Saturday, March 28, 2009

Uranium, Diamonds, Tom Zoellner and The Daily Show

Readers of this blog (both of you; Hi Mom!) might remember that last spring I mentioned a book called The Heartless Stone, by Tom Zoellner, which chronicles the social, geologic and political history of diamonds with plenty of details about marketing, violence, marriage and hip hop. Tom visited a class of mine at Towson University and gave a great reading from his book. He's a helluva reporter and storyteller, and his new book, Uranium, is generating lots of attention.

That attention includes an appearance for Tom on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He's scheduled for this Thursday, April 2. I'll bet he fares better than Jim Cramer did.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cities as Unreliable Narrators

What follows is the presentation I made at the 2009 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in Chicago. The panel was called "Alive and Coarse and Strong and Cunning" after a line from Carl Sandberg's poem about Chicago, and the panel's subject was how great works of nonfiction have turned cities into characters. For my presentation, I discussed how cities can be considered unreliable narrators, a concept that in fiction usually applies to first-person characters, but in nonfiction can help transform cities into characters. I used Odessa, Texas as depicted in Buzz Bissinger's classic book Friday Night Lights.

Cities tell their own stories. When I lived in Hartford, Conn., my hometown, the story was an Eeyore-like tale: “We’re halfway between Boston and New York, and we’re not as good as either place; nobody loves us.” And that story wasn’t true.

In Missoula, Mont., where I lived for a while, the city’s self-told story could be summed up as “We’re a diverse and tolerant community!” which also wasn’t quite true, except in the kind of diversity that exists in a community that’s 95 percent white (Columbia fleece or North Face?)
In Baltimore, where I now live, there are benches with lovely, dark stained, laquered wood, and each marked along one backslat with white decal letters proclaiming: “Baltimore: The Greatest City in America.”

You know and I know that Baltimore is no such thing. Fun and quirky and violent? Yes. But the Greatest City in America?

Which means, I think, that Baltimore, Missoula, and Hartford can all be understood as unreliable narrators.

Which also means each is a setting behaving in a way we’ve come to expect of characters.
Many years ago, I heard a writer talk about the qualities of a good character in literary nonfiction. Number one, he said, the character has to be a talker. A storyteller. Someone who says interesting things in interesting ways. This made sense to me. When I was a newspaper sports writer, we used to call such people “quote monsters.”

Likewise, when a writer considers whether to treat a city as a character, the writer needs to know whether the city has something interesting to say, and then note whether the city tells its interesting thing – or somehow expresses it – in an interesting way. Oftentimes what a city expresses is a narrative that explains what the city is and who its people are or want to be. That narrative, the story people agree to live to become part of a community, lies at the heart of the city’s character.

This relationship of story, city and character becomes clear reading Buzz Bissinger’s contemporary classic, Friday Night Lights. First published in 1990, the book brought high school football in Texas – and more specifically high school football in the city of Odessa – into the national consciousness. Bissinger examines the story Odessa tells about itself, finds the city’s narrative to be unreliable, then explores the contradictions and tensions inherent in any story that’s told by an unreliable narrator. All the questions that come into play with an unreliable narrator apply to Odessa: What can we believe? What should we doubt? What’s the story the character – the city – knows but keeps secret? What story does the character – the city – fear people will learn? What aspects of its own story is the character unable to see? What parts can’t fit into the narrative, so are ignored?

The story Odessa tells about itself is simple and shows how the city identifies with its scrappy high school football team. “They were a classic bunch of overachievers,” Bissinger writes. “What made those boys great on the football field had made the fans great as well. Just as the boys had produced against all odds, so they” [the people of Odessa] “had produced in the oil field against all odds, not with brains and fancy talk but with brawn and muscle and endurance and self-sacrifice.” (p. 103)

Bissinger, a Pulitzer-Prize winning literary journalist, knows to doubt that story. A character – like a bench in Baltimore – might say “Greatest City in America” but the boarded-up tenement nearby suggests “A city that needs help.” A character – like a real person -- might say, “Yes, we’d love it if you stay,” but mean “for God’s sake go home now,” or a character might say “I love Lolita” and hope that it’s not heard as “I raped an adolescent orphan girl” as Humbert Humbert does in Lolita. And, characters, like real people, sometimes reveal more through body language and actions than they do through words. Likewise, a city has its official narrative – often told by people in power – but the city can’t help itself; it always reveals more than the official line. The nonfiction writer needs to recognize both lines of a city’s story: the one intentionally told and the one told without intention. The conflict between the two, in a work of literary nonfiction, is a helpful source of dramatic tension.

How does a city tell its story?

With great variety. Let’s start with a lesson offered in the Gospels of both Luke and Matthew: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Money. Few actions reveal the character of a community better than its spending. I’m talking official expenditures made through government agencies, but also what people buy. Tom Wolfe points us toward this, too, encouraging writers to study a character’s “status life,” though his observations are sometimes criticized for applying socio-economic demographics in place of character.

Bissinger doesn’t do that. In Friday Night Lights, he reveals that Odessa’s economy is wounded, perhaps mortally, because west Texas can’t compete against OPEC nations in the oil market. Nevertheless, Odessa’s school district paid twenty thousand dollars for charter flights to send its high school football team to away games. The school district built a $5.6 million stadium “with seating for 19,032, and a full-time caretaker who lived in a house on the premises” (p. 42). Bissinger also tells us that at the high school the cost for boy’s medical supplies “was $6,750.” For teaching materials in the English department, the school spent nearly two grand less. The salary for an English teacher with twenty years experience and a master’s degree was $32,000, while the football coach, who taught no classes, earned $48,000 plus the use of a “new Taurus sedan each year.” (p. 145). As for household purchases, some folk in Odessa bought black toilet seats because the team’s color was black.

What else? Bissinger lets Odessa tell its story through at least five other forms of self-expression:

• its history
• anecdotes about its people
• recorded or observed facts
• statistics other than spending
• Testimony and witness

Taken one a time:
ONE -- History: In the city library, the book that records the history of Odessa football is thicker than the one that records the history of Odessa itself. Also, a Wall of Fame in the high school honoring the best school boy football players depicts all white kids but one until 1982. After the Odessa schools were desegregated, the faces of African-American athletes appeared on the wall with greater regularity. Meanwhile, white Odessa worked hard to pretend desegregation never happened.

TWO -- Anecdotes about people: Bissinger tells of a player’s day at school, where he’s confronted with such headscratchers as a question about what should be listed first on a menu: shrimp cocktail or Jell-O salad (p. 130). In another anecdote, Bissinger tells of a former player whose body was never big enough for football, and how years later “he felt it during the mornings when he couldn’t bend over to tie his shoes” (p. 281).

THREE -- Recorded or observed facts: Police escort the team bus to home games with lights flashing so the bus won’t have to stop at stoplights. Another: after a loss, the football coach finds “For Sale” signs punched into his front lawn. (p. 238).

FOUR -- Other statistics: In Friday Night Lights, these include unemployment rates, SAT scores, attendance at games, the numbers of victories each year, soaring rental vacancy rates, plunging oil prices, and population demographics.

FIVE – Testimony and witness: Among those who believe the city’s narrative is a 17-year-old football player who looks around his city and observes, “We got two things in Odessa. Oil and football. And oil’s gone. But we still got football, so fuck the rest of you.” But an Odessa native in exile as a lawyer in Houston, notes that “Odessa has an unspeakable ability to bullshit itself.”
In the end, we’re left with a sense that the story Odessa tells about itself – that it succeeds against all odds, not with brains and fancy talk but with brawn and endurance and self-sacrifice – allows it to ignore its own failings including underperforming students, virulent racism, an inability to judge itself by any standard except football, and a murder rate that for years placed it among the worst cities in America. But Odessa is a character, after all, obsessed, complicated, not easy to pin down, and Bissinger reminds us that the narrative – the myth renewed in the seasonal rituals of football – has been necessary. In the book’s climax, as Odessa’s team is pitted against a more talented team from Dallas in the semifinals of the state playoffs, Bissinger lets the reader in on his understanding of this character called Odessa. Yes, the city has built an elaborate lie about itself and about its football team, and yes, Odessa sacrifices more than seems reasonable for the construction of this lie. But right now, Odessa’s boys can win with a touchdown, and the reader, just like the fans, players and coaches, wants Odessa to score that touchdown. The reader grabs hold of the thing that unites Odessa’s people behind their narrative, the one feeling that enables them to live in a place so terrible and somehow keep on with the business of living. In the stands, Bissinger writes,

Fingers were crossed. Eyes were raised to the dull gray sky. In the cavernous stadium, the cheers seemed distant, tinny. But there was hope, because there had to be.
That was the very point of it all. (p. 326)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ozark: Requiescat in pace