“The story of a boy from Baltimore who evolves from a safecracking, jewel-heisting, deep-sea diving, ultimate-fighting, international playboy into a globetrotting humanitarian.”
Why yes, thank you very much, I would like to review that book…. My snark glands start working in anticipation.
Book arrives in the mail and I open to the preface where I read that Stefan Templeton, the troubled and risk-loving misfit hero of the story, has an innocent bright-eyed son and a good, virtuous, hard-working wife in the kitchen. Neither his son nor his wife knows about his sordid past. He risks his family’s well-being to be “a recurring presence in the aftermath of some of the last decade’s worst man-made and natural disasters”. He’s now heading to “the genocide-ravaged Horn of Africa…. On this mission, as on all the others, he would receive no payment.”
OK, so this will be a story about one of those self-made, selfless martyr, I-have-seen-the-light types who wakes up one day and feels compelled to give up everything to save the world. And there will be fighting too!
We learn that the author David Matthews and Stefan, the hero, grew up together off and on in a hard-knock area of Baltimore, MD. That they are both ‘mixed’ race and that Stefan loves fighting and telling elaborate, hard-to-believe stories. Matthews’ re-encounter with Stefan starts off something like this:
“You taking all this stuff? I yelled to him in the bedroom…
…What’s this? I pointed at the black square.
I removed the device. A block of plastic the size of a primordial cell phone.
He shook his head. It’s a Taser, knucklehead.
Jesus, I said, Get pretty rough out there saving babies?
Stormy clambered into the room, midway through his drawing. What’s a Taser, Poppa?
A Taser makes bad people jump, Stormy-bear. Stormy held up his drawing. I could make out some red and black stick people with what looked like blue arrows raining down on them.
That’s amaaazing, Stefan said.
It’s the African children when you put water on them, Poppa.”
Jesus. I thought. Get pretty rough out there writing good dialog?
Regardless, I continue. The book starts to flow a little better as the story takes off.
I read that Stefan’s parents are from very different cultures — his father: a rigid African-American martial artist from a well-educated family in a rough Baltimore neighborhood, permanently affected by a stint in Vietnam; his mother: a Danish flower child from a wealthy family that runs a new-age spiritual healing school where people do primal screaming and other types of psycho-spiritual curing.
Early in the book, the author sets Stefan up as a pure-hearted good guy with bad luck, a poor hero who gets screwed time and time again by the system. His father’s hard-fighting rigidity combined with his mother’s heal-the-poor hippie sensibilities are lived out through Stefan who gets himself into one tricky situation after another, but only because he is compelled to perpetually defend the defenseless, to be a man.
His weakness for women is made clear early on, as is the idea that women are weak. (Almost all the women we run into in this book are extremely hot, in need of Stefan’s protection, and willing to drop anything to get with our hero.)
It’s Chapter 3 where Stefan has his “incredible hulk” breaking point transformation. A trained fighter who continually turns the other cheek, he is pushed to fight back when a couple of local thugs try to steal his house keys. He pulverizes them both and the defining moment emerges: “This was neither good, nor bad. Right, nor wrong. It was just.”
Yep, and you won’t like him when he’s angry. Superhero moment complete.
Soon after, Stefan has his first sexual experience while living in a castle in Europe belonging to his mother’s side of the family. Unsurprisingly, it’s with a sexy older woman and Stefan is quite well-endowed: “Ach… zu gross… (oh so big)….” the woman exclaims. “Your mother would kill me.”
Throughout the rest of the book, the system continues making things difficult for Stefan. He tries and tries to make something of himself and his innate superior intellect, physical perfection and sexual prowess but time and time again he’s let down or has to fall back on his unstoppable fighting techniques and knack for straightforward, ethical crime, or he’s simply forced to put himself at risk to save someone at the wrong time or place. Poor guy, he’s just trying to help and it just never works out.
So what better place for him to end up than helping poor people in Africa, Asia or Latin America? By the end of the book, he has blundered his way into humanitarian aid work, yet again, the system has no place for him and he must go at it in selfless, renegade, superhero style, saving the poor because the locals need him and the humanitarians can’t get it right.
Matthew’s writing was entertaining enough to keep me reading throughout, but the marketers’ promise was more than what the book could live up to. But I expected that. “The story of a boy from Baltimore who evolves from a safe-cracking, jewel-heisting, deep-sea diving, ultimate-fighting, international playboy into a globetrotting humanitarian” is a bit much to swallow without a grain of salt.
Kicking Ass and Saving Souls is very much a man’s book. I felt throughout that the author was imagining the story embellished a bit further and on the big screen, and judging by the public’s hunger for violent, misfit heroes and feel-good stories about helpless poor people, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it there one day.
As for me though, I’ve had quite too much of the Sean Penn style of humanitarian work to be excited. I’m wary of erratic amateur do-gooders. Not to mention I have some pretty major concerns about Sam “the Machine Gun Preacher” Childers‘ and Peter “Advisor to Michelle Bachman (and hero of this hilariously scary film)” Waldron style forays into South Sudan and Uganda and such. So I’m the wrong audience for this kind of book.
I’m sure Stefan means well, and certainly Matthews is impressed with him. But I think Stefan is more the kind of guy you would enjoy running into at a bar overseas and trading crazy stories with and leaving it at that. You’d probably go home wondering how much of his shtick was bullshit (while he went home with one of the new volunteers or the local female bartender). And you’d probably have some real concerns about his modus operandi if any of his stories were true.
But the book didn’t really grab me. I’m tired of shoot-em-up-punch-em-up humanitarian aid heroes. They take energy away from the real issues and the real people, local and non-local, who are doing the work that has long-term impact. And they can actually cause real problems, no matter how good their stories seem and how helpful they think they are being.
Thanks to the author and TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of the book to review.
About David Matthews
David Matthews is the author of the 2007 memoir Ace of Spades, which was selected as an Editor’s Choice pick by The New York Times. Matthews’s work has also appeared in Salon, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir. He lives in Manhattan, but can’t wait to move back to Brooklyn.
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