APRIL 16, 2015
IN THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER, Janet Malcolm observes,
While the novelist, when casting about for a hero or a heroine, has all of human nature to choose from, the journalist must limit his protagonists to a small group of people of a certain rare, exhibitionistic, self-fabulizing nature.
Because of the examples she offers of subjects who meet these criteria — Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould and Truman Capote’s Perry Smith — I have always assumed that Malcolm was referring to subjects who have not only lived unusual lives but also will not stop talking about them — voluble folks who live to eat up minutes on digital recorders. And because of Malcolm’s stature as a writer, I have always regarded these words as important advice.
On the evidence of his new collection, however, Michael Paterniti doesn’t agree. He has spent the past 15 years roaming the globe in search not of big, commanding personalities, but, instead, taciturn isolates — people who, whether by virtue of catastrophic accidents, medical errors, natural disasters, or their own unchecked exuberance, have been pushed to the periphery of social life, and don’t necessarily want to talk about their experience.
Which makes his job as a writer a lot more difficult. Janet Malcolm had a point: How do you persuade a middling Nanjing office worker to explain what motivates him to spend all his free time standing watch, in a “grand monotony,” to stop jumpers (he claims to have saved 174 so far) on a four-mile-long bridge known as a popular suicide spot? Unable, at first, to get Mr. Chen to put down his binoculars, Paterniti concludes he “didn’t seem to care a whit about me unless I planned to jump.”
And what do you do with another profile subject who, asked how he’s spent his day, answers that he’d “listened to the radio for five minutes and had brushed his teeth.” Alfred, this stingy conversationalist, is a middle-aged Iranian (his given name is Mehran) living out an immigration nightmare that began when he dropped his refugee papers in the mailbox of a ship bound for England, which, after denying him entry, sent him to France. When he tried again, and was again sent back, he gave up hope of living a normal life and settled in Charles de Gaulle airport. By the time Paterniti finds him in Terminal 1, stretched out on a bench under a blanket “like a body in a sarcophagus,” 15 years of this peculiar arrangement have already passed.
By pursuing subjects like Mr. Chen and Alfred, Paterniti (and his editors) are taking two kinds of risks. The first is that Paterniti won’t be able to build a good profile around a void. But mostly he does, thanks to a keen eye for the physical accouterments of loneliness (Alfred’s “fortress of possessions” includes “six Lufthansa luggage boxes,” a “collection of plastic beverage lids,” and a “pile of McDonald’s coupons”) and a talent for mythologizing.
There is also a risk in writing about people who can boast neither professional accomplishments nor real fame. Although there is a great tradition in American literary journalism of writing about ordinary lives (Joseph Mitchell would have appreciated these stories), in doing this, Paterniti is pressing against a tide. Once, after politely listening to a pitch he’d made to write about untried Khmer Rouge leaders, an editor said, “What people tend to miss is that George Clooney’s much more than an actor.” (Even so, his story about Cambodia, which focuses on a prison camp survivor, was eventually published in GQ and is included in this volume.)
Point taken: Clooney, like the movies he anchors, is a safe choice, but sending a reporter to interview Leonid Stadnik, a potato farmer in western Ukraine, even if that farmer is 8 feet and 4 inches tall and growing, is a gamble. The result of that gamble, “The Giant,” captures a man who can change a ceiling light bulb while seated at his dining room table but can’t ride the bus, poignantly evoking how his life has been diminished by his size.
However, there’s more to this frequently excellent collection than stories of small (or abnormally large) lives. It includes, for example, a profile of Ferran Adrià, the El Bulli chef who ushered in an era of surrealism in cooking by deconstructing traditional Spanish dishes like gazpacho, which became “a sculpture garden” of halved tomatoes, cucumber slivers, and peeled onions: a kind of prelude to a soup. He stuck a tomato with a bicycle pump to produce his first batch of a foam he called “cloud.” Although, Adrià, too, is a solitary man; at 39, Paterniti reports, he still lives much of the year in his childhood room in his parents’ modest house in Barcelona.
There are also stories from which, if you hold your ear close enough to the page, you may hear a voice whisper, “film rights.” They have large casts and demonstrate an ambition to not just tell a story but encompass it. “The Long Fall of Flight One-Eleven Heavy” reports on the aftermath of the 1998 crash off the coast of Nova Scotia of Swissair Flight 111 from the perspectives of a gruff coroner, a television reporter, and the father of the 23-year-old who was flying from New York to Geneva to see him. “Eating Jack Hooker’s Crow” is a tale of immigration and assimilation told from the points of view of two competing Dodge City, Kansas motel owners: one a Cambodian striver, the other a crusty xenophobe.
The longest piece in this collection is also the easiest to summarize: “Driving Mr. Albert” tells of a 1990s cross-country road trip Paterniti makes with Albert Einstein’s brain, in Tupperware, in his trunk. Beside him in the passenger seat is Dr. Thomas Harvey, who, as a young pathologist at Princeton Hospital, was charged with performing Einstein’s autopsy back in 1955. After completing the task Harvey broke with protocol to saw open the cranium and retrieve the contained as a kind of keepsake. Ostensibly as a favor, Paterniti has offered to transport Harvey and the brain from New Jersey to Berkeley, so that Harvey (now 84) can show it to Einstein’s granddaughter.
Originally published in Harper’s, “Driving Mr. Albert,” which won the 1998 National Magazine Award, was Paterniti’s first major magazine story. He later expanded it into a book by the same title. Nearly 20 years later, “Driving Mr. Albert” can feel rambling and shaggy. It includes extended meditations on Einstein’s scientific and pop-cultural legacies that begin to feel like padding, perhaps even more so because Paterniti never quite plumbs the despair Harvey felt as his beloved hunk of gray matter — which he dutifully lugs in a duffel into each motel room along the way — ruined his medical career if not his whole life.
Writing for GQ and Esquire, Paterniti has learned (perhaps too well) to keep his fingerprints off his reporting. In many of the pieces collected here — “Eating Jack Hooker’s Crow,” “Flight One-Eleven Heavy,” and “The Man Who Sailed His House,” a story about a Japanese farmer who survived the 2011 tsunami by clinging to his corrugated metal roof — Paterniti takes the full license, first given to the New Journalists, to tell nonfiction stories using novelistic techniques, which include his prerogative to remove himself from the story. Working in this mode, the writer avoids the first-person pronoun as if it were a verboten cliché, but I was curious about his reporting methods — how did he track down that coroner, anyway? Sometimes I wanted Paterniti to poke through his neat narrative packages.
As it happens, in fact, the best piece in this collection is the most personal one. Paterniti tells us that it took him several years to write “The Accident,” a memoir of a senior year in high school cleaved by a car accident that killed a classmate but spared the driver, his best friend, Jax. His extra labor has paid off: the interweaving of the accident (and its aftermath) with memories of his experience as a volunteer for his town’s ambulance service during that year makes for a searing account of innocence suddenly lost. Weeks after finishing “The Accident,” you will find that your memory has trapped vivid shards of this story, which includes a spare and haunting triptych of Jax a few days, a few years, and, finally, three decades later. It’s a portrait from which, to be sure, much was subtracted. The same could be said of Jax.