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When journalists wrote themselves into the story


The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight

Marc Weingarten

Crown / 325 pages

In The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight, his survey of what used to warrant the name New Journalism, Marc Weingarten demonstrates two things clearly. The first: There is no substitute for reading the classics of this genre firsthand. The second: The writers who are commonly lumped together in this category didn't have that much in common after all.

"Was it a movement?" Weingarten asks about the explosion of dramatically personal nonfiction that arose in the 1960s and broke all the old rules. No, it wasn't. These weren't the Beats or the Abstract Expressionists, and they weren't even terribly collegial. Their respective bodies of work did not really intersect.

But this book's heavy hitters - Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin (author of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight), Gay Talese, John Sack, Michael Herr, Hunter S. Thompson and, to some degree, Norman Mailer - shared an awareness that ordinary reporting was not adequate to the turbulence of either popular culture or politics at that time. And each of them found an exciting, idiosyncratic way to reinvent the nonfiction narrative.

"This is how it all went down.," Weingarten writes, with a nod to the era's scorn for plain old punctuation; after all, Wolfe was capable of using ":::::" as a figure of speech. Then Weingarten goes into the greatest hits roundup that is this book's main raison d'etre. He examines the making of the period's best-known nonfiction in admiring, sometimes illuminating detail.

So he is with Thompson during his early misadventures with the Hells Angels, and on the trips, both geographic and psychedelic, that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson's "shoot-from-the-hip-flask reporting" makes him a natural, flamboyant favorite here. As an editor, Jim Silberman of Random House, once said to Thompson: "Your method of research is to tie yourself to a railroad track when you know a train is coming to it, and see what happens."

Weingarten is also with Wolfe, first with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and later at Leonard and Felicia Bernstein's fundraiser for the Black Panthers, the party that would live in infamy in Radical Chic. He is with Herr in the Vietnam of Dispatches, and he slouches toward Bethlehem, briefly, with Didion. (She is the least effectively explored figure here; her work already articulates whatever Weingarten might say about her.) He is with Mailer during the boozy antics that found their way into The Armies of the Night.

A parasitical chronicler could confine himself to piggybacking and just quote abundantly from these neo-Olympians. But Weingarten also makes a serious if not wildly original effort to trace these writers' stylistic innovations. Some of his material comes from interviews with many principals - including Clay Felker of New York magazine and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, whom he deems (along with Harold Hayes of Esquire, who died in 1989 and left an unpublished memoir that is a resource here) the most visionary and laissez-faire editors of their time.

But a lot of the book recapitulates the same first-person stories that gave this brand of journalism its immediacy. Readers who know the original writing may yawn at the rehashing and paraphrasing in Weingarten's version.

Still, this book can be regarded as a tour guide's view of Mount Rushmore. It is intelligent hagiography with a moderate interest in the roots, progress and eventual decline of New Journalism's methods.

As he looks to the past, Weingarten cites Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens, Henry Adams, Jack London and George Orwell as early practitioners of first-person, semi-fictionalized reportorial writing. Looking forward, he sees both a cheapening of New Journalism tactics into cliche (think of any magazine story with a first-person, present-tense lead to set its scene) and legitimate heirs to the genre's best legacy. Ted Conover (Newjack), Michael Lewis (Moneyball), Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (Random Family), Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air), Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), and Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) are mentioned as keepers of the flame.

Although The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight admires the pioneering audacity of its central figures, it also weighs the trouble they created. Even while Wolfe was in his early prime, zeroing in on the class striations that would loom so large for New Journalists, there were Wolfe imitators everywhere; the book provides some painful illustrations.

And along with the idea of telling feature stories from the viewpoints of their subjects came an unfortunate eagerness to conflate, exaggerate or just make up characters. The book describes how one prominent newspaper editor doubted Breslin's veracity enough to visit a hangout that figured in Breslin's column. The thugs and boozers and mobsters of Breslin's stories were really there, as advertised.

New Journalism's greatest missteps are here amid its greatest hits. Consider the repercussions of Breslin's novel but maudlin means of covering the assassination of President Kennedy. ("That's nice soil," a cemetery superintendent told him, when Breslin decided to find the human interest side of the Kennedy gravedigger's story.) Consider the lingering mistrust created by Gail Sheehy's "Redpants and Sugarman," the New York magazine series in which Sheehy claimed to be transcribing the thoughts of a prostitute but had made up a composite character.

And consider Truman Capote, an earlier New Journalism pioneer, currently depicted on film in Capote as a celebrity sweeping into Kansas in 1959 to research the crime story in tiny Holcomb that would become In Cold Blood. He would indeed become famous for this work, but a degree of exaggeration goes with this territory. At the time, "no one recognized him or his work," Weingarten maintains. "Only two high school teachers had ever read any of his books."

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