"Farewell, Fred Voodoo"
By Amy Wilentz
Simon & Schuster; 329 pages
Fred Voodoo, we learn from Amy Wilentz's candid new book, is not a person but an epithet — the Haitian equivalent, more or less, of Joe Average. Wilentz spent years in Haiti as a foreign correspondent, and she picked up the term from fellow journalists who used it to describe their interview subjects. Watching those news reports, she grew to see the name as a form of packaging. "The objectification of the Haitians' victimization — that's one aspect of the Fred Voodoo syndrome," she writes.
It's telling that Wilentz, a UC Irvine professor, chose to call her book "Farewell, Fred Voodoo." The title, on its own, sounds like a parting to a friend; in the context of the book, it implies a shattering of ideals. Is Wilentz declaring her distance from those who view Haiti's plight as a hot new byline? Or is she voicing the abandonment that she often observes there — the speed with which foreign benefactors touch down to offer a quick fix, then retreat to their air-conditioned homes?
The answer, probably, is both. Throughout this rambling, but provocative, collection of essays, Wilentz depicts Haiti as a country that, like one of its shacks left standing after the 2010 earthquake, offers hope for renewal but seems perpetually on the verge of collapse. Wilentz has lived there long enough to have a sense of what remedies work best (if low-paying manufacturers move in, they should at least create products, like cell phones, that Haitians can use), but amid the morass of corrupt politicians, clung-to traditions and naive benefactors, change always seems like a tentative notion.
That 2010 disaster serves as the book's narrative thrust, as the destruction snaps the world's attention to a place that seldom held it before. Into the chaos comes an array of would-be helpers: Sean Penn, American doctors, young missionaries who advertise the Haiti trip as "an awesome adventure" on their website. Wilentz doesn't hold those idealistic foreigners in contempt, exactly; she merely explains, like a patient but exasperated parent, that the adventure may not be as awesome as planned.
Wilentz doesn't spare herself from criticism, either. Throughout the book, too many times, she ponders her role as a journalist in a blighted country and wonders if her work will make a difference. In the book's second-to-last chapter, she describes her hopeless feeling as she sits in America typing her manuscript in the wee hours, and her disillusionment is genuinely moving — but it would be more so if she hadn't made the same point multiple times over the previous pages. (Also tiresome is Wilentz's constant labeling of Haiti's foreign meddlers as "white"; surely those eager masses who flew in after the earthquake included at least a few Asians, Latinos or blacks?)
That tendency toward repetition is the chief weakness of "Farewell, Fred Voodoo," but Wilentz makes up for it with the strength of her prose, which runs the gamut, from slang to images of almost poetic intensity. At one point, she describes walking through Port-au-Prince after the earthquake and observing the rubble — everything from a collapsed presidential palace to a "leg sticking out of that pancaked school." Which one will weather the quake more intact: politics, or the young generation? In a land so full of farewells, it's anyone's guess.
"In the Footsteps of the Silver King"
By Paul Kareem Tayyar
Spout Hill Press; 159 pages
Between the pages of "In the Footsteps of the Silver King" is an enchanting place to be. Golden West College professor Paul Kareem Tayyar writes about protagonist Patrick Karimi's hunt for his late father's silver World Games medal — proof of a goalkeeping stint on the Iran National Team.
The 159-page novella tells a tale that is at once incongruous and at home amid its surroundings — a story within an assortment of stories. Opening with a series of references to icons including Sinbad the Sailor, Odysseus, Robin Hood and Beowulf, Karimi asserts, "My father mopped the floor with those legends, plan and simple." Thus ensues a comical yet oddly humane portrayal of Hassan, Karimi's all-or-nothing sort of father, who walked away, both literally and figuratively, from a litany of mishaps.
According to a lengthy prologue, "If there were a casting call for a real-life equivalent of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, a man with both the strange, if not pathological, desire to continue placing himself in the most obviously, immediately violent of circumstances, long past when even the most believing of his fans had ceased being willing to cheer on such near-suicidal tendencies, and the clearly unexplainable talent for then emerging from such multi-round trauma not only unscathed but triumphant, I would certainly be inclined to nominate my father."
A call from Hassan's second wife, Nazim, with the news of Karimi's father's peaceful passing in his sleep, first leaves Karimi "downright stunned" and then triggers his journey across the world. In peeling back the layers of his father's life, Karimi uncovers added value to his own.
First stop: the Los Angeles County Fair. In trying to get information from Crazy Dave Grushecky, his father's closest friend and a one-woman man, Karimi ends up an accomplice to releasing a captive horse from poor conditions.
Next, in San Francisco, the city that represents the union of his parents right off Haight and Stanyon streets, Karimi befittingly meets and falls in love with Gemma. Her younger, chatterbox sister Dorothy is wise beyond her years about sports, pop culture, literature, music and politics, references to which pack and uplift the book.
Father Jim O'Leary, Karimi's subsequent lead and the man whose benevolence helped Hassan garner food and shelter for a week in the early '70s, guides him to Penelope Ruth, a.k.a. the Cloud Queen. Before heading to Portland for this meeting, however, the author directs Karimi into a twilight zone of baseball where the Giants stare down the Yankees, thanks to Barry Zito who pitches a perfect game.
Deeply moved by this encounter and the acquisition of his father's medal, which had been dunked in the trash under the influence of heightened emotions, Tayyar sums up the experience by saying, "Some things are best left to silence, I guess."
Sometimes serious, partly romantic and always grounded in an astounding knowledge of the world at large, this is a simple story that branches out as the protagonist takes a trip down memory lane or steps into quagmires that life throws his way. Sprinkling extra charm is the illustrative, almost lyrical, language, which transports the reader directly onto the scene of each page.
Per Tayyar, "Everything in life is a mystery…the best we can do is embrace it."
—Rhea MahbubaniCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun