Full disclosure: I received a copy of Kicking Ass and Saving Souls free from the publisher in exchange for a review, here on Tales From the Hood.
Call me cynical, but…
Lemme get this straight. Father = African-American ex-military professor/intelligentsia; Mother = Norwegian quasi-aristocracy turned hippy. Stephan grew up bouncing between the mean streets of Baltimore, Maryland (where he earned advanced levels of proficiency at martial arts) and the posh upper-echelon estates of Scandinavia (where he learned a bunch of languages and awesome skills like how to shoot wild animals from the backs of horses). Had all kinds of training and certification in emergency medical care, lifeguarding, yadda yadda. Lost his virginity at something like fourteen years of age by boning a bunch of smoking hot, rich European housewives in a castle that his mom was using to run her trendy (“expensive”) homeopathic treatment spa. Slowly turned into globtrotting Eurotrash. Camped out with murderous natives in Colombia (they could sense that his “aura” was good, and so spared his life); ran drugs for the Gibraltar mafia (personal friends with one of the Dons); almost but conveniently never actually completed a bunch of degrees and professional certifications, including a degree in translation meant mainly for boy wonders (language skills, remember?), and an advanced diving program preparing Europeans-only to work with Jaques Cousteau (he couldn’t graduate because he was American); worked as an under-water demolitions expert; tried his hand at high-end burglary… botched a couple of high-end jobs, but still has a pouch full of priceless thumbnail-sized gems that he can never sell; fathered a couple of children (accruing guilt for which humanitarian work will be penance later…); accidentally killed a member of the Japanese Yakuza at some ‘way over-the-top club in Tokyo where he was a bouncer (all those mad martial arts skillz), and so spends the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, never quite knowing when the “Yaks” will come for him.
Hmmm…. What am I missing?
Oh yeah, he also ran gems and the odd antibiotic across the border between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), and helped clarify his “calling” to “humanitarian work” by handing out Panadol to Karen villagers. Went to Mehlaboh right after the Tsunami with some NGO that no one has ever heard of. More or less the same in Sudan where he hitched rides on military transport aircraft, crossed borders out in the desert with impunity and “negotiated” a bunch of stuff with the SPLA (cuz, like, no other foreigners ever do those things). Kicked around Maryland for a while trying to get work as a translator for NGOs headquartered in DC (everyone needed a DC-based translator, but apparently they were only hiring people who’d actually completed a degree in something… narrow-minded corporate sell-outs. What-EVer).
But no matter: on the basis of gem/Panadol running in Karenland, three months (of doing what, exactly? Hard to tell….) in Tsunamiland, and some aid-by-the-seat-of-his-pants in Sudan, Stephan became convinced that “traditional NGOs” were not doing aid right anyway. Never saw that coming, huh?
I find it particularly telling that the twenty pages long Epilogue (235-255 in the hardcover print version) is entirely devoted to convincing you, gentle reader, that the accounts in the preceding pages are in fact factual.
Yeah. I totally believe that story.
Serious, Kicking Ass and Saving Souls reminded me a lot of sitting in an airport bar en route to [DISASTER ZONE DU JOUR] eavesdropping on the amateur aid workers getting tipsy on cheap beer and one-upping each other. It’s the best example I’ve seen to-date of that unique literary genre provided by the humanitarian world to the rest of the world: The “botoxed narrative.” Which is to say that it is probably not outright lies, but it is absolutely written to sound a lot further off-the-chain than it is in fact.
There is the small issue of false advertising: Stephan Templeton certainly got his own ass kicked plenty of times, but the number of asses actually kicked by him is somewhat meager. The “Saving Souls” bit is misleading as well. At the end of the book, the reader is left with no clear sense of what has been accomplished in the soul-saving department.
More to the point, there’s not a single person on my team who couldn’t tell an equally entertaining, equally danger-laced, and no less “true” story of their own lives (although none of them are dumb enough to kill a member of the Japanese Yakuza, get clean away, and then have the story published along with their names, photos, location…).
Stephen Templeton’s story will no doubt impress the matching T-shirt disaster zone volunteer teams, but would only withstand approximately 13.7 minutes worth of scrutiny by actual aid workers around the bar at La Reserve or “Amy’s Place.”
The writing. Kicking Ass and Saving Souls reads like a cross between an airport discount bin one-off spy thriller and the script to an adventure/porn film starring Jean-Claude van Damme. There’s that awful dialogue at the beginning: A man with a dark past who never sits with his back to the door. Deadpan, serious, intent on getting a borehole to those poor brown babies in Abyei district…(*gagging*). I literally had to tell myself it was fiction in order to get through some parts. It gives me hope to think that David Matthews (the author) can get book in the NYT Editor’s Choice list.
But then again anyone who can describe cocaine as “pure and white as an Amish schoolgirl”, can’t be all bad.
The humanitarian angle. Two words: Puh lease. The guy’s a disaster tourist. End of story.