The Gift of Christmas Present

tinselHanging around with some families in the Texas exurbs for a few months before the holidays doesn’t seem like it would be all that riveting a subject for a book, but Hank Stuever has that unbelievably rare ability to peer deeply into the specific minutiae of contemporary culture and spin out insights that are both fascinating and hilarious.

Like when he’s talking about this city built out of the arid Texas plains, he points out that everything is either “back when there were nothing but cows” or brand spanking new. The highways, the houses, the malls.

“Sometimes even the people feel brand-new – in pretty gift wrap. Billboards on newly widened streets advertise Lasik so you can see new, cosmetic veneers so you can smile new; 1-800 numbers extol the miracle of reverse vasectomies, because new things are happening all the time. People smile at me with brilliant white teeth, and before long they are hugging me hello and goodbye, I learn how new and improved pairs of frankenboobs feel as they briefly press against my chest in understanding hugs of welcome.”

So magically, Hank takes a boring, non-descript town, and generic run-of-the-mill encounters with its inhabitants – nothing but straw – and spins it into the pure gold of social commentary. Not to mention makes it fall-down funny.

This isn’t a “trick” of writing. His words are brilliantly chosen, but it’s not vocabulary that makes the magic. It is brilliant observation and the perception of patterns. He sees in this purely artificial metropolis the underlying mania for newness. He understands that the thing that drives people to desire to live in such places is a desperation to break from the entanglements, the many mistakes and messes of the past – whether it be personal disasters or the general untidy nastiness of a world with too many flaws. The only salvation is to sterilize everything by boiling it in out-of-the-box newness.

Ok, now you know Stuever’s trick is more like clairvoyance than magic. He sees things we don’t notice, connects dots we miss entirely. He’s sitting high on a hill, watching the human comedy play out from a distance, and saying: “Wow, did you see that? Did you notice this?”

But even though he seems like he’s watching from afar, it’s actually by plunging in up close and personal with the very real people of his study that he generates his best material. Getting close enough, for example, so that he can have one of his subjects actually seek his advice about a parenting dilemma she faces. Now, watch what Stuever does when he isn’t working with straw, but 24-karat gold:

“If Emily asks me if Santa Claus is real, what do you think I should tell her?” Tammie asks me, one afternoon when we’re alone, in another house that is getting the garland-on-the-staircase, feathers-on-the-tree, full-on Tammie treatment.

I am ever a reporter, and, it’s important to underline here, not a parent. Virginia O’Hanlon was 8 when she asked her famous question, and that seems to me like a fine age to get just a bit more real. I had my own “No, Virginia” moment when I was 7, after Christmas Eve Mass with my family. As I was escorted, half-asleep, from the car to my bed, I overheard one of my big sisters — Ann, always the loudest — telling my mother that I was dead asleep and it was okay to start setting up Santa’s unwrapped gifts to me under the tree. I shed not one tear.

As a treasured piece of journalism history, the full text of “Yes, Virginia” fails upon further scrutiny, if only because its ultimate message is that there is something inherently wrong with skepticism. If a child has concluded, all on her own, that it’s impossible for a man in a flying sleigh to make it all the way around the world in one night, delivering elf-made replicas of all the stuff you see in Target and Best Buy, then that’s a child I would be happy to steer toward a voting booth when she’s 18. That’s an American in search of facts. If, however, she goes on pretending to believe well into her teens (I encountered more than one such teenager in Frisco), because it makes her parents (and God) feel sweet and happy, then I become worried. That becomes an American willing to spend $100,000 on her “special day” wedding, or who will believe without hard evidence that other countries harbor weapons of mass destruction. The angst over Santa’s existence comes not from the children, I think, so much as the grownups. The adults literally tear up when I ask them to talk about how, and when, their child will learn there is no Santa. Once you know there is no Santa, then there’s no stopping the awful truth about everything else.

In the Details

boxsterAnyone who’s ever taken a writing course knows about the sacred totem of Significant Detail. Significant details are the small (or large) observations that say volumes about the subject of your piece. In the most powerful pieces, the significant details are SO significant, so perfect, they seem made up. You just can’t believe the writer got that lucky. And the best writers (who are also the best reporters) get lucky over and over again in spectacular, though non-sexual ways (sorry writer dudes, but being a great writer is no guarantee of female companionship, and I have abundant proof of that, though I refuse to name names).

So why do some writers get all the magical details? It’s either because they have an in with the Big Guy, or because the world is made simply loaded with magic braided into every crease and crevice of reality, and great writers have learned how to look for it and recognize it when they see it.

But really, it’s not that hard. The main trick is to KNOW that they’ll be there if you look for them. Then all you have to do is pay attention. Let’s imagine an example to illustrate how significant details pop up: A nice suburban family – mom, dad, two kids, two dogs — starts to fall apart. What details tell the story?

One day, the mom comes home with a new puppy, a cute, bouncy boxer. As you are admiring it, the dad comes out and makes a face: It was a surprise to him. He appears to laugh it off, but you wonder. A week later, dad comes home with a new Porsche Boxster. You happen to be there when he pulls into the driveway. Mom comes out, mouth open. This is the first she’s heard of it. She makes a joke of it, but really, how funny is a surprise purchase of a $50,000 car?

This family has always been yard-proud. The dad spends hours on his riding mower, keeping the large lawn well tended and fertilized. He’s planted a dozen small trees, including a peach tree which started bearing fruit a few years back, small but perfect and perfectly sweet peaches.

A few months after the boxer-Boxster incidents, some neighborhood teenager driving home after a beer bash late at night misses a bend in the road and plows straight into the peach sapling, totaling the car and sheering the tree off at bumper height. The gash in the lawn eventually heels, but the dead tree, about 6 feet of it with its tangle of branches, is simply tossed up under the shade of a spreading maple tree right in the center of the lawn. It would take about two minutes to drag the carcass across the lawn and toss it in the bordering woods, but that never happens. Ever. Season after season, the remains of the dead tree just sits there, a mess that just can’t be cleaned up or shoved under cover.

Six months later, you learn that the mom has moved out, marriage over, kids joint-custodied.

The spring comes again and the dad can still be seen out on his riding mower, the grass still perfectly manicured, the dead tree still rotting beneath the maple.

The point is, where there’s rot, there’s almost always a rotting peach tree. You just have to understand that, in one form or another, it will be there. All you have to do is keep your eyes open.

The Good Soldier

David Finkel, right, with friend David Klein. So 1970s.

David Finkel, right, with friend David Klein. So 1970s.

I’ve known David Finkel at every stage of his career — from when we were on the University of Florida student newspaper together, to when we were first learning to write feature stories together at the Tallahassee Democrat, and later at the Washington Post, where Finkel preceded me at the magazine and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. On a personal, one to one basis, he’s always been one of the funniest people I’ve known, funnier face-to-face than Dave Barry or Gene Weingarten. He’s sarcastic, self-deprecatory, even kind of goofy at times. At the earliest stages of his career, I thought he’d more likely be a humor writer than a serious journalist.

Wrong again.

Finkel had astonishing depth and an immense reservoir of talent I barely guessed at. He’s become one of the great non-fiction stylists of  our generation — and his style is based on prodigious powers of observation and an almost godlike ability to see, and show us,  how the smallest detail can contain the universe.

It’s one of the mysteries of journalism that it’s taken Finkel until now to publish his first book — a fact with which Finkel has made himself the butt of thousands of his own jokes over the years. But now the book is out, and you better stand back.

It’s called The Good Soldiers, and it’s a worm’s eye view of the proverbial “boots on the ground” of American soldiers deployed to Iraq — a worm with the eyes of a poet, it’s that up-close and that profound.

Next Post: Deconstructing Finkel’s opening paragraph.