Corban Addison’s thriller ‘Wastelands’ is all the more heartbreaking for being true


Gradually, however, in the 1980s, Duplin’s pastoral idyll becomes a mephitic dead zone, thanks to the nightmarish business plan of an ambitious pig farmer named Wendell H. Murphy.

“The day Duplin County’s first farmer became a Wendell Murphy rancher,” Addison writes, “was the day the modern hog industry was born.” Under Murphy’s leadership, the region’s quaint “patchwork of small farms” became “integrated” into massive concentrated animal feed, or CAFO, operations.

CAFOs “generate an unfathomable amount of waste, the equivalent of a city twice the size of New York.” Their disposal method – “as antiquated as an addiction” – uses collection “lagoons”, which are connected to “giant (spray) guns that shoot liquefied pork waste into the air, letting it drift like a cloud on the breeze.” It is “a putrescent dew”.

Courtesy of Knopf

Credit: document

Credit: document

Courtesy of Knopf

Credit: document

Credit: document

When someone mentions the overwhelming stench of pork to Wendell Murphy, he reminds him that it’s “the smell of money.” But a young lawyer, after visiting his rural client, argues that “the hurt these people have suffered…is as clear and present as the sick air filling their lungs”.

No one living near CAFOs can enjoy their lives in a way that most Americans would take for granted. Elsie Herring, for example, after decades of working in Brooklyn, returns to her peaceful childhood home in County Duplin to find her aging mother living in a gruesome Hieronymus Bosch painting. The same goes for hundreds of families in eastern North Carolina. “Grease flies…grow like bees,” Addison writes. Cursed harriers roost “on top of plaintiffs’ houses…scratch the roof tiles”.

Of course, there are technological solutions, like covering the lagoons, but they are ridiculed by the pork industry as being too expensive. A study by an epidemiologist from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill concludes that CAFOs, often positioned in African-American areas, are an example of “environmental racism”.

Herring and many others can be targets, but they refuse to become victims. For years they have sought legal representation, but North Carolina attorneys are too afraid to take on the notoriously vindictive pork industry.

That is, until their complaint landed in the office of Wallace & Graham, a feisty law firm in Salisbury, North Carolina, near Charlotte, headed by Mona Lisa Wallace (“a Democrat forever”) and William Graham (“a card-carrying Republican”). Strategically, they will sue Murphy-Brown — not individual pig farmers — and go through the federal rather than state court system, since Smithfield, the Corporate Master of Murphy-Brown, is located across the border in Virginia.

Litigation, which is mass lawsuits for “nuisance”, will last for years and cost a fortune. Strategies will be complex. “(The) planning works in 11 dimensions, like string theory,” Addison explains. “There are moves and counter-moves to be plotted.” At any time, the lawsuits and possible appeals could get out of hand. Wallace & Graham will need an “outside man par excellence”.

Enter Utah’s Mike Kaeske in 2016. He’s the gunslinger of the West, “a creature of the wind and the sky” with “a legal fighting appetite and aptitude.” And it doesn’t take long for this genius lawyer to become a true believer, because, he exclaims, “this case is beyond the law.”

With Kaeske in place, the “High Noon” that is “Wastelands” gathers its full force, balancing cerebral maneuvering with an intensely emotional quest for justice. His schemes and fearless cross-examinations recommend this book to anyone who might appreciate Wuxia’s swordplay in court.

Like John Grisham, who writes the introduction here, Corban Addison is a crusading lawyer whose novels follow the social realist tradition of “The Jungle,” Upton Sinclair’s 1906 expose of the meat packaging.

The inescapable conclusion for the reader of “Wastelands” is that the arrogant stubbornness of the pig industry has its source in an insoluble corporate hubris that resembles a narcotic: the “Kingdom of the Pig” simply cannot help but rushing over a cliff in 2020, landing at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond for a spectacular day of judgment and ruin.

With all his mastery of legal procedure and modern suspense, Corban Addison’s full report remains committed to the plight of the little people, in whose eyes their lawyers can see “the pain, the exhaustion, the years of work”.

Surprisingly, there is no desire for revenge among litigants like Elsie Herring, who “never meant to end the industry, only to redeem it from its excesses…to restore the sanctity of their ancestral land and the pass on to future generations. ”With “Wastelands”, the plaintiffs and their brilliant legal team receive the fitting tribute they deserve.


NON FICTION

“Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial”

by Corban Addison

Alfred A. Knopf

464 pages, $28

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