My Grandfather’s Son, Clarence Thomas, Harper Perennial, 2008.

This is a first class memoir – brutally honest, full of surprises, and often inspirational.  In the words of the grandfather who raised Thomas, “Old Man Can’t is dead – I helped bury him.”

Clarence Thomas encountered racial prejudice in the schools that he attended, and eventually reacted with angry rebelliousness.  After participating in a disorderly riot in Harvard Square, however, he concluded that this type of activity was a dead end.  Railing against injustice was unproductive, getting back to his studies would enable him to accomplish far more.  The deciding factor in which way his life was going to go, it seems, was the work ethic and social attitudes (“play the hand that you have been dealt”) that had been drummed into him as a boy. 

After graduating from Yale Law School, Thomas found his employment opportunities somewhat limited.  Nevertheless, he succeeded in landing a series of interesting jobs and proving that he could handle them.  Life was not always easy for him, however, and he went through periods of financial hardship and a painful breakup of his first marriage.  He also developed a drinking problem, which he eventually overcame – on the advice of a trusted associate – after savoring the last two cans of beer in his refrigerator while taking a hot bath.  “I haven’t had a drink since.”

It was not something that Thomas had foreseen at the beginning, far from it, but in due course he found himself nominated by President George Bush (41) for the United States Supreme Court.  The battle against his nomination, led by liberals who did not consider him a proper representative of his own race, represents the climax of the book.  Thomas was eventually confirmed, as is well known, despite the worst that his opponents would throw up against him.  Whatever one’s view about the outcome, the story is touching and well told.

My only quibble is that this book says nothing about what Justice Thomas has done on the Supreme Court since he reached it two decades ago.  It would be interesting to read about that subject, but probably someone else should write the book.