domingo, 29 de abril de 2012
A Murder Trial to Cover, Axes to Grind
Review by Dwight Garner
The Fashion Writer, Cape Cod, and the Trial of Chris McCowen
By Peter Manso
Illustrated. 435 pages. Atria Books. $25.99.
A few years ago the terrific Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam spotted, and put a name to, a burgeoning true-crime genre. He called it Cape Cod Exploitational. There should be a shelf reserved for these salt-speckled things at every good indie bookstore.
The vices of New England’s fading and eccentric WASP elite, on the Cape and elsewhere, are an all-American and multigrain form of intellectual snack food. In her book, “True Prep” (2010), the sequel to “The Official Preppy Handbook,” Lisa Birnbach zeroed in on our prurient interest. “The world is surprised and intrigued by the details” of the crimes and misdemeanors of the well-born, Ms. Birnbach wrote, “because we all look so cool, calm and proper.”
The 2002 murder of Christa Worthington was the new century’s first big patrician horror story. You remember this crime, because once you’ve heard its heartbreaking details they’re impossible to forget entirely.
Worthington, a 46-year-old Vassar graduate, fashion writer and single mother from an old Cape Cod family, was stabbed to death in a hallway off the kitchen of her cottage in Truro, Mass. Her body remained on the floor for more than 24 hours, while her curly-haired 2 ½-year-old daughter clung to her bloody and half-naked corpse. Nearby her cellphone glowed with the lone numeral 9, the first digit in 911.
Part of the fascination of this murder was the window it opened on the offbeat, moth-eaten Worthington family. Worthington’s father, Christopher Worthington, known as Toppy, had a relationship with a much-younger heroin addict he’d met through an escort service. Every rock that Boston’s tabloid press turned over had a weird bug or two beneath it. Christa Worthington’s daughter turned out to be the result of her affair with a roguish, married local fisherman.
The murder has already inspired one book, the novelist Maria Flook’s “Invisible Eden,” published in 2003. Ms. Flook’s account was intense and insightful — I enjoyed it — but fluky. How this poised writer ended up typing lines like “he captained her onto the pillowy pier of her Posturepedic” I’ll never know, though I bet the audio version would be fun to hear.
Now comes Peter Manso, a biographer of Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando, to take a mighty whack at the Worthington case. Mr. Manso is a long-time Truro resident and the author of a previous Cape Cod Exploitational titled “Ptown: Art, Sex and Money on the Outer Cape”(2003). He writes that he knew Worthington — he calls her “my neighbor” — for more than a dozen years.
Mr. Manso became a fixture at the 2006 murder trial, and an openly partisan one. He provided research and other assistance to aid the defense of the man he says was falsely accused and ultimately convicted of the crime: a 34-year-old black garbage collector, Christopher McCowen, who has an IQ of 76.
Mr. Manso fought for Mr. McCowen in print and as a guest commentator on Court TV too, earning him the ire of the local district attorney. Mr. Manso suggests this is why his phone records and samples of his DNA were seized without his knowledge, and why he was arrested for not having up-to-date permits on three guns he owned.
I looked forward to reading Mr. Manso’s “Reasonable Doubt: The Fashion Writer, Cape Cod, and the Trial of Chris McCowen.” His oral biography of Mailer was bristly and blood warm, like a freshly killed wild boar. And I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Manso’s author photographs — his mop of hair, his sneaky resemblance to Al Pacino or Richard Price, the way he scowls as if he’s just caught you snatching his morning newspaper from the front porch. He looks like he’s full of beans.
It’s unhappy work, then, to report that “Reasonable Doubt” is a disaster, at once lumpen and bonkers. At heart it’s a barely digested condensation of the official trial transcript, which ran to 3,878 pages. Reading Mr. Manso’s extended play-by-play, which seems to account for every lunch break and judicial sidebar, feels a bit like hiking the Appalachian trail, which as Bill Bryson reminded us in “A Walk in the Woods” is pretty awful because you’re always in the trees; there are few striking open vistas.
The problems with “Reasonable Doubt” start big and grow smaller, like a set of Russian nesting dolls. The book has no human texture. Christa Worthington never comes to life — the author does not even try to give us an account of her childhood, Vassar years or time as a journalist and world traveler — nor does any person here.
What little one does learn of Worthington is evocative and tantalizing. “Read this: The unexamined life isn’t worth living,” she wrote in her journal, “but the examined life will make you want to die.”
When it comes to the accused, Mr. Manso convinces you that he is probably right; it’s not improbable that Mr. McCowen, whom the defense argued had a sexual relationship with Worthington, was framed for her murder. Others had more motive to kill her, and Mr. Manso points to possible suspects. The prosecution, he writes, found “no fingerprints, no forensic evidence of any kind, no witness to tie the defendant to the crime.”
But as “Reasonable Doubt” becomes a meditation on racial attitudes on the Cape, it becomes an increasingly heavy-handed one. This book contains throwaway lines like: “Without rape, the state had no Mandingo, no King Kong, no dark-skinned beast to contrast with the fair-skinned victim.”
Everything is crude overkill. “The DA threw his full staff onto the case the way Rommel used his tanks to overrun North Africa,” the author writes. A judge speaking to jurors is described as being “at his Phineas T. Bluster best.” People here “hobnobbed” rather than socialized, and “penned” articles rather than wrote them. Law-enforcement misconduct is “like mold on a particularly smelly blue cheese.”
Mr. Manso’s sad attempts to settle scores with the district attorney are painful to witness. Mr. Manso wrote that the district attorney came to be perceived as a “wacko” and “the DA who couldn’t keep his zipper shut.” He notes that “with his small, lipless mouth and receding chin, he resembled nothing so much as a nibbling chipmunk.” He writes about the man’s “drugstore hair dye” and “strut reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s goose step.”
Let me out of here. Mr. McCowen, who continues to appeal his conviction, deserves a better champion. Few books will I not reread sooner.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 17:02