HURRICANE: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter By James S. Hirsch Houghton Mifflin, 358 pages, $36
For three decades, Hurricane Carter and his chroniclers have tested the public appetite for his remarkable tale of crime, punishment and injustice. The Hurricane industry has been glutted by three books, a bestselling top-40 song, a continent-wide rock tour and a Hollywood movie. This is one Hurricane that just can't seem to blow itself out.
Whatever merits they had, all previous efforts have been marred either by self-interest, prematurity or the urge to myth-make. It took James Hirsch to notice that the field remained open for a writer with a cool and dispassionate eye.
Born on May 6, 1937, in rural New Jersey, Carter whose pugnacity was apparently engendered by a belt-toting daddy and an embarrassing stutter that plagued his youth. He ultimately fought his way into the top ranks of boxing. A vain and swaggering womanizer with a taste for cologne, fine suits and booze, he at the same time evolved into a most controversial local hero.
Carter crashed to earth in 1966, when he and an acquaintance -- John Artis -- were charged with mowing down three white men in a Paterson bar. Hard-headed cops and politically astute prosecutors soon hatched a fanciful motive for the killings. They convinced themselves -- and the public -- that the slayings were based in racial revenge for the recent killing of a black man.
Based on the frailest of evidence, the uppity, 29-year-old big-mouth was convicted in record time by an all-white jury.
In the mid-1970s, his case attracted the attention of a loose network of black activists, do-gooder hippies and radical lawyers. The bandwagon was soon creaking under the weight of Hollywood actors, politicians and heavyweights such as Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan.
Then, with victory seemingly at hand, a supporter accused him of assaulting her. Carter's leftie cachet speedily evaporated. At his retrial, he was once again convicted. Another decade passed -- a decade in which Carter cut himself off from the world and furiously obsessed behind bars.
Enter a group popularly known as "the Canadians" -- a Toronto-area commune consisting of a dozen wonky Woodstockians with an oddly capitalist tinge. Hirsch portrays them as a troupe of temple eunuchs ruled over by an iron-willed queen bee of a woman: Lisa Peters.
The group had been casting for a cause that would inject more meaning into their bizarre lives. With the aid of a black child they had "rescued" from a U.S. ghetto, the commune learned of the forgotten boxing hero and managed to make contact with him. They wooed Carter with relentless intensity, leaving him temporarily torn with suspicion over their motives.
Gradually, Carter fell under their spell.
The group sent Carter gourmet food and furnishings for his cell, and even set up a Save Carter encampment near Paterson. Most important, they put in punishing hours sifting through the mountain of evidence and documentation in his case. Suffice to say, his defence team was successful in raising so many questions about the conviction that, in 1989, Carter was delivered from a justice system run amok.
Disciplined and focused throughout, Hirsch shows a fine mastery in exposing the contradictions of a clique that has dined out for years on their tale of liberating Carter from his hellish prison life. Hirsch conveys both their obsessive pursuit of Carter and their inventive dedication to him in a manner that leaves the reader feeling both admiration and nausea.
Five years ago, Carter broke away from their grip. He has essentially lived off the story of his life ever since. Capable of delivering the same speech hundreds of times in a row -- a mix of evangelical fervour, cop-bashing and practiced humour -- Carter has evolved into a sort of father-figure to the wrongfully-convicted movement. While fate prematurely denied him the spotlight of the boxing ring, Carter has wrapped himself in a new legend.
Hirsch's research was clearly exhaustive. His writing is focused and literate. Moreover, despite Carter having collaborated in this self-described "authorized biography," the author appears to have pulled very few punches.
To be sure, we see the Hurricane Carter who is defiant, affable, principled and fiercely intelligent. But we also see an arrogant, impossibly stubborn and self-obsessed man who made many who have helped him pay a steep price for the honour. The result is a penetrating look at a man possessed of character flaws every bit as intense as his legendary strengths. One of the best true crime books to come along in recent years, Hurricane is a definitive and necessary wrap-up to an epic in the annals of American injustice. Kirk Makin is The Globe and Mail's justice reporter.