One of the proudest moments I have had as an editor was when a colleague of mine called to tell me I had received a fax from the reclusive Thomas Pynchon. The fax contained an endorsement for a book we were readying for publication called Murdered by Capitalism, a hallucinatory history of the American left and memoir by John Ross. The fax read:
"It is a ripsnorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics which too seldom gets past the bouncers at the gateways of our national narrative. Bravo to Brother Ross!"
"Brother Ross" was John Ross, my friend and author, who died in Mexico early last week at the age of 72.
I remember when John — who I had not met — rather gingerly raised the idea of writing his memoir with me over email. He had contributed two brilliant pieces on the Zapatistas for a book edited by Tom Hayden, The Zapatista Reader, which we published in 2002. I had been struck by Ross's use of poetic image and parable in his reporting, as well as his diligence as a reporter in telling the story from the bottom up. Around that time, he had also shown me an excerpt from a work in progress, an autobiographical work. It recalled the death of his infant son in Mexico in the early 1960s. I was very touched by it and I told him so. Months later, he mentioned that he had more of his memoir to show me.
When I started reading I had the same feeling of quiet rapture I had felt when I first discovered the surrealist films of Luis Buñuel, George Romero, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. I realized I was reading something very special. I was in awe. The jacket copy John and I wrote for the book attempted to express the kind of book that had unfolded before our eyes:
"Murdered by Capitalism is a unique fusion of personal memoir and lively history, a kind of Night of the Living Dead of the American left — the sort of Dia de Los Muertos fandango at which Che Guevara, Thelonious Monk, William Burroughs, Billie Holiday and Subcomandante Marcos would feel right at home."
I could go on — this book is one of the great treasures, not only of the American left, but of American letters.
When we published Murdered by Capitalism, it got a starred review from Kirkus, and David Kipen raved about it in the San Francisco Chronicle (and on NPR's Talk of the Nation). Consequently it was chosen as a San Francisco Chronicle book of the year, and Ross received the Upton Sinclair Award. John Leonard wrote a lovely piece about the book in Harper's where he described Ross as "a Huck Finn/Holden Caulfield/Dennis the Menace/Weatherman wannabe and subversive journalist… who's been on the losing side of every cause since the Spanish Civil War is as close as we have got to Lapu Lapu." John loved this piece and was thrilled when John Leonard and his wife Sue turned up for a truly phantasmagoric reading of his at the KGB Bar in New York's East Village in August 2004.
Since publishing Murdered by Capitalism, I have been keen for others to read it and feel similarly. I am disappointed that this book has yet to be discovered by as many people as I wanted it to be. John's work deserves serious coverage and appreciation from the likes of the New York Review of Books, The Believer, and Bookforum. In 2009 we published El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City, an astonishing history of that mega-city from Aztec rule to centuries of rapine and revolution, from the downfall of PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) to the Great Swine Flu Panic of 2009. Kirkus Reviews called it "monstrously entertaining and tenderhearted…a brave, stirring love letter, cautionary tale and travelogue." If you haven’t heard of it or had a chance, I urge you to pick it up.
When John died last week I was delighted to see warm tributes posted all over Twitter. There were lovely obituaries as well (I love the fact that the San Francisco Chronicle called him a "Liberal Activist"), though curiously no New York Times obituary for this great man of the East Village. The Times didn’t review his books either.
Perhaps my favorite appreciation was by his editor and friend Tim Redmond at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, who really captured John Ross in all his glory and complexity. There's also a lovely picture of John waving goodbye.
P.S. I wish John Ross was here, right now, to witness the revolt of the young in Egypt. John described himself as an "international trouble maker" and he was an internationalist to the core. When I first met him he had just returned from Israel's Occupied Territories, where he had been attacked and beaten by Israeli settlers. Not long before that, he had been expelled from Iraq in the run up to US invasion. He had gone as a human shield only to find that Saddam's secret police weren't so keen on him shielding the buildings he wanted to shield from US bombers. From the earliest days of the Zapatista uprising — long before it came on the Western media radar — John was its greatest reporter. No wonder La Jornada called him "the new John Reed."