Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
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Readings and panel discussions generally serve as excuses to go see our favorite writers in person. By contrast, the great virtue of the PEN World Voices Festival is the range of discoveries it affords. Now in its fifth year, the festival brings writers from all over the globe to Manhattan for a series of mostly free and brilliantly curated events. Without the PEN festival, I wouldn't have gotten to know and admire the work of writers including Péter Esterházy, Alain Mabanckou, Tatyana Tolstaya, and Horacio Castellanos Moya.That said, plotting a path through the packed schedule gets a little more difficult each year. Fiendish counter-programming, the imperative to avoid cover charges, and the difficulty of traveling, say 55 city blocks in under 10 minutes in the rain (true story) require that festival-goers muster some strategy. If you're going to be in New York between April 29 and May 3 (for, say, The Millions' Walking Tour of Independent Bookstores) I can offer you the following tips for navigating PEN World Voices: Town Hall = long; Joe's Pub = fun; Austrian Cultural Forum = cramped; NYRB = expensive.Perhaps more productively, here are some highlights from this year's schedule, free unless otherwise noted:April 29Anagrama: Celebrating 40 Years of Independent Publishing in Spainwith Francisco Goldman, A.M. Homes, Siri Hustvedt, Daniel Sada, and Enrique Vila-Matas; moderated by Jorge Herralde6-7:30 p.m., Instituto Cervantes New York, 211-215 East 49th StreetApril 30Tendencies in Spanish Language Literaturewith Bernardo Atxaga, Javier Calvo, Santiago Roncagliolo, and Enrique Vila-Matas; moderated by Barbara Epler4 p.m.-5:30 p.m., Instituto Cervantes New York, 211-215 East 49th StreetLanguage in New Forms: The Work of Andrey Platonovwith T.J. Clark, Wendy Lesser, Michael Ondaatje, and Francine Prose6-7:30 p.m., Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth AvenueKafka in Americawith Louis Begley, Norbert Gstrein, Mark Harman, Lynne Tillman, and Colm Tóibín; moderated by Jonathan Taylor6:30-8 p.m., Austrian Cultural Forum, 11 East 52nd Street (reservations required)The New York Review of Books: The Economic Crisis and How to Deal With Itwith Senator Bill Bradley, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini, George Soros, and Robin Wells; moderated by Jeff Madrick and introduced by Robert Silvers7:30 p.m., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, 1000 Fifth Avenue; enter for the event at Fifth Avenue and 83rd Street ($25/$20 PEN members/Metropolitan Museum of Art members and New York Review of Books subscribers)DEFIANCE: The Spirit of '89with Eszter Babarczy, Jose Dalisay, Nick Flynn, Sergio Ramírez, Hwang Sok-Yong, János Térey, and Paul Verhaeghen9 p.m., Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette Street ($15/$10 PEN & ACLU members)May 1Left/Right Literature: The Politics of Taking Up the Penwith Nadeem Aslam, Norbert Gstrein, Mariken Jongman, Khet Mar, and Domenico Starnone1-2:30 p.m., Scandinavia House, 58 Park AvenueThe Language of Fear: A PEN Journal Eventwith Guillermo Fadanelli, Wayne Koestenbaum, Colum McCann, Kathrin Röggla, and Anya Ulinich; moderated by Jeffrey Lependorf6-7:30 p.m., Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth AvenueFour/Négywith Eszter Babarczy, Zsófia Bán, László Garaczi, and János Térey6:30-7:30 p.m., Deutsches Haus, 42 Washington MewsArmin Petras: We Are Camera7:30 p.m., Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth AvenueMay 2Mark Z. Danielewski and Rick Moody in Conversation1-2 p.m., The French Institute, Alliance Française: Florence Gould Hall: 55 East 59th StreetWhere Truth Lies: A Conversation on the Art of Fictionwith Marlon James, Jan Kjærstad, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Roxana Robinson; moderated by Noreen Tomassi1 p.m., location TBAWriters Who Are Translatorswith Brian Evenson, Forrest Gander, Cole Swensen, and Paul Verhaeghen; moderated by Martin Riker3 p.m., FIAF, Tinker Auditorium, 55 East 59th StreetConversation: Pétér Nádas and Daniel Mendelsohn3-4 p.m., Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth AvenueThe PEN Cabaretwith Laurie Anderson, Carrie Brownstein, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Steve Connell, David Conrad, Mark Z. Danielewski, James Franco, Peter Hirsch, Nick Laird, Walter Mosley, Parker Posey, Lou Reed, Sekou, and Sean Wilsey7:30 p.m., FIAF, Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street ($30/$25 FIAF/PEN members/students)May 3The Pan-European Picnic Redux1 p.m., venue TBAFaith & Fictionwith Nadeem Aslam, Brian Evenson, Jan Kjærstad, and Rick Moody; moderated by Albert Mobilio1 p.m., powerHouse Arena, 37 Main Street, BrooklynConversation: Richard Ford and Nam Le2-3 p.m., The Morgan Library & Museum, Gilder Lehrman Hall, 225 Madison Avenue
Fellow Millions staff writer Janet Potter and I enjoy a lot of the same books, and we were both giddy to read The Secret Place, the fifth book in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series. Janet got her paws on it early this summer and I read it in a breathless rush last week so that we could discuss ASAP. What follows is our email correspondence about the novel and French's work in general. Janet: I loved The Secret Place. I have been a fan of Tana French since I read In the Woods and The Likeness, but I felt that with Faithful Place and Broken Harbor she was kind of in a rut. Each of her books center on a Dublin homicide detective, and although they're not strictly a series, each new book's detective has been a character in a previous book. She established a sort of trademark formula in which the murder case that the detective was working had resonance in their own lives — usually by way of dragging up bad memories. In her first two books this gave the plot more depth than an average whodunit, but in the second two the personal connections to the case seemed overbearing. The Secret Place seemed to me both like a return to form — in that it was innovative and gripping; and a departure from it — in that she finally dumped the "this case has eerie connections to my personal life but I'm going to keep working it no matter how ill-advised that is" trope. And for this book she bravely took on the world of teenage girls — the murder in question took place at a girls' boarding school outside Dublin and a group of four friends — Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena — are the chief suspects. French has said that she would shamelessly hang around bus stops and shopping centers to listen to teenagers talk to each other, and my strongest impression of the book is how she used realistic teenage vernacular to convey enormous complexity. I'm a fan of YA books, but the characters in them are frequently aspirational (unless all the super hot, sensitive, artistically-inclined boys in my high school were hiding somewhere). The girls in The Secret Place are very recognizably obnoxious teenagers, and yet their lives and relationships are intricate and compelling — to the extent that I thought they were all idiots, and at one point or another I thought all of them capable of murder. I guess I'm not really ending with a question, other than do you agree? And did you like the book? Edan: I wish I had liked The Secret Place as much as you did! After the first 100 pages, I would have agreed with you--at first, I was compelled by this story of teenage girl friendship and, as always, I found French's trademark prose lively and surprising, phrases like, "little crunch of a grin" and "the acoustics were all swirl and ricochet." Although I hadn't gotten bored of French's mystery formula, as you had, I was pleased to see her attempt something different in her new book. As you say, it was refreshing that this murder case didn't hold a too-strong psychological power over its detectives; Detective Stephen Moran's professional motive (to get him off Cold Cases and onto the Murder Squad by working with the barbed Antoinette Conway) was enough to sustain my interest. I also enjoyed how the narrative switched back and forth between the present investigation, told from Stephen's first person perspective, and the time leading up to the murder itself, told from the teenage girls' perspectives. The structure reminded me of Gillian Flynn's Dark Places, which we've discussed before; such a sweep backward feels simultaneously magical (we can return to an innocent time!) and foreboding (we know the dead body is just around the bend!) The Secret Place plays the present off the past to provide the reader with a much fuller understanding of this private school and its machinations. I also enjoyed thinking about how being a teenage girl is a bit like being a detective, for both roles require a near-constant behavioral accommodation in order to get what you want: from a suspect or witness, or from a friend or a teacher. Dang, Tana, that's good. Unfortunately, for me, the book falters in its representation of the group of teenage girls that Holly Mackey and her tribe don't like. The main mean girl, Joanne, and her hangers-on Orla and Gemma, just don't feel three-dimensional. They never quite emerge from the roles they play, and, unlike Detective Moran, I didn't fully experience the power, tragedy, and thrill of their constructed selves. After about page 200, I grew bored of the drama between the girls; a lot of it felt repetitive. Likewise, the back-and-forth between Moran and Conway began to feel familiar. I wanted a more swift emotional arc. I wonder, if the book had been more taut, would it have worked for me? Generally, reading this just made me long for the terrific leanness of Dare Me and The Fever by Megan Abbott, two novels about teenage girls, secrets, and darkness. Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how Tana French didn't give this book a female victim. I'm glad that The Secret Place doesn't have a True Detective problem--you know, how its only women are dead or dancing naked. But I also wondered if that's what made me less invested in the story (credit wendy at dresshead.com). Did I much care who killed Christopher Harper? And was that because he was just some prep school asshole? As horrible as this sounds, is a female victim more valuable and/or dramatic to me? What are your thoughts? Janet: I hadn't drawn that connection between the adapto-manipulative behavior of teenage girls and detectives. That's really fascinating, and I think it's why those long scenes that are just a detective and one of the girls sitting on opposite sides of an interrogation table are so compelling. French has always relished describing interrogations at length, and goes into a lot of detail as to what's going on in both character's heads — how they're reading the other person, how they're adapting their behavior to regain control in the conversation — and the results could be likened both to a boxing match or a chess game. The interrogation scene in The Secret Place that involved three detectives and one teenage girl — Stephen, Antoinette, Frank Mackey (the protagonist of Faithful Place), and his daughter Holly — was psychologically complex, unpredictable, and good fun to read; perhaps the ultimate Tana French scene and by far my favorite in this book. I agree with you that Joanne's gang was a little two-dimensional, but I opted to think it was intentional. The friendship between our four main girls deepened and strengthened considerably throughout the year, and in the process their interactions with Joanne and her friends seem to bother them less and less. I think the juxtaposition between the two groups shows the change in Holly's group in starker relief. But is "deepened and strengthened" even the right expression? Frankly, the friendship between the four main girls became so important that it took over their lives, reminiscent of the friends in Tartt's A Secret History, and seemingly manifested its own supernatural power. Can we talk about that? What did you make of the supernatural elements of this book? Edan: You're right, French does relish the interrogation scene, and as I said a few years ago, in my analysis of her first three novels, her books teach you how to be a detective. In The Secret Place, we even get detective mythology: "And, somewhere in a locked back corner detectives think old ways. You take down a predator, whatever bleeds out of it flows into you. Spear a leopard, grow braver and faster. All that St. Kilda's gloss, that walk through old oak doors like you belong, effortless: I wanted that. I wanted to lick it off my banged-up fists along with my enemy's blood." That single passage is enough to reveal Detective Moran's weak spot: his desire, and inability, to belong. I loved the first interrogations of all eight girls. I loved seeing how each girl acted around the detectives--what a way to characterize! (It also made me wonder what Moran would sniff out in me: a need to be loved, a need to be sexy, a need to disappear...) By the time the book gets to Holly's final interrogation, though, I wasn't that interested in the mystery anymore, so it wasn't as effective. As for the friendship between Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena, I thought it complex and magical and tough in the way that these friendships sometimes are. Their relationship did get more intense, almost rigorous in its devotion...but then adulthood and sexual desire and natural human secrecy got in its way, which then caused all sorts of problems. The downfall of their group-friendship felt realistic and dramatic and upsetting. I guess I would have liked to see the same complexity brought to Joanne's circle, too, for certainly they are real young women, and not the paper dolls they pretend to be. The supernatural stuff delighted but didn't totally land for me. I think French does it better in Broken Harbor where the secret of the baby monitors and the holes in the wall are revealed to have logical explanations...but something inexplicable and eerie remains unanswerable. French was edging toward the supernatural in that novel, and finally got there in The Secret Place. Unfortunately, the powers of the girls felt a bit unfocused for me, and I wanted them to play a more significant role overall. I mean--there's their ability to move objects with their minds and stuff, and then there's Chris's ghost. I couldn't connect them--did I miss something? It felt muddled...but I love the idea and I want more of that from French in her next book. Let's talk about my favorite topic: gender roles. Moran was the feminine one, and Conway was the masculine one. He admired beauty in all its forms...and she grunted. What did you make of this role swap? Maybe this comes back to my question about French choosing a male victim--who is found covered in flowers, I might add. Janet: I ignored your earlier question about gender roles (to no avail, it seems), because while there are a lot of interesting gender dynamics, I don't have a unified theory of what French was trying to do with it. Unless she wasn't trying to do anything other than shift roles around and see what happens. Originally I thought the the feminine/masculine, good cap/bad cop dynamic between Stephen and Antoinette was intended to distance them from Rob and Cassie, French's detective team from In the Woods. In that earlier book, Cassie was the bubbly one whose rookie status on the otherwise all-male detective squad was legitimized by having a male partner. In this book, Stephen is the empathetic rookie and Antoinette is tough as nails, perhaps excessively so (but I guess we'll get into that in French's next book). The murder plot also hinges around gender roles — specifically around the psychology and limitations of female friendship and what happens when a guy starts to unwittingly threaten them (erring on the side of ambiguity to avoid giving too much away here). I agree that Chris, even as the murder victim, feels secondary to the murder plot. Solving the mystery requires digging into the social and emotional dynamic between the girls, and I felt that French was more interested in that process than in the fact that it resulted in uncovering the murderer. It's also interesting, then, that Stephen is the one who cracks the case. Antoinette had been there a year earlier and failed. Do you think was intentional? Did the case require Stephen's, uh, feminine touch? Or is he just the hero of the book? Edan: I'm also not sure what French was up to with the role reversals. I agree that Chris is secondary to the murder plot--not only to the book's own untangling of whodunit, but also to the girls themselves and their desires and sense of being threatened. He could have been anyone. And that is a bit shiver-inducing in its own right. I feel the need to quote this line, which, to me, was the best of the whole book, "Who who whose smell in the air of her room, whose fingerprints all over her friends' secret places." It suggests that The Secret Place is not only a bulletin board in the school hallway where girls can leave anonymous messages and pictures and the like, but also...a girl's private parts. I kind of wish the book had been called The Vagina. This theory of why Antoinette couldn't crack the case is intriguing--is it because Stephan could see the world as these teenagers could, connecting with all that they responded to and were repelled by? Perhaps Conway couldn't adequately solve it because she was a woman in a male-dominated squad, which meant she had to listen to her partner even if she didn't like his choices, even if she was supposed to be the lead detective on the case. Also, she was somewhat handicapped by her class-rage, unable to see these girls for anything but spoiled rich girls; Stephan, on the other hand, saw the beauty of their privilege, and longed for it himself. He was able to transform his longing into intimacy with these suspects. Now I want everyone in the comment thread to list French's novels from their most to least favorite. What do you think, Janet? We can do it too!
Millions readers in the Toronto area should check out the Lit City exhibit at the Market Gallery (second floor of the St. Lawrence Market, on now through the spring, free).As part of the ongoing festivities marking Toronto's 175th birthday, the Market Gallery, occupying a room that served as council chambers in the mid-late 1800s, marries the visual with the literary. The gallery divides up Toronto neighborhood by neighborhood, presenting paintings and other visual expressions of each particular neighborhood, and pairing the art with excerpts from literary texts.So, there's a painting of the Viaduct on Bloor Street, paired with an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, which explored the world of the immigrant worker who broke his back building the viaduct in the early part of last century. A painting of Chinatown sits next to an excerpt from a Cory Doctorow story about the neighborhood. Margaret Atwood, Paul Quarrington and Dennis Lee are among the novelists and poets whose works are excerpted and placed in a neighborhood context.It's fascinating to see literary works take on an alternate existence. Stripped of storyline, stripped of principal characters and themes, the short excerpts here serve a different purpose, a new context. Like the paintings they're paired with, they provide eloquent commentary on the specific neighborhood.Overhearing my fellow gallery-goers, I discovered that none were extolling the quite evident artistic virtues of the paintings or texts. Instead, they were discussing the depicted neighborhoods themselves, inspired by the excerpts to draw on their own memories, creating there, on the spot, their own sense of community.
1. On a sparkling day early this fall I drove from my home in New York City to Harrisburg, PA, to take part in a rite that's sacred to all writers. There, in the Midtown Scholar bookstore a few blocks from the state Capitol, I waited in line to pay cash for a signed copy of a new book by a writer named Brad Bumsted. Nearly 40 years ago, at the small-town daily newspaper in nearby Chambersburg, PA, this man with the impossibly poetic byline taught me something that has kept me alive ever since – he taught me how to be a reporter. So I had come to Harrisburg to pay my respects and pay back a tiny fraction of a long-standing debt to my very first mentor. Brad's book is called Keystone Corruption: An Insider's View of a State Gone Wrong. The operative word here is "insider" because after our brief time together in Chambersburg in the 1970s, Brad went on to newspaper postings in Pittsburgh and Tallahasee, FL, before landing in Harrisburg in 1983 with Gannett News Service. Since then, other than a brief stint in Washington, D.C., he has been reporting from the Pennsylvania state capital. Now, at 62, he is the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's veteran in Harrisburg, a reporter, columnist, and regular commentator on television and radio shows, the insider's insider among the capital press corps, a man who has had a ringside seat to the state's Byzantine political machinations for nearly three decades. In that time he has witnessed and reported on every form of scam, corruption, disgrace, and redemption ever devised by political animals, plus the downfall of one notorious pedophile. Through it all Brad has remained what he was on the day we first met, 37 autumns ago: an old-school, shoe-leather reporter who understands the importance of cultivating sources, of making phone calls, knocking on doors, talking to people while looking them in the eye, listening to their voices, reading their body language. With today's tsunami of electronic information and 24/7 news cycle, and with the ongoing implosion of daily newspapers (cf. Jeff Bezos's recent purchase of the Washington Post), Brad is an important reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Good journalism still matters, it still happens, and it is still built on what it was originally built on – not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed, and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better. Even his competitors are happy to admit it. "Brad is the hardest working journalist in Pennsylvania," says veteran Philadelphia Daily News political columnist John Baer. "Journalism and Pennsylvania are lucky he's where he is, doing what he does." 2. Keystone Corruption is an astounding book. As Baer put it in his review in the Daily News, Brad "has amassed a deliciously detailed record of the ugliness" of Pennsylvania politics, ranging from the rampant graft during the construction of the Capitol building in the early 20th century, right up to the latest pols to get carted off to prison earlier this year. Stitched together from Brad's own reporting, other news sources, government documents, websites, and books – all of it meticulously chronicled in the endnotes – the book paints a picture of a state where for more than a century corruption seems to have been in the air and the drinking water. Corruption comes to Harrisburg in waves and then it goes away and then it always comes back. Only a few other states – Louisiana, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey come to mind – can rival Pennsylvania's long and lustrous record of venality. At the moment, seven former Pennsylvania legislative leaders, including two former Speakers of the House, are behind bars. The rogues who've worked their sleazy magic under the Capitol's soaring green dome have possessed delightful nicknames, including Senator Sludge, Ernie the Attorney, the Dweeb, the Vince of Darkness, Mr. Big, and the Kingfish. They have woven scams involving kickbacks, no-show jobs, no-bid contracts, tax-funded bonuses for campaign workers, and massive self-awarded pay raises and perks. One of the book's more surprising revelations is that few of these scams were designed to enrich the scammers; rather, they were usually means for people in positions of power to retain their personal power and secure their party's majority in the legislature, by whatever means necessary. As former Speaker of the House John Perzel, a Republican now residing at the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands, put it, "You don't govern if you don't win... In the minority, you don't decide anything. You don't decide what bills come up. You don't have a proportional share of what's going on. You have zero." Nicely put – a proportional share of what's going on. One of the most dependable tools for winning re-election was the illegal use of tax dollars to pay bonuses to staffers to do campaign work. In a 2007 column, Brad dubbed the scheme "Bonusgate," and the term stuck. Since then, 10 people have been convicted for their participation in the scheme. So why do people go to such lengths to win elections and amass power in Pennsylvania? Well, because, as this book lays out, Harrisburg is one lush gravy trough. Pennsylvania's 253 state legislators, the largest "full-time" legislature in the country, get paid from $83,000 to more than $100,000 for being in session some 70 days a year. (Legislators in New Hampshire, by comparison, get $200 every two years.) Every Pennsylvania legislator's car and staff are paid for. They get a killer pension and pay just 1 percent of their salary for health insurance (it was free until recently). They also get $163 per diem for expenses, which frequently goes straight into their pockets. Nice work if you can get it. Even nicer if you can keep it. One of this book's great virtues, aside from its deft marshaling of mountains of information, is that Brad never indulges in snark, never takes the high moral ground, is always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, even when they don't appear to deserve it. In the end, this even-handedness serves to make the evidence even more damning. For instance: "What former Rep. Tom Druce did was worse than any of the stealing that occurred at the Capitol. He killed a man. What gets it listed under corruption is the cover-up and the insurance fraud that Druce engaged in." But even after that opening salvo, Brad does not rush to judgment. Druce, who had been drinking, struck and killed a Marine Corps veteran on a Harrisburg street while driving a leased Jeep SUV, then fled the scene. Later he claimed he thought he had struck a signpost. Eventually he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal accident, insurance fraud, and tampering with evidence. He received a 2- to 4-year sentence. Rather than excoriating Druce for this sorry performance, Brad writes, "As I get older, I have often thought of Druce's moment as a defining one in life for all of us. How many of us have a similar moment, even if not as dramatic? At that instant, would most of us show character and act out of conscience?... Is it possible that in a snap-second judgment you would panic and flee the scene? Have you ever driven, when you shouldn't have, after consuming a few drinks?... There is no excuse for what Tom Druce did... But ask yourself, are we any better than he is?" Despite such old-school fairness and his old-school reporter's cred, Brad is no technophobic Luddite. He has adapted to the 24/7 news cycle, posting his stories online as soon as he gets them, updating them regularly, then writing a final draft for the next morning's print edition. He has a slick website. He e-mails and tweets and texts like a banshee. His smartphone is always on. "Up-and-coming reporters think they can google things instead of going out and talking to people," he says. "The positive side of how things have changed with social media is that a couple of keystrokes and you can find almost anybody, plus a lot of information about what they've done. If you combine that with the old shoe-leather, it can be very effective. But really, what I do every day is no different from what I did covering the county commissioners in Chambersburg in the 1970s." 3. Brad and I met for the first time in the fall of 1976, a few days before Jimmy Carter unhorsed President Gerald Ford. I had been summoned to Chambersburg to interview for a cub reporter's job at Public Opinion, the 20,000-circulation daily owned by the Gannett chain, which was then in its most robust phase of empire building. The guy who interviewed me was the paper's publisher and editor, Bob Collins, a sandy-haired terrier from New Jersey with rolled-up shirtsleeves and a staccato way of talking that immediately said newspaperman to me. I had spent the five months since my college graduation pinballing up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from the Adirondacks to Savannah, knocking on newspaper doors, trying to get a job. I dreamed of becoming a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and I believed the ideal place to learn my craft was in the typhoon of a daily newspaper's city room. But my credentials were thin – just three short sketches for my school paper and zero work experience. Even worse for me was the fact that this was the post-Watergate season. Hard to believe today, but it was a pre-Internet age when daily newspapers were fat on profits and many bright young people ached to become the next Woodward and/or Bernstein. Entry-level reporter jobs were hard to come by. For some reason, Collins and I hit it off. Despite my lack of experience he offered me a starting salary of $140 a week to cover several local school boards and write as many "enterprise" stories as I wanted to. Then he warned me that Gannett had a strict corporate policy forbidding overtime pay. Of course I jumped at the offer. The deal done, Collins led me out of his office, through the advertising department and into the cave of the newsroom. My heart actually started to race. This was where my life as a professional writer would begin. The ceiling was black, the walls were greasy yellow brick, the carpet was frayed. Blinds were drawn on all windows, and the light came from cold white fluorescent tubes suspended from the ceiling. There were brimming ashtrays and piles of old newspapers on most desks, just a few reporters murmuring into telephones at this late-afternoon hour. Every desk had its own telephone and red IBM Selectric typewriter. A few desks along the right wall, obviously for editors, had those new-fangled things called computers with screens like television sets. Just then a man came through a back door that led to a parking lot, bringing a gust of chill air with him. He smelled of cigarettes. Collins introduced me to Brad Bumsted, the paper's star reporter, who covered the county commissioners, spectacular crimes, major trials, anything that would land his byline on the front page. Bumsted was short like Collins but built like a beer keg. With his mud-brown hair and cheap sportcoat, he looked more like a cop than a reporter. (His hair is gray now, and his sportcoats are considerably more expensive.) After shaking my hand he took his time sizing up the new competition. Getting hired must have made me feel cocky because I blurted out, "You like your job, Brad?" "Yeah, I do," he said. "Very much." "You like covering the commissioners and courts?" "I said yeah. I do." "I wouldn't mind having that beat myself." I immediately thought, What an asshole! My pushiness was totally out of character. But Collins told me years later that he knew right then he'd been right to offer me the job. He liked his reporters brash and pushy. That's why he loved Brad Bumsted. Despite that awkward introduction, Brad took me under his wing and we became fast friends. I studied the way he worked – the way he talked to people on the telephone and on the street, coddling sources, getting people to open up, asking soft questions while working up to the hard ones, bullying or flattering or lying as necessary. He was relentless, always ready to make the extra phone call, double-check a bothersome fact, a spelling, a job title, a date. Nothing could stop him from getting a story. I soon realized that was all that mattered to Brad: getting the story, and getting it right. Though Brad typed (and still types) with just his two index fingers, he was fast, and soon I was fast too. Fueled by adrenaline and bad coffee, we sat down at our Selectrics at 7:30 every morning and often cranked out half a dozen bylined stories apiece before the noon deadline. We were glorified galley slaves, and we were loving it. After I'd been on the job just a few weeks, Collins gave us a dream assignment. He wanted us to go down to Easton, MD, to cover the murder trial of a local Chambersburg legend named Merle Unger, a ruffian in the Robin Hood vein who'd led a life of petty crime and had a penchant for breaking out of jail. For a while, he broke out of the county jail at night, went out cavorting with his girlfriend and buddies, then broke back into the jail before deputies counted noses in the morning. But on one his breakouts Merle made the mistake of shooting an off-duty cop during a store robbery in Hagerstown, MD. The cop died, Unger was captured, and the party was over. Due to heavy publicity, the trial was moved from Hagerstown to Easton, where Brad was to cover the courtroom proceedings and I was to write colorful stories around the edges. On the last day of the trial, while the jury was deliberating, I underwent the test that makes or breaks every reporter. A small woman had been sitting in the courtroom's back row that day, and when I learned that she was Merle Unger's mother, I knew I had to talk to her. But I couldn't possibly do it – what do you say to a mother whose son is about to get sent to prison for the rest of his life? But I had to talk to her. As Brad had taught me, all that mattered was getting the story, and getting it right. When the woman left the courtroom, I forced myself to stand up and follow her down the stairs to the courthouse lobby... (It wasn't until years later that I understood the moral wringer I was being put through as I followed that woman down those stairs. In the opening lines of her 1990 nonfiction book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm famously described the dilemma that lives at the heart of the journalistic enterprise: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Or as Joan Didion put it even more succinctly in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "Writers are always selling somebody out.") ...and when I got to the courthouse lobby I introduced myself to the woman, who confirmed that she was Mildred Smith Unger, Merle's mother. To my surprise, she didn't tell me to go away. Thinking of Brad, I opened with small talk, got her talking, then gently steered the conversation toward the horrific things I had to ask her about. And I did it. I overcame my unease. I gained her trust and then I betrayed her without remorse. My front-page story in the next day's paper began like this: On the second day of Merle Unger's murder trial, a small woman with black hair came into the courtroom and sat in the back row. "I feel sorry for them," she said when she learned that the two women sitting on a nearby bench were the widow and daughter of slain Hagerstown policeman Donald "Barney" Kline. "But there's nothing I can do about it now." During the jury's deliberations, Mrs. Mildred Smith Unger gazed out a courthouse window at a gray, darkening sky. "Sure I was surprised when I heard what Merle did," she said. "But I've always thought he wouldn't do something like that unless somebody did something to him first. And we still don't know exactly what happened." And my story ended this way: A commotion at the top of the stairs signaled the jury's return to the courtroom. She took one last look at the sky, then said: "You know, I've always been a firm believer that there's more good than bad in life." Then she climbed the stairs and took her seat in the back of the courtroom. When the jury delivered its verdict – guilty on all counts – her eyes remained dry and fixed on her son. Brad had taught me a hard lesson, and taught it well. Being a reporter may be morally indefensible and sometimes cruel, but there's also something noble about getting the story, and getting it right. Eventually Brad and I would drift apart and lose contact for many years. In that time I came to see that despite our similarities, despite the bond of mentor and pupil, there was a fundamental difference between us. Brad, like Bob Collins, has always been a newspaperman down to his socks, while I viewed newspaper work as a means to an end, a paid apprenticeship that would prepare me for the serious work of writing fiction. Now that I've published two novels and found out that it's just about impossible to make a living off the things, I'm more grateful than ever that Brad taught me the craft of getting the story, and getting it right. Nearly four decades later, it's still paying the rent. And it's still something that I, like Brad, love to do. 4. After the book signing at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, Brad offered to take me out to dinner with his wife Gail and their daughter Lindsey, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. As soon as we stepped into a popular downtown restaurant called the Firehouse, a compact, dark-haired guy turned from the bar and thrust out his hand. "Hello, Brad!" the man cried. "Good to see you. Congratulations on the book." "Thanks, Mike, you're looking good," Brad said, shaking the hand and pausing to make small talk. Later, at our table, Brad told us that the guy at the bar was the paroled felon Michael Manzo, one of the masterminds of the Bonusgate scam, who received an 18- to 48-month prison sentence in the spring of 2012 for the illegal use of $1.4 million in taxpayers' money. Manzo had just gotten out of prison early for good behavior, and his hearty greeting at the bar testified to his delight at that turn of events. Here, from Keystone Corruption, is Brad's description of Manzo after he'd risen to become chief of staff of Bill DeWeese, then Speaker of the House and currently an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Retreat: Manzo had a reputation as a lady's man. He was smooth and articulate, but more importantly he was in a position of power... At that time, Michael was dating Rachel Hurst, who would later become his wife. It can be said of her that Rachel was a stunning blonde with beautifully angular facial features. She looked more like a model than a research analyst. Michael would later stray from her during their marriage. Worse, his affair would become very public and part of the Bonusgate case. Manzo had placed his mistress, Angela Bertugli, on the payroll in a caucus job (in Pittsburgh) where she did little if any work and was away from the scrutiny likely in Harrisburg, according to the grand jury. Bertugli told investigators that she had "nothing to do 70 percent of the time." The former beauty queen was paid $45,000 in annual salary, and she received a $7,000 bonus in 2006. Manzo met her at a West Shore bar in 2004. Angela was 21 at the time. He was 35. They had sex in a car after a few drinks, according to the grand jury report. This sketch beautifully captures the flavor of corruption in Pennsylvania – the way a little power can go to a man's head, can lead to extramarital sex in a parked car, then to the misuse of taxpayers' money, and finally, inevitably, to prison. The flaws in Pennsylvania politicos tend more toward the tawdry than the tragic. Their stories read like low-rent Shakespeare. And yet, as picayune as these villains may be, a million bucks here and a million bucks there and pretty soon we're talking about real money. As we were eating, Manzo came over to our table to get introduced around. When Gail asked what he was doing now, he replied brightly, "I'm working as a consultant." After he left the table, Gail said, "I can't believe the guy! Fresh out of prison, walking around smiling, shaking hands, like nothing ever happened!" "I don't know," said Lindsey, who plans to go to law school after graduating from Pitt. "He did his time and paid his debt to society. Life goes on. People deserve a second chance." My feelings fell somewhere between Gail's outrage and Lindsey's forgiveness. I was thinking, What's the big surprise? Our culture has lost the capacity for shame. It was Brad, appropriately, who had the last word. He said, "I have mixed feelings about Mike Manzo. I always liked the guy. I thought his sentence might have been too stiff – he cooperated with the prosecution on three different cases. Sure, he deserved to go to prison, but I agree with Lindsey. He did his time. One thing to his credit was that, unlike a lot of these other guys, he took responsibility for his actions." That's my mentor for you – able to see the big picture, zero snark, and forever old-school.