In Sunday’s Boston Globe I’ve got a review of Jeanne Marie Lasksas’s new book Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work. Laskas is one of the best magazine writers in America, and I tried to demonstrate some of the things she does well in my review: getting perfect quotes, showing deep empathy, and always telling stories. I could keep adding to this list — she does a great job stimulating all five senses; she gets so close to her characters that she can turn over whole pages to them and their drama-like dialogue; she does the John McPhee process thing almost as well as the master himself — but I was also struck by something she didn’t do. With one small exception, Laskas avoids making herself a character the way many of today’s flashiest magazine writers choose to.
If you read Harper’s or GQ, you know this trick: the author presents him- or herself as a bumbling (or, less frequently, haughty) narrator who, in the course of the reporting, reaches some kind of flashback-driven epiphany. It’s a great trick, and in a really good essay in Bookforum Gideon Lewis-Kraus traces its origin back to David Foster Wallace. Wallace, Lewis-Kraus writes, was “the great writer-worrier of his time.” And thanks to Wallace’s example, “insofar as there’s a prevailing aesthetic among the best young ‘magazine writers’ of our time, it’s the counterintuitively affirmative: What our nonfiction narrators do now is perform the overcoming of contempt.” You’ll find this performance in essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Tom Bissell, Jake Silverstein, George Saunders, Elif Batuman, and Lewis-Kraus himself.
But you won’t find it in the essays of Laskas. She achieves authenticity in a different way: by using her skills as a writer-observer to bring out the best and most human side of her characters. Maybe she does this by necessity — in her chapter on truck drivers, Laskas includes a few bits of memoir that, while well intentioned, fall flat —- but maybe she does it by choice. Laskas’s essays are less rhetorical than those of Wallace et al.; after all, the first-person trick aims partly at seeming authentic and partly at being persuasive. But that lack of rhetoric actually feels pretty refreshing. It’s so easy to imagine a book on “Hidden America” turning into a sermon on “Real America.” But in Laskas’s hands it doesn’t. She does the minute so well that it ends up mattering all by itself.