Hunter S. Thompson has a tendency to overshadow his subject matter, as if he invented the entire world in his own image, and this were a tenet of non-fiction. The dirty little secret of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that Las Vegas was, and is, pretty damn weird in its own right. It may have made Thompson, or at least his most famous work, as much as he made it. The Daily dispatches Zach Baron to Sin City, where he deftly balances archaeology and immersion. When it becomes impossible to separate the two, Baron just goes with it, exactly the kind of impulse that got Thompson into trouble in the first place—and made him something other than a mere egoist. (Part One, Part Two)
I’m not sure if Jon Mooallem’s cultural excavation of the high-five is a perfect piece of writing, but it pretty much epitomizes everything I think sports writing should do, or at least be allowed to do when the occasion demands it. This past week, David Remnick reviewed the new Howard Cosell biography. Before getting to Cosell, he made the case that sports are relevant because they overwhelm, overpower, and more or less preoccupy us. Sports make big noise; endless broadcast, commentary, and web opinion compel us to stick around indefinitely. It’s a grim vision of our relationship with games that, for many of us, are both a source of joy in themselves and anything but a closed system of stupid. Mooallem picks a fairly simple, if ubiquitous detail—one that connects the playing field to daily life, rather than forcing separation of imitation—and proceeds to chase down its origins, false leads and all. The high-five began in sports, but now belongs to us all. As it turns out, understanding the various creation myths behind it requires an acknowledgment that sports are never just what they seem. If sports envelope us, they do so as part of the big picture—not an alternative to it.
When a retrospective comes to New York, it’s time for the sharpest film writers to revisit old masters. This past summer, Robert Ryan got the treatment. I have a bad habit of vehemently disliking actors that any sane cinephile holds in high regard. I know them, I just can’t stand them. It always seems to be the ones who demand the deepest sympathy while unsettling audiences, anti-heroes whose heroism is a comfort to none. Ryan is one such outsider who invites no company, and Kent Jones’s piece—bloggy, to be sure, but vital and organized as any manicured feature—brought me that moment of conversion. The actor I couldn’t stand became an object of fascination; Jones acknowledges all that’s surface about Ryan, while honing in on a peculiar kind of pain that locates a leading man trapped inside the creep. As Jones observes, no one does alone like Robert Ryan. At that point, it’s no longer about our response, but his wooly brand of gravitas.
I originally saw this story on Frontline, which led me to ask Mark if I could include a television program on this list, since longform non-fiction television was itself a dying cult. Luckily, all Frontline stories double as ProPublica features, so on a technicality, I can slide it onto my list. “The American Behind India’s 9/11—And How the U.S. Botched Chances to Stop Him” isn’t quite the same without the solemn voiceover and grainy footage of eighties Philadelphia and military surveillance tapes. But the story of David Coleman Headley epitomizes the new narrative of terrorism. Instead of something shadowy and exotic, it’s full of plot twists and evasions that turn familiarity into something inherently sinister. Headley’s mother founded the Khyber Pass, one of Philly’s main indie venues by the time I got there in the mid-nineties. I had no idea that the name referred to mama Serrill Headley’s mysterious time in the region, or that for a time, her son—drug runner, future informant and jihadist—managed the place. “It could happen anywhere” is chilling, if contrived; “it has roots in your backyard”, this piece’s tacit refrain, is about the process of us becoming them, a delineation that really can’t comfort us for much longer.
I’m sure that half the known world included this David Grann banger on their list, but when making these picks, Grann is pretty much the five-hundred ton elephant in the room.