“Battleground America” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 22)

2012 has been a horrifying year for guns: after the shooting of unarmed Trayvon Martin, the massacre at the cineplex in Aurora, Colorado, and the kindergarden shootings in Newtown Connecticut, Americans have refocused on the issue of gun violence.

Travon Martin

Travon Martin, family photo

Battleground America by Jill Lepore in the April 23 New Yorker takes a close look at the issue, underscoring the history and culture surrounding guns and the Second Amendment, as well as exploring the depth of the problem.

What makes Lepore’s story so strong is that it is viscerally close up in parts, but steps back and looks at the matter from a macro and historical level. It shifts between the personal and the policy sides of the story.

And the backbone of the story is the narrative of a single incident of a school shooting at an Ohio High School. As Lepore unravels the history and state of guns and gun violence in America, she dribbles out what happened before, during, and after one of too many gun massacres in America in recent years. With this, the bloody, personal toll of the issue is never lost on the reader, it feels urgent and horrifying:

At Chardon High School, kids ran through the halls screaming “Lockdown!” Some of them hid in the teachers’ lounge; they barricaded the door with a piano. Someone got on the school’s public-address system and gave instructions, but everyone knew what to do. Students ran into classrooms and dived under desks; teachers locked the doors and shut off the lights. Joseph Ricci, a math teacher, heard Walczak, who was still crawling, groaning in the hallway. Ricci opened the door and pulled the boy inside. No one knew if the shooter had more guns, or more rounds. Huddled under desks, students called 911 and texted their parents. One tapped out, “Prayforus.”

Almost as scary as the retelling of some of these incidents is the sheer numbers. She makes clear that this isn’t the problem of a few crazed loners, but a culture of guns and the deep proliferation of firepower across the nation. She lays out the facts about guns in America, putting the evidence on the table like a prosecutor:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed.

As she delves into the history of the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association, she, like Adam Winkler in “A Secret History of Guns,” (which I reviewed a week or so ago) she reveals that the notion that every American in entitled to own and carry as many firearms as they’d like is a relatively new idea. Far from the recent arguments from the N.R.A. that the Constitution has made gun ownership sacrosanct since the the founding of the nation, she shows that American mania for personal gun ownership has really been much more of a recent development, rising most dramatically in the 1970s.

Lepore even goes to a gun education class and takes some shoots at a shooting range herself, to get a sense of how it feels to fire a gun.

But the story keeps coming back to the human cost of guns. The story never veers too far away from the personal nature of the issue. And she does it with writing that is very personal and haunting. She never lets the reader forget how many innocent men and women have been murdered with guns, and that they all had names and lives that ended prematurely:

Here she grimly details one such group of victims:

They had come from all over the world. Ping, twenty-four, was born in the Philippines. She was working at the school to support her parents, her brother, two younger sisters, and her four-year-old son, Kayzzer. Her husband was hoping to move to the United States. Tshering Rinzing Bhutia, thirty-eight, was born in Gyalshing, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He took classes during the day; at night, he worked as a janitor at San Francisco International Airport. Lydia Sim, twenty-one, was born in San Francisco, to Korean parents; she wanted to become a pediatrician. Sonam Choedon, thirty-three, belonged to a family living in exile from Tibet. A Buddhist, she came to the United States from Dharamsala, India. She was studying to become a nurse. Grace Eunhea Kim, twenty-three, was putting herself through school by working as a waitress. Judith Seymour was fifty-three. Her parents had moved back to their native Guyana; her two children were grown. She was about to graduate. Doris Chibuko, forty, was born in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria, where she practiced law. She immigrated in 2002. Her husband, Efanye, works as a technician for A.T. & T. They had three children, ages eight, five, and three. She was two months short of completing a degree in nursing.

Ping, Bhutia, Sim, Choedon, Kim, Seymour, and Chibuko: Goh shot and killed them all. Then he went from one classroom to another, shooting, before stealing a car and driving away. He threw his gun into a tributary of San Leandro Bay. Shortly afterward, he walked into a grocery store and said, “I just shot some people.”

This won’t be the last lengthly examination of guns we’ll see, especially in the light of the Newtown tragedies, but it will still be one of the most comprehensive and well-written stories on the issue.

Read Battleground America →

“Life of a Salesman” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 20)

One of my favorite forms of nonfiction work is a well-written profile, especially when the subject of the piece isn’t a celebrity or a politician. It’s not hard to get people interested in a profile on Rhianna or LeBron James, but when a writer can look at at an everyday person and tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way, that’s a beautiful thing.

“Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized” by Eli Saslow in the October 7, 2012 edition of the Washington Post is a good example of this. Saslow spends some time with Frank Firetti, a Virginia-based small business owner and pool salesman, as he struggles to keep his business afloat in the struggling economy of 2012. Nothing shocking or dramatic happens in this story; there’s no life or death moments at stake, no critical conflict, no crime, no injustice, no tragedy. It’s about a man trying to sell a pool. More broadly, it’s about his dreams and his hopes as they come up against economic challenges. It’s a little story and big story at the same time.

Frank Firetti

Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount for the Washington Post

There’s a lot I admire about this story. Saslow pays close attention to the little details. As he shows us Firetti out on sales call, or back at his office, we get a very clear sense of what it looks and feels like in his space:

He loved being in the car, the one place that was his alone, where he could fortify himself against stress and negativity. There was Motrin in the center console for his headaches, hand sanitizer for germs and four empty bags of pistachios, because cracking shells occupied his hands and quieted his mind. There was classic rock on the radio, because he had changed the station when the host of his favorite conservative talk show started dissecting the economy, a word Frank couldn’t stand to say or hear, because he had come to equate it with “an excuse for failure,” he said. There was a Bible open on the back seat, because having it there occasionally helped seal the deal with a religious customer, but mostly because Frank was an ardent believer who liked to read and annotate the book when his faith needed restoration.

I like how that paragraph opens and closes with two broader themes: his need for solitude and his reliance on faith. But in between that, Saslow sandwiches a ton of detail: the Motrin, the hand sanitizer, the empty pistachio pags, the classic rock on the radio, the conservative talk radio, the bible in the backseat.

I also like how Saslow ties the profile to the broader themes of the middle class struggles in 2012, in particular, the idea of the swimming pool as a symbol of success:

But the more he learned about pools, the more he found them representative of something larger. They were carvings etched into back yards as a mark of ascent, commemorating a customer’s arrival in the upper middle class. They were a signal: You had a pool, you were an American somebody. Frank loved to visit his construction sites, exchange his few words of Spanish with the crew and then patrol the area with a digital camera. The crews sometimes found it peculiar, but Frank didn’t care. He wrote into each contract that he was allowed to take pictures and chronicle his creation. A black hole in the earth became a smooth bowl of white-and-blue speckled plaster, filled with water so calm and pristine that it offered a promise. Here was a place of undisturbed relaxation, of aqua blue and sandstone, a monument to luxury that could be owned. He hung photos of his favorite pools in the office and brought others home to show his wife. He wanted one.

It’s telling that he sells swimming pools to others, but he hasn’t built his own yet. He has sketches of this elaborate, gigantic pool for his next house, but he’s nowhere close to getting it yet. And the fact that swimming pools sales have been down for years indicates the toll of the recession. The middle class is struggling right now, and, as a result, so is Firetti.

And the story captures some small, meaningful scenes. In the middle of the story we witness a video chat exchange between Firetti and his Philipino wife, who is overseas visiting her family. We’ve already learned about the financial and business pressure that mounts on him, and the reader then finds out that his wife is hosting a 300-person party for family and friends in Dumaguete City. As he hints at the cost of the event, she can’t (or pretends not to) hear him:

“What are you doing today?” he yelled.

“Oh, we are still getting ready for the party.”

It was the one-year anniversary of Suzette’s mother’s death, and she and her sisters had planned an event for 300. As usual, they had paid for all of it.

“Free dinner on the Firettis?” Frank said.

“What?” Suzette said.

She pointed to her ear, indicating a problem with the volume, but Frank wondered if she was choosing not to hear.

One thing that bothered me about the piece is that Saslow despite doing a fine job showing us Firetti and his challenges, he didn’t seem to trust the reader enough to get it without hammering the point home. At several spots, Saslow interjects heavy language that frames the story in the wider context, and I don’t think he needed it. For example, there’s a nice scene between Firetti and his son (who is now living at home and struggling with two jobs) and they talk about his future. But then Saslow adds this:

They stayed out on the deck until the sun disappeared behind the townhouses. Frank went to bed just before midnight and awoke at 4. He always had been a sound sleeper, but lately he had been putting himself to bed with Tylenol PM and stirring awake to questions in the middle of the night. When had stability become the goal in America? What kind of dream was that? And in the economy of 2012, was it even attainable?

I like that paragraph until the last two sentences. Do we really need those two questions for the reader? At times, Saslow, gets a bit heavy with lines like that that seem to hammer home the theme of the story, but we don’t need it. He’s already done his job well enough already. Firetti’s story stands well on its own; the reader doesn’t need the author to explain it as explicity as he does as certain stretches in the piece.

But overall, this is a good read. Ten years from now, if someone wanted to read about what it was like for many struggling middle-class Americans a month before the 2012 election, this would stand up well as a snapshot of a time and place, and how one man struggled with the American Dream.

Read Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized →

“Never Let Go” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 19)

I’ve read at least 50 longform stories to this point this month, and I’ve picked 18 to write about so far. But none of them have affected me as deeply Kelley Benham’s “Never Let Go” seres for the Tampa Bay Times. The series is actually three stories — Lost and Found, The Zero Zone, and Baby’s Breath — on the birth of her baby, born four months early, weighing 1 pound, 4 ounces, and the difficult decisions she and her husband Tom faced. Taken together, “Never Let Go” really one long story, woven with deeply personal moments, fears, and thoughts. It’s terrifying, inspiring, suspenseful, provocative, and deeply moving.


Photo by Cherie Diaz for the Tampa Bay Times

I won’t bury the lede: this is the best thing I’ve read all month.

I cried as I read part one on a crowded Amtrak train, then again when I read part two at a coffee shop. I didn’t care.

So, without spoiling anything, why is this so good?

First, it’s honest and open. Right away, the reader understands the gravity of the decision she and her husband had to make:

Few doctors would insist on intervening. The choice was ours to make.

He went through the list of possible calamities, each with its own initials. IVH, PVL, RDS, CLD, ROP, CP. The magnesium sulfate burned through me, sucking the will from every cell. Blood in the brain. Hole in the heart. Respiratory distress. Chronic lung disease. Ventilator. Wheelchair. Blind. Deaf. Developmental delays. Autism. Seizures. Cerebral palsy.

Every part of her was underdeveloped, fragile and weak. Every treatment would exact a toll. She might live, but she would likely have, to use the medical term, profound morbidities.

Odds she would die, no matter how hard they tried: better than half.

Odds she would die or be profoundly disabled: 68 percent.

Odds she would die or be at least moderately disabled: 80 percent.

Second, the story is very personal. The reader is brought into the deepest hopes, dreams and fears between her and her husband. By the time I finished the first story, I felt all-in with the couple, fully invested in their long-shot hopes. The two of them had to often feel very very alone during this experience, but the story puts us right there, intimately with them each step of the way:

We had envisioned a similar path for our daughter — horseback riding, piano lessons and the dean’s list. All that was gone now, and we grappled with the fundamentals. Would we try to keep her alive? If she lived, would she walk or talk? Would she one day give us a look that said, Why did you put me through this?

People always ask me if I prayed. I prayed the way people in foxholes are said to pray. I prayed with every thought and every breath. And I prayed with the certainty that I had no business praying, that I hadn’t earned the right. I’d never been religious. Worse, I knew we had defied the natural order in our determination to have a child. Through so many in-vitro procedures, with so many tests and needles and vials of drugs, we’d created life in a petri dish. To be given a child just long enough to watch her die felt like punishment for our hubris.

Third, the story is simply well written throughout; it’s rich with scenes, details, descriptions, and characters. This story is powerful on its own, but Benham’s writing elevates it. The story is powerful and emotional, but nothing feels melodramatic or sentimental for cheap emotional impact; the story walks through the moments of their experience, and she re-tells the story as it happened. The story is very personal, but she also does the hard work as a journalist of treating it like someone else’s story, digging into research, interviews, and reporting.

The story itself is written a year after much of the events occurred, and Benham went back and talked with many of the staff and doctors they worked with, asking them what they were thinking at the time, what they remember. Benham reveals things she didn’t know at the time; secrets the staff kept from her. It’s also clear that she carefully went back and looked at the places in the story in order to describe them more fully. Here’s an example from early on in the first story, where she describes the hospital, and how it is built for both joy and tragedy:

The Baby Place at Bayfront Medical Center is designed for celebrations. The rooms are private, with sleeping couches and flat screen TVs. Sliding panels obscure all evidence of the mess and peril of birth. Mothers are wheeled out holding fat drowsy newborns, dutiful dads follow with the balloons. Every time a baby is born, the loudspeaker carries the tinkling of a lullaby.

It’s easy to pretend, in that cozy place, that all babies come wailing into the world pink and robust, and are bundled and hatted and handed to teary mothers and proud dads. But sometimes it doesn’t go that way at all. That’s why behind the sliding panels there are devices for oxygen, suction and epinephrine. That’s why there’s a morgue on the ground floor.

Finally, the story reaches beyond their personal experience and explores the broader ethical, societal, medical, and cultural issues it raises. It ponders the increasing impact of science on fertility and childbirth, on issues of abortion, on the perils of health insurance and whether the costs such interventions can be justified. Benham does a great job sharing not only her own experience, but, as a journalist, she puts it into a larger context that has meaning for millions of other parents.

I can’t say much else without spoiling the story, so I won’t. Just don’t miss it. This series is narrative nonfiction at it’s best.

Read “Never Let Go” →

“A Eulogy for #Occupy” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 18)

When I used to live in D.C., I often biked to work. On my way there, I would pass the tent city that cropped up at “Freedom Plaza” at the end of 2011, part of the spreading “Occupy” and “99%” protest movement. The colder it got, the more I admired their determination to stay and continue their protest. But I always kept riding by; I never stopped and talked to the people there. I never took the time to find out what it was all about.

A broken window with a note attached that reads "We are better than this"

Photo by Quinn Norton for Wired

Like many progressives, I found myself supportive of the Occupy protests, sympathetic to the their focus on income inequality and their critique of corporate influence over government and politics. But I never really understood the camps or the “general assembly” shouting. I didn’t really know what they wanted to achieve.

So Quinn Norton’s “A Eulogy for #Occupy” for Wired was a fascinating read. Norton spent a year “embedded” with the Occupy movement, living in their camps and occupied parks, and witnessed up close the rise and fall of the movement.

She is nostalgic about the community feeling that blossomed at many camps, rails against the brutality of police who assaulted protesters and ripped away the encampments, and describes the diversity of people who took part in the movement. And she helps convey why it just wasn’t about politics or debt or unemployment:

From the beginning there were two main parts to Occupy. There was the cause of economic justice — the idea that resources shouldn’t be distributed so unevenly. This idea, in its myriad forms, drove marches and injected the rhetoric of the “99 percent” into the political dialogue. This was what the press often thought Occupy was all about.

Less understood was the other part of Occupy — the part that was about the need for community. Occupiers came to the camps to care for others as much as they came to be cared for. People had to find a way to matter to each other in ways that weren’t mediated by the social services, the justice system, the institutions we stick each other into.

It was this need to serve each other, not any political message, that stocked the kitchens and filled the comfort barrels. It was that which kept volunteers up for days, taking care of drug addicts and neurotic students and old men with failing bodies.

Norton’s story is obviously from the perspective of a participant in the movement, but she doesn’t avoid some of the ugly elements that cropped up. She describes the breakdown of many occupy sites:

What began as a way to let people reform and remake themselves had no mechanism for dealing with them when they didn’t. It had no way to deal with parasites and predators. It became a diseased process, pushing out the weak and quiet it had meant to enfranchise until it finally collapsed when nothing was left but predators trying to rip out each other’s throats.

By the time I returned to NY from visiting the camp in DC, exhausted with the pain of six evictions, the NYC GA was a place where women were threatened with beatings, and street kids with calls to the police. All the reasonable people had gotten the fuck out. It had become a gladiator pit no one enjoyed watching. Even Weev, the famous internet troll, didn’t last through the nastiness of the GA I took him to. He left while I wasn’t looking, without saying goodbye. We never spoke about it. I didn’t blame him, and I didn’t have to ask why. It was the tiny, brutal, and bitter politics of failed people.

The story itself is a jumble of reflections, ideas, interviews, and asides from her year spent with the movement. It jumps around and doesn’t have the cleanest narrative structure. But it is heartfelt and honest, and reveals an insider’s viewpoint on something few of us really understood. I admire the dedication and commitment it took for her to live in this movement for a year and tell its stories.

Norton’s writing is eloquent and beautiful, but also honest and unsparing. Much like the movement, her article is a mix of idealism, cynicism, frustration, and hope.

Read “A Eulogy for #Occupy →

The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 17)

For most of us, NFL preseason games in August are meaningless. Few of the starters play, the games are sloppy, and nothing much seems to be at stake. The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot by Charles Seibert for the New York Times Magazine shows us that for a handful of college stars hoping to cling to a dream of making it as professional player, everything is at stake.

Pat Schiller

Photo credit: Christaan Felber for The New York Times

The story follows the summer and fall of former Northern Illinois University star Pat Schiller as he tries to make it onto an NFL roster. When his name doesn’t get called during the NFL Draft in April, his fate comes down to impressing coaches during offseason workouts and preseason games. Like many other athletes who are close enough to be considered for the league, but not quite good enough to get a guaranteed spot on a roster, it’s a uncertain time. His future swings in the balance: are his football days behind him, or can he make a few key plays at the right time that will earn him a chance to play in front of thousands of screaming fans in a regular season NFL game?

Seibert does a good job showing us the conflict and uncertainty around Schiller, the stress he faces being a hometown hero at the same time that he’s fighting for an unlikely roster spot on and NFL bench:

Later that evening, my last night in Geneva, Pat and I stopped into a few of the local haunts along his hometown’s historic main street (a location for the period film “Road to Perdition”). Wherever I went with “Mayor Schiller,” as one friend called him, drinks materialized and tabs disappeared. Owners, managers, friends and friends of friends all stopped by to ask how Pat was doing and to wish him well.

“It’s weird,” he said to me during a rare lull. “For some reason I’m cool because I’m able to play a game. And they don’t realize how hard and cutthroat it is now. They’ll say things like, ‘Hey, worst-case scenario, you’ll be on the practice squad.’ And I’m thinking, Are you kidding? That would be unbelievable. But these people are really counting on me, and I feel a lot of pressure to not let them down. That’s a big part of what drives me. And I like being the interesting guy, you know? I want to be talked about and turn heads when I walk into a place. Who doesn’t? It sounds so egotistic, but it’s what it is. And to think this is all going to be done one day, probably sooner than later, and I’ll have to face reality. Have a 9-to-5 job, not be Mr. Interesting anymore and never have the rush that I get before games. That’s scary to me.”

Like hundreds of other would-be NFL players, Schiller struggles with the possibility that at 22 or 23, his career as star athlete has peaked, and it may be time to drop a lifelong dream.

As Schiller continues to struggle to make the squad, his hopes start to hinge on the health of other players, and the reader gets to see the macabre but real aspect of the game: an injury to one player is an opportunity for someone else:

Somehow it wasn’t until we were watching postgame highlights that either of us noticed the backup linebacker, Robert James, whose former place on the practice squad Pat now held, had come into the game sometime during the fourth quarter. Pat sat bolt upright, grabbed the remote and scrolled back through the game to determine the precise moment James entered. He then went to the Falcons’ game thread on his computer, eyes narrowing, lips slightly parted in anticipation.

“Stephen Nicholas,” he muttered. “Ankle.”

For the next two days of my visit, we were on the Stephen Nicholas ankle watch. Texts and calls came from all directions. Everyone Pat knew, it seemed, was aware of Nicholas’s ankle. Gruder, with whom Pat had only exchanged a couple of text messages since Gruder was released in August, wrote, “You getting called up this week?” Chris Browning of ProForce phoned to ask the same thing. Over dinner the following night, the number of Dave Lee, Pat’s agent, flashed up on Pat’s cellphone. Pat held the phone to his ear. A protracted silence.

The story is a revealing, inside look at what it takes to make it as a pro athlete. Seibert lets us see the physical and psychological toll it takes on the players on the edges of the game.

Read The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot →

“The Lost City of Z” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 16)

There are longreads. And then there are long longreads. And then there are epic, holy-f@#king-shit longreads that just leave you blown away.

The Lost City of Z,” by David Grann in the September 19, 2005 issue of The New Yorker fits into that last category.

Percy Fawcett

Photo of explorer Percy Fawcett; source unknown

At just over 20,000 words, “The Lost City of Z” tells a sprawling story than spans more than a century, centered around British explorer Percy Fawcett — a real-world Indiana Jones — who ventured into the Amazon forest in 1925, searching for ruins of the fabled “City of Z,” a prehistoric civilization he believed to be buried somewhere out in the undiscovered jungle.

The story follows Fawcett’s expedition, which ventured into unmapped parts of the Amazon, never to return; several efforts by other explorers to find Fawcett, or his evidence of his demise; and finally, the author’s journey to Brazil to re-trace Fawcett’s footsteps. Grann tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the explorer, but also, if the City of Z he sought actually existed. It’s a fascinating history, with adventure and suspense across multiple narratives.

There’s so much to love about this story. First off, there’s the massive body of research packed into this piece. There’s so much here that the story was later expanded into a full length book. But in this initial version in The New Yorker, Grann gives us rich details from Fawcett’s own writings, mixed with beautiful description of what they experienced, like this:

Fawcett’s team stayed in Galvão’s red brick manor for several days, eating and resting. At one point, Galvão later told a reporter, Fawcett removed from his belongings a strange object covered in cloth. He carefully unwrapped it, revealing a ten-inch stone idol with almond-shaped eyes and hieroglyphics carved on its chest. Rider Haggard, Fawcett’s friend, had obtained it from someone in Brazil and given it to Fawcett, who believed that it was a relic of Z.

Then the three Englishmen were on their way again, heading east, toward Bakairí Post, where in 1920 the Brazilian government had set up a garrison—“the last point of civilization,” as the settlers referred to it. Occasionally, the dense forest opened up, revealing the blinding sun and blue-tinged mountains in the distance. The trail became harder, and the men descended steep, mud-slicked gorges and crossed rock-strewn rapids, where they had to check their skin for traces of blood, which might attract piranhas. They also had to remain alert for a pernicious eel-like fish called a candiru, which, as Fawcett once wrote, “seeks to enter the natural orifices of the body, whether human or animal, and once inside cannot be extracted.” Fawcett had seen one specimen that had been removed from a man’s penis. “Many deaths result from this fish, and the agony it can cause is excruciating,” he wrote.

Through the historical records, private notes, and correspondence, the 57-year-old Fawcett comes alive in this story as a very human figure.

The subsequent searches for Fawcett and revelations along the way become equally colorful. The explorers who followed Fawcett often met grim fates and gruesome endings. In the middle of the story, we learn that one of his descendants ominously came into possession of Fawcett’s ring, which had been recovered in 1979 by a filmmaker in Brazil:

Montet-Guerin said that she wanted to show me one more thing. It was a photograph of Fawcett’s gold signet ring, which was engraved with the family motto, “Nec Aspera Terrent”—essentially, “Difficulties Be Damned.” In 1979, an Englishman named Brian Ridout, who was making a wildlife film in Brazil, heard rumors that the ring had turned up at a store in Cuiabá. By the time Ridout tracked down the shop, the proprietor had died. His wife, however, searched through her possessions and emerged with Colonel Fawcett’s ring. Montet-Guerin, who had since put the ring in safekeeping, said, “It’s the last concrete item we have from the expedition.”

Montet-Guerin had been desperate to learn more, she said, and had once showed the ring to a psychic. I asked her if she had learned anything. She looked down at the picture, then up at me. “It had been bathed in blood,” she said.

Hollywood couldn’t write that any better.

But the core of the story is really about Grann’s efforts to try and find the lost city Fawcett was searching for at the time he disappeared. Grann slowly unspools two narratives in parallel: the more we learn about Fawcett’s history, the further along Grann advances in his own adventure. In the present day, he retraces Fawcett’s steps just as he reveals details from the historical part of the story.

Grann experiences the conditions first-hand that unraveled so many previous expeditions. As he treks through the jungle himself, he lives through some of the same fear that others faced:

Occasionally, I slipped in the mud, falling in the water. I yelled out Pinage’s name, but there was no response. Exhausted, I found a grassy knoll that was only a few inches below the waterline, and sat down. My pants filled with water as I listened to the frogs. The sun burned my face and hands, and I wiped muddy water on myself in a vain attempt to cool down.

After half an hour, I stood again and tried to find the correct path. I walked and walked; in one spot, the water rose to my waist, and I lifted the bags above my head. Each time I thought that I had reached the end of the mangrove forest, a new swath opened up before me—large patches of tall, damp reeds clouded with mosquitoes, which ate into me.

I won’t spoil anything else here, but suffice it to say: this is an amazing piece of nonfiction: part history, part detective story, part adventure. I’m in awe of the work and research that went into this story. Excellent storytelling and writing bring it all together. Despite this being the longest story I’ve read so far this month, I’d have happily read more.

Read The Lost City of Z” →

“Lottery Winner Jack Whittaker’s Losing Ticket” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 15)

It’s a cliché to say that money can’t buy happiness, but in the case of Jack Whittaker, who won $314.9 million in the Powerball lottery in 2002, the story is a lot worse than that. In a story that feel like it was pulled from a Hollywood screenplay, Lottery Winner Jack Whittaker’s Losing Ticket by David Samuel in the December 12, 2012 issue of BusinessWeek, breaks down Whittaker’s misfortunes after winning the lottery.

Jack Whittaker, and his family, posing after winning the lottery

Photo by Bob Bird/AP Photo

Samuel’s story on Whittaker is written very straightforward and journalistic style. There aren’t a lot of literary, poetic flourishes here (the story is for BusinessWeek, not The New Yorker, after all). But what stands out to me in this story is how much fine reporting is packed into the piece, and how well Samuel peppers the narrative with concrete, vivid details.

The opening two paragraphs are a great example of this:

Jack Whittaker, a 55-year-old contractor from Scott Depot, W.Va., had worked his way up from backcountry poverty to build a water-and-sewer-pipe business that employed over 100 people. He was a millionaire several times over. But when he awoke at 5:45 a.m. on Christmas morning in 2002, everything he’d built in his life held only passing significance next to a scrap of paper in his worn leather wallet—a $1 Powerball lottery ticket bearing the numbers 5, 14, 16, 29, 53, and 7.

Whittaker had purchased his lucky ticket, along with two bacon-stuffed biscuits, at the C&L Super Serve convenience store in the town of Hurricane on Dec. 24, 2002. That night, Whittaker went to bed thinking he’d missed winning the lottery by one digit—only to wake up on Christmas Day to find that the number had been broadcast incorrectly and the winning ticket was in his hand. “I got sick at my stomach, and I just was [at] a loss for words and advice,” he later remembered. When he returned to the convenience store on Monday, he quietly told the woman at the cash register he’d won. “No you didn’t,” she replied. “You’re not excited enough to win the lottery.”

Aside from some essential information: his age, where he was from, and what he did for a living, we also find out exactly when he woke up on Christmas morning, what kind of wallet he carried, the exact numbers on his ticket, what he ate the night before, the name of the store where be bought the ticket, and what was said between him and the woman at the register the next day. Most of those are small things, but they flesh out the scene. Sometimes it’s not great metaphors or turns of phrase that make writing feel alive, it’s the simple use of precise details.

Whittaker’s initial response and public statements show him to be generous and thoughtful about his good fortune: he donates a sizable part of his winnings to found two churches, set up a foundation for the needy, and even buys a new car and a house to the “biscuit lady” at the C&L. But the story quickly turns for the worse, with his family crumbling around him and his own behavior becoming wildly erratic and lawless. His teenage granddaughter, Brandi Bragg, with whom he was particularly close, also spirals out of control.

The heart of the story is a meticulously reported account of the many things that went wrong since the day Whitthaker posed with that massive pretend lottery check for the media. It goes from comical to disturbing to tragic.

And then the second part of the story shifts to Samuel’s efforts to track down and talk to the increasingly reclusive Whitaker. And here, the reporting is direct, but offers little elements of metaphor:

In the ten years since he became the wealthiest lottery winner in history, Whittaker has spoken rarely with the press. There have been reports that he’s broke. His name isn’t listed in the phone book, and none of his businesses—which include a bewildering variety of names and addresses—seem to be currently operating. At the rural address on the tax returns of the Jack Whittaker Foundation, there’s little more than a muddy lot with a few trailers and rows of used construction equipment. At the end of the lot, a small single-story building with a sign on the door reads “Please ring bell for assistance.”

In October, I rang the bell and waited in the rain. Through the glass of the door, I could see a photocopied color snapshot of a smiling blonde girl with hazel eyes, whom I recognized as Bragg. The plant by the front desk was dead, and judging by the leaves on the carpet, had been for a while. Around back a man in work clothes was sitting in his Jeep, waiting for the tank to fill up with diesel. “You won’t find him here,” he said. He offered a rough location for another Whittaker office, half an hour away.

Samuel’s description of the “muddy lot” where the Jack Whittaker Foundation exists today conveys a lot that he doesn’t have to say explicitly. And there’s no journalistic reason for him to mention the dead plant at the front desk and the fallen leaves on the carpet; they serve the story symbolically.

I enjoyed this story — it’s a superb piece of reporting — but I wish Samuel could have fleshed out the story a bit by talking with other figures in the story to get more of a sense of Whitthaker, stuff that wouldn’t show up on the police reports. I’d love to have heard from the Biscuit Lady, or one of the people at the many strip clubs he frequented, or someone who had been aided by his foundation. The story gives us a lot about the man, but it feels like we only get to understand him from a distance. Samuel makes it clear in the story that Whitthaker didn’t really want to talk to him. But as Gay Talese showed long ago, sometimes the best way to tell someone’s story it to talk to the people around them.

Samuel did a fine job here with limited access to the subject of his story. The reporting and storytelling is excellent, even if the story itself is a bit of a downer. He sprinkles the story with details and little bits of symbolism here and there to round out the edges of the piece. I’m not sure what to make of Whitthaker by the end of the story, but it has me thinking twice about how much better life would be if I won the lottery tomorrow.

Read “Lottery Winner Jack Whittaker’s Losing Ticket” →

“The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 14)

Within the narrative nonfiction, there is a wide range of genres, including, but not limited to: history, profiles, reported essays, investigative reports, and longform features. And then you occasionally get something like this, which is harder to classify, other than that it’s simply a great story.

The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever by Michael J. Mooney in D Magazine reads like a fictional short story, but it’s true.

Bill Fong

Photo by Tadd Myers

The story centers on Bill Fong, an amateur bowler, and the night he had a shot at perfection. One thing makes the story work is that Mooney takes his time introducing Fong as a character and shows us why his one night of greatness would matter so much to him. The background gives the reader empathy for Fong and a reason to feel invested:

Aside from bowling, Bill Fong hasn’t had a lot of success in life. His Chinese mother demanded perfection, but he was a C student. He never finished college, he divorced young, and he never made a lot of money. By his own account, his parents didn’t like him much. As a bowler, his average in the high 230s means he’s probably better than anyone you know. But he’s still only tied as the 15th best bowler in Plano’s most competitive league. Almost nothing in life has gone according to plan.

He likes to say he got his approach to bowling from the hard-hitting alleys in his native Chicago, where he went to high school with Michelle Obama. He was one of the few kids from Chinatown interested in bowling at the time. Despite his strict mother and the fact that his friends were all on the honor roll, little William preferred sports. He dreamed of being a professional athlete one day. He wasn’t big—too short for basketball, too slender for football—but he’d run up and down the block as a boy, racing imaginary friends.

When Fong was young, his parents divorced. He remembers the man who would become his stepdad taking his mom out on dates to a local bowling alley, where they could bring the kids. He noticed that when he was bowling, he wasn’t thinking about whatever was going on behind him. His mind could focus on the ball, the lane, the pins—and the rest of the world would disappear.

A second thing that makes this story work is that it’s just told very well. It’s dramatic, suspenseful, and written with visual details that give the reader a sense of how it looked and sounded at the Plano Super Bowl that memorably night.

The story reads like a real-life sports movie, with the underdog, underachieving Fong having the night of his life. He throws strike after strike, edging closer to a nearly impossible perfect night:

As he sent strike after strike down the lanes, he began to feel magical. Literally, the way he was commanding the balls to turn and burrow into the unsuspecting pins, it felt a little like he was moving heavy objects with only the power of his mind. In the fourth frame, both the seven and the 10 pins stayed up just a bit longer than he wanted. As he gestured with both arms, they fell. Something similar happened in the eighth frame.

“It was like Moses parting the sea,” he says. “I’d move my hands and everything would get out of the way.”

The drama builds and the pressure mounts as Fong gets closer and closer to hitting a level perfection to a degree than only a few bowlers have achieved. It leads to a tense, dramatic climactic moment and a surprising twist at the end.

Each time he approached the lane, the entire bowling alley went silent. Every time he let fly another roll, there were audible moans from strangers and shouts from the crowd: “That’s it, baby!” Each time he struck, the room erupted with applause. In all his life, Bill Fong had never heard anyone cheering him like that.

As a sports fan (and a sucker for good sports movies) one thing I’ve always loved is the chance to witness someone else’s greatest moment, a transcendant performance that will be remembered forever. And if that person is an underdog, even better. There’s something powerful about the idea that someone is chasing their dream, overcoming fears and adversity, and giving everything they have. Sports can crystallize those moments, focus them down to a single swing or shot or throw, or, in this case, a roll.

No spoilers here, other than to say that you should read this great story.

Read The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever →

“The Secret History of Guns” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 13)

As a big fan of authors like Adam Hochschild and Laura Hillenbrand, I’m always impressed with writers who can write about history in a riveting, colorful way. So many of the history books I read in high school and college were lifeless, tedious marches through events, places, and dates. But the best modern nonfiction writers like Hillenbrand and Hochschild make history feel fresh, vibrant, and relevant.

Adam Winkler’s The Secret History of Guns” from the September 2011 issue of The Atlantic is another fine example of a longform article that reveals history in a fresh, engaging way.

A gun with the barrel bent backwards

Artwork by Joseph Durning/Durning 3D

The politics of guns and gun control have been debated endlessly in newspapers and magazines over the years, but there has been much less written about the history of the issue. Winkler’s story is a surprising bit of history that shows how much the ideology behind guns and regulations have reversed dramatically over the years. And he tells that history with a keen sense of narrative.

For starters he opens with a scene that seem almost inconceivable today:

THE EIGHTH-GRADE STUDENTS gathering on the west lawn of the state capitol in Sacramento were planning to lunch on fried chicken with California’s new governor, Ronald Reagan, and then tour the granite building constructed a century earlier to resemble the nation’s Capitol. But the festivities were interrupted by the arrival of 30 young black men and women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols.

The 24 men and six women climbed the capitol steps, and one man, Bobby Seale, began to read from a prepared statement. “The American people in general and the black people in particular,” he announced, must “take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.”

Seale then turned to the others. “All right, brothers, come on. We’re going inside.” He opened the door, and the radicals walked straight into the state’s most important government building, loaded guns in hand. No metal detectors stood in their way.

Not only is this a gripping bit of history, framed with some nice details (the kids getting ready to eat with Governor Reagan, the specific firearms the Panthers arrived with, and the fact that there was no metal detector at the entrance of the state capitol in 1967), but it’s written with a cinematic appreciation for the symbolic importance of a moment. It doesn’t hurt that Bobby Seale was a great character with a talent for the dramatic.

Winkler also leave the reader stunned, dying to know what happened next. It’s a fine use of dramatic tension.

This scene serves as a launching point to explore the constitutional issues that have shaped gun rights and regulations since the birth of the nation, and why, until more modern times, the left was often the side pushing for guns rights, while the right often fought to restrict them.

To illustrate this, Winkler recreates another scene in which Huey Newton, one of the Black Panther leaders, has an armed confrontation with a police officer:

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” an officer responded.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?,” Newton replied indignantly. He told the officer that he and his friends had a legal right to have their firearms.

Newton got out of the car, still holding his rifle.

“What are you going to do with that gun?” asked one of the stunned policemen.

“What are you going to do with your gun?,” Newton replied.

By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.”

This scene isn’t just for the sake of drama. Winkler goes on to demonstrate how the arguments and the ideology of the Black Panthers will later be embraced and appropriated by the modern gun rights lobby. What was the rhetoric of the radical left in the 1960s becomes the arguments of mainstream conservatives today.

The story isn’t all dramatic moments like this; in fact, the majority of the piece is a methodical look at the history of gun laws in America from colonial times to present day. It challenges readers to drop their assumptions as to who stood on which side of gun laws. White Southerners sought to restrict gun rights in the reconstruction-era South, while freed slaves argued for Second Amendment rights. The National Rifle Association — yes, the N-fucking-R-A — supported gun registration and restrictions in the 1930s. Ronald Reagan fought for gun control at a time when the Black Panthers opposed it.

Start-to-finish, this is a great read and a surprising look at the history of gun control in America.

Read The Secret History of Guns →

“Netherland” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 12)

When I read through the latest issue of The New Yorker, I thought that I might write-up my take on two other longform pieces in the magazine, the profile of Alabama radio host Paul Finebaum or Ken Auletta’s feature on Elisabeth Murdoch. But the story that grabbed me instantly and haunted me after I put it down was Rachel Aviv’s feature on homeless gay, lesbian, and transgender youth in New York City, “Netherland.”

Christopher Street Pier

Photo by Alice Proujansky

The article introduces the reader to this world mostly through the eyes of one young gay woman, “Samantha,” and her experiences on the streets. “Netherland” begins with Samantha’s decision to leave home in Florida and run away to New York. Before she leaves, we learn a lot about her. We learn that she was a straight-A student; she loved to write; she began to realize she was a lesbian when she found herself lusting for Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider; she was molested by a family friend; when she told her parents about the abuse, her mother suggested it was a hallucination.

We also see that, for someone planning to live on the streets in Manhattan, she was quite Type A about her preparations:

In a purple spiral-bound notebook, she created a guide for life on the streets. She listed the locations of soup kitchens, public libraries, bottle-return vending machines, thrift stores, and public sports clubs, where she could slip in for free showers. Under the heading “known homeless encampments,” she wrote down all the parks, boardwalks, and tunnels where she could sleep and the subway line she’d take to get there. Her most detailed entry was a description of an abandoned trai tunnel in Harlem and the name of a photographer who had taken pictures of the homeless people who lived in it. She hoped that if she mentioned the photographer’s name she would be “accepted by the underground society.”

As she sets off to New York, Aviv doesn’t tell Samantha’s story in a manipulative or sentimental way. The story is written in a matter-of-fact and straightforward manner, blending Samantha’s stories with observations and facts about homeless LGBT youth in New York City. It is very revealing and personal, but Aviv doesn’t go for the heartstrings; she reports the story with an even, almost cold detachment. She reports the truth that she finds as she follows Samantha as she moves in and out of homeless LGBT circles.

The reader gets an inside look at homelessness in New York, but also the experience of being gay, young, and homeless. Not surprisingly, Samantha’s life on the streets isn’t as easy as she expects, and she struggles to find food, shelter, and friends she can trust. She finds “family,” but it’s unclear if she can rely on them any more than she relied the family she left behind in Florida. Samantha becomes hardened and savvy to the streets.

In one section, Aviv shares some of the methods Samantha refines for getting the best results when panhandling:

Her favorite place to panhandle was a leafy block of Hudson Street near the Chambers Street subway station, where thousands of professionals converged during rush hour. Samantha noticed that when she looked “stereotypically movie homeless,” wearing ripped sweatpants and a baggy, dirty sweater, she could bring in nearly twice as much as when she wore her usual clothes. Christina helped her come up with a convincing hairdo: two braids, smothered with Vaseline. “I wanted to look as small as possible, like vulnerable,” Samantha said. She sat on a milk crate with her knees drawn to her chest, her arm draped over a pink backpack; she was convinced that the color made her seem more sympathetic.

This isn’t a policy story: it doesn’t suggest any solutions to the growing problem of LGBT homelessness. And it doesn’t offer ideas for how to prevent more girls like Samantha from running away to live a risky, dangerous life on the streets. But it is powerful in revealing a world that few of us know about or understand.

I would love to know how Aviv reported this story: did she spend weeks with Samantha? Days? How much did she see first hand? How much did leave out of the story?

Aviv seems nonjudgmental and detached as she reports on the various subcultures and groups that Samantha encounters. She doesn’t press an ideological or political angle with the story, aside from a general awareness that for thousands of homeless LGBT youth in New York City and countless other American cities, options are few and hope is in very short supply.

The end of this story is ambiguous. In the closing scenes, we see warmth and friendship between Samantha and some old friends. There is reason for optimism about Samantha’s future, but also, a looming sense that it could all crumble away overnight.

One reason this is a great story is that I keep thinking about it; about Samantha and the various friends she meets along the way. A few months or years from now, I’ll probably wonder what happened to her and where she wound up. Aviv’s narrative ends in the middle of Samantha’s story, and the reader is left only to imagine what happens next.

Read Netherland →

[Note: the link to this story goes, unfortunately, to clunky, nightmarish-to-read, paywalled New Yorker site. So if you’re not a subscriber, hopefully you can grab a copy of the December 10 edition of the magazine and check it out. Otherwise, wait a few months from now and it should b available in full text online to nonsubscribers.]

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.