You've probably already seen headlines and articles triggered by the juicy details in David Maraniss' Barack Obama: The Story, about the president's pot-smoking school days or his college girlfriend's recollections of his "sexual warmth" and emotional "coolness."
But there's far more to this revealing and deeply reported coming-of-age story, a term usually applied to novels. The book, which will go on sale Tuesday, is not a traditional biography.
Obama doesn't enter the narrative until page 165, when he's born Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu. The first six chapters explore his family roots in Africa and Kansas, where his great- grandmother, Ruth Dunham, who was married at 15, committed suicide at 26. Her sons would go to live with their grandparents, "setting a generational pattern," Maraniss writes, "that would be repeated a half-century later."
The book ends in 1988, when Obama enters Harvard, emerging from "the chaos of peripatetic forebears," a childhood in "distant Hawaii and more distant Indonesia," and "rootless feelings of a double outsider as a biracial and cross-cultural kid" who barely knew his Kenyan dad.
Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post whose books include First in His Class, about the young Bill Clinton, is a good writer and a great reporter. He marvels at the improbability of Obama's story but stops short of celebrating.
The book is more about personality than policy or politics. At times, it reads like a novel filled with stories too unlikely for fiction. But if it's exhaustive, it can be exhausting in its details.
It explores Obama's "determination to avoid life's traps." It presents him as a product not just of his family, but of his times and of the places where he grew up, including the home he found in Chicago. It warns that "to view him primarily through a racial lens can lead to a misinterpretation of the root cause of his feelings of outsiderness."
I suspect that if the president, whom Maraniss interviewed, had time to read all 641 pages, he would not be angry enough to sue. But he might find the book too revealing to thank the author. Which makes it the best kind of political biography.