(I am always reminded of what my old friend Tom Connell said, in freshman English class, when the professor asked him why he had two identical copies of D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers”: “In case I want to read it more than once.” Little did I know, way back when, how much that joke would resonate with authors trying to maximize book sales.)
What I thought I’d do this week, though, is touch on a question I was asked by the author Ben Fountain last week, during an onstage conversation at the Harbor Springs book festival in Michigan.
Ben is one of my favorite authors. Have you read his brilliant novel, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” or his collection of short stories, “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara”? If not, you really should. Anyway, we were both at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book (which is a fabulous book festival, by the way) and Ben asked me: “Why do you write so much about policing?”
Believe it or not, I’ve never been asked that question before. But it's true! Looking back I realize I talked about policing in every book I’ve written, except “Outliers.” “The Tipping Point” has a long section on why crime fell so far and so fast in New York City in the 1990s. The final chapter of “Blink” is a blow-by-blow account of the fatal shooting of an African immigrant named Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers in 1999. My fifth book, “David and Goliath,” has a chapter on an innovative approach to addressing juvenile delinquency. And finally, “Talking to Strangers” is organized around the tragic story of Sandra Bland, the young black woman pulled over by a Texas State Trooper outside Houston in 2015. Oh. And I nearly forgot! I’m working on a book now about (among other things) the Los Angeles police department.
That’s a lot of writing about law enforcement! Why? I don’t think I did a good job of answering why when Ben asked me at the book festival. But, since I think of myself as a generalist—someone who writes about a wide range of topics—it seems like a question worth answering thoughtfully. So let me try again.
In the new afterword I wrote for the paperback edition of “Talking to Strangers,” there’s a section about the Diallo case, which played such a big role in “Blink.” Let me quote a little bit of it, because I think it might be useful in answering this question.
First, some context, for those too young to remember. Amadou Diallo was standing outside his house in the Bronx in February, 1999, when a group of officers pulled up. Later, in court, the officers testified they had (erroneously) thought Diallo resembled the description of a rapist, who had been active in the neighborhood a year earlier and was never caught. Diallo reached for his wallet, to show the officers his identification. They thought he was reaching for a gun—and shot him 41 times. Before there was George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Brown in Ferguson, there was Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. Bruce Springsteen even wrote a song about the case.
When I was reporting “Blink,” I went to Diallo’s street—Wheeler Avenue in the South Bronx. I wanted to see where he was shot. Here’s a little bit of how I remember that trip in my afterword:
I think this gets at the reason I have returned to crime and law enforcement so many times. Sometimes writers choose subjects because they seem exotic and “other.” You go and profile the bullfighter in Mexico, because if you aren’t from there, bullfighting in Mexico is about as far from your own world as you can imagine. But policing doesn’t seem “other” to me. It seems like a high-stakes version of some of the most basic and prosaic tasks and responsibilities that all of us have as human beings.
So, why do I keep returning to this topic? Because it seems like a really useful way of learning more about ourselves. The police are a kind of canary in the coal mine: their struggles and challenges alert the rest of us to the things we ought to be worrying about and thinking about.
One last thing! I hope you noticed that little bit about how I have another book in the works. I’m a third of the way through, and I’m obsessed. Watch this space for more details!