Reading Notes: Devil At My Heels- Part 1

24 May

I knew immediately when I started reading the book that I was going to like it an awful lot. My reasons are pathetically simplistic though; I always love books with distance runners as protagonists. Maybe it’s a skewed perspective (it’s hard to truly judge one’s own reflection), but any character who runs distances exceeding a mile wins my adoration. I see them as hard-working, dedicated, and honorable. Maybe it’s because I know from first hand experience the sort of physical and psychological demands such pursuits place upon a man. Maybe it’s because I see their success and hope that I can reach it myself. Maybe it’s because through the sport we are linked as distant kin and I always like to see family (even if we are existentialy related) in a positive light. Maybe, maybe, maybe- I could ruminate all night.

But what continued to entice me through the first few chapters is that the author, Louis Zamperini, didn’t even see himself in such a positive light. The autobiographical account is, in fact, so brutally honest that the readers are shocked into reading more. It’s not hard to understand why. We as readers love to have human characters, people we can relate to in benefice and folly alike. Most of the time, we just choose to ignore the folly. Zamperini is both blessed and cursed with the absence of invention. His life reads like the most incredulous of novels. But it’s not solely because of the exciting people he met, or his coincidental placement in major historical events (if it was, I’d might as well read Forrest Gump). It’s because of his hypnotic honesty, his unadulterated truth, that this reads so brilliantly. The prose has been incredibly conversational through the first sixty pages and I honestly hope it continues this way. I feel as if he is singling me out of a crowd of thousands while simultaneously addressing every other sole just as prominently. It’s a remarkably flattering style that’s all too rare in autobiographical accounts these days.

The first two decades of his life would be enough for him to write books and tour off of. He grew from rugged, delinquent behavior into an olympian. If that isn’t a rags-to-riches story then, hell, I don’t know what is. But it’s how he delivered his story, how he never shied away from his past, that continues to mesmerize me. He placed eighth at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Anyone somewhat familiar with history could tell you that this particular Olympiad was memorable by immaculate streets, incredible competition, and Nazi banners peppering the skyline. Zamperini tells of his views of Hitler as a child, how he and fellow Olympians would salute the FĂĽhrer, and how he stole a Nazi flag (which was recovered and later gifted to him anyways) just so he could remember his good times in Nazi Germany. For God’s sake, this is a man who admitted to meeting Hitler and brushing it off (then and now) as unremarkable. Gutsy sentiments considering the understandable atmosphere we live in today. He states off the bat that he’s not a supporter, but he never excuses the opinions and ideas he had as a child. He never shies away from his past.

His honesty isn’t just reserved for remembrances of dictators. He vividly discusses what it feels like to be “lucky in the wrong way.” How he desperately wanted to fit in yet violently punished those who initially disliked him. He recounts being both tormentor and victim never eliciting sympathy or disdain. Instead, he accomplishes a remarkable intimacy. We grow to know him as a human being instead of as distant words on a page. We are taken by the hand and see reality through his eyes- and we are shocked by its candor. Louis Zamperini gives us a highly reflective window with his prose. One which sees him and his world while simultaneously showing us ourselves. His words act as a link to our mutual humanity. His honesty almost makes it tangible.

I really can’t wait to read more and see what other incredible, veritable, adventures lie in store for this remarkable man.

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