The other day in Beirut, I took a meeting with a woman of Lebanese origin who was recruiting writers for a new journal. In an email, she said she liked the stuff I’d sent—at least enough to have coffee.
We sat in silence for a moment, sipping drinks at the outdoor cafe, when a street urchin approached our table. The boy, who appeared to be about 10, looked into my eyes and implored me in a murmuring voice for “money, money, money.” I glanced quickly at the boy, then at the woman, seeking her lead, not wanting to make the wrong move. She pursed her lips, shook her head, and made no eye contact with the boy or me. Confused and already regretful—it seemed like no good would come from any of this—I stared again into his eyes. Just then, he raised an arm and began to stroke my face with a dirty hand. I felt his skin on mine, and my heart beat fast. Here I was, in Beirut, seated at a table, a warm hand on my face. Then the lady began to yell, and the boy scrambled off. We sat again in silence. Where could we go from here?
“You are this American writer,” she said finally. “You live in the Arab world, and you write stories about us. We don’t always appreciate what you have to say.”
I smiled half-heartedly. After a while, I got up to leave, promising to stay in touch.
I dodged cars on a traffic-choked street, looking in vain for the boy. He was gone.
In November 1978, more than 900 followers of a messianic American cult drank lethal doses of poison, killing themselves in droves at the site of a utopian community they’d built in the jungles of Guyana. They’d tried too hard, chasing an ideal, and they’d paid with their lives.
In Journey to Nowhere, a book about the so-called Jonestown Massacre, Shiva Naipaul—V.S.’s late, younger brother—traveled to the site, where the stench of death was still fresh. Naipaul also visited America, to investigate the paradox that a country as privileged and blessed as America could produce both ideals and demons—a people who would put someone on the moon and then a decade later kill themselves en masse in some forgotten jungle.
Money was dull; people liked thinking they had something real to offer, and something meaningful to do with their lives. Building on that desire, what began as a marginal church in Indianapolis soon became a politically powerful machine in San Francisco, where followers of a charismatic preacher named Jim Jones could be mobilized to run a daylong health clinic or pack a hall for a mayoral candidate. Before long, however, there were indications that Jones was becoming more messianic and more unhinged. A trickle of defectors told stories of intimidation and a group of parents even formed a support organization. Amid negative attention from the press and the threat of criminal investigation, Jones convinced enough of the flock to move to South America for the next step: a self-supporting community that would, Jones said, serve as a new global model.
The reality in Guyana was dire, with food shortages, a corrupt relationship with the local government, half-starved Americans suffering diarrhea, and all of it leaving little to emulate for poverty-stricken Guyanese—let alone the rest of the world.
Hand-built rain gutters, a handful of muddy pigs, a partially functioning sawmill, acres of limp crops. It was all so ordinary. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Like Jones, I could relate to this feeling of guilt. Lolling about in restaurants had little appeal. Living abroad, working hard, doing it all with sincerity—these things had pull. But the math was fuzzy when the work was writing and you were the outsider, compounded by an ambition to claim any of it mattered. Why hadn’t I just given the boy some money? What would it take to get this woman to publish my stories?
When you write, you magnify certain details, deriving big meaning from brief encounters. In the hours and days after the encounter at the cafe, that moment with the boy loomed large. By remembering his touch, I had made a choice. The boy wanted money, or food, or kindness: simple things. I wanted something simple in return, and when I began to write about it, I took it.
By telling it imperfectly, I’d be telling my story, not hers. That was the paradox: No matter how accurate, it was never entirely true, because it was never entirely complete.
The editor I met was a more complicated case. She was, in theory, more like me: a writer and editor, someone I thought could help me bridge the gulf between what I wanted and what I had; between what I saw and the world I wanted to describe; between me and Beirut; between me and the boy.
But as the lady and I talked, I decided that maybe I wanted to write about her, too—her clothes, her smile, how she did or did not visit Lebanon as a kid, coming back from America every year, testing her language skills, feeling an early inkling she might move back to Lebanon some day, leaving America after college, the strange pain of an exile returned. When I sat down later to write, I couldn’t remember exactly what she’d said, all the right details, and anyway, it was her story. By telling it imperfectly, I’d be telling my story, not hers. That was the paradox: No matter how accurate, it was never entirely true, because it was never entirely complete.
Had I just given the boy some damn money, perhaps he never would have touched my face. Then again, he may have grabbed my wallet, slapped the woman, and tipped our table. There were so many unintended consequences. I was such an easy target, and everywhere I stepped the ground shifted. At some grim moment, there was probably even enough sanity in Jim Jones to realize he had lost control, too. However benevolent the intentions, however earnest the project, an American abroad is still an American.
Naipaul’s book—and the hundreds of well-meaning followers who drank poison one day—seemed to argue that the world was big and complicated, that it would always resist our best efforts to know it, that it would humble us no matter where we went, what we did, or how hard we tried. We had the resources to go, but maybe we needed to learn the responsibility to decide to stay. It would be better for everyone, perhaps, if we all minded our own affairs—keeping our stories close enough so the worst we could do was hurt ourselves, and those nearest to us.
Head swirling, I went back to the cafe, hoping to see the boy again. Sitting there every day for a week, I finished Naipaul’s book and flipped through the pages. He died early, at 40, of a heart attack, having been considered one of the greats, a rising star. Then he was gone.
How many people would ever care about this book? I flipped through the pages, hoping to find something memorable, something to soften the blow. Then one passage stuck with me: “Rivers glinted light and dark through the canopy of even green,” Naipaul wrote, recounting the bush plane’s fleet path to the massacre. “Scattered wisps of cloud hung like puffs of smoke just above the tree tops... We took off, heading out toward the brown ocean. The weather was unsettled. We flew into and out of rain-bearing cloud formations, the little plane shuddering and rattling in the turbulence.”
For a moment, I forgot the boy, my shortcomings as a writer, the part of me that would take a meeting with an editor who wasn’t completely sold on my work. In a nearly forgotten book about a terrible day, the world Naipaul described was beautiful, even more beautiful than the real thing.