Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: Vultures' Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores, by Greg Palast

New York: Penguin, 2011, pp. 432.

In television and film the crusading reporter who does whatever it takes to get the story is a tired cliché. In reality, they are all but nonexistent. After all, investigative journalism is expensive, and tends to make waves, and neither of those things is particularly well-liked by the exclusive club of big, ad revenue-dependent, flak-fearing, profit-maximizing and capital "E" Establishment businesses which own and operate news outlets, which prefer simply to do such things as relay the contents of press releases and the pronouncements of spokesmen to their audiences--cheap and safe.1 Greg Palast of the BBC's Newsnight actually lives up to that image, however. Palast, who does not pretend to be "objective," "nonpartisan," "moderate," "centrist" or anything else of the sort, is also an unabashed class warrior for whom the sheer rottenness of the System is a given, making his perspective doubly unique for American journalism.

Here Palast, whose previous books The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Armed Madhouse covered an assortment of topics ranging from the stolen U.S. presidential election of 2002 to the shenanigans at Enron, from the destruction of New Orleans to the Iraq War, takes on the "Energy-Finance Combine" in investigations into several of the biggest energy-related disasters of the last quarter century (the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the Fukushima meltdown), the dumping of toxic assets on countries the world over (like Greece), and the activities of "vulture funds" bilking the world's poorest and most vulnerable nations (like Liberia). As might be expected the book details some of the striking revelations on which he happened (the Deepwater Horizon, for instance, turns out to be just one part of the much bigger story of the oil industry's destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, and the Fukushima disaster was NOT the unforeseeable result of a freakishly powerful earthquake), but these are just pieces of the larger story illustrated on the book's cover: the destruction of the planet's economies and ecosystems--and countless human lives--by the corporate greed and political corruption neoliberal globalization has done so much to unleash.

Robert Kennedy Jr. has likened Vulture's Picnic to a spy novel, and it certainly has some features in common with that genre: Palast's globe-trotting among exotic locations, some glamorous, some dangerous, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Monrovia to Baku; the subterfuge to which he turns to get answers, and get out with them again; the traps laid in the hero's way (one of them, courtesy of Piers Morgan--yes, that Piers Morgan); his confrontations with bad guys as twisted and megalomaniacal as any member of S.P.E.C.T.R.E.; his piecing together of the clues to unmask an international conspiracy. And indeed, Palast does weave a narrative out of it, and suit the telling to the tale.

There are ways in which this novelistic approach can be a problem, however. Palast's first chapter rapidly cuts among various threads of his investigation, tantalizing the reader with hints rather than explaining where the book is going--a routine approach in thriller novels, but a bit frustrating in a nonfiction work. And while the chapters become more focused afterward, the book is organized around Palast's pursuit of the facts, rather than a tidy presentation of the facts he digs up--which is also perfectly acceptable in a thriller, but of debatable value in a work of nonfiction. Complicating matters is the fact that this particular thriller is nonlinear and at times highly digressive--not wholly unlike Kurt Vonnegut writing about the bombing of Dresden. The book's lack of an index also makes skipping around less of an option than it otherwise might be, and backtracking that much more trying. And all this clearly did get to some readers. While the one-star ratings assigned a book like this on Amazon would usually be expressions of the readers' ideological hostility to its content, this time around the negative reviews mostly expressed a dislike of the book's style.

Yet, even as a reader usually impatient with modernist storytelling technique (and who did, at times, wish Palast presented what he had to say in a more concise fashion) I have to admit that there is much to commend this blending of form and content. The book's structure isn't the only way in which it reminded me of Slaughter-House Five: this, too, is a story of mass destruction on such a scale as to cast doubt about humanity's chances of survival, and the adequacy of more straightforward ways of approaching the events at hand. And Palast's feel for how the world really works--his sense of the whole planet as Dashiell Hammett's Poisonville--gives his account of these events a grit that very few novelists get anywhere near. As I have often said before, "dark and gritty" is a grossly overused phrase, as descriptor, superlative and ideal, but as an approach it does have its place, and there are people who do it right. This is an instance of both of these.

1. Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman describe much of this in their "propaganda" model of the press in their book Manufacturing Consent. You can find a summary in the notes of my review of Chris Hedge's Death of the Liberal Class.

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