****The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas

Texas, guns

(photo: C. Holmes, CC license)

By Anand Giridharadas (read by the author) I missed this nonfiction book when it came out last May, and was astonished that I haven’t heard any chatter about it. The book probes the 2001 murders of two South Asian men and the attempted murder of a third because they “looked Muslim” to the assailant, a “Texas loud, Texas proud” man named Mark Stroman, who viewed his actions as revenge for 9/11. The story is told from the points of view of Stroman and the critically injured Bangladeshi man, Rais Bhuiyan, “two men bound, as it turned out, by more than just an act of violence,” said Ayad Akhtar in the New York Times.

Over the course of the trial and the long wait on Texas’s death row (the death penalty applied because one of the murders occurred in the course of another crime, a robbery), the victim, Bhuiyan, comes to believe Allah saved him from death so that he could do something remarkable. That something, he decided, was to forgive Mark Stroman. Not only to forgive, but to save him from execution.

The lengthy interviews journalist Giridharadas conducted give unparalleled access to the thinking of both Bhuiyan and Stroman, however tangled and inconsistent it may be. Bhuiyan, who would appear to hold all the moral high ground here, at times gets caught up in the self-promotional aspects of his international justice campaign. Meanwhile, Stroman cannot be simply dismissed as another gun-toting nut, either. He has been let down in many ways by people and institutions that should have served him better; in his time on death row, he learns to admire Bhuiyan and to think more deeply about his actions—or at least to mouth the words.

In this truly riveting tale, the author comes to no simplistic conclusions about these possibly imperfect motives on either side. As Akhtar says, “Giridharadas seeks less to uplift than illuminate.” And, Anne-Marie Slaughter says the book “explores two sharply opposed dimensions of the American experience in a style that neither celebrates nor condemns. We readers become the jury, weighing what it means to be a true American today.”

Update: 5/30/15: Anand Giridharadas won the New York Public Library’s 2015 Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism for The True American.