Jack Olsen, "Salt of the Earth" (1996)
The more you read within the true crime genre, the more you'll realize that most authors tend to focus on the lives and personalities of criminals rather than the victims. I suppose that there's a good reason for it- generally readers are more fascinated by predators than prey. A lot of people read about outlaws because they are fascinated by extreme human behavior. The victim's role in a crime is passive, and literature doesn't lend itself naturally to studying inactive characters. An author that concentrates on the effects that criminal behavior has on its innocent targets risks being labeled as sadistic or accused of sanctification. Neither trait is likely to garner a wide audience.
A darker view of reality leads me to suggest that many readers are attracted to true crime for vicarious thrills. Although perverse, there is a certain titillation to be experienced in these accounts of mayhem and violence. If you aren't sure if you believe this claim, you need only take an honest look at the most popular television shows and movies in the US. This certainly isn't an isolated phenomenon involving a small cult following. If the readership of the true crime genre is limited, it is only because reading in general is rare in this society. Given these factors, it is a surprise that Jack Olsen chose to focus on the family victimized by a heinous crime in his Salt of the Earth. I'd love to say that I appreciated the unconventional approach, but I have to admit that I wanted to hear more about the monster at the heart of the events.
Olsen introduces his story with a look at the early lives of Elaine and Joe Gere. They are the parents of a 12-year old girl who was abducted and whose remains went undiscovered for years after her disappearance. The author outlines their personal histories so that the reader will have more insight into how and why they responded the way that they did to their daughter's absence. It's an interesting decision that makes his book engaging in the beginning. The descriptions of the small desert town in Southern California where the family originally lived are compelling, and help provide an understanding of the character dynamics between the Geres and their three children. But unfortunately, the continued focus on individual character ends up inspiring little more than cliches once Olsen arrives at the tragedy and the subsequent investigation of the crime.
It was mildly interesting to learn how the Geres, their friends, family and co-workers reacted as law enforcement authorities identified and began to pursue a suspect- but after awhile Olsen seems to have fallen into the trap of idealizing the survivors at the expense of telling an insightful version of the the overall story. Naturally there will be some readers who insist that Olsen's veneration is the proper due of the victimized Geres. Others will begrudge any author who 'glorifies' a 'boogeyman' by telling the perpetrator's story. Still, Salt of the Earth left me extremely dissatisfied. If Olsen would have eliminated just a wee bit of the slavish regard he directed toward the Geres, and spent a bit more time telling us Michael Kay Green's story- then he might have written the true classic that some claim this to be.
Green is a truly hateful creature. He brutalized his wife and intimidated her family. No one knows just how many women he attacked during his criminal career, or the extent of damage he visited on them. He spent his time and money on a vain pursuit to become Mr. America. His steroid rages overwhelmed a personality that was once considered to be gentle and earnest. I have no doubt that Michael Kay Green deserved the punishment he would ultimately face. He probably should have been given the death penalty. However he remains a complete mystery after 384 pages of Olsen's rather repetitive prose. What factors influenced him as he was developing? How did his relationship with a distant father color his self-perception? There are so many unanswered questions that I feel like the tale is insufficiently told.
I thought that I could fill in some of the gaps by Googling "Michael Kay Green". Oddly, there is very little mention of him on the Net- other than Olsen's book. More than anything else, it is this dearth of information that makes me view Salt of the Earth as a missed opportunity. There's ample information about how the various victims are "supposed" to feel about their loss... but the incident itself that created such pain remains (mostly) an enigma.