My friend Karen is reading How Democracies Die. She told me this in the locker room after our swim and shower. It was so like her to be toweling off, her skin red from the world’s hottest shower, and talking about the slippery slop of authoritarianism which, in her view, we are sliding down on greased flying saucers from the old K-Mart.
I waited for a break in her analysis, almost not wanting to interrupt her enthusiasm but I thought it only right to tell her, “I’m reading The Trauma Cleaner.” She laughs, she’s always so cheery, and says she reads books like that; she alternates a hard book and an easy book. I don’t alternate, though.
There, you see, is the fundamental difference between us. I’m smart enough but I quit adding to the pot decades ago. Whatever was there the last day of college is pretty much it except for what can be gleaned from the New York Times and the New Yorker (such an influential place). For a while I tried reading the NYT Review of Books so I’d know enough about big, serious books to fake it but I lost patience with that (after about two weeks) and now read the front page, Modern Love, and the wedding of the week which, if you’ve never read it, you should. The stories are always super sweet; unlikely folks who’ve given up on love and live thousands of miles from each other, fall in love and then have a giant wedding in a place with white chairs and towering oak trees. It’s great.
The rest of my reading is mostly memoir; the book before The Trauma Cleaner was Traveling with Ghosts which is a remarkable book written by a woman whose fiance was killed by a box jellyfish. There’s more to it than that but you’d be surprised how she untangles the story and reweaves it; and the sorrow practically reaches out of the pages and holds your face in its hands. I stopped reading it before the end, I don’t know why.
The Trauma Cleaner is actually about a woman who cleans up terrible situations, the aftermath of death and mayhem of all kinds and these stories are compelling in a can’t turn away, must turn away kind of way. But the deeper story is about the woman herself who started life as a boy but an unwanted one. His parents marginalized him, making him live in a hut in the backyard and his father beat him. Eventually, he transitioned to being a woman and became a prostitute and through a series of extraordinarily difficult situations became a trauma cleaner full of wisdom and kind matter-of-factness that one would want in a trauma cleaner. It’s fascinating.
My friend cut the analysis of failing democratic institutions short to tell me why the fiscal crisis of our local government was the direct result of the state continuing to lose revenue because of a blind devotion to tax cuts and thus having much less money to return to localities for essential services. Although I’d taken the opposite position a few days prior, I capitulated immediately. Who wouldn’t in the face of someone who reads How Democracies Die? Dying democracies trump trauma cleaning any day of the week. I know that much.