Stuff I’ve Been Reading
A monthly column
by Nick Hornby
- Stone Arabia—Dana Spiotta
- Kings of Infinite Space—James Hynes
- The Waterfall—Margaret Drabble
- To Live Outside the Law—Leaf Fielding
- Hellhound on His Trail—Hampton Sides
- The Fear Index—Robert Harris
- Next—James Hynes
- The Anti-Romantic Child—Priscilla Gilman
It is August, and as I write, burned-out buildings in London and other British cities are being demolished after several nights of astonishing and disturbing lawlessness. Meanwhile I am in the Dorset village of Burton Bradstock, listening to the sound of the wind-whipped sea smashing onto the shore, and to the young daughter of a friend playing “Chopsticks” over and over and over again on the piano belonging to the cliff-top house we have rented. It’s unlikely that the riots would have made it into these pages at all had it not been for Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides’s book about the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and the hunt for his assassin, James Earl Ray. Just as Tottenham and Hackney, just a couple of miles from my home, were being set alight, I was reading about the same thing happening in Washington, D.C., on the night of April 5, 1968, twenty-four hours after Ray shot King while he was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. There were five hundred fires set in D.C. that night; the pilot who flew Attorney General Ramsey Clark back to the capital from Memphis thought that what he saw beneath him looked like Dresden. And here in Burton Bradstock it became impossible not to compare London in 2011 with D.C. in 1968. It wasn’t an instructive or helpful comparison, of course, because it could only induce nostalgia for a time when arson seemed like the best and only way to articulate a righteous and impotent fury. And while it is true that a violent death sparked our troubles (a black man named Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police), it was not easy to see the outrage in the faces of the delirious white kids helping themselves to electronic goods and grotesquely expensive sneakers. Luckily for us, every single politician, columnist, leader-writer, talk-show host, and letters-page contributor in Britain knows why all this happened, so we should be OK.
Hellhound on His Trail is a gripping, authoritative, and depressing book about a time when, you could argue, it was much easier to talk with confidence about cause and effect. James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, was a big supporter of segregationist George Wallace and his independent push for the White House; Ray also liked the look of Ian Smith’s reviled apartheid regime in Rhodesia. He was eventually arrested at Heathrow as he attempted to make his way to somewhere in Africa that would let him shoot black people without all the fuss that he had caused in the U.S. Sides has little doubt that he acted alone, and indeed one of the lowering things about his book is the reminder, if one needed it, that it takes very little to kill a man; you certainly don’t need the covert cooperation of the CIA or the FBI or the KKK. You just need enough money to buy a decent hunting rifle.
Of course, there are lots of people who have a vested interest in persuading us that the recent past is easier to read than the present. Paul Greengrass, the director of Green Zone and United 93, has for some time been wanting to make a film about the last days of MLK, but this year the project collapsed, apparently because the guardians of the King estate objected to depictions of King’s extramarital affairs in the script. “I thought it was fiction,” said Andrew Young, who was with King on the night he died. And yet King’s womanizing was, according to Sides, both real and prodigious; he spent the night before he died in room 201 of the Lorraine Motel with one of his mistresses, the then senator of Kentucky, Georgia Davis. Davis has even written a book, I Shared the Dream, about her relationship with King. I haven’t read Greengrass’s script, but it looks as though Andrew Young is attempting, four decades after Memphis, to sanctify his friend in a way that can only impede understanding. Jesse Jackson, meanwhile, attempted to impede understanding there and then: he told TV interviewers that he was with King on the balcony (he wasn’t), and, according to Sides, smeared his shirt with King’s blood before appearing on TV chat shows. The trouble with history, it seems to me, is that there are too many people involved. The next time something historical happens, someone should thin out the cast list. Oh, and by the way, did you know that James Earl Ray was arrested in London, by detectives from Scotland Yard? Oh, yes. Your guys had done some handy groundwork, though, we’ll give you that much.