The New Yorker's Paul Brodeur
I met Paul Brodeur recently at the Algonquin Hotel. In spite of the extreme heat and humidity outside, and his admission to being worn down by driving Manhattan's car-jammed streets to return his daughter to Columbia University, he arrived looking cool and crisp in a well-tailored tan suit. He carried a brown leather briefcase, scratched from use. Mr. Brodeur is an award-winning author and longtime staff writer for The New Yorker. He has two novels, a short-story collection, and four nonfiction works to his credit. The most recent, ``Restitution'' (Northeastern University Press), recounts the efforts of three New England Indian tribes -- the Mashpees of Cape Cod, and the Passamaquoddies and Penobscots of Maine -- to win recompense for land taken from them as long ago as the American Revolution. Another book, due in November from Pantheon, is ``Ou trageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial,'' which climaxes 17 years of research and writing about asbestos. ``I see a common theme in my [nonfiction] books,'' he says. ``And that's the suppression by monied interests of people's rights -- rights to their land and rights to their health.'' Brodeur has followed the asbestos story for nearly 20 years, because he saw it as the first completely documented health hazard. He has had the time to follow this and other long-term projects because of his ass ociation with The New Yorker. He began his career there doing the ``news briefs'' to which E. B. White added his well-known witty remarks. He moved from that to ``Talk of the Town'' and then to writing pieces for ``Annals of Law.'' He readily admits his good fortune in writing for the magazine and working with William Shawn, its editor.
``We New Yorker writers,'' he says, ``have been given an enormous amount of time and freedom to pursue the issues that interested us as far as we wanted to.''
Most of ``Restitution'' first appeared in The New Yorker. Twenty-three years elapsed between the author's first encounter with the Mashpees of Cape Cod and the final book about the New England Indians' tangle with American law and politics to reclaim their lands.
``All the Mashpees really wanted to accomplish with their lawsuit,'' Brodeur says, ``was to stop further development . . . They happened to be sitting, though, right in the middle of the most valuable sand bar in the country.''
In the decade after the early 1960s, a development project bulldozed its way across Mashpee, destroying virtually all the shellfish beds and altering the landscape to accommodate a golf course and a shopping mall, among other things. The project brought with it newcomers who posted no-trespassing signs and erected chain-link fences, barring the Indians from lands and waters to which they had always had access and paving the way for their lawsuit.
As for the Passamaquoddies and Penobscots, they had legal claim to 12.5 million acres of land -- nearly two-thirds of Maine -- inhabited by 350,000 whites. Much of the forested acreage in the disputed territory was owned by paper companies.
After the complex trial, which took place in a highly charged and prejudicial environment, and in which many feel the presiding judge deliberately confused the jury with his final instructions, the case brought by the Mashpees was dismissed.
In spite of that and subsequent rulings against them, the Mashpees have recently filed for federal recognition as a tribe, which would, among other things, entitle them to education benefits and health programs. Brodeur feels such recognition would be a long overdue acknowledgment by the entire nation of the tribe and its rightful place here.
``I think the Mashpees are a people of great resourcefulness and gentleness,'' he says. ``What's left for them now is to endure.''
Although the Maine Indians fared much better in the resolution of their land-claim case, one can't help but hear echoes of past injustices as one reads ``Restitution.'' ``We won't learn anything from the Indians,'' Brodeur says, shaking his head, ``because we killed them all and deliberately perpetuated the myth of their savagery. Then we made them into nonpersons.'' He looked at me. ``If we had listened to the few Indians we had about land use, we wouldn't be faced with land and water pollution. The In dians have always understood and appreciated the land.''
The author believes that those things which we don't face squarely and resolve return to haunt us. In 1977, ``The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk, and the Cover-Up'' was published. A frightening and exhaustive report about the proliferation of microwave radiation and its dangers to the population, it exposed the conspiracy of silence long maintained by the Pentagon, the State Department, and the electronics industry. Brodeur was accused in some quarters of sensationalism, but muc h of what he uncovered has since become common knowledge.
Not only a highly regarded writer of nonfiction, Brodeur writes fiction as well. Probably his best-known novel is ``The Stunt Man,'' which was made into a movie of the same name a few years ago. It is about a soldier named Cameron who goes AWOL, and whose path of escape leads him onto a movie set. An aging director, who creates the movie's plot with apparent aimlessness, fabricates a new life for the soldier and employs him as a stunt man. Each stunt, orchestrated by the nearly blind director, tak es Cameron closer to death, sharpening the soldier's instincts for survival in the midst of such madness and challenging him to outwit the director's as yet unknown end to the movie. The book is a masterful allegory, and the interplay between fantasy and reality tricks the reader just as it does Cameron.
Before I could ask Brodeur what he was currently working on, he told me he was writing fiction again. As though the recent years spent writing about such serious matters had tired him somewhat, he said, ``I think the way that society is best explained to itself is in myth -- in fiction.''