Dangerous Mind

CRIME FICTION IS, as perhaps all narratives are, a machine for making moral stances. No matter how clinical your description of an atrocity, how thoroughly your style constructs a mirage of objectivity—I’m thinking of Capote’s In Cold Blood, Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song—to write about something is to place it on an axiological scale.

In the 1970s, Forrest Carter, claiming to be of Cherokee descent, published an environmentalist memoir, The Education of Little Tree, and a novel about the Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo that defended the Southwest Native Americans’ right to their land. By 1991, long after Carter’s death, his books were standard reading; Little Tree was recommended by Oprah Winfrey and became a No. 1 New York Times best seller. But that year, “Forrest Carter” was revealed to have been a pseudonym for Alabama politician Asa Earl Carter. Legend has it that his most famous sentence appears not in his fiction but in a speech by Governor George Wallace, for whom he was a ghostwriter: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” His anti-Semitism was so extreme that even the state’s white-supremacist organization distanced itself from him. Though never indicted for any crime, he founded and presided over an ultraviolent splinter group of the KKK, several of whose members were found guilty of castrating a black man.

Hardly a trace of these positions can be found in Carter’s books. His treatment of Mexicans—as bloodthirsty and superstitious—is, while brutally racist, not exceptionally so. What he writes about people like me is no uglier than things today’s conservative demagogues say without shame during their campaign rallies. Still, Carter has vanished from Winfrey’s list and is hardly read—fiction by someone like this is treated as toxic. We read about a criminal mind partly to reassure ourselves that we don’t have one. But when we’re given the product of such a mind to read, no matter how edifying its subject matter, we flee: We don’t want to find out how normal it is.

Álvaro Enrigue’s novel Sudden Death has recently been published in English by Riverhead.