There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Friday, August 3, 2007

Means of Escape on the bus

Finished reading Philip Caputo's 1991 memoir "Means of Escape" while riding the bus.

Caputo worked his way from suburban reporter to foreign correspondent in a career with the Chicago Tribune. He had a degree in English and no journalism experience when he joined the paper.

I picked up "Means of Escape" when I was moving bookshelves from one room to another. I have Caputo's "A Rumor of War," which describes his experience as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam in 1965-66, and his "DelCorso's Gallery," a novel that explores the life of a photojournalist during the same period that Caputo worked for the Chicago Tribune.

Caputo explains in the preface that this is not strictly an autobiography: "There is too much fact in this book to properly call it a novel, too much fiction to call it reportage. Nor is it a fully drawn autobiography -- a partial self-portrait, rather. The rest is a picture, often highly impressionistic, of events I lived through as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Vietnam and other places between the late sixties and the late seventies."

The book is structured as a series of short stories covering his career in chronological order. It is not history. It lacks the bigger picture insights that can be provided with hindsight. He talks about the journalist's role as writer of the rough draft of history, but offers surprisingly few examples. Instead, this is a book about Caputo and his life, and it is clearly influenced by this later career as a novelist.

There's plenty of action. The most graphic and dramatic work covers his time in Lebanon, first as a prisoner of the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and finally in 1975 when he was shot and seriously wounded in a random attack by gunmen. His stories detail the horrors of war and the senseless acts of barbarity committed by people who have become little more than beasts. He also offers exotic travelogues such as his search for the last traditional Bedhouins, but I found little in the book about the job of being a foreign correspondence, or the importance of the role he sought to play.

After retiring from the Tribune and settling in Florida to write novels, Caputo took one last foreign assignment, a job for Esquire magazine to write about resistance fighters in Afghanistan battling Russia's modern war machine with World War I era Enfield rifles. His experience there seems to apply equally to his entire career after his experience in Vietnam:

"As I sat, cradling my Gunga Din rifle, an old feeling crept into me: that quickening of the senses and perceptions created by a synthesis of fear, excitement, and hope. I saw then, in one burst of insight, the fundamental reason why I had come so far at such great risk. I was still the escape artist, a kind of Houdini. I was not a fugitive from ordinary life on this journey but from ordinary death. With no knowledge of how to face it or how to live with the awareness of it, I had fled its dreary angst for the thrill of the close call and the near miss, the cleansing, cathartic terror of being shot at without effect. Who knows, maybe I was trying to preserve some illusion that violent death was the only kind; if I could evade it, then I would live forever. But come which way it would, by bullet, disease, or old age, there wasn't a soul with the velocity to escape it."

Reading a memoir about an award-winning foreign correspondent in a time when the newspaper industry is melting before our eyes added a tinge of melancholia to my appreciation for what Caputo accomplished. What will journalism be like when there are no deep pockets to pay for the extra effort necessary to dig behind the press releases handed out by the media managers?


Queen of Dysfunction said...

I loved "A Rumor of War" and had zero idea that Caputo had written another book. Thanks for the post, now I can pick this gem up!

John said...

It has been so long since I read "A Rumor of War" I suppose I should read it again.

Right now I'm reading Barbara Tuchman's 1956 "Bible and Sword," the history of England's role in Palestine from the Bronze Age to the Balfour Declaration. I'll be following that with "A Mighty Heart," which is Mariane Pearl's tale of her marriage to Danny Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter killed by terrorists in Pakistan. Then I'll see the movie from Pearl's book.

After Caputo, Tuchman and Pearl -- book and movie -- I should be so depressed with the Middle East that a dive back into the horrors of Vietnam will seem refreshing.