterization, without losing the scathing social criticism of the new India that made The White Tiger so powerful.

The man of Last Man in Tower‘s title is the retired teacher known affectionately as “Masterji,” who lives in a dilapidated coop apartment building in the Santa Cruz neighborhood of Mumbai, near the city’s massive international airport. Redevelopment is advancing quickly into this district, and when their coop society receives enormous offers to sell out so a developer can tear the buildings down and put up luxury condos, one by one all of the society’s residents accept, until Masterji is the only holdout, insisting that he wants “nothing.” His refusal to sign is not about price or money, but, in his view, about principle, holding back the wave of corruption and gentrification that is destroying the old India and widening the gap between the country’s wealthy and poor.

Adiga strikes a better balance here between satire and storytelling than he did in White Tiger, but in the process lost much of the dark humor that made the first book so memorable. Masterji deserves a more thoughtful treatment than Balram Halwai, and he gets it, with explanations of how the deaths of his wife and daughter and his distant relationship with his son affect his view on the developer’s offer and the threat of massive change spawned by a forced move to another community. Masterji’s apparent obstinacy – his refusal to sign the offer means no one in the building can sell – has its justifications, and while in the end I found myself siding with his neighbors on the matter of the offer, Adiga creates enough ambiguity to prevent the reader from coming down wholly on either side of the matter.

Adiga’s other key decision was to try to personalize the developer as an independent character, rather than leaving him as an unseen, amoral force in the shadows; while he wasn’t entirely successful, it did help to round the book out more fully. Shah is not sympathetic, but he is also real, and is shown as motivated not just by greed, but by ambition, shame, and an unsatiable desire to overcome his humble beginnings. Yet any sympathy his history might engender is rather quickly wiped out by the horrible treatment he dishes out to his assistant and to his mistress, details that I assume indicate that Adiga’s distaste for hypercapitalism on to the page twon out over his desire to craft a fully developed antagonistic force to pull on the reader’s emotions.

Last Man in Tower‘s other characters are all very well-developed, giving Masterji a few friends and many foils just within the coop society, several of whom get their own backstories, often just enough to make you want more; for me, Mary, the building’s maid, who herself lives in a nearby shantytown with her son and whose livelihood is threatened by the potential redevelopment, deserved further screen time. I could see Adiga building up to a longer, even more complex novel from here, one with multiple interwoven storylines involving a multitude of well-developed characters, perhaps rewriting the wrongs done to India by E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling. I enjoyed White Tiger more, in part because I enjoy funny, incisive satire like that, but Last Man in Tower is just as strong a novel, less witty yet more ambitious, indicating Adiga’s maturation as a novelist.

I picked up Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe – I’m going to miss that store quite a bit – because it was on sale and because McCullers’ best-known novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is among my favorite novels ever written (#15 on my last ranking, in fact). McCullers’ signature work includes a cast of flawed, mostly sympathetic characters, inhabiting the same world despite narrow and wide gulfs between them, a sphere filled with grief, alienation, and sadness. Member of the Wedding doesn’t reach the same emotional depths, but does turn the conventions of the coming-of-age novel upside down with its story of a motherless girl who fills her life with fantasies to replace what she’s lost.

Frances “Frankie” Addams is a 12-year-old girl living with her mostly absent father, with help from a live-in African-American woman named Berenice, and the frequent presence of Frankie’s young cousin John Henry. Frankie’s brother Jarvis returns from a stint in the Army in Alaska with a fiancee and an announcement that they’ll be getting married in a few days in the nearby town of Winter Hill. Frankie decides that she’s going to run away with her brother and sister-in-law after the wedding, building up a vague, exotic fantasy about a life other than the one she has now.

The central conflict in the book lies between that fantasy, of escape or just change from a destiny that seems predetermined, and the reality of life in their small, slightly backwards town, where blacks and whites intermingle but exist on separate planes, and the army is one of the only ways to leave the track into which you’re born. (Death comes up on the story’s margins as one of the other ways, and probably the most commonly utilized.) Frankie’s narrative touches on themes of oppression, racism, and gender identity, but the one that kept coming back to me was that she’s a girl who needed her mother, and is trying to fill that void, as well as the one left by a father who’s barely present in her life, with anything she can find, real or imagined. That also leads to a disturbing interlude with a soldier on leave in the town, perpetually drunk or in search of it, who seems to mistake Frankie’s age by a hard-to-imagine distance.

The overriding sadness that permates The Member of the Wedding isn’t well balanced the way that a similar vapor in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is, where McCullers pairs the gloom with a deeper understanding of its origins and dimensions. Here, Frankie is a little more pathetic than sympathetic, especially when her vision of escape with her brother doesn’t quite come off as planned, leaving me with the sense of having read something superficial, not the immersive emotional experience imparted by McCullers’ masterpiece.

Next up: Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes, a Danish detective novel and first in the “Department Q” series.

King Leopold’s Ghost.

A quick baseball note: Earl Weaver passed away last night at the age of 82. Weaver hadn’t been active in the game in over two decades, but his work as the Orioles’ manager made him a legend not just for his colorful language but for his thinking about in-game strategy, which presaged a lot of what is now called “Moneyball” thinking in an era before computers, spreadsheets, and mothers’ basements. His book Weaver on Strategy is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to learn about a more rational approach to managing; the book discusses the use of statistics, the uselessness of the bunt, the benefits of platooning, and more such topics strictly through logical arguments rather than with heavy math.

Adam Hochschild’s 1998 non-fiction work King Leopold’s Ghost tells the unsavory story of the rape of the Congo by the monarch of the book’s title, a megalomaniacal autocrat who manipulated and schemed his way into one-man rule of a giant and resource-rich plot of land in the heart of a continent he never visited. The book itself focuses on the time from Leopold’s first attempts to gain a colony for himself to the eventual handoff of the territory to the Belgian state, but the effects of his misrule and the marginally better rule of the Belgians continue to plague what is in effect a fake-country today.

Leopold was obsessed with finding a colony to rule, partly out of ego, partly out of fear that tiny Belgium would be left at an economic disadvantage (as their equally small neighbors the Netherlands established colonies across Asia), and partly out of greed. His impact on the land he ended up ruling was awful, but he was a master diplomat in his era, buying influence, wheedling concessions, and financing large expeditions, some led by Lord Stanley, up the Congo River to explore and claim territory for himself. That territory was first titled, Soviet-style, as “The Free State of Congo,” even though it was about as free as a man in concrete shoes, and later became the Belgian Congo and then Zaire, the title by which I’ll probably always think of it. (It was so easy to remember the geography of that part of Africa, as the world’s only three countries that start with Z were located there, adjacent north to south in alphabetical order: Zaire, Zambia, Zimbabwe.) Leopold established a brutal system of colonial rule that relied very heavy on forced labor – outright slavery as well as punitive labor systems that created virtual slavery through enormous production quotas, hostage-taking, and cutting off hands – and made the territory the world’s main producer of natural rubber at a time when demand for the resource was growing due to the invention of motor vehicles.

The extent of slavery and its inherent violence ended up a cause celebre around the world, even though similar systems existed on smaller scales in French and English territories in Africa, with the movement to end the oppression of the Congo’s native tribes led by an English journalist-activist named E.D. Morel and two black Americans who visited the Congo, the historian George Washington Williams and the preacher William Sheppard, and saw the the brutality up close. After setting the scene by detailing Leopold’s takeover of the Congo, Hochschild spends the heart of his book explaining the rise and modest successes of one of the world’s first truly international protest movements, aimed at embarrassing Leopold into instituting reforms. Leopold fought back, often playing quite dirty in the process, but did eventually sell the colony at an exorbitant cost to Belgium, which didn’t do a whole lot better as colonial rulers.

The biggest problem with the country known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, something Hochschild doesn’t spend enough time exploring, is that it remains a fabrication of the Belgian king who created it: The territories aren’t based on tribes, languages, or even historical entities, but on the treaties Leopold signed to craft his territory. Much as the Versailled-created nation of Yugoslavia (originally and comically known as “The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes,” as if they were all citrus fruits you could stash in the same crisper) collapsed once autocracy there failed, the DR Congo has been torn apart by civil wars, coups, famines, and genocides since the Belgians left – not that it was any better while they were in charge – and the United States helped assassinate the country’s first ruler, the democratically-elected Patrice Lumumba. Wikipedia – which is never wrong – says that there are an estimated 242 different languages spoken within the DR Congo’s borders, now, including four “national” languages, all of the Bantu family, the distribution of which gives you some idea of how fraudulent the country’s borders seem today. Yet breaking the country apart poses enormous problems of resource management, with the eastern province of Kivu providing over 10% of the world’s supply of the ore coltan, the central provice of Kasai-Oriental providing 10% of the world’s diamonds by weight, and the southern province of Katanga has the world’s second-largest reserve of copper and might have a third of the world’s supply of cobalt. (All data also from Wikipedia.) The country has just one direct outlet to the sea, at the Congo River delta into the south Atlantic Ocean, so dismembering the country would create economic discrepancies across the new nations while just one of these subcountries would control the only international trade route that didn’t involve crossing a border. It is no wonder that the country has been racked by conflicts for a half-century, with the only respite coming during the reign of the dictator-thief Mobute Sese Seko. (No, not this guy.)

Hochschild does a fair job of sourcing his material, although the lack of inline citations is a slight negative, and he points out several times that most of what we know of Leopold’s rule actually comes from white/European sources, since the conquered African tribes either didn’t have effective writing systems or just didn’t have the way to put that writing in a form that would survive. Slaves or forced laborers seldom had avenues to describe their experiences unless they escaped from servitude. Hochschild paints a bleak picture to begin with, but it’s likely that the brutality was more widespread than he states and the death toll, estimated at around 10 million, could easily be higher. It’s a shocking and largely forgotten story of white exploitation of Africa, but given the constant instability in the region – including further genocides and the use of rape as a weapon of terror – it’s important that we understand our own contributions to the area’s problems. In a week where Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o each garnered about a hundred times the ink of the conflict in Mali, however, I suppose that’s wishful thinking.

Next up: I am making extremely slow progress through Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; through 200 pages, I can say that the book makes almost no sense to me.

Boardwalk Empire and The Constant Gardener.

Two topics in one post, just because. You probably saw my post on why the pitcher win stat must die. Klawchat on Thursday.

Finally got around to the first episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire last night , and I think my expectations were so high that I was bound to be a little disappointed, even though there’s a lot to like. The Prohibition Era/Roaring Twenties is my favorite period in U.S. history, in literature, film, or even non-fiction, so this series is tailor-made for me. Everything looks spectacular (outside of a couple of weak special effects), both the sets and the costumes, and Steve Buscemi really grew into the role as Atlantic City boss Nucky Thompson over the course of that one episode after a weak beginning with his speech to the Temperance League. Jimmy Darmody, (played by Michael Pitt), Nucky’s driver, has a chance to be an even more compelling character as a bright, young, ambitious kid whose moral compass has been warped or smashed by his experiences in Germany in World War I. Eddie, Nucky’s butler, was excellent as a sort of anti-Jeeves, although the role doesn’t offer much substance. And Paz de la Huerta … well, her character (Lucy) is mostly just comic relief, but if she’s naked a lot I won’t complain.

That first episode had plenty of cliches, though, starting with de la Huerta’s dim-witted showgirl/gangster moll. The other major female character, the abused, immigrant wife Margaret Schroder, comes with a back story we’ve seen a million times – beaten and subjugated by a jealous, alcoholic husband, who eventually gets his compuppance at Nucky’s hands, satisfying the viewer’s desire for vengeance but avoiding the harsh reality that domestic violence wasn’t seen the way we view it today. I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of the portrayals, but did notice that they made the Italian guy (Luciano) the loose cannon with the bad temper and the Jewish guy (Rothstein) the money-obsessed guy who cheats in his business dealings, both of which felt like unfortunate stereotyping. The editing style, particularly the montage sequence at the end, involved so many jump cuts that I had a hard time following the multiple strands, and the final murder in the episode lacked any context whatsoever. The main antagonist to Johnson, other than Rothstein, is Agent Van Alden, rocking a Dick Tracy jaw line but lacking any kind of back story to explain his zeal for stamping out alcohol (there are hints at a religious objection, but religious faith alone isn’t much of an explanation for Van Alden’s determination or steely expressions).

Buscemi and Pitt alone are reasons enough to continue watching, and the series is one of the only ones I’ve ever seen where the visual appeal would make me tune in anyway, but I am hopeful that this episode is the one where they worked out the kinks, setting up some stronger storylines and better characterizations for the rest of the season.

If you’ve set your mind on hiding the truth, then the first thing you’ve got to do is give people a different truth to keep them quiet.

I’ve been slacking on my reading during the moving/unpacking process but did knock out John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener last week. A suspense novel involving spies that is less a spy novel than an angry novel of social criticism, it elevates a straightforward story of a widower’s quest to identify his wife’s murderers into a morally important work that is seldom preachy or strident without cause.

The superficial plot is that of the murder of Tessa Quayle and her research/activist partner Arnold Bluhm; their bodies are discovered in the first chapter, and the next hundred pages or so deal with the mundane nature of the death of the wife of a foreign service official – from the funeral to the investigation to the “handling” of the widower. It’s a slow beginning, but gradually builds enough of the case to set Justin off on the track that leads to the ultimate plot, the role in those murders of the multinational pharmaceutical corporations behind a supposed miracle TB drug called Dypraxa, whose side effects have apparently been ignored as it’s being given to poor Kenyans dying of the disease.

Le Carré still plays to his strengths as a spy novelist by sending Justin off on a run around the world, three continents and at least five countries, fleeing both his former employers and whoever killed his wife. Justin’s titular interest in gardening only plays a small role in defining his character, but le Carré does add some complexity through hints that Justin’s mind may be either going or playing tricks on him, a point of view pushed hard by the British foreign service, who appear to be operating in the pay of those same pharmaceutical companies who may have killed Kenyans through their drug trials and hushed it up. Through Justin’s investigation, which brings him into contact with all of the remaining major players in the drug’s development and early trials, le Carré offers the pharmaceutical companies’ points of view – particularly that they gave the drug to people who were likely to die of the disease anyway – but clearly has little sympathy for it; there’s a righteous anger bubbling just under the surface of The Constant Gardener that wouldn’t work if he was advocating a more controversial point of view, but given the existence of a similar incident that may have inspired this book, it’s hard to take the contrary position. The novel doesn’t have the same tension or psychological emphasis as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but the author’s obvious rage at what he views as abuses of supra-national corporations takes their place to drive the book forward towards its inevitable, tragic conclusion.

White Tiger.

Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is a twisted, funny, angry book with a deadly serious core that takes aim at modern India and skewers every part of it that appears within a kilometer of the target. It is a 21st-century antidote to Horatio Alger’s novels, one where the hero is an amoral anti-hero who charms the reader while clawing his way out of poverty and into the upper class he despises and yet wants to join. Adiga presents you with the conflict of the rags-to-riches hero who gets there by being an amoral scumbag, rejecting all the traditional mores that most people hold dear (religion, marriage, culture, etc.) and arguing that he had to reject them to get where he was going.

The narrator and hero/anti-hero is Balram, known as the White Tiger, a poor boy who is determined from a young age not to remain poor and stupid and in the Darkness of rural India. He lies, cheats, and eavesdrops his way into opportunities like a job as a driver for the son of a local oligarch, one that brings him into contact with greater wealth and with the urban chaos of New Delhi. This new experience brings him greater opportunities for advancement and for stepping on or destroying people in his way until his actions eventually escalate to murder. Through this diary of his experiences, told through seven letters to the visiting Premier of China, Balram is cheerful, mocking or criticizing everyone from his idiot rich boss to the traditional Indians who remain happy stuck in the mire to the rich classes whose government and the gods to keep the teeming multitudes in penury.

White Tiger is a disingenuously quick read, with fast, witty prose, but underneath it Adiga is posing tough questions without really answering them. Was Balram a hero or an anti-hero? It’s tough to justify most of what he does in the novel, except that just about everyone he stepped on or hurt or killed had it, or at least something, coming. And who can blame someone raised in that kind of poverty and hopelessness for grabbing indiscriminately at an opportunity to escape it? Does one’s environment determine the morality of one’s actions? Does Balram feel guilty about any of his actions – hence his rationalizations – or does he believe that he’s fully justified?

Adiga’s targets are wide, but a huge portion of his satire – or just his ire – is aimed at “modern” India, which he views as segregated and corrupt, ruled by idiots who are simply smarter than the “slaves” in the country’s massive underclass. The corruption is endemic, from bribes paid to government officials to sinecures in local towns, but the characters’ mass acceptance of “how it is” is terrifying, and the one person who objects – because he has spent time in the United States – is too weak-willed to do much more than complain. The party that purports to represent the poor is every bit as corrupt as the one that rules the country for the rich, and both parties promise reforms to the masses without delivering anything.

I also read White Tiger while wondering if it was possible to write a book this funny and compelling with a moral central character. Balram simply has no moral center – he has rejected the dictums from his family, the faith of his caste (although he hasn’t given up on its superstitions), and the respect for authority that the authorities demand. He lies and acts to get what he wants, and has no compunction about his deception. A book like this almost requires a central character – or maybe just a narrator – who respects nothing and no one and is unflinching in his rejection of old institutions. Anything he does believe in, religion or tradition or family, would have to be home-brewed. If you’ve read a book that disproves this theory, I’d love to hear about it.

And, since I know someone will ask, yes, I expect The White Tiger will be on the next iteration of the Klaw 100, whenever that comes.

Next up: John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; his The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is my favorite spy novel and made both versions of the Klaw 100.