In the Little World: A True Story of Dwarfs, Love, and Trouble, by John H. Richardson. HarperCollins. 257 pages. $25.
In the Little World is a prickly, affronting, discomfiting affair -- a barbing expose of the lives of dwarfs and those who love them. It's a book in which details jar and words condemn, in which difference is an obsession and a bitter politics, in which confession is often but the smallest half-step from utter castigation.
"One I can handle," author John Richardson tells us, about his time at a little people convention. "Two, no problem. But the lobby of this hotel is absolutely swarming with dwarfs. There are dwarfs with normal heads and dwarfs with the classic pushed-in dwarfy look -- big forehead, retracted nose, and bulged-out chin, as if God had pushed his thumb on the bridge of their nose and everything else squeezed out accordingly. And there' s one -- over by the placard that says WELCOME TO ATLANTA, WHERE LITTLE PEOPLE ARE SPECIAL PEOPLE -- who isn't much more than stick legs jammed into a head."
What is going on here? What deficiency of conscience would emancipate a writer to be so glibly unkind, so gleefully provocative? Oh, Richardson assures his readers, he's a "genuine, sensitive guy and serious writer," and just to prove it, he slams down a riffling, self-congratulating paragraph on helping his mother deal with a bout of cancer behind the nose. Not only that, Richardson tells us, but he's so swell that at one point he contributes $100 -- of his own money no less -- to help a dwarf facing a $250,000 operation.
It's not that he's wanting to be crass, it's just that these dwarfs are so different, so outside the realm of what we are biologically predisposed to think of as beautiful, and he's trying to be honest, trying not to condescend with God-awful terms like "silver lining," such ridiculous conventions as the "big hearts in little people" storyline. He's trying to see it all for what it is, to record his shocks and growing insights as they happen, without buffers:
"[The doctor's] love is a reminder that with each twinge of discomfort or revulsion these people inspire -- because they do look wrong, there's no getting around that -- there is also a corresponding exhilaration, a liberating delight that comes from encountering intelligent humanity in such inappropriate packages."
Wrong? a reader might want to say. Inappropriate?
But just when it feels morally essential to dismiss Richardson for the self-important, cliche, Hollywood-style reporter he has set himself up to seem to be, something brave and bold and unexpected happens in this completely original book. Richardson twists his own brash story and lets us see it from his subjects' perspective. Lets us see the anger the dwarfs feel toward him. Telescopes us in on the friendships and arguments, forgiveness and retractions that follow his early writing on dwarfhood. Takes us on his ever-stranger odyssey of obsession with people who don't finally look right to him.
Despite all the superficial labeling with which "Little People" begins, there is nothing superficial in Richardson's odd and rarely heartening journey. There's honesty here, of a most extraordinary kind. Richardson softens nothing in an attempt to tell his truth.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of two memoirs. A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage, was a 1998 National Book Award finalist, and Into The Tangle of Friendship earned a 2000 National Endowment of the Arts grant. Her third, Still Love In Strange Places, is due out from W.W. Norton next spring.