Nature, everyone’s nature, is to avoid what’s gonna bring you closer to danger and risk…. I’m telling him [the boxer Elvis Muriqi] how to be a brute and not just survive. A trainer’s got to lead a fighter into a dark place, and not too many want to go.
David Remnick, famous as a foreign correspondent and now editor of The New Yorker, also nurses a fascination with the boxing ring. That quotation comes from the trainer Teddy Atlas, explaining to Remnick how he tries to make his boxers fight to win. Elvis Muriqi had just let him down, preferring to collude with his opponent and survive rather than to go into dark places and be a brute. As the fifth round began (Muriqi eventually slouched to victory on points), Atlas confided to Remnick: “He’s making the choice just to get by. He’s satisfied, but I can’t let him be satisfied.”
The section about boxing, centered on the gory career of Mike Tyson, comes at the end of Remnick’s long book. And yet Teddy Atlas’s words could stand as its epigraph. Most of the profiles in this anthology, though not all, are about leaders—in the United States, Britain, Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere—who fight only to survive. They are skilled and impressive, satisfied that they have “done their best,” but they do not risk plunging into those dark places where disasters but also breakthroughs are found. As a result, nothing essential changes and impacted problems remain to poison future generations.
Remnick selects from his own work on five topics: American and British politics and public figures; writers he has known; Russia; Israel and Palestine; and finally boxing. His choices from his political reporting suggest that he is interested in public figures who do not live up to early promise. They inherit stubborn situations (in the Middle East, above all), but, after more or less respectable struggles, fail to make much impression upon them. It’s a pity that other intractable nightmares—Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and the presidency of George W. Bush among them—don’t feature here. Remnick might plausibly have suggested that this President, who overcame “nature” with a little help from his trainers and plunged brute-like into the dark places of Iraq, is just the kind of fighter Teddy Atlas fancies (“Punch more! Make the choice to punch!” “Stop lying to yourself!”). But the readers don’t get to go there.
In a world whose politics are heating up even faster than its climate, Remnick is a strikingly cool reporter. Watchful as a novelist for significant detail, he records the words, the clothes, the furnishings, and the diet of his subjects. He is immensely well informed and, like the good foreign correspondent he was for many years, he always sets the present against the background of the recent or sometimes distant past. His studies of Israeli politicians and writers, above all, put their biographies and beliefs into the …