Many States of Americaby Jack Finnegan
The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2014)
In the confused and frightening days following the attacks on America in September of 2001, an armed Texas man with a swollen sense of nationalistic vengeance sets out in violent jihad, shooting three men he perceives to be Arab Muslims, and killing two of them. The lone survivor, a devout Bangladeshi Muslim, is compelled by his faith to forgive his attacker, and further, to campaign for his convicted assailant’s removal from death row, in an effort to disrupt the cycle of violence.
It is a remarkable story. But what is most striking about The True American is the skillful manner in which author Anand Giridharadas dismantles the stereotypes that could have turned this true story into a maudlin tale of schlock. What gradually emerges is a study of the many Americas that exist within this land: an America for immigrants, especially in the post 9/11-era; an America for troubled youth; an America for the incarcerated; an America for the self-made; an America for the merciful.
Giridharadas traces the path forged by Raisuddin Bhuiyan in Bangladesh from grade school to a prestigious military boarding school, where he earns a commission as a pilot officer. Despite these hard-won triumphs, which make him a successful man by any Bangladeshi’s standard, Rais is still drawn to the West. We meet his family, who are supportive, if worried, about what may befall the seventh of their eight children. We meet Abida, his beloved, who Rais hopes to marry. We follow him to Woodside, Queens, where this combat pilot begins working the graveyard shift in a gas station, and where his sleep is constantly disrupted by the jet planes that fly into and out of nearby LaGuardia airport. And then we see him make the leap to Texas, where an acquaintance from the Air Force assures him of better working hours and more spacious living quarters. We watch a man making himself in a place he knows only by its legendary reputation.
Rais is an honest and intelligent man, so his perspective on this country is instructive. Giridharadas describes Rais’s surprise at discovering “the limits of the freedom for which he had come to America—how chaos and hedonism and social corrosion […] complicate its lived experience.” But Rais is determined to make the most of his life in this place, and working day shifts in a Dallas store is an improvement, another step forward on his path toward the dream that he is building. He is working in that store when Mark Stroman shoots him in the face, with a shotgun.
In Stroman, we meet a man whose life is shaped by conflict, loss, and struggle. His difficult road through the land of freedom is as familiar as the immigrant’s: abuse and parental alcoholism clouded Stroman’s upbringing. Petty theft and bullying give way to auto theft and drug use. Slipping in and out of state care, young Stroman’s life is made up of fragmented relationships. At 16 years of age, during his third bid at the eighth grade, he impregnates a 15-year-old girl. State psychologists observe that though he is often good-natured, Stroman “views the world as a hostile and unpredictable place [with] … constant clues of impending punishment, which he experiences as being largely arbitrary in nature.”
But there was nothing arbitrary about self-proclaimed Muslims deliberately crashing airplanes into American symbols of strength and prosperity. In those attacks, and in the patriotic fervor that followed, Stroman found a calling just as urgent as Raisuddin’s pull toward the United States: both men felt an urge to take action. Both felt an urge to make change.
That possibility of change is the dream that makes America. But in this land of dreams, there are also nightmares. There are men who would shoot another for the color of his skin. There are entire towns collapsing from joblessness and drug use. There are overcrowded prisons where ethnic divides are near-absolute. Each of these Americas is visited in The True American, and as we bear sober witness to the violent changes wrought in the lives of these two men, we have little choice but to acknowledge the discord wrought by a country at odds with its self-concept.
With his shrewd reporter’s eye, clear prose, and evident compassion, Giridharadas affords the same opportunity to know and understand Mark Stroman that we have to know and understand Raisuddin Bhuiyan. He fastidiously avoids the language of heroes and villains, and thus lays bare the normalcy of men whose lives become consumed by extraordinary circumstance. Giridharadas deconstructs the Americas they occupy without sentimentality or moralizing. This is a tale of efforts, not of outcomes. And as each man discovers a new sense of purpose in the aftermath of their fateful crossing, we cannot help but recognize their common humanity.
The book is more than a recounting of a painful period of bloody conflict: it is a powerful study in what it means to be American, and a forceful reminder that the country has no singular identity. What Giridharadas offers is a lesson in the complexity that makes America volatile and great. It is a country in a constant state of flux, a place where there is room for “a half-blind immigrant citing the values of Islam in his plea that Texas not execute the white racist who sought to kill him.” It is a story rife with inexact heroism and imprecise redemption, and that is what humanizes The True American most of all.
JACK FINNEGAN is a writer and storyteller currently residing in Ketchikan, Alaska.