The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight

While James Frey continues to be crucified for his root-canal canards, be reminded that the 1960s New Journalism revolution paved the way for just this sort of quasi-factual liberty-taking in works of nonfiction. The blending of fact and fiction that J.T. Leroy and the less-talented Frey practice in memoir form has been going on in journalism for, let's say, almost 50 years now.

Hark back to the Frey-free 1990s, when Capote wannabe John Berendt wrote his mega-bestselling version of In Cold Blood, Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, using made-up events, composite characters and sketchy timelines, while installing the character of "John Berendt" as a third-person narrator.

Of course, this blurring of fact and fiction was nothing new either; in fact, it was typical New Journalism, and garnered Berendt as many critics as admirers. Sadly, journalism's hot young liars of today -- Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and most recently, the Village Voice's own whiz-kid fabricator, Nick Sylvester -- are as much the natural heirs to New Journalism's permissive legacy as more serious, reportorial writers like Eric Schlosser and Adrian LeBlanc.

Weingarten perceptively traces New Journalism's beginnings back to Dickens's Sketches By Boz and George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London(neither work being totally purist in its attempts at factual accuracy). Important later precursors were Lillian Ross's New Yorker pieces in the 1950s, Capote's "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood, and John Hersey's Hiroshima. Weingarten points to these works as having crucial germinal elements of what would blossom into the New Journalism of the 1960s.

From the hyper-charged prose of Wolfe to Thompson's Mencken-on-acid screeds, to the moving Vietnam stories of John Sack and Michael Herr, the idea was to embellish hard facts for the sake of larger truths and broader narratives. This was an approach that openly rebelled against the stylistic limitations of old-school inverted-pyramid reportage. Suddenly, the New Journalists became practitioners of what became known as the "art of fact."

Weingarten offers up an empathetic, but also somewhat disappointing history of the rise and fall of New Journalism, providing some modest insights into the scribing adventures of all the expected shakers: editor Clay Felker, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, and Norman Mailer. He focuses mostly on the flashier, trendier (and thus more popular) writers of the milieu (Wolfe, Thompson, Mailer) who've always had the most hip cachet among the New Journalists.

Much less attention is paid to more quietly innovative types like Talese, Didion, and David Halberstam (Talese was called the "father" of New Journalism by Tom Wolfe). In fact, Talese's groundbreaking piece "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," voted Esquire's Best Story Ever, isn't even acknowledged here. Yet the article read like a great short story, and ushered in a novel approach to feature writing: it was a story about how the writer didn't get the story.

Weingarten holds your attention mostly through his obvious and infectious enthusiasm for his subject matter -- as his prose isn't exactly lapidary. In fact, the book feels like a consummate counting-house rush-job, as the text reveals a number of inconsistencies, typos, and runaway sentences. The writing is often weighed down with antiquated descriptive language (i.e. a "hail-fellow-well-met" person, and the anachronistic term "the main chance," come to mind). And his unvarying attachment to certain verbs ("transpired" getting the most overuse here) suggests the need to curl up with a Roget's now and again.

And sure, it's a gas to read about snappy dresser and hip aristocrat Wolfe's zany adventures-in-research and his oddball compositional methods, as he chases down Kustom Kars and Kool-aid Acid Tests. Also much emphasized here is Thompson's tough-guy camaraderie with the Hells Angels, and his much-publicized peyote-gobbling and gun-toting tendencies. And Napoleon-complex poster boy Norman Mailer's drunken brawling, jail-hopping, wife-stabbing antics are always good for a few laughs.

However, Weingarten contributes his most valuable original research in his portrait of the Clay Felker-era New York magazine: from its auspicious 1966 beginnings as a serious cultural and political force, to its mid-'70s sale to Rupert Murdoch, and thus its effective end as a formidable intellectual voice. Felker began New York with lofty ideals and an impressive staff of writers: Gail Sheehy, Tom Wolfe, Nick Pileggi, Gloria Steinem, and Jimmy Breslin. Yet he ended up with a power-broker mentality and a stable full of writers who bent the truth even more than their predecessors.

And although the warm-hearted Weingarten does his best to portray Felker as a sympathetic figure, in the end, New York's first helmsman is very obviously the architect of his own downfall: greedy for more and more power, Felker acquired the Village Voice with the help of fat-cat investors. As part of the deal, these big-shot bankers and Wall Street types would end up owning the lion's share of New York.

To make matters worse, Felker also began catering to an upscale NYC market -- he began gearing content to the needs of status-conscious New Yorkers like himself. Soon you realize that the story of New York's downfall is also the story of serious general-interest magazine journalism's steady decline: In short, New York became the blueprint for today's glut of glossy, consumer-oriented rags pushing ersatz haute couture on the striving hordes.

And finally, enter the Mephisto-like Rupert Murdoch to the fold. In the mid-'70s the Oxford-educated Australian was determined to add New York magazine to his ever-expanding empire of tabloid sleaze.

Although Felker was reluctant to sell out to a scoundrel like Murdoch, once he touched Satan's scaly claw, the end was nigh. New York's shareholders sold the magazine right out from under Felker's nose, and poof! Goodbye, New Journalism. Weingarten closes the book on a somber, elegiac note, as he mourns the bygone days of respectable general-interest magazines and the subsequent rise of sensational celebrity-driven content: "A covenant it seemed had been struck between Hollywood and Madison Avenue, and magazines would now become press organs for movie stars. Stories shrank, and so did ideas."

The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight does just enough justice to New Journalism's original innovators, and tells their story in a way no one else has. Nevertheless, the book still feels like a missed opportunity: it could have been a much longer, more probing, more analytical, more opinionated, and a more organized and farther-reaching study.


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