A book like Mark Bowden’s “Road Work: Among Tyrants, Heroes, Rogues and Beasts” gives hope to the author in every reporter. By hitting it big, as Bowden did with “Black Hawk Down,” everything else becomes publishable, whether it deserves to be or not.
“Road Work” is a collection of 19 pieces Bowden wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlantic Monthly, and other publications during the past 25 years. Extending the life of journalistic writing via publication between hard covers can be a risky business. Some of the stories in “Road Work” are timeless, others are yesterday’s mashed potatoes, still others simply don’t deserve to live on within the pages of a book.
The selection seems designed to show off Bowden’s range: He’s a sensitive dad here, a hard-boiled cops’ reporter there; a political pundit one day, a sportswriter the next; a praisesinger for Americana in one story, a dauntless world traveler in another. We also see Bowden trying on different voices, notably Tom Wolfe’s. We hear the glib techno-military Wolfe of “The Right Stuff ” in a piece about pilots flying missions over Afghanistan and the italicizing, capitalizing, exclaiming and mocking Wolfe in an article about the battle over the placement of a Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Bowden has his own voice. He should stick to it.
Probably the weakest piece in “Road Work” is the one on the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Bowden writes in his head note that the tightly scripted infomercial that is the modern political convention made him “pine for the days of smoke-filled back rooms, the days when real decisions were made at the conventions, and when reporters could unearth real news.” Name another reporter who doesn’t agree.
Character in Narrative Writing
The other clunkers in the book, about an annual Thanksgiving football game between rival Missouri high schools and about tryouts for a suburban Philadelphia high school basketball team, lack the key element in any successful piece of narrative journalism: the delineation of character. As Mike D’Orso wrote in an essay, “Finding Character,” that appeared in “Points of Entry” in 2002, “Action, setting, issues—all those things matter in a nonfiction story, but what matters most when it comes to narrative nonfiction is characters. People want to read about people. More than anything we are fascinated—appalled, amused, delighted, dismayed, inspired, entranced—by the men and women who stand up and breathe on the pages of a well-crafted story.”
No one quite stands up and breathes in “The Game of a Lifetime” or “The Unkindest Cut.” The first story tells us in a general way why the Turkey Day football game is so important to the people who live in Webster Groves and Kirkwood but offers only snapshots of past and present participants, not portraits. (Try out H.G. Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights” for a Texas-sized version of the same basic story.) The second recalls former (Baltimore) Sun reporter Ken Fuson’s 1997 chronicle of tryouts, rehearsals and opening night for a high school production of “West Side Story,” but next to Fuson’s detailed sketches of cast members, Bowden’s thumbnails of the aspiring basketball players seem halfhearted. It is as if he didn’t find the kids all that interesting or didn’t get to spend enough time with each of them to get to know them. When we find out at the end who made the team and who didn’t, we don’t care much either way.
A reader might feel better acquainted with Massa, the 51-year-old gorilla at the Philadelphia Zoo, than with any of the people in those two sports stories. At the end of “Urban Gorilla,” one almost feels as if “this ragged and toothless figure” cannot himself decide whether lifelong confinement has been worth it, after all. On one hand, it is hard to argue with Massa’s longevity, which is a tribute to the quality of the care he has received in captivity. On the other hand, there is his profound boredom. Bowden’s lovely lead sets up all that is to come: “Day settles softly down from the skylight over Massa’s bare confinement like some dim memory of sunshine.” Elsewhere we see him “rolling his baleful black eyes vacantly around the familiar edges of his world,” swatting his swinging tire in disgust and turning his sorry old buttocks on his human visitors.
Here we also get to see Bowden doing one of the things he is extraordinarily good at, physical descriptions. Near the end of the story, Bowden describes Massa’s face and eyes, but his earlier description of the ancient ape’s body is even more poignant:
“Age has withered this old brute to almost half his youthful bulk, a transformation that intensifies the alarming resemblance to his slender cousin, Homo sapiens. His jet-black skin hangs in loose folds at each joint and in chevrons down his shrunken chest and belly. His gray coat is tattered from decades of hair-plucking, a habit long ago identified as a symptom of pathological boredom.”
Consider these other finely wrought drawings, this one of Michael Koubi, former chief interrogator for Israel’s General Security Services in “The Dark Art of Interrogation”:
“He has blue eyes in a crooked face: time, the greatest caricaturist of all, has been at work on it for more than sixty years, and has produced one that is lean, browned, deeply lined, and naturally concave. His considerable nose has been broken twice, and now ends well to the right of where it begins, giving him a look that is literally off-center.”
Here’s a quick one of minor league ballplayer Rob Swain from “The Great Potato Pick-Off Play”:
“Swain was a short, crewcut infielder with a muscular frame and such tiny feet that his teammates used to say his shoes were small enough to drape over a rearview mirror.”
And here, instantly recognizable to a baseball fan of a certain age, is Philadelphia Phillies great Mike Schmidt:
“He has high, prominent cheekbones from which his face cuts down sharply in two angled lines to his chin. What must have been a difficult case of teenage acne has left scars along these chiseled features, softening them somewhat, adding to his weathered complexion a curious blend of ruggedness and vulnerability.”
Finally, there’s this perfect rendering of Norman Mailer:
“His blue eyes, under a spray of white eyebrows, are quick and playful. He stands on the balls of his feet and seems always intently aware of where his hands are—in his pockets, gesturing, pointing, striking out at some elusive, invisible enemy dodging just in front of him. Mailer’s clipped white curls are a happy mess. He has exceptionally large ears, the kind of ears kids probably teased him about when he was little. They protrude like supersensitive listening devices, making his face seem wider than it is long.”
This kind of descriptive writing, etching character onto physical characteristics, is harder than it appears to be. The one exception to the character-trumps-all rule is “Rhino,” an excerpt taken from a four-part series Bowden wrote about efforts to save the black rhinoceros from extinction. Like the Turkey Day and basketball tryout stories, this one is more of an ensemble piece. However, unlike the other stories, the landscape itself stands forth as a vivid presence in this one:
“The pitted clay gave way to sand that shifted slightly underfoot with each step, slowing them. The patrol climbed down a small embankment to the surface of a dry streambed. Gnarled remains of trees, washed along during the February floods, lay sunbaked and withered on the sand. Dusty air dried our mouths and throats.”
It helps, of course, that around any bend in the trail, Bowden and the antipoaching patrol he accompanies into the Zambian bush are likely to surprise a hippo, a croc, a rhino, or a herd of elephants or Cape buffalo.
The most striking thing about “Road Work” is that the stories grounded in Bowden’s observations of what went on before his eyes are indistinguishable from the scenes he reconstructed from the recollections of others. Indeed, if Bowden didn’t mention his use of reconstruction in some of the head notes, it might not even occur to most readers that he did anything other than describe scenes he had witnessed.
That’s a tribute to Bowden’s skills as a writer and his even more impressive skills as a reporter: Like all the great narrative journalists, Bowden must be a relentless asker of questions, a painstaking gatherer of minute detail. In “Fight to the Finish,” about a man’s losing battle against depression, the main character is so palpably present in the story that it’s astonishing to learn from the head note that Bowden never met him: What he knows about him, he learned from the man’s family and friends, from letters and photographs. The same goes for Bowden’s impressive profile of Saddam Hussein, though here it’s a bit galling to see Bowden, writing a year before the invasion of Iraq, sounding the alarm about Saddam as an imminent threat to the United States.
In “Cops on the Take,” on the other hand, it would be surprising to learn that Bowden did not reconstruct: It’s hard to imagine a reporter being welcomed at a pimp’s meetings with dirty cops or squeezing into a “surveillance hideaway” with two FBI agents. But how, then, does Bowden know so much? The dialogue wasn’t a problem: The FBI agents got the pimp and the police on tape. And certainly Bowden would have visited the restaurants where some of the meetings took place so he could describe the framed prints on the wall to his heart’s content. But can we believe that the pimp recalled for Bowden “the sunny silver sheen” of “steam rising from sewers and manhole lids” as he waited on a street corner to meet the cop he’d have to pay off to stay in business? Or that “fists of gritty air from passing trucks bumped him off balance and steeped him in the stale odor of spent fuel”? This would be one observant sleazeball.
Similar questions arise while reading the irresistibly goofy “The Great Potato Pick-Off Play.” Here, if Bowden claimed to be in on the hidden potato trick from the outset, we would probably take his word for it. But the head note reveals that Bowden read about the stunt on the newswire and “got Bresnahan and his teammates to reconstruct the stunt.” And so when Bowden describes the stadium lights and the sunlight “mingling to create a setting that seemed eerie, unreal” we have to ask if someone provided that description to Bowden or if he visited the stadium at the same time of day as when the pick-off play took place and sketched in the details after the fact.
It is hard to argue with such atmospherics. They add much to a story, and where’s the harm if Bowden spends a March morning on a Philadelphia street corner to get a sense of the look and smell of the air? At the same time, it is important to note that this sort of detail, whether obtained from a keen-eyed source or sketched in later by the writer, represents a significant departure from journalistic practice.
Reporters get their information in three ways: by observing, by interviewing, and by researching documents. All information obtained from human or printed sources is usually attributed to those sources. We can then assume that unattributed information was gathered by the reporter-as-observer.
Not so with narrative journalism. Now the reporter is describing scenes he did not witness and reproducing speech he did not hear without telling the reader how he knows what he knows. Should he? Does anyone other than a spoilsport journalism professor even care?
Perhaps not, but space isn’t quite as precious in a book as it is in the newspaper. When an author is writing head notes anyway, why not include some words about how he got parts of the story—as Bowden did in great detail in his masterpiece of narrative reconstruction, “Black Hawk Down”? Journalism students, a primary audience for a book like “Road Work,” would find such information instructive.
Russell Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University. He writes frequently about journalistic storytelling and journalistic ethics.