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August 14 2012

14:30

“Why’s This So Good?” No. 54: John Jeremiah Sullivan and partisan politics

Politics should, in theory, be the subject of some of the most compelling narrative journalism. There’s built-in drama! There are winners and losers! The stakes are high! That’s why it’s so depressing that most politics stories, even those of the narrative variety, are painfully boring. They tend to fall into one of two traps – and I don’t mean right or left. Sometimes they’re “objective” to a fault, stripped of all perspective and written as a description of an ideological Pingpong match in which the reporter, if she gets too close to the action, reduces herself to an awkward ghost. (“A visitor was offered a glass of water.”) Then there are pieces with the opposite problem: The writer, seemingly by design, uses every quote and detail to confirm her assumptions about the people on both ends of the American political spectrum, and does little more than recite familiar arguments and retrace caricatures that were first doodled decades ago.

Friedman

The exceptions tend to be stories written by journalists who don’t usually cover politics. Recently, when the Supreme Court ruling that upheld Obama’s health care bill eclipsed the election as the dominant political story, I reread John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “American Grotesque,” a reported but essayistic GQ piece on the political ramifications of Obamacare. From a major tea party rally in D.C. to a quieter controversy in rural America to an even quieter familial fight over taxes, Sullivan manages to capture the political moment. It’s because he doesn’t just describe the debate; he engages with it on a personal level.

At first you think it’s going to fall into the second category of political narrative – one that is designed to confirm stereotype. Indeed, this piece has several details we’ve all read a million times, like this description of an offensive tea party sign:

A guy behind me is holding an ingenious sign he’s made. He’s cut out the mouth from a giant cardboard poster of Nancy Pelosi’s face, creating a hole, a gaping maw, and attached a bag to the back of it, like a corn hole at the fair. He’s handing out Lipton tea bags to people and urging them to “tea-bag Nancy Pelosi.” People are doing it and laughing, even ladies. Pelosi, with her giant crazy eyes, gulps the tea bags eagerly.

But the entire rally scene is written in the first-person plural. From there he continues:

It’s only fair. Liberals made fun of us because, at first, some of us didn’t know what “tea-bagging” meant—that it meant dipping your testicles into a woman’s or, if you lean that way, another fella’s open mouth—and a few of us, the older ones, may have referred to ourselves for a brief span as “tea-baggers,” in ignorance and in innocence. Now we’re turning the joke back on them. No one who has any sense of humor gets hurt.

It’s not just that we’re there. We’re marching. Sullivan identifies himself – and the reader – with these people who, let’s face it, are probably not GQ subscribers. It’s …  jarring. I was at that tea party rally. I did not feel like one of them.

But where this piece really begins to diverge from the template is when Sullivan starts writing about his family. Sure, we all know that where politics gets interesting is where it intersects with the personal. But rarely does such an intersection make its way out of the personal essay and into a reported piece of journalism. When Sullivan is hanging out with his much-more-conservative cousin, perched high above the National Mall, that’s when, finding it tough to suppress his own ideological leanings, he chooses to break reporter-character:

My cousin told me a casual story about a breakfast three months earlier with a leading Republican senator, by the end of which this senator had vowed to “make the public option radioactive.”

Suppressing screams, I said something about recognizing people from home on TV, and we laughed.

People from home. The other great thing about this piece is that he manages to say unexpected things about not only the ideological divide in America, but the geographical divide as well. Our next stop is Kentucky, a stand-in for the far-flung places from whence many of these ralliers came. And yeah, it’s far from Washington, but subject to the same fights, the same assumptions. A census worker has been found dead, and reporters have descended on this rural county. Sullivan runs into a sheriff on a near-deserted county road near where the body was found:

When I pulled away, I saw he hadn’t moved far. It was a sheriff’s deputy, parked in the middle of the road. His finding me here in all of Clay County, unless he’d been watching the graveyard day and night, seemed Stephen Hawking-size, oddswise. Was I supposed to stop and get out? I sat behind him with the engine on awkwardly.

I decided to pass him. As I went by, we waved. A smiling gray-mustached man with glasses. “Come on back,” he said, and just let me go by.

And most journalists would leave it at that. End on the quote. But Sullivan overthinks it. What really sets him apart as a writer is his ability to take details that appear minor and explore them, turn them over and over and inside out, in a way that doesn’t feel overwrought. These three words – “Come on back” – are the prompt for a great paragraph on how Americans don’t really bother to get past stereotype, political or otherwise. About how most of us are just visitors in other people’s comfort zones, about how we don’t attempt to really get to know what it’s like there. It’s an insight into the nature of American politics, but it’s also instructive for political journalists.

Ann Friedman is an editor and writer. Formerly the executive editor of GOOD, she’s now hard at work on a crowd-funded magazine called Tomorrow. She curates the work of female journalists at LadyJournos!, makes hand-drawn pie charts for The Hairpin, and dispenses advice about journalism using GIFs. In July 2012, the Columbia Journalism Review named her one of 20 women to watch.

For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each week for a new shot of inspiration and insight.

 

April 12 2012

14:43

The best magazine features of 2011: an ASME sampler

National Magazine Award judges have a tough job this year as they choose a winner in the features category. There’s the sobering story about a corporate attorney’s mysterious death in Guatemala; the bizarre tale of a pair of young international arms dealers; the moving account of two dozen strangers braving a massive tornado; a fable-like piece about a man who rode out the Japanese tsunami on the roof of his house; and a high-larious (pardon us) story about a darker side of Disney World.

The American Society of Magazine Editors will announce the winner on May 3, but until then here’s a sampling from those five fine finalists, written by some of the top names in narrative:

Luke Dittrich* of Esquire. From “Heavenly Father!…”:

Tinkerbell is squirming and twisting in Michaela’s arms, trying to look up at the widening holes in the roof. The tornado, unlike the storm clouds that shrouded it and concealed its approach, is not entirely dense and black. Dim, green, aquatic light, like the light scuba divers see, brightens the cooler a bit even as the cooler is being torn apart.

The tornado stretches twenty thousand feet into the sky. It is three quarters of a mile wide. It is not empty.

It is carrying two-by-fours and drywall and automobiles.

It is carrying baseball cards, laptop computers, family photo albums.

It is carrying people, as naked as newborns, their clothes stripped away like tissue paper.

It is carrying fragments of the Walmart where Carl and Jennifer met, of the church where Donna worships, of three of the nursing homes where Lacey works.

It has traveled six miles through the city, and now it is carrying a great deal of the city within itself.

Michaela pushes Tinkerbell’s head down, but she can feel her squirrelly little neck straining against her hand, wanting to look up, wanting to see.

David Grann of The New Yorker. From “A Murder Foretold”:

Initially, Rosenberg spoke slowly and stiffly, but then his hands began to rise and fall, along with his eyebrows, the power of his voice growing—a voice from the grave. “I don’t have a hero complex,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to die. I have four divine children, the best brother life could have given me, marvellous friends.” He continued, “The last thing I wanted was to deliver this message…But I hope my death helps get the country started down a new path.” He urged Vice-President Espada whom he described as “not a thief or an assassin” − to assume the Presidency and insure that the guilty parties wound up in jail. “This is not about seeking revenge, which only makes us like them,” Rosenberg said. “It is about justice.” He predicted that the Guatemalan government would try to cover up the truth, by smearing the Musas and inventing plots. “But the only reality that counts is this: if you saw and heard this message, it is because I was killed by Álvaro Colom and Sandra de Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos.” He concluded, “Guatemalans, the time has come. Please it is time. Good afternoon.”

Guy Lawson of Rolling Stone. From “Arms and the Dudes”:

To get into the game, Diveroli knew he would have to deal with some of the world’s shadiest operators – the war criminals, soldiers of fortune, crooked diplomats and small-time thugs who keep militaries and mercenaries loaded with arms. The vast aftermarket in arms had grown exponentially after the end of the Cold War. For decades, weapons had been stockpiled in warehouses throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe for the threat of war against the West, but now arms dealers were selling them off to the highest bidder. The Pentagon needed access to this new aftermarket to arm the militias it was creating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble was, it couldn’t go into such a murky underworld on its own. It needed proxies to do its dirty work – companies like AEY. The result was a new era of lawlessness. According to a report by Amnesty International, “Tens of millions of rounds of ammunition from the Balkans were reportedly shipped – clandestinely and without public oversight – to Iraq by a chain of private brokers and transport contractors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense.”

This was the “gray market” that Diveroli wanted to penetrate. Still a teenager, he rented a room in a house owned by a Hispanic family in Miami and went to work on his laptop.

Michael Paterniti of GQ. From “The Man Who Sailed His House”:

This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear. It’s the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water that slam you into a dark underworld, the one in which you now find yourself hooded, beaten, pinned deeper. The sensation is one of having been lowered into a spinning, womblike grave. If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you’d see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You’d see huge pieces of house – chimneys and doors, stairs and walls – crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You’d see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You’d see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm’s reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down? Something is burning inside now, not desperation but blood depleted of oxygen. What you illogically desire more than anything is to open your mouth wide and gulp. You scissor your legs. In some eternity, the water turns from black to gray, and gray to dirty green, as you reach up over your head one last time and whip your arms down, shooting for the light.

John Jeremiah Sullivan of the New York Times magazine. From “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!”:

“I always figured you were doing brownies,” I said.

“I do do brownies,” he said. “I have brownies. But, you know. . . .”

I did. Edibles are good, and wise heads move toward them over time, to save their lungs, but there’s something about the combination of oxygen-deprivation and intense THC-flush that comes with smoking and in particular from smoking joints. There’s no real substitute, for the abuser. A brownie can alter your mood over hours, but a joint swings a psychic broom around you – it clears an instant space.

“I actually saw this thing on the Internet,” Trevor said, “where people were talking about getting high in the park.”

“At Disney World!” I said, as if I hadn’t been listening.

He led me back inside and quietly cracked open his laptop on the kitchen counter. “Check this out,” he whispered. Only the two of us were awake.

I dropped into one of the swivel stools in front of the bright screen. I was reading before I knew what I was reading, but it was like a chat room. Or a forum. “Forum” is the better term. A motif of cannabis leaves and naked women holding glittery buds ran down the left margin: a pothead forum. Trevor scrolled it down to a posting, the subject of which read, “Re: Hello from Disney World.”

An anonymous person, evidently the veteran of a staggering number of weed-smoking experiences in the park, had done a solid for the community and laid out his or her knowledge in a systematic way. It was nothing less than a fiend’s guide to Disney World. It pinpointed the safest places for burning the proverbial rope, telling what in particular to watch for at each spot. Isolated footpaths that didn’t see much traffic, conventional smoking areas with good hedge cover, places where you could hide under a bridge by a little artificial river – those were its points of interest. The number of views suggested that the list had helped a lot of desperate people.

In other finalist categories you’ll find equally terrific pieces, including Mark Bowden’s “Echoes from a Distant Battlefield” (Vanity Fair), Natasha Gardner’s “Direct Fail” (5280) and Mike Kessler’s “What Happened to Mitrice Richardson?” (Los Angeles).

Enjoy!


*Coming Friday: Dittrich recently visited the Nieman Narrative Writing class, where he took us behind the scenes of reporting and writing the Joplin, Mo.,
tornado story. Check back tomorrow for that conversation.

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