Thursday, August 17, 2006

A head like a bocce ball???

I generally consider myself a generous reader. I don't consider it a personal affront if a book isn't perfect, or dwell on its flaws when there's something positive to focus on, and I'd much rather bail on a book that I'm not enjoying on some level than stick with it so I can lambaste it from start to finish.

I mentioned earlier that I was having some issues reading Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. By the second chapter I was already bothered by Suskind's tendency to provide direct quotations from conversations he himself had obviously never heard. Who gave him these quotes? Why? Were these conversations taped? Remembered? Spun?

Still, I'd read many interesting things about this one and I told myself I could overlook the lack of attribution so that I could at least gain a sense of what the "war against terrorism" looks like from within the Bush administration. And who am I to go all Princess-and-the-Pea over some scene-setting inconsequential words that no one would ever have remembered precisely anyway? Suskind's won a Pulitzer; surely I can deign to read him. I have to accept that this type of book can't by its very nature provide the attribution I'd prefer.

But then I reach chapter four.

Chapter four is entitled "Zawahiri's Head" and the first section is focused on the agent responsible for transporting a jawless head, dug up from a riverbed in Afganistan and sent to Washington so that a $25 million bounty on Ayman al-Zawahiri might be claimed, from Dulles Airport to the FBI evidence lab. Because I put the index to use I learn this agent's going to be regarded as a hero within the FBI later in the book (and suffer tooth ache to boot), but at this point the amount of focus on Dan Coleman seems out of place, mere padding: why does the reader need to know of his early morning musings and angst, his book-on-tape habit, his every flitting thought? Isn't it enough to know his son's an Army Ranger in Kandahar?

And then I reach this part six pages into the chapter and know I won't be able to continue:

He peeled off the top, reached his hand into the cool, moist darkness, pushed his fingers down through a bed of river mud, and lifted out the skull, a bit of skin still left around the crown.

It felt like a boccie ball. He held it upright in his palm, as Hamlet did with Yorick's. The three men looked at it, appraisingly, and all saw it at the same instant: in the middle of the forehead, the eyeless head showed an indentation. It was unmistakable: the spot where Zawahiri had a dark callus, a mark of piety, of humility, from countless hours of prostration, his head pressed to stone, concrete, wood, or simply dirt, as he committed his life to the will of Allah.

A head like a bocce ball? A grown man's head, particularly one missing a jaw, would feel nothing like a bocce ball and it certainly wouldn't look like one either.

Did Coleman tell Suskind a mud-covered skull felt like a bocce ball or is this absurd figure of speech one that Suskind's responsible for? Why use a variant spelling of bocce instead of the official one? And who thought up the Hamlet reference? Alas, Yorick, did anyone stop to consider that fencing was Hamlet's sport of choice?

Clearly, by this point any spirit of generosity had left me entirely. I could have continued if Suskind had left out the simile. I could have continued if the absurdity had contained a bit of explanation: perhaps, "It felt like a bocce ball, Dan thought wildly," or "Close proximity to a presumed terrorist's skull made Dan uncharacteristically illogical: It felt like a bocce ball flashed through his head."

So Suskind goes back to the library because he wrote too quickly and I go back to Proust who did not.

The people behind me on the waiting list will thank me.


  1. Love that take on Vesalius. As for the book, I'll take dry, verifiable facts over questionable dramatizations any day.

  2. The Vesalius is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (although not in those colors).

  3. Hey, S-

    I rather liked the 1001 Books. Wrote about it in our April "On the nightstand."

    It's on my list for the used book sales and shops.

    Best regards,


  4. I hope you don't have to wait too long for one to show up. I can't imagine anyone wanting to get rid of it. :)

  5. So Suskind goes back to the library because he wrote too quickly and I go back to Proust who did not.

    LOVE this! Proust is calling to me and for just that reason. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to hold him off...

  6. I supppose I'm showing my ignorance, and I'll look it up myself, but what is a bocce ball?

  7. A bocce ball is about the size of a croquet ball. It's bowled down a pathway of sand.


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.