The details dictate, though. Naipaul may ultimately be a big-picture man, but hearts and minds follow if you grab 'em with feeling and thought-provoking miniatures and minutiae. "I have no unifying theory of things," he writes. "To me situations and people are always specific, always of themselves."
And so Norman Mailer, in his 1969 New York mayoral campaign, in his resemblance to "boxer, sheriff, bad man, mobster, even politician," may evoke "every type of American myth-figure," but a fuller portrait emerges when Mailer is depicted more as American Everyman, bemoaning his lack of sleep, and giving bent to freak-flag-half-mast compromise when he makes his campaign manager and other staff shave off their beards and cut their hair.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum from liberal smugness, "the 'new right' of 1968 had become the 'New Right' of 1984," and the events surrounding Reagan and the Republican Convention, filled to the brimstone with fundamentalism and self- righteousness, are balanced with a not-to-scale, informal discussion of conservatism with an adherent who, far from the scene where "Texan whoops followed the 'amens,' " spoke with coherence and quiet passion about struggle, poverty and principle as motivating factors in his and in many party followers' decisions.
From snake handling to the "snake-charm vote" may not be such a stretch. In "The Election in Ajmer," the vicissitudes of politics in Naipaul's ancestral India are depicted, but the full-stakes propaganda wars, haunted by the ghost of Ghandi, are understood more fully with such American-style campaign stops as, of all things, a debate at a Rotary Club in Beawar where plans fall through, causing little pomp and permitting circumstances for candor and reflection. Similarly, in "Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Peron," a complex history of politics, social instability and a protracted revolution of ever-diminishing returns is put into poignant perspective by a concluding revisit with a disenchanted guerrilla sympathizer trying to "accept the idea that this country is not viable."
"The young people I meet," he goes on, "take it for granted that Argentina will become a nation in the near future, and that might lead them to new adventures and false conclusions."
Naipaul may seem unobtrusive in tracing the social subtleties and in realizing his belief that "the politics of a country can only be an extension of its idea of human relationships," but the knowledge and interpretive skills he brings to his subject lends expressive weight to his writing. It also belies the "strange kind of innocence" in his early career assumption, as recalled in his literary autobiography Reading and Writing, that "in our world all knowledge was available, that all history was stored somewhere and could be retrieved according to need."