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January 03 2012

14:38

“Why’s this so good?” No. 26: Moehringer KO’s a mystery

The hell with my lede. Let’s start with his:

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, waiting for a call from a man who doesn’t trust me, hoping he’ll have answers about a man I don’t trust, which may clear the name of a man no one gives a damn about.

That’s how J.R. Moehringer begins “Resurrecting the Champ,” the greatest newspaper story ever written, and if you’re not hooked by the time the period slams that sentence shut, God knows why you’re here.

I’ve read this story at least 100 times since it appeared in the L.A. Times Magazine* in 1997, and my bones still ache with envy. Moehringer has command of all the storyteller’s tools here – rhythm, pacing, metaphor – and I’ve spent many an hour taking the story apart like an old radio.

But what I love about this story the most is a simple thing that shows up in far too few nonfiction narratives:

Mystery.

That lede echoes Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and all those noir movies of the ’40s (Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity”: I killed him for money. And for a woman. And I didn’t get the money. And I didn’t get the woman.)

Moehringer gets a tip: A former heavyweight contender named Bob Satterfield – known for jackhammer punches and a tinfoil chin – is walking the streets of Santa Ana, homeless. Moehringer goes looking for him, almost gives up, then sees an old man, toothless and filthy – but with hands so big they hang from his sides like bowling balls. Moehringer approaches him.

“You’re Bob Satterfield, aren’t you?” I said.

“Battlin’ Bob Satterfield!” he said, delighted at being recognized.

And then what happens is…

Well, here’s the problem. I can’t tell you.

Every great mystery has twists and turns. There are at least three places in this story where I still drop the printout (or now, the laptop) in disbelief. To paraphrase that great literary figure Rowdy Roddy Piper, just when you think you’ve got all the answers, the story changes the questions.

To explain the whole thing, I’d need spoiler alerts. When was the last time you read a story that required spoiler alerts?

I’ll tell you this much: To find out just who Bob Satterfield is, and to find out how that man ended up on the Santa Ana streets, Moehringer has to navigate false clues and blind alleys and several people who might or might not be lying to him. There’s a key conversation with Jake LaMotta (the boxer De Niro played in “Raging Bull”). There’s a meeting in that hotel in Columbus. There are things Moehringer wants to see that he doesn’t. There are things he doesn’t want to see that he does.

Moehringer is a main character, right there in the first person, dealing with (among other things) major daddy issues. One thing I’ve wondered over the years is if the story would work without him in it. I’ve decided he has to be in there – above all, this is a detective story, and he’s the gumshoe who bumbles through the story, trying to solve the mystery.

By God, he solves it.

And then – as in the very best mysteries – there’s one more scene. We’re back on the California streets, our two main characters are talking…

And the very last line of the story hits you like a left hook to the gut.

It’s the best last line I know of. Every time I read the story, it stays with me for days.

Journalists often work on different kinds of mysteries. We’re great at doing the forensics on a failed campaign and pinpointing just where it went sour. We’re great at dissecting a game-winning TD and showing exactly how the receiver got open.

But those are mysteries where the reader already knows the ending – we’re just revealing the why and the how. The best mysteries start with a what – or, more to the point, a WHAT!?! – and take readers from there to places they’d never expect.

It’s easier when you can make stuff up – whoever created  “Matlock” owns half of Malibu by now. But to pull it off in nonfiction – to find the story, track it down and write it – that’s jumping off the high dive.

J.R. Moehringer has done all right for himself. He won a Pulitzer. He wrote a well-loved memoir. He collaborated on a best-seller Andre Agassi’s autobiography.

But in my mind, he’s the guy who chased a tip, found a mystery, and ended up with the greatest newspaper story of all time.

They made a movie out of “Resurrecting the Champ,” starring Josh Hartnett and Samuel L. Jackson. I’ve never watched it. It’s not as good as the newspaper story. It can’t possibly be.

———

*Yeah, maybe it’s technically a magazine story – it does run nearly 12,000 words. But to me, if it comes bundled with the comics and the coupons, it’s a newspaper story.

Tommy Tomlinson (@tommytomlinson) is a storyteller for The Charlotte Observer, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and a former Nieman Fellow.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

December 30 2011

16:11

Nieman Storyboard’s top 10 posts for 2011

During the last days of December, we’ve been tweeting down Storyboard’s top 10 posts for the year. In case you haven’t been following along, here they are, all in one place (in reverse order):

10. Internet phenom Maud Newton’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood.”

9. Chris Jones, Esquire writer at large, talks with Nieman narrative instructor Paige Williams:

On reporting for detail, the case against outlining and the power of donuts.”

8. Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Gene Weingarten peels the Great Zucchini.”

7. Peter Ginna, publisher and editorial director of Bloomsbury Press, with

When journalists become authors: a few cautionary tips.”

6. Science and culture writer David Dobbs’ “Why’s this so good?”:

Michael Lewis’ Greek odyssey.”

5. Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando.”

4. Science writer Carl Zimmer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

McPhee takes on the Mississippi.”

3. Two celebrated Esquire writers visit Harvard:

Gay Talese has a Coke: reflections of a narrative legend in conversation with Chris Jones.”

2. Nieman Lab assistant editor Megan Garber’s “Why’s this so good?”:

David Foster Wallace on the vagaries of cruising.”

1. Pedro Monteiro’s look at storytelling in the tablet and app future:

Story, interrupted: why we need new approaches to digital narrative.”

Thanks for your support in 2011. We’ve had a banner year here, with a lot of new contributors and record numbers of visitors. We look forward to bringing you even better coverage of new narrative projects and ideas in 2012. Happy New Year!

July 27 2011

15:08

“Why’s this so good?” No. 5: Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood

We tend now to think of Hollywood’s hackneyed, would-be blockbusters as a new phenomenon, one borne of desperation, unprecedented cynicism and the rise of narrative television. But Raymond Chandler’s wonderful 1945 essay-screed “Writers in Hollywood” reminds us that the motion picture industry was, by and large, as uninspired and ridiculous 65 years ago as it is today.

Writing for The Atlantic Monthly, Chandler brought to bear on his subject all the fury and surprising insights of the novelist who wrote “The Big Sleep,” the gimlet-eyed practicality of the storyteller whose first publications were for pulp magazines, and the staggering self-absorption of the depressive alcoholic.

There is, Chandler says, “no such thing as an art of the screenplay, and there never will be as long as the system lasts, for it is the essence of this system that it seeks to exploit a talent without permitting it the right to be a talent. It cannot be done; you can only destroy the talent, which is exactly what happens – when there is any to destroy. Granted that there isn’t much.”

As in the essays of Twain, Mencken and Vonnegut, the language doesn’t date. Chandler is straightforward, he is disgusted, and he is hilarious, and his rapid-fire insults are unmistakably his own. Even the most talented screenwriters, he says,

devote their entire time to work which has no more possibility of distinction than a Pekinese has of becoming a Great Dane: to asinine musicals about technicolor legs and the yowling of night-club singers; to “psychological” dramas with wooden plots, stock characters, and that persistent note of fuzzy earnestness which suggests the conversation of schoolgirls in puberty; to sprightly and sophisticated comedies (we hope) in which the gags are as stale as the attitudes, in which there is always a drink in every hand, a butler in every doorway, and a telephone on the edge of every bathtub; to historical epics in which the male actors look like female impersonators, and the lovely feminine star looks just a little too starry-eyed for a babe who has spent half her life swapping husbands; and last but not least, to those pictures of deep social import in which everybody is thoughtful and grown-up and sincere and the more difficult problems of life are wordily resolved into a unanimous vote of confidence in the inviolability of the Constitution, the sanctity of the home, and the paramount importance of the streamlined kitchen.

More than a dozen shots in a single mammoth sentence: who else could fuse so many complex condemnations so elegantly and vividly – so, dare I say, cinematically? The semicolon here does the work of the quick cut.

Yes, the argument wanders in places; sometimes he contradicts himself. (As Marilynne Robinson once said of a book by Richard Dawkins, truly this screed is a sword that turneth every way.) But the energy is remarkable. I enjoy every below-the-belt jab and noiresque condemnation. “Let me not imply that there are no writers of authentic ability in Hollywood. There are not many, but there are not many anywhere. The creative gift is a scarce commodity, and patience and imitation have always done most of its work.” It’s not hard to imagine this last bit issuing from a partly-shadowed Humphrey Bogart in one of Chandler’s own films just before he leaves the villain to stride down some dark hallway.

In the heyday of the Hollywood novelist-screenwriter, a slew of literary talents – Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and Aldous Huxley, to name just a few – did time writing film scripts because they were easy money. Now, in the new narrative TV landscape, it’s cable companies that are signing novelists and memoirists in droves. Jonathan Ames, Jennifer Egan, Sam Lipsyte, Sloane Crosley, Salman Rushdie, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are just a few recent hires. Given that fiction writers like Richard Price and George Pelacanos helped shape “The Wire,” arguably the most interesting story of our time, the focus on novelists makes a certain amount of sense. But how much creative control will they have? And will cable TV, too, eventually become too rigid to allow innovation?

Chandler was born well over a century ago, on July 23, 1888. But we still think of him as a contemporary writer because so few since have managed to ridicule the absurdities of modernity with such precision and wit.

His complaints offer a fascinating snapshot of what it was like to write for pictures at the end of the Second World War. Yet his concerns about the way storytelling by committee tends to impede creativity and destroy narrative are timeless. “The volatile essences which make literature cannot survive the clichés of a long series of story conferences,” he writes.

And ultimately this Hollywood essay derives its power from Chandler’s language itself: its intensity and humor and its withering metaphor. The “egocentric geniuses” who depart Tinseltown in a huff, we’re told, “leave behind them nothing but the exquisite aroma of their personalities.”

Maud Newton is an editor and writer for Thomson Reuters whose criticism, essays, and prize-winning fiction have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Narrative Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Granta, The Awl, and many other publications.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, check out the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

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