Welcome to a special, only slightly depressing Christmas episode of The Book Report, presented by The Millions!
Discussed in this episode: God’ll Cut You Down by John Safran, cowboy hats, God, whiskey, white supremacists, murder, Australia, Mississippi, The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, Truman Capote, Walmart gift cards, Let Evening Come by Jane Kenyon, nature, God (again), animals, death, Christmas, Dylan Thomas, Armageddon (dir. Michael Bay).
Not discussed in this episode: Janet is wearing a sweater that she made. Michael is filming in front of a Christmas tree that he helped decorate.
Discussed in portions of this episode that have been edited out: Redacted. December is hard. You know? It just is.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Despite being tucked away three-quarters into the calendar, September is the start of many things: school, fall, football, the biggest publishing season, the return to work after the end of summer. It’s also the beginning of months whose awkwardly Latinate names rhyme with little except themselves. Some poets, understandably, have neglected them: in all his works, for instance, Shakespeare makes no mention of September, October, or November (he refers to March, April, and May dozens of times). But in a title “September” can stand squarely; it’s weightier and more declarative than the short and flighty names of the summer and spring months. There’s “September, 1819,” for instance, in which Wordsworth found spring and summer “unfaded, yet prepared to fade.” Transposing two digits in her title a century later in “September, 1918,” Amy Lowell caught the familiar beauties of early fall—including an afternoon that’s “the colour of water falling through sunlight”—but she stored them away without tasting them, like a harvest of berries. With the world war not yet over, she was too busy balancing herself “upon a broken world” to enjoy them yet.
The best-known September poem also was born in a broken world, at the beginning of the next world war. In the days after Germany invaded Poland, at the “end of a low dishonest decade,” W. H. Auden wrote “September 1, 1939,” in which an “unmentionable odour of death…offends the September night” even far from the fighting in his newly adopted home of New York City. Auden spent the rest of his life disowning the poem and its popularity, or at least “loathing” the “trash” of its hopeful line “We must love one another or die,” which he quickly came to see as self-congratulatory (in one later version he substituted “We must love one another and die”). But that line, among others, is what has brought people back to the poem in later Septembers. Lyndon Johnson paraphrased it, ending his apocalyptic “Daisy” ad (which aired just once, on September 7, 1964) with the words “We must either love each other, or we must die.” And the entire poem began circulating again in mass media and in forwarded e-mails in September 2001, when its visions of “blind skyscrapers” and death in September, along with its final call for an “affirming flame,” felt suddenly, movingly contemporary.
I don’t know about you, but this September the world seems broken too. Let’s read one another nevertheless.
Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-69; 1825)
Part of the pleasure of the British naval administrator’s journals is their witty and open portrait of the everydayness of life, but they are deservedly famous as well for their dramatic peaks, including the great fire that engulfed London in the early days of September 1666, in which pigeons, Pepys noticed, hovered by their burning homes for so long their wings were singed.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) by Beatrix Potter
Potter’s tales for children began with two illustrated letters she sent to the sons of a friend on September 4 and 5, 1893: the first the story of a mischievous bunny and the second, written the next day so the younger brother wouldn’t feel left out, of a frog who dines on “roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce.”
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
September is early in the New York social season, but for Lily Bart it’s already getting a little late. She still has her beauty, but she’s twenty-nine and has no money of her own, and the decisions she makes—and doesn’t make—in the first month of Wharton’s great novel will set her course for its remainder.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
“I may say,” Alice B. Toklas was made to say in this book by Gertrude Stein, “that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken”: Pablo Picasso, Alfred North Whitehead, and Stein herself, “a golden brown presence” in a “warm brown corduroy suit,” whom Toklas met in September 1907 after arriving in Paris from San Francisco.
Act One by Moss Hart (1959)
One of the most dazzlingly entertaining of all backstage memoirs comes to its climactic curtain at the September opening night of Once in a Lifetime, the collaboration between Broadway veteran George S. Kaufman and the young Hart, who is transformed in that moment from a poor, stage-struck nobody into a hit playwright.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
“JANIE GETS STRANGER EVERY YEAR. MISS WHITEHEAD’S FEET LOOK LARGER THIS YEAR.” Return to school with Harriet M. Welsch, self-appointed sixth-grade spy and future writer, who reckoned with the slippery ethics of observing and reporting long before Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer.
Stoner by John Williams (1965)
The “campus novel” is almost always a comedy, but Stoner, long overlooked but now becoming a classic, is a campus tragedy, and not less of one because of the petty academic quarrels, which in other hands might be turned into farce, that drive its hero’s inexorable disappointment.
Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer (1968)
There had been few glimpses into the mind of an offensive lineman (in fact, few suspected lineman had minds) before Kramer, the all-pro right guard of the Green Bay Packers, published this diary of the 1967 season, in which he quoted Shakespeare without shame, analyzed the motivational genius of his coach, Vince Lombardi, and observed the NFL growing from a part-time job into the beginnings of the entertainment leviathan it has since become.
Levels of the Game by John McPhee (1969)
A few years after launching his career by profiling Bill Bradley at Princeton, McPhee painted a double portrait of two American tennis stars via their U.S. Open semifinal match at Forest Hills, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, opposites on the court and off: black and white, liberal and conservative, artistic and businesslike, free-swinging and stiff, cool and anxious.
Deliverance by James Dickey (1970)
It’s a little weekend trip for four men from the suburbs into the nearby wilderness, canoeing down a Georgia river about to be dammed. If everything goes right, they’ll get back in time for the second half of the Sunday football game on TV. In the meantime, they might get in touch with something real.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984)
All is gray: the garden, the lake beyond, “spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible farther shore.” It’s late September, well into the off-season, with reduced rates for the few visitors to the Hotel du Lac, where Edith, a romance novelist with a romance problem of her own, escapes for a “mild form of sanctuary.” We’re in Switzerland, but we’re also in Brookner country, home of isolation, disappointment, and quiet determination.
White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985)
Every September the station wagons—they’d now be minivans—arrive on campus, disgorging tanned kids and dorm supplies in a ritual that begins the school year at DeLillo’s generic midwestern college, where education has become untethered from any meaning beyond a nervous self-consciousness.
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990)
The central document in Malcolm’s ruthless vivisection of the seductions and betrayals of journalism is a September letter in which reporter Joe McGinniss wrote to his subject, the just-convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald–long after McGinniss was convinced of MacDonald’s guilt–“It’s a hell of a thing–spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey–not for long.”
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)
It’s not only in the U.S. that the end of summer means the start of football season, and for 11-year-old Nick Hornby, made vulnerable by divorce, a new home, and a new school, his first professional soccer match, at Arsenal’s home ground in September 1968, began the glorious and inexplicable tyranny that Arsenal football has held over his life ever since.
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shuh-Lien Bynum (2008)
Every September Ms. Hempel turns to write on the blackboard, “First Assignment,” and soon, as in each of her other fall semesters, the American colonists will rebel and their revolution will be won. Not much older than the middle-school kids she’s instructing in history, and not much more sure of what she’s becoming, Bynum’s raw young teacher is open to experience and, most thrillingly, unprotected from it.
Building Stories by Chris Ware (2012)
There are many layers of time and space diagrammed in the fourteen books and pamphlets contained in Ware’s big box of comics about a small Chicago apartment building, but one pamphlet narrows his tales to a single September day, a quiet Saturday the seems so morosely typical that it spins the building’s inhabitants into despair until, for one of them at least, it becomes an anniversary to remember.
Image via rvoegtli/Flickr
As usual, my job as a book critic dictated much of my reading this year. My favorite book of the year — the best book of the year, I think — is Hilton Als’s White Girls, which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune. The following are some of the best books — there were also sundry poems, comics, essays, and horror novels — I managed to read for free:
I first read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in my mid-twenties, sitting on the floor beside a bookshelf in Borders because I couldn’t afford to buy the book. I’d picked it up with the intention of leafing through it a bit, having heard it referred to here and there in reverential tones. I started reading and, astounded, didn’t get up again for two hours. This there-but-for-grace loser’s manifesto, this perfectly sane cry. Someone called it the best novel written in English since The Great Gatsby, but it seemed to me much better than that. Rereading it fifteen years later, without overlooking its flaws, I’d place it above every American novel except Moby-Dick, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!
Hobbes’s Leviathan is not nearly as funny as A Fan’s Notes, but I can now almost agree with William H. Gass that Hobbes was one of “the three greatest masters of English prose” (in case you were wondering where my obnoxious impulse to rank works of literature comes from). More arduous were Fredric Jameson’s Hegel Variations: On The Phenomenology of Spirit and Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. And no matter what you believe or think you believe, Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas is well worth your time.
I reread some favorite books this year — Thoreau’s Walden, Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria, Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, Samuel Beckett’s Murphy — and added some new ones to the category: Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, and Confucius’s Analects (in both the D.C. Lau and Burton Watson translations). It’s a pity Weil and Cioran never met.
Scary fun: David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer; Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory; George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open; Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels.
Finally, two books I’m reading at the moment: T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. As a sort of free-floating Kierkegaardian becoming-Christian on the Way or whatever, I’ve spent a lot of time loathing conservative American Protestants — people who believe in the Rapture, or that the earth is six thousand years old, or that homosexuals are going to hell, or, um, that there is a hell. People who take the Bible literally except for the part about selling your shit and giving the money to the poor. I grew up around such folk. But of course my condescension and hostility are beside the point, forms of cultural capital that — oh, you know the drill. Luhrmann’s and Worthen’s books cut through all that by attempting to understand evangelicalism from within, critically but sympathetically and without easy irony. Worthen’s is the more scholarly study, tracing the variety of evangelical movements, complicating received wisdom about their anti-intellectualism. Luhrmann reads like good journalism. Embedded in an evangelical church, she tells real people’s real stories. She occasionally betrays a lack of theological grounding, referring to God as “a powerful invisible being” and assuming a dualism of soul and body (Turner’s Aquinas would help her on both points). And she frames much of her discussion in terms of an opposition between science and religion that rather begs the question. But I’m learning things on almost every page (and, again, I’m still reading these books, so perhaps my concerns are addressed at some point in the text): the evangelical practice of speaking in tongues seems to have arisen, after lying almost completely dormant since the Acts of the Apostles, in my birthplace of Topeka, Kansas, in the late nineteenth century; the path of the religious right was blazed by the hippies. I still think conservative evangelicalism is wrong about almost everything — society, theology, politics, Christianity, people, love, God, sex, family, economics. And I still believe, with Reinhold Niebuhr, that the rabid intransigence of fundamentalism is a clear sign of its own doubt and insecurity (which makes it quite dangerous). But that’s precisely why I’m grateful for these books, which deepen our understanding and broaden our empathy.
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Looking back over what I wrote on this occasion last year, I see that my first sentence was this: “For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading.” I re-read this now with rueful irony, like Beckett’s Krapp listening to the voices of his younger selves. What the hell did I imagine I knew about not reading in 2012? 2012? Before my wife and I had a son, and the remains of the day became consumed by the rigors of infant-admin — of feeding and changing and dandling and soothing and wiping and sterilizing? “No, no, no,” I mutter to my former self. “Believe you me, pal, you don’t know shit about not reading. But you’re about to learn. Stick around another few months, then we’ll talk about not reading.” I wouldn’t want that time back, of course — not, as Krapp would say, with the fire in me now — but I wish I’d been more appreciative then of how much leisure time I actually had, of how much I was, in fact, at liberty to read.
All of which filibustering is by way of saying, I suppose, that my year in reading has been compromised somewhat by my year in living; and yet — heroically, I feel — I still managed to consume a fair amount of high-end lit over the last 12 months. Looking back, my interest seems to have run more toward non-fiction than fiction, and the books that had the strongest impact on me tended to come in under that vague rubric. My favorite new book this year was Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, which I read when it came out in June. It’s a beautiful and profound book of essayistic reflections on memory, family, grief, travel, and storytelling. The jacket copy (like its author) categorizes it as an anti-memoir, which makes it sound maybe more abstruse than it is, but it’s accurate enough. It begins with Solnit’s brother delivering a gigantic pile of apricots to her home — a haul from the garden of her Alzheimer’s-suffering mother who has just been placed into care. The fruit sits rotting on her floor, and become a pungent and seeping metaphor for mortality at the center of the book, prompting all sorts of beautiful meditations on time and loss and decay and storytelling. “The object we call a book,” she writes, “is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is in the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.” Solnit’s book is at home in my head now.
This summer, I read Janet Malcolm’s new collection Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, which immediately made me realize that I needed to read as much of her as I possibly could. So I went on a minor Malcolm binge — although “binge” is not nearly the right word for Malcolm: it was more like a rigorous and salutary diet. So I read Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, and felt much the better for it.
Fiction-wise, I was very taken with China Miéville’s The City & the City — a book which I’d been meaning to read for a couple of years, but which I only got around to when I put it on a course I was teaching. (This, incidentally, is a great way to force yourself to read a book; I’ve found it to be pretty much foolproof over the years.) It’s a sort of speculative police procedural that slyly insinuates itself into your experience of everyday life. It’s set in the two imagined (but vaguely eastern European) cities of Ul Quoma and Besźel. These cities are culturally and economically distinct, but occupy the same geographic space — are in fact exactly the same city — a situation that is sustained by a brutally stringent system of laws and surveillance and the diligent disregard — or “unseeing” — of the two cities’ residents. Although it’s by no means a satirical fable, the experience of reading it nonetheless provokes a kind of unsettling realization of the ways in which we ignore certain obvious dimensions of the spaces we live in.
Another book that really got me was I Await the Devil’s Coming, the confessional diary of the 19-year-old Mary MacLane, written over three months at the turn of the last century (republished this year by Melville House after a near century of, I think, comparative obscurity). In a lot of ways, MacLane is a fairly typical teenage girl — exasperated by her family and bored insensible by the stultifying life of a small town — but she is also possessed of an unshakeable conviction in her own genius, a phenomenally snazzy prose style, and an erotic obsession — at once ironic and sincere — with the actual devil. It’s funny, troubling, touching, and finally kind of amazing. There are passages on her love of food (porterhouse steak in particular) and her fuming hatred of her family’s toothbrushes that will never leave me.
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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.”
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.”
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.
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.
I kind of hate to say this, but the very best book I read this year was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It’s cliche, and he doesn’t need the boost. I read a number of smaller press books, some of which were excellent. Bluets by Maggie Nelson in particular springs to mind. But still, I really think Freedom is a masterpiece. I read it as an advance copy, so I had the fortune to read it when there was hype, but not as much hype as there became.
I will say this, it was not my best year for reading. It was a year where I read a lot of really good books but almost no great books. Last year I read three books I would consider better than Freedom, though only one of them was a novel, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. It took me six months to read 2666. In the meantime, I also read We Did Porn by Zak Smith, which was also a better book, as was Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. But that was last year, and that’s not what this is about.
But I don’t care. I want to talk about something else. You know what’s a great novel? Lush Life by Richard Price. That’s from my 2008 list (I keep a list of every book I read). Also, in 2008, I read the novella Ray by Barry Hannah. Are you kidding? You want to talk about great literature, you have to read Ray before you can even have the conversation. And those two books weren’t even the best books I read in 2008. Because in 2008, I read the absurdly underrated Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, which impacts the way I think about creative non-fiction still to this day.
And then in 2007, I read Stoner, which would probably top the list of “Best Books I’ve Read In The Last Four Years.” 2007 was a glorious year for reading. Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, Advertisements for Myself by Norman Mailer, The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart.
I’m not even going to get into 2006. I’d start to cry.
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