Corban Addison on ‘Wastelands’ and a pig industry lawsuit

On the bookshelf

Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial

By Corban Addison
Knopf: 464 pages, $30

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In contemporary terms, the word “nuisance” means an annoyance or annoyance. Being woken up by the neighbors crying baby through your bedroom wall, for example, or persistent spam calls from Gallup, NM, insisting your car warranty is out of date. But the original meaning of “nuisance,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “damage” or “injury.” Truly Injurious Nuisance is at the heart of novelist Corban Addison’s first non-fiction work, “Wasteland: The true story of Farm Country on trial. It may seem like a strange, perhaps even trivial subject to cover a 400-page book, let alone seven years of dramatic litigation. involving one of the richest and most powerful industries in the world. That is, the nuisance of pig excrement.

The cause of the nuisance is Smithfield, a pork producer who runs an industrial hog complex in eastern North Carolina whose huge farms are surrounded by lagoons of fetid waste, left to simmer in the open air, sometimes a few meters from the property lines of neighbors. In many cases, the waste is sprayed into the air to “fertilize” surrounding fields, with some of it ending up on people’s porches, laundry rooms and kitchen counters instead.

“Wastelands” follows the story of a tireless legal team, Wallace & Graham, and their efforts to obtain justice for plaintiffs who had, for nearly 50 years, endured the unpredictable tyranny of the pork industry’s by-product.

One of Addison’s many challenges in portraying the seriousness of such an unusual nuisance was his ability to describe something as ineffable as an unpleasant odor.

“It’s one thing to listen to a story. It’s another thing to experience it,” Addison writes. “Empathy can offer you a simulation of the human experience. But it can’t give you the feeling of falling when you plunge from a waterfall or the flicker of butterfly wings in your stomach when you fall in love…nor can it conjure putrescence in your nose. peerless pigs floating in the air.”

During a zoom one afternoon in May, I asked Addison how he approached the task. From an anonymous Airbnb in Cleveland where he was stationed to research his next project (focusing on the opioid crisis), he described traveling the developing world for new research. He was often confronted with the smells of open sewers and industrial waste, as his human rights-focused book recounts. fiction. “As I landed at Mumbai airport, I felt the burnt rubber seeping through the cracks in the plane,” he said.

But when he landed in Duplin County, North Carolina, in search of the experience on which the whole book was based, he first played devil’s advocate, wondering, “Is this as bad as they claim? Driving with a consultant on the case, he came across a farmer spraying, got out of the car and immediately understood. He also considered that what he was experiencing, while horrific, was possibly an altered version of what the plaintiffs had sensed. Not only was it post-trial, with some mitigation efforts in place, but it was also, for him, temporary; his getaway car was right there. The plaintiffs, meanwhile, lived their lives on porches and in their yards “without air conditioning, under blue Carolina skies,” and many had struggled with decay for a generation.

In the end, the Wallace-Graham team – filled with charismatic and colorful characters – won, and the plaintiffs – labored with love and sincerity – received millions of dollars in damages from Smithfield, along with the promise of structural changes. They had managed to establish that the nuisance was more than deep. It was about the systematic neglect of an American industry and the consequences of a mismanaged financial grab imposed on a vulnerable community.

It was the story of so many man-made environmental disasters across the country — from water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Miss., to the post-Katrina levee collapse in New -Orléans – and their mostly black victims. In North Carolina, their land had been passed down by ancestors freed to be ravaged by the powers that be.

These kinds of stories have preoccupied Addison since he began writing as a young lawyer practicing general street law. He has written four deeply researched novels, all of which revolve around human rights: sex trafficking in India, piracy in Somalia, labor exploitation in Bangladesh and corruption in Zambia.

“People had been telling me for years to try my hand at non-fiction. A number of agents said to me, ‘Why don’t you just write a true story, a true story?’ “, he said. The difficulty was to find a subject that could support the weight of a book. “I have to earn a living, and my journalist friends tell me that you have to drill a lot of dry holes before find a story worthy of a book,” he added.

The opportunity arose when a friend, thriller writer John Hart, put Addison in touch with Mona Wallace, the lead attorney on the case. They immediately connected, and Addison flew to North Carolina at the start of the fifth and final trial, where he dug in and began documenting.

One of the most obvious challenges of writing a book like “Wastelands” is the need to explain the disputes clearly without boring the reader to tears. The book manages this feat by relying on Addison’s fictional chops; it reads like a sane, old-fashioned legal thriller in the school of Jonathan Harr’s “A Civil Action” or D. Graham Burnett’s “A Trial by Jury.” As a former lawyer, Addison can cut through legalese while putting forth textured descriptions and skillfully using character tropes.

“I sometimes wondered if I was painting with too bright a brush,” Addison admitted as he considered his subjects — swaggering litigant Mike Kaeske, saintly plaintiff Joyce Messick, the evil conniving pork barons. But in the end, he says, his depictions were simply true to life. John Grisham, who wrote the foreword to “Wastelands”, admits he wished he could write about the case himself.

Of course, the satisfaction of a book like “Wastelands” lies in a truly rare kind of redemption. Goliath is killed. The good guys win. And Addison has the pleasure of being the messenger of the verdict.

Pariseau is a writer and publisher in New Orleans.

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