Tag Archives: Jeff Sharlet

Derivative Sport: The Journalistic Legacy of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace in New York City's East Village, circa 2002. (Janette Beckman/Redferns)

By Josh Roiland

Longreads | December 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)

At a hip Manhattan book launch for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead, David Rees, the event’s emcee, asked the two-time National Magazine Award winner, “So John…are you the next David Foster Wallace?” The exchange is startling for its absurdity, and Sullivan shakes his head in disbelief before finally answering, “No, that’s—I’m embarrassed by that.” But the comparison has attached itself to Sullivan and a host of other young literary journalists whom critics have noted bear resemblance to Wallace in style, subject matter, and voice.

When Leslie Jamison published The Empathy Exams, her 2014 collection of essays and journalism, a Slate review said “her writing often recalls the work of David Foster Wallace.” Similarly, when Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life appeared a year earlier, a review in the L.A. Review of Books proclaimed: “If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.”

Wallace was, himself, a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, winning once, in 2001; yet he compulsively identified himself as “not a journalist” both in his interactions with sources and reflexively as a character in his own stories. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow in the world of literary journalism—a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. To give better shape to that penumbra of influence, I spoke with Sullivan, Jamison, and Orange, along with Maria Bustillos, Jeff Sharlet, Joel Lovell, and Colin Harrison about Wallace’s impact on today’s narrative nonfiction writers. They spoke about comparisons to Wallace, what they love (and hate) about his work, what it was like to edit him, their favorite stories, posthumous controversies, and his influence and legacy.

Joel Lovell only worked with Wallace on one brief essay. Despite that singular experience, Lovell’s editorial time at Harper’s and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s put him in great position to witness Wallace’s rising status in the world of magazine journalism. He was unequivocal when I asked him which nonfiction writer today most reminds him of Wallace.

Joel Lovell: The clear descendant is John Jeremiah Sullivan, of course. For all sorts of reasons (the ability to move authoritatively between high and low culture and diction; the freakishly perceptive humor on the page) but mostly just because there’s no one else writing narrative nonfiction or essays right now whose brain is so flexible and powerful, and whose brainpower is so evident, sentence by sentence, in the way that Wallace’s was. No one who’s read so widely and deeply and can therefore “read” American culture (literature, television, music) so incisively. No one who can make language come alive in quite the same way. He’s an undeniable linguistic genius, like Dave, who happens to enjoy exercising that genius through magazine journalism. Read more…

‘This Place, This Moment, Unplanned’: On Surviving a Heart Attack

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After a heart attack (perhaps two heart attacks), Jeff Sharlet searches for meaning in his own mortality, “This brilliant darkness, with which I am coming to terms.” Read the full essay at VQR.

For two years I’ve been walking into the tall grass to take snapshots of this field at the top of the “crooked mile,” a winding hill that leads into the shallow valley of swamp and stream in which my house stands, just past the sign that reads pavement ends. I use my phone. I want the rough eye. The note. The diary. The record. The document. This time, this moment, unplanned.

This moment: stopped on the drive home from another trip to the hospital. One of many during the past two weeks, after two heart attacks, or maybe it was only one, rising and falling like a tide, across thirty hours. It began as night fell, as I wrote what I thought were the last words of a book I had begun two years before, following my father’s heart attack. Mine, like his, was “mild.” I’m told the pain can be instantly alarming. Not for me. I had been hitting snooze on this pain for months. Maybe years. Doing so was easy. It was only an ache, or sometimes a ripple, weak as chamomile, never sharper than nettles. That is, I did not know it was a heart attack. Then, after midnight, my chest began to fill as if with heavy water. My breath was cut into small and ragged pieces. I was being pressed, as if by a hard hand, back into the rocking chair in which I sat until dawn.

Waiting for the words to return. I’ve always had words, sentences that knitted themselves, paragraphs that fell into place. Always there was language, easy as air. I used to love a line by Catullus: “Calling all syllables!” They’d come. Now they don’t. I’m not sure I need them to. Even a snapshot of the dark-that-isn’t-dark-at-all might be more than I want to set down. Never before in my life has just being here—with the fox and the doe and the owl, with my pulse and my fears and the frozen air hot in my throat—felt so close to enough.

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One Nation, Under God, With Liberty and Justice for Some

Rev. Billy Graham gives the closing prayer at Nixon's National Prayer Breakfast in 1973. (AP Photo)
Rev. Billy Graham gives the closing prayer at Nixon's National Prayer Breakfast in 1973. (AP Photo)

Jeff Sharlet reviews Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals for the New Republic, and his analysis is itself an excellent history of Evangelical Christianity’s influence on society and politics. Although a lot about Donald Trump seemed antithetical to conservative Christianity, he got a larger percentage of the Evangelical vote than George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or then-Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. Why?

Before its current obsession with the body, as FitzGerald observes, evangelicalism expressed itself politically through extreme and often paranoid anti-communism. My favorite example is the 1958 horror film The Blob, which told of a carnivorous mass of red Jello. Conceived at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in 1957 by Shorty Yeaworth, an evangelical filmmaker, the movie was widely viewed as either pure kitsch or an anti-communist metaphor free of religious overtones. American evangelicalism before the 1980s was no less political in its theology; its theology just happened to align with the anti-communist beliefs of the secular sphere.

Today, the political expression of evangelicalism seems strongest in its opposition to Islam. In this sense, it may be aligning, once again, with widely held secular anxieties.

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Temptation, Purity, and High-Stakes Evangelism in a Texas Town

Johnny was more honest than most about his salvation. Other teens said they’d felt so lost in the secular world that they’d attempted suicide. When pressed for details, they produced accounts of the angry boredom of being sixteen in the suburbs: “attempted suicide” meant driving too fast, going for a too-difficult dive, getting dangerously drunk on dad’s Jack Daniel’s. One boy told me had resolved to strangle himself and would have, too, had not Jesus invisibly pulled the boy’s hands from his Adam’s apple. For Johnny there had been no special signs, no spiritual lows. It was simple as this: he was on a ski trip, and Jesus got him—shouldered into Johnny’s heart and said, “You’re mine, buddy.” It felt “wicked awesome,” better than eight girls in a Hummer all at the same time.

Jeff Sharlet, in Lapham’s Quarterly, on a day spent with the sexually pure teens of Battlecry Honor Academy in Garden Valley, Texas — where he learns that renouncing your sins doesn’t mean redacting their memories.

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A Resourceful Woman

Jeff Sharlet | Longreads | February 2015 | 24 minutes (5,994 words)

 

  1. Mary Mazur, 61, set off near midnight to buy her Thanksgiving turkey. She took her plant with her. “He doesn’t like to be left alone,” she later explained. The plant rode in a white cart, Mary in her wheelchair. With only one hand to wheel herself, the other on the cart, she’d push the left wheel forward, switch hands, push the right. Left, right, cursing, until a sweet girl found her, and wheeled her into Crown Fried Chicken. “Do not forget my plant!” she shouted at the girl. I held the door. // “I have a problem with my foot,” she said—the left one, a scabbed stump, purple in the cold. Her slipper wouldn’t stay on. // Mary wore purple. Purple sweats, purple fleece. 30 degrees. “I bet you have a coat,” she said. Not asking, just observing. Measuring the distance. Between us. Between her and her turkey. Miles away. “You’ll freeze,” I said. “I’ll starve,” she said. I offered her chicken. “I have to have my turkey!” Also, a microwave. Her motel didn’t have one. // “Nobody will help you,” she said. “Not even if you’re bleeding from your two eyes.” // Two paramedics from the fire department. Two cops. An ambulance, two EMTs. “I didn’t call you!” she shouted. “I don’t care who called me,” said one of the cops. One of the paramedics put on blue latex gloves. “She won’t go without this—this friggin’ plant,” he said. “You’ll go,” said the cop. “You’re not my husband!” said Mary. The cop laughed. “Thank god,” he said. The whole gang laughed. One of them said maybe her plant was her husband. That made them laugh, too. “I’m not going!” said Mary. “Your plant is going,” said the cop. Mary caved. Stood on one foot. “Don’t touch me!” They lowered her onto the stretcher. “Let me hold it,” she said. “What?” said the EMT. “The plant,” said the cop. He lifted it out of the cart. “Be careful!” she shouted. He smirked but he was. “Thank you,” she rasped, her shouting all gone. Mary Mazur, 61, shrank into the blankets, muttering into the leaves, whispering to her only friend.

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#Nightshift: Excerpts from an Instagram Essay

Jeff Sharlet | Longreads | September 2014 | 12 minutes (2,802 words)

1. Snapshots

Dunkin Donuts, West Lebanon, New Hampshire

Processed with VSCOcam with b4 preset

The night shift, for me, is a luxury, the freedom to indulge my insomnia by writing at a Dunkin Donuts, one of the only places up here open at midnight. But lately my insomnia doesn’t feel like such a gift. Too much to think about. So click, click, goes the camera—the phone—looking for other people’s stories. This is Mike’s: He’s 34, he’s been a night baker for a year, and tonight is his last shift. Come 6 a.m., “no more uniform.” He decided to start early. He’s going to be a painter. “What kind?” I ask. “Well, I’m painting a church…” He started that early, too. “So I’m working, like, eighty hour days.” He means weeks, but who cares? The man is tired. He doesn’t like baking. Rotten pay, rotten hours, rotten work. “You don’t think. It’s just repetition.” Painting, you pay attention. “You can’t be afraid up there.” He means the ladder, the roof. “I’m not afraid,” he says. He’s a carpenter’s helper. “I can do anything.” He says he could be a carpenter. “But it hasn’t happened.” Why bake? “Couldn’t get a job.” Work’s like that, he says, there are bad times. Everything’s like that, he says. There are bad times. “Who’s the tear for?” The tattoo by his right eye. “For my son,” he says. “Who died when he was two months old.” That’s all he’ll say about that. “This next job will be better,” he says. Read more…

Interview: Kiera Feldman on Oral Roberts, God and Journalism

In our latest Longreads Exclusive, Kiera Feldman and Tulsa-based magazine This Land Press went deep into the downfall of the Oral Roberts family dynasty—how Richard Roberts went from heir to the televangelist’s empire, to stripped from his role at Oral Roberts University.

Feldman, a Brooklyn-based journalist, and This Land Press have worked together before—her story “Grace in Broken Arrow” was named our top pick for Best of Longreads 2012, and it explored another scandal inside a religious institution, sex abuse at a Tulsa Christian school. I exchanged emails with Feldman to discuss the making of the Oral Roberts story, and her start in journalism.

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‘Quebrado’: The Life and Death of a Young Activist

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Jeff Sharlet | Sweet Heaven When I Die, W. W. Norton & Company | Aug 2011 | 37 minutes (9,133 words)

 

Our latest Longreads Member Pick is “Quebrado,” by Jeff Sharlet, a professor at Dartmouth, contributing editor for Rolling Stone and bestselling author. The story was first published in Rolling Stone in 2008 and is featured in Sharlet’s book Sweet Heaven When I Die. Thanks to Sharlet for sharing it with the Longreads community. Read more…

Longreads Member Pick: 'Quebrado,' by Jeff Sharlet

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This week, we’re excited to share a Member Pick from Jeff Sharlet, a professor at Dartmouth and bestselling author of The FamilyC Street, and Sweet Heaven When I Die. “Quebrado” is a chapter from Sweet Heaven, first published in Rolling Stone in 2008, about Brad Will, a young American journalist and activist.

Read an excerpt here.

Become a Longreads Member to receive this week’s pick.

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Illustration by Kjell Reigstad