Friday, May 7, 2010

The Past Isn’t Even Past

Two weeks ago I read a recommended review of Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides. I was attracted to the review because of the title; as a guitarist I recognized the reference. After reading the review I dashed off an email recommending that the library purchase the book. The next day I was told that the book had already been ordered. Two days later it arrived. Over the weekend I read it; even though I already knew the story.

The book recounts the intertwining of the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Earl Ray. I’m old enough to remember what happened in Memphis on April 4, 1968. So before I ever opened the book I knew what was going to take place and who all the principle individuals were. The book begins with Ray’s escape from prison in 1967 and ends with his death in another prison in 1998. Along the way the author reveals how Ray’s life would be forever bound with that of Martin Luther King.

Like many working writers today Hampton Sides writes non-fiction as if it were fiction. When discussing his work Sides quotes Shelby Foote who said he “employed the novelist’s methods without his license”. It’s a good description of what you will find when you read the book. And it’s not a bad way to read fiction.

The ironies found within the book are almost overwhelming. A practitioner of non-violent protest is murdered in an extraordinarily violent way. By the time of his death King who had earned a PhD, founded and lead a national organization, received the Nobel Peace Prize and was internationally known and an inspiration to generations of people. He had come to Memphis to bring attention to a garbage workers strike. To assist individuals who earned their living in perhaps the most menial of labor. Ray’s life as a small time criminal and his attempts to begin a porno business as a photographer and distributor are documented. Throughout the book many individuals who spent time with Ray remark on his ability to be so non-memorable as to almost not exist. Prior to attending the Memphis garbage workers strike, King had been working on his plan to bring the Poor People’s Campaign to Washington, DC. King’s idea was that the PPC would bring to the nation’s attention what the effects of chronic poverty were to all people, not just Black Americans. Ray’s early life and upbringing was mired in generational poverty. The consequences of which were to set the path of his adult life.

The entwining of these two lives is best told via a book. And I will go further. It is best read, not listened to. When you read you are given time to reflect as you go. You can reread. You can refer back. And once finished you can pick up the book again. And by doing any or all of these things you become an active participant with the written words. Sides’ writing certainly has something to do with your ability to do these things. With another writer you might not finish the work; you already know the individuals and the ending before you begin. But these words stuck with me and I’ve continued to think about what I read; and how these two people and the events of their lives continue to affect mine. What more can you ask of a book?

See you at the Library,

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