Timothy Noah

Boo's Masterwork

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There is a very short shelf of indelibly great works of American narrative nonfiction. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night reside there. So do Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground. To this list we must now add Katherine Boo's Behind The Beautiful Forevers.

What these books have in common, apart from the high quality of their reporting (and here I should add an asterisk to In Cold Blood, whose accuracy on some points has been called into question) is that they draw the reader so thoroughly into their recreated world that any interruption--a ringing phone, someone at the front door, the need to prepare dinner or walk the dog or go to the office--can register only as an irritation. Boo's book, about life in a slum adjacent to the Mumbai airport, achieves that by weaving together stories about unforgettable people living together in unimaginable misery--or rather, misery one would not be able even to glimpse without Boo's exquisitely painstaking reporting. It is a world so broken in so many ways, yet so physically close to the more familiar world of fast-spreading modernity and prosperity (India is, she reminds us, the world's second-fastest-growing economy), that you finish the book feeling bewildered and overwhelmed by life's everyday cruelty and suspicious of any attempt to explain it. 

I don't really have much to add to Isaac Chotiner's recent rave in TNR. Go read it, now.

Addendum. Perhaps I should have mentioned that Boo is a friend (not a very close one; I saw her the other day for the first time in seven or eight years) and former sort-of colleague (we are both onetime editors of the Washington Monthly). But my adulation is pretty much in line with the raves Boo has been getting from strangers. 

 

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