Lukas' 'Big Trouble' -- a portrait of a nation's soul by a voice that is grievously missed

October 05, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Anthony Lukas, whom I admired greatly as a writer and as a friend of almost 30 years, took his own life last June 4. Our friendship could be reason to distrust my judgment of his final book: "Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets off a Struggle for the Soul of America"(Simon & Schuster. 875 Pages. $32.50). Acutely aware of that peril of prejudice, I still find the work toweringly important.

Its narrative begins Dec. 30, 1905, the last day of the life of Frank Steunenberg, Idaho's former governor, who was killed by a bomb at the gate of his house in Caldwell, Idaho, when he returned home that evening. It ends, but for a coda, on July 30, 1907, with Clarence Darrow's legendary victory, a jury's acquittal of "Big Bill" Haywood, the miners' union leader and founder of the International Workers of the World, who had been charged with contracting the murder in retribution for Steunenberg's actions, six years earlier, in putting down a miners' insurrection.

It is an intricate and irresistible story of raw power, politics, manipulation, murder, intrigue, detective work, legal maneuvering, justice and passions of every imaginable stripe.

Lukas' "Common Ground" - his previous masterwork - began as an examination of the American dilemma of race. In seven years of research and writing (an identical period, it would turn out, as he would work on "Big Trouble"), Lukas found, the subject became "the twin issue of class."

Class consciousness

Today, when 93 percent of all Americans call themselves "middle class," it is hard to conjure in the mind an America in which masses of people are acutely class conscious. But in the first decade of the 20th Century, Lukas writes, "the collisions between labor and capital were reaching a critical intensity that might plunge the nation into ruinous class war."

Lukas' objective in writing "Big Trouble" was to "illuminate the class question at a time when the gap between our richest and our poorest citizens grows ever wider." He succeeded.

"Big Trouble" occurred in a period of the consummation of American archetypes. The frontier was largely conquered but blood raw. Fortunes, great and small, were being made and lost mercurially. Law-enforcement was primitive and often nakedly political. The gun, fist and club were considered by many to be the preferred means of administering justice. The force of heroic personalities dominated the public consciousness; the labor movement, fueled by gross exploitation of workers, was muscular and righteous, and unabashedly homicidal as well.

There were genuine revolutionary socialists in political contention; anarchists constituted a serious philosophical movement; commercial trusts - monopolies and oligopolies - were untrammeled and dominated much of large industry.

From all that and more, Lukas has fashioned a sweeping saga. It is least of all about the murder case, though it presents that beautifully. The book is about America itself, writ very large. Lukas masterfully chose an event that stands for his theme and followed it meticulously, relentlessly, through the social, economic and political fabric of the country.

The violently diverse socialist political element in the United States is explored in fascinating detail. The book lays out the evolution of the labor movement in America more vividly and affectionately than any single book I can remember. A critical element is the role in criminal prosecution of private operatives .. and detective firms - especially that of James McParland, the legendary Pinkerton man who had infiltrated and managed the prosecution of the Molly McGuires in Pennsylvania.

Other set pieces include the scramble from poverty of E.H. Harriman; the early career of Ethel Barrymore, who was interested in the case; the roles in central litigation of Supreme Court Justices John Marshall Harlan and Oliver Wendell Holmes; the existence and activities of the 24th Infantry Regiment, one of four black combat units in the U.S. Army. There is a concise history of the fraternal movement in 19th and early 20th century America, heavy in both commerce and politics. The role of the press and the evolution of American newspaper standards are superbly explored.

Ideological drumbeats

"Big Trouble" seems destined to excite controversy. Already, from the loonier left comes the charge that Lukas should have made the book a modern-day call to revolutionary arms, should have preached a radical contemporary political sermon. That would be to make it a trivial polemic.

A few critics have bemoaned its elaborate tangential excursions as distracting. They miss the concept entirely, I think. This is a huge, multi-dimentional drama that goes far, far beyond events and personalities. It is a polyphonic biography of the soul of a nation at a watershed in its history.

I know no greater human mystery than the act of suicide. I can imagine no greater misery than that of choosing to take one's own life.

Perfectionism is the common enemy of reason, and it graced and bedeviled Tony's life. His "Common Ground" was as close to perfect as a book of its aspiration could be. His ambition for "Big Trouble" reached beyond that. It has been speculated that among his pains was a sense that this book had not achieved the potential he envisioned. I hope that was not true.

There is ecstasy - however agonizing - in sustaining the concentration of mind demanded by a work of this merit. Perhaps the sense of having completed this masterpiece, the end of the intensity of making it, was unbearable. I shall never know. But I know he died too soon - years and books too soon. I miss Tony- painfully - as do others who read him and loved him.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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