One of the things I do is listen to the New York Times book review podcast every week. They do a segment at the end where they talk about what they are reading and for several weeks what they were reading was Emmanuel Carrere. Like, all of them, every week.
So when I had a hole in my reading schedule, I decided to jump in and pick up a Carrere book. He writes fiction, memoir, and non-fiction…I wasn’t as interested in memoir so I decided to go for The Adversary, which was advertised as a modern-day In Cold Blood.
True crime is not usually my thing, but I have had some success with it from time to time and I decided to jump in on The Adversary.
And it was good. I don’t like to do too many plot summaries here, but the idea is that Carrere became interested in a French man who killed his parents and his families and then set his house on fire. Carrere gets involved with the guy and gets a close look at him and then follows his trial–which, suffice it to say, is unlike any trial held here in the US.
Anyway, the subtitle is “A true story of monstrous deception” and that’s what the book is really about. Essentially, one little lie (or, little in retrospect) leads the main character down a road of cascading lies that end up where the story ends up.
And that’s one of the themes. How many lies can a person tell to try and extricate himself from….how many lies? It is a spellbinding story told by a master, for sure. The lives that were ruined and then ended…it is truly monstrous. And yet, who among us has not been down this road at least a little, where one thing leads to another and we end up in a place we never imagined with no way out. In fact, it only gets more and more difficult.
The other element here is faith and redemption. Most of the main characters are strong Roman Catholics and their faith is vital to how they live. Central to the faith is the idea of confession and redemption. After the main character (who survives) is in prison, there is a question of redemption. Of course, to be redeemed you have to confess, honestly and directly, and we are taken through a labyrinth of questions about whether the main character is truly redeemed or whether he is just playing another deception on people.
The one thing that I notice now, as I think about it, is how the elements of trust play into his deception. He was rarely challenged, even when promising to invest people’s life savings. And other, even simpler lies, such as where he worked. As living human beings, we literally cannot question every single thing we see…there isn’t time. We have to trust sometimes.
We have to trust sometimes. Even most times. It isn’t too much of a stretch, if you think about it, to think that the story of who and what we trust and who and what we doubt is the story of our lives. It certainly was for the victims in this story.
The internet says the story’s villain has a narcissistic personality disorder. I don’t really know what that means, but he is a sociopath. He acts with no concern for the consequences of his actions on other people. By the way, The Adversary is satan…which are the temptations and the lies that the main character cannot seem to resist and the ability to act as if there are no consequences, way past the time when you could not conclude otherwise. It is the voice in his head that probably exists in all of our heads, but who never gets quite the free rein as in this story.
This is a great book. Carrere is a brilliant writer and the comparison is true, this is every bit as good as In Cold Blood. I also think this would be a great Coen Brothers movie, although it has been adapted before.
It is an affecting book. It won’t leave you right away when you put it down.
I will probably pick up some other Carrere stuff at some point, but it is easy to see how he has developed the devoted fans he has. He is a master of suspense, which means that he delivers suspense through understatement. Anyone can scream, but the scariest stories are the whispered ones around the campfire. His writing is elegant, his sentences short, but delivered as someone with strong knowledge of humanity who cannot believe what he is seeing and yet must deliver it. He wants to understand his subject and therefore has to be open to the idea something is at play other than pure evil, which is lucky because that wouldn’t be as good a story.