The most compelling show of 2013 ran for just one week, in the middle of April. Screened worldwide, day and night, its unremitting tension and level of audience interactivity captivated millions. It began when two homemade pressure-cooker bombs filled with bits of metal exploded 12 seconds apart, ripping through crowds at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. One of the stars of the show was Jeff Bauman, a quiet then 27-year-old Costco deli worker who lived with his mum, and who lost both his legs in the blast.
Bauman was immortalised the moment a photographer snapped him as he sat grey – from bomb ash and blood loss – in a wheelchair, flesh and skin and bones dangling where his lower legs used to be. This image flew around the world, sometimes sanitised, often not. When he woke in hospital a couple of days later and gave crucial eyewitness evidence that helped identify the bombers, Bauman began his new life as An American Hero. He has been regularly brought forth since, first on wheels, and then on bionic legs, to wave flags and throw baseballs, inadvertently reminding us that chaos and luck governs all.
In Stronger, released on the anniversary of the bombings, it is not clear whether Bauman sees himself as lucky or the opposite. What is apparent is that extraordinary events often snatch up ordinary people and, regrettably for readers, Bauman is an altogether ordinary person. He can’t make much sense of his experience, and can’t separate himself from the nation’s reaction, mirroring its banalities and indelicacies. Take his description of the bodies burned by the bombing, which apparently “smelled like a cookout in hell” – one example of hundreds. The book drags; it’s a padded-out human interest newspaper article. Perhaps worse is the drama that’s been added retrospectively, as if Bauman could have stopped the bombings.
He describes the practice in the US of the scene of a terrorist attack being cleaned and even rebuilt within hours. This is done to show strength, to communicate that the population won’t kowtow to those supposed outsiders who aim to violently interrupt. The danger is that it can also seem like whitewashing, like ignorance, like bowdlerism. Stronger markets itself as a warm and loving middle finger to those who wish the US harm, but it’s really just one more attempt at censorship. TW
Michael Joseph, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 5, 2014 as "Stronger, Jeff Bauman". Subscribe here.