The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


While we were at his house, my father-in-law pressed upon me the book THE MAN WHO TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD: THE DANGEROUS LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF AN AMERICAN HERO, a recent nonfiction book about Fred Cuny, a Texan who worked at high levels of the international crisis community. From Biafra to Bangladesh to Bosnia, he was in the middle of it, providing aid to refugees and generally (at least according to the author of this book, one Scott Anderson) getting things done more efficiently, humanely, and enduringly than bureaucracies such as the UN or US-AID. Cuny finally found himself drawn to Chechnya just as Yeltsin decided to put the clamps down on it, and came there soon after the Russian army leveled Grozny and turned most of the little place into a free-fire zone. Then, as he was on another of his innumerable missions to deliver assistance to imperiled civilians, he disappeared and was almost certainly killed by one of the warring armies or factions there in Chechnya.

Anderson's book isn't particularly well written but it's a story that just is a winner. Cuny was at first very archetypical Texan, an A&M cadet in the 1950s. But he never finished and never made it into the Marine air corps as he wanted and instead took those defeats and did something else with his life. There's a bunch of poorly developed intrigue in the story--was Cuny CIA?--that the author hasn't seemed to do sufficient research on, but it's hard to fault Anderson on the research he did into Cuny's death. Anderson retraced Cuny's movements through Chechnya, which sounds like hell in 1995, when Cuny was there, and still like hell in 1998-9, when Anderson came there. He talked to everyone he could find and even drove around Chechnya in the same ambulance that Cuny was in when he disappeared.

The book is no great achievement, unfortunately--it reads like an OUTSIDE magazine profile extended to book length, but without the introspection or formal awareness of Krakauer's great INTO THE WILD (and lesser INTO THIN AIR). It's also poorly edited and the seams between the sections show--people are introduced in one part, only to be re-introduced as if we've never met them before when they reappear in the next part of the book). But I couldn't put it down. My father-in-law, much like my dad himself, has pretty good taste in books--I always leave a visit with a good recommendation.



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