Reviewed by Terence Samuel
In honor of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd who served for 51 years in the Senate and wrote voluminously on its operation, we asked Terence Samuel, author of "The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate," for his recommendations of the best books on the institution.
1. "Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson," by Robert A. Caro (2002)
While the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd was the most tireless and adoring chronicler of the Senate in modern times, it is Robert Caro's meticulously reported study of Lyndon Johnson's tenure that best captures the majesty of the institution. By focusing on the singularly irreverent, unmajestic and prodigiously ambitious Johnson, Caro gives us a brilliant portrait of the Senate and a man who understood and embraced the raw exercise of power.
2. "Advise & Consent," by Allen Drury (1959)
More than a half-century after its publication, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel remains one of the truest literary renderings of the Senate. Drury kept a diary while covering the Senate as a UPI correspondent; this was published as "A Senate Journal 1943-1945," and it, too, is terrific.
3. "The New Senate: Liberal Influence on a Conservative Institution, 1959-72," by Michael Foley (1980)
Focusing on the Democratic class of 1958, which included a young Robert C. Byrd, Foley shows us the important mischief they made in the 1960s: first by firming up some embattled New Deal programs and then by advancing Lyndon Johnson's Great Society agenda. They also passed important civil rights laws, which Byrd initially opposed. The '58 class included future stars like Philip Hart of Michigan, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, Thomas Dodd of Connecticut and Ed Muskie of Maine.
BLIND DESCENT: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth
James M. Tabor Random House
ISBN 978 1 4000 6767 1
Reviewed by Stephen Harrigan
Back in the 1970s in Austin, a reliable locale for lively, invitation-optional parties was a cul-de-sac containing three or four rental houses just east of the freeway. If this drab residential cluster had a name, I never heard it. My friends and I referred to it as Troglodyte Row, since it was where the members of Austin's hard-core caving community bided their time when their presence was required on the surface of the earth.
Having read James M. Tabor's riveting "Blind Descent," I now feel a little stupid. If all those years ago I had been paying attention, I would have realized that those decrepit stucco houses on Kirkwood Road were something much more than a crash pad and party venue for cavers and hangers-around like me. They were the staging ground for what the author rightly calls "the greatest epic of discovery and adventure you've never heard of": the decades-long and surreally dangerous obsession to find the bottom of the terrestrial world. Bill Stone, the commanding player in "Blind Descent," was undoubtedly present at some if not all of those long-ago open houses. You'd think a guy who was an "extraordinary combination of Captain Ahab, Mr. Kurtz, and Spider-Man" would have been pretty hard to miss, but somehow I did.
Tabor has structured his narrative around two dueling initiatives on opposite sides of the world, each trying to push "supercave" exploration as deep and far as humanly possible. One side of the story is the slow-and-steady probe of Krubera Cave in the Arabika Massif in the Republic of Georgia, led by Alexander Klimchouk. A Ukrainian hydrogeologist who began his caving education in the Soviet Union, Klimchouk is the calm, no-drama counterweight to Stone, whom the author diagnoses as having a case of "extreme impatience driven by a maddening sense of urgency" and whose expeditions in the Mexican caves Huautla and Cheve are legendary as much for mutiny and gruesome calamity as for heroic accomplishment.
Tabor, a magazine writer, television producer and on-camera host of the PBS series "The Great Outdoors," employs the breathless techniques that become second-nature to storytellers accustomed to shrinking word counts and intrusive commercial breaks. There is the attention-grabbing first chapter ("He fell so quickly that he did not even have time to scream."); the occasional wish-somebody-had-edited-that-out hypesmanship ("And persevere they did. They had felt the breath of the lion so often that by then it was almost like a kiss."); and the cliff-hanger (literally) chapter endings ("Stone jammed his hammer into a small crack in the rock just above his head. ... A tombstone-sized slab of cave wall peeled off and fell on him.").
Take off some style points if you must, but just try to stop reading. Tabor has found a great subject and a relatively fresh one, and part of the pleasure of reading "Blind Descent" lies in the author's own barely contained excitement that he might be on to a big, thumping man-book like "The Perfect Storm" or "Shadow Divers." The hair-raising material he's working with is definitely up to par. Consider, as a starting place, the not-so-simple element of darkness. "Cave darkness," Tabor writes, "has weight and presence, a character all its own. Water and air will kill you quickly if you violate your special relationship with them. Darkness can kill just as quickly -- or, perhaps worse, much more slowly."
But darkness is only the first item on the list when toting up the perils of cave exploration. There is also falling through the "extreme verticality" of a 500-foot cave shaft, or being buried alive as you dig your way through a shrinking passage, or contracting histoplasmosis from vampire bat dung, or having your conscious mind taken over by "The Rapture, which is like a panic attack on meth." The worst fate of all, and the one that Tabor writes about most compellingly and affectingly, is drowning in a dark, silt-clouded cave sump, lost and all alone at the bottom of the earth.
"Blind Descent" is not just a catalog of terminal horrors. It is a well-considered if somewhat overtorqued chronicle of an obsession to reach the deepest, darkest, loneliest, scariest, least survivable pocket of the planet. Even if you're a surface dweller, even if you don't live on Troglodyte Row, it's a satisfying, shivery read.
Stephen Harrigan is the author of the novels "The Gates of the Alamo" and "Challenger Park"; his new novel will be published next year.