JULY 9, 2014
WRITERS OF NONFICTION crime stories, as opposed to their counterparts in fiction, face a very specific problem: how to write about victims. In a murder case, by definition, you can never interview the victim. Yet the problem here is broader. Victims, as people who didn’t choose to undergo their horrific experience but nonetheless are here, living and breathing on the other side of it, can be difficult to render as fully believable characters.
Real people have flaws and failures and sinister impulses, so characters — fictional or not — need to have them, too, in order to feel authentic. But how dare you say not-nice things about someone who has been murdered, attacked, raped, or mugged? Victims’ experiences give them a mandatory moral superiority, and it’s difficult to make them three-dimensional without crossing a subtle line of decency. That line can be hard to find when you want to make a story believable, much less engaging. Sainthood, it turns out, is boring, and books about serial killers never spend much time on those they have killed.
In the days after September 11th, 2001, Mark Stroman visited three gas station stores in the Dallas area. He described himself as an “American terrorist” who would avenge the 9/11 attacks by murdering Arabs. None of the clerks he shot in the three stores were Arab. Vasudev Patel, from India, and Waqar Hasan, from Pakistan, died from gunshot wounds. A third victim, Rais Bhuiyan, recovered from severe facial injuries but suffered major financial problems and a severance from a fiancée in Bangladesh. Over 10 years, Stroman and Bhuiyan evolved on parallel tracks towards repentance and forgiveness. As the former neared execution, the latter campaigned for his assailant’s life, arguing in part that he wanted to face Stroman directly and discuss what had transpired between them during the shooting.
Stroman and Bhuiyan’s lives and their intersection are the subject of Anand Giridharadas’s new book, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas. Spanning a wide swath of time and space, from Bhuiyan’s early life as a Bangladeshi Air Force officer to Stroman’s final meal in Huntsville, Texas, Giridharadas has entered a broader trend in nonfiction writing: true crime books with a wider social meaning. Truman Capote never explicitly acknowledges issues of class in his landmark crime narrative In Cold Blood. Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song addresses the history of Mormonism, but focuses on the facts of the murderer Gary Gilmore’s life. Those days are mostly over, and the trend now is to think about crimes’ broader cultural implications, so we have Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, about a murder among fundamentalist Mormons, Stephen Jimenez’s The Book of Matt, on the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard, and several recent books about Kitty Genovese. Giridharadas has found a story that comes ready-made with themes of immigration, 9/11, Islam, economic opportunity, and bigotry. You can tell that he relishes the symbolic richness.
His first character, Rais Bhuiyan, emerges as the adventurous, ambitious immigrant. Feeling that there is little opportunity in his native Bangladesh, he comes to the United States with dreams of working with computers. He remains upbeat even as he must remain content working in convenience stores, an Olive Garden, and other menial jobs. Giridharadas closely describes Bhuiyan’s small indignities and his outsider’s view of American customs. A pious, non-drinking Muslim, Bhuiyan learns how to get the biggest tips at the Olive Garden by playing the wine expert.
These details are alternately charming and bittersweet, but for the most part Giridharadas relies on Bhuiyan the man to tell us about Bhuiyan the character. So even before he becomes a victim there is a side to him — the side the others see — that is not rendered in full color. The fiancée, who eventually left Bhuiyan, is not quoted here. It does not appear that the author traveled to Bangladesh. Bhuiyan, having skated so close to death, is particularly self-reflective. But no matter how self-reflective he may be, you might still wonder whether there is more to him than he is telling us.
All the while, Giridharadas slips commentary on his subject’s shortcomings. After relating Bhuiyan’s description of his “beautiful, friendly, romantic, talented, and religious-minded” fiancée in Bangladesh, Giridharadas notes how his subject “struggled to describe her with richer specificity” since “in his corner of the world, women were often characterized in this way, judged by their skills at blending and smoothing, not by how they stood out.” Later on, when Bhuiyan is campaigning for Stroman’s life, Giridharadas notes that he “had acquired something of the American hustler about him.” So this is how he deals with the victim problem: instead of finding character flaws, Giridharadas stirs in his own brand of tepid cultural criticism.
Bhuiyan contrasts strongly with his attacker, who never leaves the Dallas area and has little curiosity about the wider world. We meet Mark Stroman as a young man, when he was hired to work at an auto body shop. “He had smoldering red hair and energetic eyes and ruddy, protruding cheeks and an easy, goofy charisma,” Giridharadas writes. He was also someone who “took pride in being a run-of-the-mill guy with run-of-the-mill ideas and tastes.”
Giridharadas never spoke to Stroman, so his task is to reconstruct this beguiling man’s personality through his writings and interviews with family members, a former boss, and a filmmaker who became his confidante. While Bhuiyan is the only one telling us about Bhuiyan, it is everyone but Stroman who tells us about Stroman.
It’s a conspicuous inversion of the usual situation, in which murder victims don’t get a voice while the murderers freely give interviews. But without Stroman to account for himself, the true sources of his beliefs are guesswork and Giridharadas struggles to find what made Stroman different from others like him. He suggests that Stroman’s ideas about the world, as recorded in the writings he left, were simple. “Stock phrases that affirmed his instincts,” he writes, “stuck with him and became the basis of a philosophy.” The conceit of much writing about crime is that while you can know everything about a murderer’s past and how it led up to their act, the most aching question — Why? —remains in most cases unanswerable.
We read so much about crime in part because we’re fascinated by the barrier that separates law-abiding citizens from killers. In the wake of a horrible murder, especially a mass-shooting or terrorist act, we search for biographical clues that might explain motivation. We’re just as attracted by the stories that follow as we are repulsed. We excoriate the editors of Rolling Stone for putting the Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the magazine’s cover just as we devour the feature article on his early life underneath that cover. We want to understand why people do awful things so that we can better understand why we don’t do the same.
Stroman is an interesting murderer for the same reason Jack Ruby, who shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the days after the Kennedy assassination, was an interesting murderer. The explanation he gave for shooting the gas station clerks is something many Americans can easily identify with. Stroman may have been misguided in targeting South Asians with his post-9/11 revenge fantasy, but the celebrations that followed Osama Bin Laden’s killing by US commandos made it clear that plenty of people harbored a need for vengeance. “It’s just boiling up and boiling up,” Stroman told a friend, “and I just snapped.”
The shocking nature of what he did sits uneasily with the fact that he expected others to do the same and they didn’t. While 9/11 revenge crimes were rare, that same sense of victimhood certainly played a role in the buildup to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. And Stroman wasn’t alone in thinking there were forces greater than himself. Bhuiyan was terrified when it came time for him to testify at Stroman’s trial because he thought there were others out there who would surely kill him once and for all in the courtroom. These are reminders — albeit extreme ones — that there’s little more truly American these days than paranoia.
Both Bhuiyan and Stroman got over their paranoia. Bhuiyan decided to get in touch with Stroman after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Stroman, with an isolating expanse of time on death row, discovered a certain hard-boiled wisdom and produced voluminous writings in which “the years wore him down” and “he sounded more like a high-school-newspaper editor or a professor who thinks himself a contrarian.” Stroman started corresponding with anti-death penalty pen pals around the world. He gave multiple interviews to the Israeli filmmaker Ilan Ziv, a former soldier who had become a peacenik and wanted to understand the roots of hatred. In these venues, he shed his racism and described a personal redemption in which he realized the faults of his earlier ideas about the world.
Where Bhuiyan’s transformation into a forgiving victim was clear and unchallenged, Stroman had plenty of critics who suspected his motivations. His own sisters “thought Mark had figured out what these kindly liberals helping him wanted to hear.” Giridharadas shows the multiple ways Stroman’s words could be interpreted and how those interpretations said more about Stroman’s audience than about him.
Eventually, though, I found myself thinking that these interpretations said the most about Giridharadas, the author. For all of his meticulous reporting and richly crafted prose, he fills out his characters with commentary, suggesting with varying degrees of subtlety the ways they fail to live up to some invisible standard of savvy-ness or cosmopolitanism. Bhuiyan traveled to Mecca and became forgiving and generous, but now he is a hustler. Stroman lost his radical xenophobia, but now he sounds like a “high-school-newspaper editor,” which seems like a nice way of avoiding a more direct word: “sophomoric” or just “simple-minded.” So much about Stroman and Bhuiyan’s experiences should be impossible to truly imagine and spark some humility, and yet Giridharadas always seems to find something to pick on.
Luckily, these jabs cannot reduce the tension of the story’s climax. The pace picks up as the execution nears. Bhuiyan wages a battle for Stroman’s life that looks increasingly futile. We know that Stroman will die. And then the day comes. There is no way for them to meet in person, so they can only speak by phone. Giridharadas reports what they said to each other, but the words don’t read as much more than platitudes. You need only to imagine what they felt before, during, and after their interaction to feel a sense of awe at how far each had come, how little and how much each had to say to the other. In that moment, both men become real. So real, in fact, that they can’t be made into characters.