Book Notes: Scoundrel by Sarah Weinman

Yes, this is the follow-up to the refined sensibilities post. And it’s about a true-crime book.

The problem with the true crime genre is that criminals are not interesting people. Authors have to concentrate on the investigation, the trial, or the impact on the victims because there isn’t much to write about otherwise.

Sarah Weinman didn’t have that problem, though, as she sat down to write a book about Edgar Smith.

Smith was a trailer park deadbeat in New Jersey who stupidly murdered a young girl for no discernible reason, immediately got arrested, and was promptly sent to Death Row. So far so boring.

But then it started to get interesting. On Death Row, Smith somehow learned to write like a person of refined sensibilities. Mind you, he didn’t learn to speak or to live like one, only to write. So he wrote.

As a result, he managed to attract the attention of William F. Buckley, a leading conservative intellectual. Think what you will of his political beliefs, it is undeniable that Buckley was an intellectual of the highest caliber. Being a conservative, he didn’t hold criminals in high regard, to put it mildly. Imagine the power of Smith’s writing to strike a close friendship that spanned well over a decade with somebody like that.

And it wasn’t only Buckley. From his jail cell, Smith wrote thousands of letters to some extremely sophisticated people, making them downright besotted with him and, what’s really shocking, seeing him as one of them. They didn’t feel sorry for him. They felt intellectual affinity. Smith began to write books and became a best-selling author while sitting on Death Row.

The intellectuals who befriended (and in one fascinating case, fell in love with) Smith couldn’t conceive that such a cultured, sensitive, deep man could have really been guilty of some sordid, senseless murder. Or even if he were, then surely, the 15 years after his conviction had clearly reformed him, right?

So every effort was made to help Smith go free. And he did. His sentence was commuted to time served and he was released.

Unfortunately, as I said before, he could write like a sophisticated person but not live like one. Soon enough, Smith stopped writing, dropped his intellectual friends, including Buckley, and reverted to his persona of an indigent, shady bum.

And then he tried to murder somebody else.

I’m not giving any spoilers here because all this is mentioned in the first two pages of the book. It’s how he made himself attractive to so many people and managed to be in writing what he couldn’t be in person that the book explores.

I have to warn you that if you decide to read Scoundrel, please be prepared for the obligatory woke pledge in the opening paragraphs. Weinman swears fealty to the cause of “Black and Brown boys” who make absolutely no appearance in the rest of the book but have to be invoked like jealous deities whenever one speaks on any subject whatsoever these days. Once you get past that, the book becomes really good. Every subchapter ends on a cool cliffhanger that makes you want to keep reading.

Smith’s literary gift abandoned him as suddenly as it had come. As I keep saying, we can’t know why the gift gets bestowed on people or taken away. Scoundrel gives us a glimpse into this mystery and is worth reading for that reason alone.

Refined Sensibilities

There are people of refined sensibilities in the world. I don’t know how to put it so it doesn’t sound unbearably stuffy, so I will tell a story to illustrate the concept.

I have a friend who was born in a dirt-poor Mexican family. The father abandoned them, and my friend had to quit school at 16 and go work at an oil rig to support his functionally illiterate mom and two younger brothers.

For reasons that are impossible to comprehend, my friend turned out to be a person of refined sensibilities, an auto-didact who taught himself several languages, and became obsessed with books and obscure European movies.

The life at an oil rig was very distasteful to him. Contrary to the stereotype of a bookish guy as being slender and easy to bully, my friend is a huge, burly guy with the physique of an armoire, so nobody hassled him. But there was no life of the mind at the oil rig, and that, to a person like him, is almost as bad as death. Everything is smelly, dirty, and ugly. Other guys talked about stuff that to him, a deeply religious guy of extraordinary moral probity, was repellent. The only thing that kept him afloat was a copy of Dante’s Inferno he was reading in the original. That book was his biggest treasure because it took him from the debasement of the oil rig to the world of beauty and light.

Once he came back to his bunk and discovered that the treasured book had disappeared. Finally he found it in the toilet, which was of the kind that has holes in the ground, with the attendant nastiness and stench. Somebody had torn out the pages and used them as toilet paper. “It wasn’t out of malice,” my friend told me. “He simply didn’t see a difference between a page with words on it and a page without.”

For people of refined sensibilities who are reading this and who are shaken by this story like I was, I can reassure you by telling you that the friend ended up becoming a college professor and a writer. It all ended well. But the story is a perfect metaphor of life. Some people experience the sublime and others shit on it. Sometimes they do it unthinkingly and sometimes out of frustration because they really don’t get it and it annoys them. If you ever felt shat upon for being too sensitive, too bookish, or too repelled by coarseness, then you’ll know how precious it is to meet people like yourself. People who get it. People who acquire a dazed look when they can talk about their favorite books, indie bands or comics. People who were always laughed at and told they are weird.

All this has a point which will be revealed in the next post. For now, please stay with the story and think about the concept of refined sensibilities.

Snow Day

The day before yesterday it was +24°C in Salamanca, and today I woke up to a snowstorm. It’s still very warm outside but huge, wet chunks of snow are falling from the sky. The photos don’t show it but the blobs of snow are so huge that you can barely see where you are going.

I haven’t seen such snow outside of Canada for years. What a beautiful surprise!