Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book #17: The Work of a Master Storyteller

I remember the call, where I was, what I was wearing.

 It was late morning in Spring 1996, I had woken up, taken the dog for a walk, come home and curled up with a book that turned out to be tedious and slow.

The phone jarred me awake.

Hello, Melissa.

I sat up straight and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.

 It was my major professor, and now that I had finished all my PhD comps and language requirements it was time to get that dissertation done.

I'd spent weeks not committing to a dissertation topic.

 I stared at the stars on inky black nights and waited for some cue, some inspiration. Nothing.

 I took long walks on the beach at Alligator Point. I saw crabs and dolphins and rednecks working on skin cancer, but no clue on what to write a dissertation on.

Hence this phone call.

I had a great Advisor, someone whose students graduated, wrote important interesting things and got Jobs.

 The only good dissertation is a done dissertation,  he reminded me, so you need to write about what's available, what's interesting, what hasn't been done yet.

He proceeded to tell me about Cuban bankers and banking in Miami and I remember scratching my dog under the chin and saying, "Well, OK, that's something to think about..."

His voice got a little firmer. This is a GOOD topic, one that combines ethnic and urban history, and you need to get started on it.

So I did. I mean I did a few weeks later.  I liked it.

Over the course of the next year I interviewed interesting important people, and -- even better -- collected six boxes of papers from "failed" banks, the ones whose principals all landed in jail for RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) violations.  Hour after I hour I read memos and files and examiner reports, piecing together where the money seemed to come from and where it leaked out to.

 Good times.

 I finished the dissertation and lived happily ever after without turning it into a book. Over the years all the men I'd written about had quietly been released from jail and I wasn't in any hurry to publish what probably was better left in history. Not yet, at least. Bad karma. Maybe as fiction?

If I did write it as fiction I could only hope to come near the pace, scope, detail and wisdom of Book #17. This made me remember how much I love money laundering, racketeering, corrupt lawyers, and bumbling US Marshalls.

I couldn't put it down.

The author, a master storyteller and national treasure by any measure, walked me through over three hundred pages of snappy character development, dummy corporations, red herrings and a Jamaican jail.

I loved this book, loved the topic, loved that it didn't make me cry (and wasn't pornographic), and I'm glad my students assigned me two more books by this author.

I finish the book on Saturday evening, the show Zoe the stack of books I've brought home to read. She looks at one, the other, another and picks one out. It's small, thin, about the size of Tuesdays with Morrie.

What's it about? Will I like it?

She covers her mouth and nods her head.

Read it, read it now, she commands me.

 I'm one to be swayed by passionate advocacy, so I agree.

Before I walk away she tells me to finish it FAST so we can watch the movie together on Sunday, the one with Hermione playing someone else.

I'm intrigued, and even though Book #17 was one of the best stories I've ever read, I mentally folded it up and made room in my mind for Book #18.