The main story concerns the actual trial in Albany of two Muslim immigrants accused of assisting a terrorist plot. I attended the trial, met many of the participants, and was deeply affected by what happened. But, as readers of Siding with the Angels might expect, the novel flows from apparently distant locations: the Pentagon, Paris in the 1930s, and (again) the Middle Ages.
“Skip” Hanson is a military strategist and he conceives of a unique and grand project for America.
Why did you publish this novel?
Obviously we thought it was a great read.
Why did you publish this novel, and cut the crap.
It is, it’s a great story, constructed in a very—
We’re only going to ask one more time.
Okay, okay, it’s because of what it has to say.
Of course. But the way it tells its story—
By going to Paris in the 1930s.
And Paris in the 1250s. I mean, fascist thugs, medieval philosopher, even bread baking. The author ties them together in ways we’d never—
So you think it’s very…
You’ve got a whole cast of gripping characters. Their lives are so… Didn’t you find their stories moving?
The use of an actual prosecution of two Muslim terrorists. Apparently you think…
It makes the novel more compelling, yes. And they were accused of supporting terrorism, not—
Save it. And what about Skipper’s project itself?
Fascinating, don’t you think?
Published by Collioure Books in "trade" (high quality) paperback
“...A massive plot that binds its strands like rope... The changing voices, tenses, time periods, and landscapes make it a richer story. That strategy doesn’t always work, but it does here... Vigoda has gone for broke, especially in the medieval story, and the result is great... A talented writer, a completely enjoyable novel.” —Sacramento Book Review
(There are four main characters: Skipper, Jonny, H.A.T., and Thomas.)
Depending on how he read the person whose hand he was shaking, he had three ways of introducing himself. One was to say he was Director of Projects at the Institute for Strategic Planning, an operations research firm outside Washington D.C.; another was that he was in charge of thinking at a national security think-tank; but his favorite, and the one he tried on the handsome, engaging woman whose hand he was a tad late in releasing, was to let it be known he got paid to worry about the future of the world.
What the business people kept pointing out in one way or another was that, for the first time in history, a single set of trade rules was rapidly emerging for the entire world; meanwhile, the national security people kept pointing out that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was now a single hegemonic world power; and Skipper couldn’t help wondering about the obvious, that the one should have implications for the other. All he had to figure out was what they were, what their significance was in terms of strategic policy, and how this should impact force configuration, in other words discover the bold and grand new theory that explained everything. Then all he had to do was derive the new parameter set, reduce that to a program of recommendations for force reconfiguration, and package this unique product so attractively that wonderful developments would immediately start befalling his career. That called for a drink.
“The first thing you want to know about Bucky is that he has no sense of humor. None. Nada. Empty space where sense of humor goes.”
“Got it. What’s next?”
“Two, no sense of humor.”
“I can guess three, can we cut to four?”
Four was that he was one hundred percent committed to his mission.
“His mission being force transformation.”
“Negative. His mission being a certain kind of force transformation. Small engagement, security projection, rapid strike tactical ops. Think high tech squared. Think rapid in, rapid out. Think we’re the world’s cop.”
“What about GWOT?”
“GWOT is Bush and Cheney’s wet dream. Everyone from Joint Chiefs on down knows it’s a crock, so they do what they have to. So, sure, Bucky pays lip service to it, but I’ll lay you ten to one on whatever’s in your wallet he don’t even mention it this afternoon. If you’re looking for a way to his heart, don’t go there.”
“Don’t know that I am, but thanks for the tip.” It was an awkward block to a quick jab.
“Mel, have you seen my—” He is shouting from his study. “Mel,” he repeats, sticking his head in the kids’ room. “Mel, can you help me find something? […] Like now, please? If I don’t get to the—”
“[…] Have you looked on your desk?”
“Of course I’ve— Mel, if it was on my desk, you think I’d need you to help me look for it?” She sighs, gives the children instructions to finish dressing by themselves, and follows him to his study, where she finds what he’s looking for under some papers on his desk.
“Excuse me,” he says in reply to her look, “but in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve got a bit on my plate right now.”
“Excuse me, and I’m sure you haven’t noticed, but there’s a bit on mine, too.”
“Meaning, for starters, I feel like I’m raising the kids by myself.”
“Are you paying for them by yourself? The dance lessons and the music lessons and the pre-school and the new outfits for every—”
“You always talk about money.”
“Last time I checked, this place won’t run without it.” She sighs. “I’m wrong about that?”
“A home is more than money, Skip. A family…”
“You think I don’t— No, I get it. You think I’m not there for you.”
“Do you think you are?”
He makes a face. “Do you think you’re there for me?”
I admitted the reports didn’t sound good, but I tried to explain that that was the point, that the government was deliberately distorting facts; it didn’t change his mind.
“When the trial come and the jury say they are innocent, then I believe they are innocent. Today? No way. And you…” For the first time, his face softened. “You are nice kid. You think everyone is nice. Except the government,” he added hastily, “the government you don’t believe it is nice. But people… You live in this nice town, you think…”
I tried to convince him I wasn’t as naïve as he thought, but he wouldn’t listen. He gave me a piece of advice, that if anyone ever asked me to help them smuggle a weapon to terrorists, I should say no and call the FBI. I pretended to laugh, but it depressed me. That’s what Governor Pataki had said.
“This is your last chance,” he barked.
“No way. We’re not letting a bunch of cops tell us we have no right to express our opinion. We’re not threatening anybody, we’re not in anybody’s way…” For good measure, I added, “Screw that.”
They formed a circle around us, presumably to prevent thousands of militant supporters from swelling our numbers and provoking an insurrection, then the captain informed us we were under arrest […]
When the officer was done finger-printing me, he nodded at my tee-shirt and asked me what it meant. It seemed to be the theme of the event, I thought. Did he really not know? “Your tee-shirt. What’s that mean?”
“It’s like, remember after 9/11—”
“Do you love America?”
“Simple question. You know, a lot of good people died that day.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“Then why would you wear a tee-shirt that says, ‘Honk if you love America?’ 9/11 some kind a joke to you?”
I stared at him again. “No, it’s not a joke. It’s not an excuse for stupidity, either.”
He stared back at me. “Go make your phone call, kid.”
He meets Cécile […] in the Luxembourg Garden […]
“Bonjour. Speak English?”
“A little, yes.”
“What do you study?”
“The history of art. And you?”
“Philo. Then you wish to know how you can be certain that you exist really and it is not an illusion.”
“That was last semester. Now I want to know what makes me me and not like every other guy.”
“But you are like every other guy.”
“How do you know until you know me? Are you like every other girl?”
“You know very well that I am not. That is why you have stopped at my chair and not that one there, for example.”
Over drinks later, she will ask him seriously why he is studying philosophy and he will say he already told her.
“It is not the problem of existence?”
“No, it’s the problem of universals.”
“In art it is the same.”
“It is? How so?”
“Every object of art, a painting for example, is a representation. Could a representation be anything but a universal? What meaning could have a true individual? And yet, is that not precisely what is the objet d’art?”
“That’s very interesting. I never thought of that.”
“Now you are very happy that you meet me.”
“No. I was already happy that I met you.”
I entered the hotel lobby at seven as agreed and approached the man I took to be Murrow, looking rather splendid in a dark Savile Row suit. I was wearing my crumpled gray flannel jacket and unpressed slacks. I was now pretty sure he was out to pump me for material, but resolved to be polite, since I had agreed to dinner. Besides, it wasn’t his problem I was desperate for work.
We shook hands and headed into the bar. By the time we ordered martinis I had decided there was something about this guy I liked. I guess I’d expected a phony. Radio, after all. But there was nothing pompous about him. We began by searching for mutual friends and I was surprised how many there were. Obviously we liked the same kind of people, the more liberal types. We ordered another round in the dining room and he talked about the potential for radio as a new medium for news.
The waiter removed our empty glasses and presented us with menus. “Just a minute before we order,” he said. “I’ve got something on my mind.” And then, out of the blue he offered me a job. He told me he needed an experienced foreign correspondent to open a CBS office on the Continent, because he couldn’t cover all of Europe from London. And then, just as abruptly, he asked if I was interested. I told him I was. He asked how much I was making and I told him. He said, “Good, we’ll pay you the same,” and I said ‘fine’ and he said, “It’s a deal, then,” and picked up his menu.
February 6, 1934. I am exhausted. I date this entry Tuesday, February 6, only because I haven’t been to sleep yet, but it is really Wednesday (after 3:00 a.m.) as I begin to write these lines. I imagine it will take several hours to get everything down.
This evening, French democracy teetered on the edge of the abyss. Really, I don’t know how else to say it. I know how that sounds, but yet, incredibly, I believe it is a reasonable description of what happened. I am profoundly disheartened. Honestly, I am depressed. I would sleep if I could, but not till I finish this. Of course I filed a story tonight (three actually, as did Norman), but it doesn’t seem like enough. I want to get all my impressions down, before even a few hours sleep can blur their sharp outlines.
He stepped carefully into the street, but it was deserted. The pickpockets and beggars didn’t concern him, since he had no money, but rowdy students at the Sorbonne had become a problem ever since he had publicly argued his provisional but nonetheless highly controversial solution to the universals problem […]
He started down the slope between the four-story half-beamed houses, picking his way as usual through the garbage and excrement, whose stench was as strong as ever, despite the breeze. Perhaps it was a bit better once he reached the main road… A hunch-backed child, presumably on an errand of some sort, skipped past him in the street with a little wave.
He could have found it in his heart to be immensely frustrated that the enlightenment he had been seeking for so long had not been found. On the other hand, he had lately come to wonder if there might be no definitive answer to this fundamental question about the nature of existence. Perhaps there could no certainty, no logical deduction, ultimately just an opinion formed of experience and intellect. Because, if proof were possible, would it not have been discovered by all the great minds that had preceded him?
After a pause, Louche said that now he knew one thing for certain. “I know,” he proclaimed, “that I know nothing.”
He was shocked when Thomas seriously replied that that was a very good beginning for a philosopher.
“But I am not a philosopher. I am a baker. At least I know how to make bread.”
“That is something.”
They stared at each other […] Louche said, “I’m not convinced all this thinking is good for a person.”
Thomas sighed. “And I immediately wonder, ‘What is a person and how does one think? Is it the person who thinks, or does thinking occur by means of that person?’ This is my lot, Louche.” He shrugged […] “By the way, you cannot know that you know nothing.” Louche turned to him with a questioning glance. “If you know, then you know something; but if you truly know nothing, then you cannot know it, because then you would know something.”
Louche held his tongue. If he hoped comprehension would come as they walked, it didn’t; and there he was, stopped in the middle of a narrow, stinking street, staring at his sponsor, confessor, great good friend, and mysterious creature. It now seemed to him there was only one clear and decisive conclusion, that this business of thinking was madness. ‘Not only have I learned that whatever I think true is false, I have learned that I cannot even know that I am ignorant.’ Confronted with Thomas’s stare, he shook his head. ‘I must ask if man can know anything. Know something that is true and know it to be true. Forgive a simple baker, Thomas, but it seems to me that the more we try to know, the less we do know. What a strange business when thinking becomes less a cure for ignorance than its own disease. I must ask if I can at least know that I am a fool for wondering about all this.’