Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with a rather unusual selection: a memoir that reads like crime fiction. The author, but of course, is an international creative. Enjoy!
Hello again, Displaced Nationers!
Our Booklust, Wanderlust roundtable series left me with such a wide selection of books to read that I’m only just now coming up for air. This month I’d like to tell you about Whipping Boy: My Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, by the bestselling novelist Allen Kurzweil—which our own ML named as one of the books on her radar in early 2015.
Well, Whipping Boy is out, and it’s a cracking (so to speak) read!
TCK author Allen Kurzweil & his memoir. Photo credits: “Allen Kurzweil Wiki2007,” by Allen Kurzweil – an image provided by Allen Kurzweil. Transferred from en.wikipedia by SreeBot. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Kurzweil has produced a memoir that deals with deep emotions dating back to his displaced youth—but that still manages to flow fast and fun like an international thriller. As marketing whiz Kat Gordon put it in a recent tweet:
Hanging on every word of @AllenKurzweil memoir “Whipping Boy.” A whodunit + fairytale in one.
In the fairy tale portion, we watch as our hero, age ten, attends a British-style boarding school perched on an alpine meadow high above Geneva. All goes well until he meets the dastardly Cesar (full name Cesar Augusto Viana), who torments him mercilessly. When our hero grows up, he resolves to track down and confront his childhood nemesis, however long it takes…
The whodunit starts the moment Kurzweil discovers that Cesar has become a leading figure in an international fraud scheme. At that point he converts into an investigative journalist, leaving no stone unturned in his quest to find out how many victims the adult Cesar has racked up.
Before saying anything more about the book, I should point out that Kurzweil is an adult Third Culture Kid. His parents were Jewish émigrés from Vienna to New York City. The family relocated to Milan, Italy, when Kurzweil was young, but he spent his teen years back in New York. He got his education at Yale and the University of Rome and then worked for ten years as a freelance journalist in France, Italy, and Australia before settling back in the United States with his French wife and son.
Kurzweil’s previous works include two novels and a children’s book inspired by his son’s preschool bully. The Whipping Boy has also been excerpted and condensed in the New Yorker.
“In 1971, I met a boy who changed my life forever.”
Kurzweil roomed with Cesar—a burly Filipino rumored to be the son of Ferdinand Marcos’s head of security—at the exclusive Aiglon College, in Villars, Switzerland, for the better part of a year, while Kurzweil’s mother was “test-driving her third husband.” (Kurzweil’s father died of cancer when he was five.)
Kurzweil loved the idea of the school—his deceased father had adored the Alps and mountaineering. But he hated boarding, particularly at night, when Cesar and his stooges would subject him to all manner of hazing. They forced him to eat hot pepper sauce, stole his things (including his most prized possession, his father’s Omega Seamaster watch), taunted him with anti-Semitic slurs, and at one point whipped him with a belt while playing “The 39 Lashes” from Jesus Christ Superstar (Kurzweil was Jesus).
Some form of bullying in schools is universal, but when the kids are internationals, and boarders—dealing with the losses of worlds they have loved (which in Kurzweil’s case was tied to the loss of his dad)—things can get even more intense, something non-TCKs may not appreciate.
Fortunately, though, Kurzweil has a sense of humor. In this book he never misses a chance to point out that life, even when traumatizing, has its comic moments.
“It didn’t take long to shed the habits I’d picked up in Switzerland.”
After a year at the school, Kurzweil moves back to New York City, and quickly re-acculturates:
“[My mother and I] returned to New York, where the plimsolls, anoraks and rucksacks I wore at Aiglon reverted to sneakers, parkas and backpacks. I no longer had to address my teachers as sir and ma’am.”
But while Kurzweil displays the TCK’s resilience in adjusting back to life in the U.S., happy to get rid of the crossbars on his “7s” and scuttle his schooner-sail “4s”, he cannot let go of his memories of Cesar so easily. He harbors an obsession, which grows worse with the years, even (especially?) after he finds success as a writer.
When he learns that his boyhood enemy is most probably a con man working for a shady “royal”-family-led corporation named Badische (pronounced “Baddish,” Kurzweil notes slightly gleefully) that runs investment “schemes” for hard-up New York one-percenters, Kurzweil becomes unstoppable:
Obsessives tend to have obsessions. Cesar wasn’t my first fixation, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. Baseball cards, Matchbox cars, Pez dispensers—I’ve always been a collector…my point is I tend to go overboard. I investigated Cesar and Badische the same way I collected Lincoln pennies—intent on filling every void.
“…I began to acknowledge the obvious: Cesar had taken over my life.”
His investigations span decades and continents, and throughout it all he is haunted by memories of Cesar:
At the back of a dingy bar in Alice Springs, a pair of drunks playing foosball recalled my ex-roommate’s unstoppable bank shot. In Vienna, hanging on the wall of the Kunsthistoriches Museum, a Flagellation of Christ reinvoked the musical whipping. Hot sauce, Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes, Ferdinand Marcos, Montblanc fountain pens, and more than anything else, vintage Omegas, had me reaching for the journal.
Kurzweil shares with the reader his mixed emotions when he at last finds Cesar, wondering what to say to someone who may not even remember him. And then the fear returns—the fear that he experienced as a shy boy being whipped with a belt in his dorm room…only now it is morphing into an adult fear as Kurzweil realizes he has tracked down an actual criminal:
Fake knights. False banks. Imaginary kingdoms. These guys travelled on bogus passports. They hosted lavish dinner parties at five-star hotels. They performed knighting ceremonies. (When I interviewed the assistant U.S. attorney who filed the initial charges, he summed up the crime as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels meets Clue.)
“So, basically, I’m being blamed for your memories?”
Whipping Boy was a quick, satisfying read. I loved the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction details that Kurzweil unearths about Cesar and his company’s schemes.
I loved his humor.
I also enjoyed the quiet pauses when Kurzweil would describe personal moments having nothing to do with the hunt for Cesar: for example, when he met his wife in outback Australia:
A French anthropologist named Françoise Dussart spotted me wandering toward a sacred site off limits to visitors. Concerned for my safety, she drove up and warned me away. She was sitting in the cab of a Toyota Land Cruiser and cradling a baby kangaroo. How could I not fall in love?
She flew west, from Alice. I flew east, from New York. We met each other halfway, in Paris, broke and in love.
I further appreciated his candor in admitting that two people can remember the details of an event differently, particularly when one of them is a psychopath with a chip on his shoulder. As Cesar puts it when they finally meet up again for the first time:
“I recall a lot… But just in bits and pieces. There are some things that people have told me about that I really don’t remember. You might need to prod me a bit.”
I would particularly recommend the book to those who like stories about heists or con artists—the movie American Hustle has some parallels—as well as to anyone who has harbored a fantasy of facing down a childhood bully.
Kurzweil may be beaten but he isn’t conquered, and that’s an inspiration to victims everywhere.
But most of all I appreciated Kurzweil’s understanding that for us TCKs, what happens in a third culture doesn’t always stay in a third culture. Some readers may wonder why Kurzweil couldn’t leave his bullying experience behind, particularly as it happened overseas, in a country to which he had limited personal ties. But for Third Culture Kids, the floating world of the expat is as real as it gets. And, as Kurzeil’s story shows, what happens there can have a life-long impact.
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Fellow TCKs, do you have a Cesar or other skeletons in your cupboard dating back to your school days, at an international school or boarding school? Do tell!
Till next time!
Editor’s note: All subheds are quotes taken from Allen Kurzweil’s New Yorker article.
Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes, and she is about to launch a new site called Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!
STAY TUNED for the next fab post!
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