Monday, September 11, 2006

"American Ground"

William Langewiesche's slim American Ground, an account of the rescue effort at Ground Zero and the subsequent excavation of the nearly 2 million tons of debris from the site, is one of the finer nonfiction books I've read this decade.

I wrote more about what this book means to me in my Spot-on column.

From the publisher:

Unlike any other writer, William Langewiesche has had complete and unrestricted access to Ground Zero and the crew involved in the cleanup of the World Trade Center collapse. Throughout the urgent and often dangerous effort, he has accompanied the engineers, laborers, rescue workers, and city officials as they bring order to an instance of chaos unprecedented on our soil.

American Ground is a tour of the interlocking circles of this Dantesque world. With the "knowledge and passion as well as . . . careful eloquence" for which his reportage is known (The New York Times Book Review), Langewiesche anatomizes the physical details of the collapse and deconstruction, capturing in the process the contests of politics and personality that were its aftershock. At the center of the book is the team of engineers, many of them instrumental in building the towers, who now must orchestrate their disassembly. As the difficult work of extracting the rubble and the thousands of dead buried there gets under way, firefighters, police, widows, bureaucrats, and profiteers attempt to claim the work--and the tragedy--as their own. Down on the ground, the responses are as dramatic and unpredictable as the movements of the piles of debris and the surrounding "slurry wall" that constantly threatens to collapse, potentially flooding a large part of underground Manhattan.

In all of its aspects--emotionalism, impulsiveness, corruption, territoriality, ingenuity, and fundamental, cacophonous democracy--Langewiesche reveals the story of the deconstruction to be uniquely American and oddly inspiring, a portrait of resilience and improvisation in the face of disaster.

Click here to read Jeffrey Goldberg's positive review in the New York Times Book Review. Click here to read Michiko Kakutani's negative review in the New York Times.

Some controversy followed the book; see this Tim Noah essay in Slate that weighed in on the matter.

Click here to read an excerpt from American Ground.

--Marshal Zeringue