60 Minutes You Can Probably Handle, But Never, Ever Get Jon Krakauer On Your Bad Side

No one felt like reading Frank Bruni's memoir, so the book club settled for another Jon Krakauer book. The pamphlet-sized Three Cups of Deceit teaches a valuable lesson: Be careful who you impress, and if you do impress, try not to impress an investigative writer. And if you do happen to impress an investigative writer, for god's sake, don't leave him or her thinking you ripped off him or her, lest your financial malfeasance becomes the topic of another tale of how a rugged, wayward individualist loses his way.

Here's another lesson for anyone who might fall into this category: Once that pamphlet and accompanying 60 Minutes report is released, try not to sound so defensive on your twitter feed. Linking to Salon readers' blogs doesn't help you. And while yes, Kristof does strike a "say it ain't so" tone, I would hardly call his opinion piece an "article of support." The same goes for the Trudy Rubin piece you reprint; both writers sound more pained — given the evidence — than supportive.

For me, the salient parts of the problem that Krakauer uncovers don't necessarily involve the financial shenanigans — after all, a case could be made, though not by the IRS, that if you raise $20 million for something good and use $4 million of that for your own benefit then that something good is still left with $16 million. Actually, I would still be pissed if I sent in a check to that guy.

But anyway, I think that there is something interesting and revolting about how you can put a crisis to good use. Like I started to say and then stopped myself, in some ways it's not so much the financial stuff as it is the myths and half-truths that Mortenson uses to raise money. Krakauer's most damning evidence comes when he shows how Mortenson took advantage of the world's fear of radical Islam to raise money for the schools he built. That he built many schools isn't in doubt (though whether they're actually useful is a different story), but over and over Krakauer shows that the schools were built in less-conservative parts of Pakistan, where the specter of religious madrassas wasn't such a problem. I think he brings up an example like this in the book, but it's sort of like saying you're raising money for charter schools in troubled inner city neighborhoods and then building those schools in, I don't know, Nashua or something. Are the schools helping kids in Nashua? Sure — but they're not going into, say, Baltimore. Except what Krakauer is alleged is worse because Mortenson preys on the West's fears about radical Islam . . . it's unsavory.

It's noble enough to build schools for kids in parts of the world that need schools. His original goal — building schools in the villages that service trekkers and climbers — was noble enough. But he took advantage of 9/11 and the subsequent GWOT Decade to raise more money. It's unfortunate that charities sometimes seem to be in the business of ginning up crises to stay relevant, but this example is one of the more egregious ones. And Krakauer gets some great quotes from folks on the ground in these places who feel betrayed by the narrative that Mortenson peddles.

It's always nice to read a 70-page book — who has time for 300-plus pages anymore? — but Three Cups of Deceit feels like a spec piece of sorts. It's one thing to get in and get out and John Mayer that shit, but I actually think it could have been a longer work. Greg Mortenson the persona is the type of character that is in Jon Krakauer's bold-loners-doing-risky-things wheelhouse. I was thinking that it'd be interesting to pull out more of that psychological angle. Then again, the danger in that is building a persona that the reader might feel sympathetic toward — and Krakauer clearly doesn't want that to happen. After all, he got ripped off and he wants to make that asshole pay. Some people tweet or blog their way to justice. Others get 7 (or 2 or 4 or 5) on their side. Jon Krakauer can rush out a 70-page book. Must be nice . . .

Posted: August 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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