23 August 2011

Book Review: Kicking Ass and Saving Souls

My friend is fucking badass.

That is the short summary of David Matthew's biography, Kicking Ass and Saving Souls: a True Story of a Life Over the Line, of his good friend Stephan Templeton. It also echoes the tone and language of the book. Matthews writes directly and foul language ebbs and flows throughout Stephan's adventures like the waves of a hurricane.

Matthew's, who first came on to the scene with the memoir Ace of Spades, spins a tale that makes the reader question if it has been written in hyperbole or James Frey is trying out a pen name. Fortunately, the writing is far superior and Matthews is aware of such concerns. He uses the epilogue to outline the research he did for each part of the story.

The quick 255 page biography tells the story of a young man born to a Norwegian mother and an American father. Stephan's mother is depicted to be a free-spirited nymph who traipses throughout Europe to experience an unimaginable life of privilege and castles. His father, a Vietnam veteran, is hard-nosed, lives in Baltimore's toughest neighborhood, and trains his son in Tae Kwan Do. No surprise that the torrid love affair which lead to Stephan does not last.

As he grows up in two different world, Stephan becomes the baddest mofo in Baltimore and the Renaissance man in Europe. He kicks ass, learns multiple languages, rides horses, and beds young French women, including friends of his mother. All by the age of sixteen. Seeking the next adrenaline fix, Stephan leaps from training in diving school to stealing jewels. Finally, it is the fix of 'saving souls' which is where he finds redemption and fulfillment.

The book becomes hard to believe and Matthews's style can be abrasive from time to time, but it creates a pull on the reader. As Stephan continues to make terrible mistakes that lead to problems or fortunate outcomes, the want to know more and find out what happens next pulls further.

The humanitarian side is saved for the last few pages and is not fleshed out. We learn that Stephan has a disdain for NGOs. It is no surprise since everything portrayed in the book is just a little bit below him. The red tape stands in his way and he has no patience for dealing with the bureaucracy that is a part of the humanitarian field.

Stephan got his first taste in the Sierra Navada with the Arhuaco Indians. Matthews writes, " Excitement--danger--made even better by doing some good. He'd have gotten off on just the guns and the hourse part. But if he was being honest with himself, what he got off on the most was the power. He had doled out justice on behalf of those who could't seek it for themselves in Baltimore ghettos and Oxfordshire streets. Now he could dole out salvation." The prodigal son returns as a Christ-like character.

That passage, and the other points on Stefan's humanitarian endeavors, bothered me. The use of the phrase 'saving souls' tipped things off, but the savior dynamic is invoked when discussing the humanitarian work done by Stephan. The comments about his motivations are added by Matthews, so it is hard to know if it is the author trying to impose his ideas on Stephan or if it is based on what Stephan said to his childhood friend. Stephan saves people.

This dynamic is problematic as it continues to set forth the idea that people living in poverty are helpless. Because the section is so short, what is told are the stories of saving young children.*

Matthews does his best to make Templeton likable, but it is a hard feat. It is not because he was a criminal for long spells, rather it is the way that people are treated in his life. He falls in love with different women and moves along to the next because of the thrill of infidelity. His wife is met while doing work in a bar that he often frequented with his daughter from a long-term girlfriend. People in his life have been impacted by his actions, but there is little discussion of that culpability. The extremes of fighting, fucking and saving are intentional and abrasive. Living such a way will invariably help and hurt some people along the way.

Based on the storytelling and the over-the-top story, this is something we will probably see on the big screen in a few years. The story will be boiled down further and it will be something more like a dude version of "Eat, Pray, Love" with the title "Kick Ass, Steal, Fuck."

I should commend Matthews. He could have painted a completely romantic image of his friend that would have made his actions acceptable. To some extent he tries with the comparisons to famous characters James Bond and Jason Bourne, but he practices restraint and honesty. Stephan Templeton is incredibly imperfect. Who isn't? Biographies do not generally appeal to me, but the style and story made this a very interesting read. This will interest anyone who wants a fast and exciting read. For humanitarians this may be a bit grating, but it best read as a biography of a kid from Baltimore rather than a disaster relief worker.

*J. and Linda will both be writing reviews of the book soon. I am not sure what they will say, but I feel confident that they will expand on the humanitarian side of the book, so I will leave it to them to speak based on their own experiences.

Disclosure: A review copy of the book was provided to me at no cost. The opinions of this review are entirely mine.

Apologies: For the language. It is not something I like when writing, but I feel that it is warranted considering the tone of the book and the emphasis made by the author. Rest assured, if this review made you at all uncomfortable than take it as a fair warning if you consider reading the book.