Monday, March 19, 2012

Robert Ward's Journalistic Time Capsule

Review, Robert Ward, Renegades: My Wild Trip from Professor to New Journalist with Outrageous Visits from Clint Eastwood, Reggie Jackson, Larry Flynt, and other American Icons

Forty years ago, when magazines still mattered and writers could move nations, young buck Robert Ward swung out of upstate New York like a sucker punch. His intensely personal journalism drew on techniques invented by James Boswell and perfected by Alex Haley, but he produced a body of work no one else could have created. And now, like a time capsule, his career-making articles now appear for the first time between one set of covers.

Ward started out as a disaffected AmLit prof, frustrated as his scholarly dreams turned to dust. (I can sympathize.) But with his academic training and his blue-collar roots, he lived a sort of bilingual life. While his fellow collegiate tea drinkers made high-handed pronouncements on behalf of “the people” they never met, and ordinary Americans languished in the disappointing end of the hippie era, Ward could bridge the gap and tell them both the story they needed.

And a hell of a story it was, too. Like his hero, Tom Wolfe, Ward didn’t pretend to be anybody’s detached reporter. He did everything journalism professors regularly forbid: say “I.” Get angry. Don’t blush when your subjects make asses of themselves. But most important, Ward never pretended that the story happened without him. He asked just the right questions to tease out the face his subject hid from the world. And sometimes that face wasn’t pretty.

For instance, Ward was the first writer to capture young Larry Flynt’s apparently pathological inability to shut up. He convinced former South Vietnamese president Nguyen Cao Ky, rusticating in suburban California, to open up on exile in a hostile culture. By standing by and listening, providing the right prompts at the right time, he got Reggie Jackson to make statements so half-cocked that the New York Yankees nearly imploded.

Some of Ward’s reports read like time capsules (who the hell is Pete Maravich?). Others continue to push against the present. His opinionated report on the late-seventies Austin music scene, flooded with rockers who went country because Gram Parsons was their coked-up messiah, reflects the cheapening of the music industry. Ward makes the Oakland Raiders’ George Atkinson an emblem of the bloodlust inherent in the NFL.

The linking essays between Ward’s original articles provide a remarkable insight into his technique. His Reggie Jackson article, which made him an overnight celebrity, came about because he just agreed with Jackson at the right moments. He asked Jackson questions implicit in his own statements, and when Jackson said something inflammatory, Ward simply write it down.

In this, Ward, like his contemporary Hunter S. Thompson, molded a new form of journalism. They personally embodied postmodernism: if all knowledge is subjective, then conventional journalistic “objectivity” was a false target. Instead, Ward threw himself into the story, ginned up his subjects, and turned something merely interesting into an event. His reports often were little better than throw-downs, in which his subjects revealed their true faces.

Moreover, Ward had no patience with bullshit. When Joe Thiessman or David Allen Coe use words to get between themselves and the real world, Ward doesn’t let them get away with it. His aggressive responses make us cheer for him. They also get him in plenty of trouble, as he has to fend off death threats. It makes me pine for the old days of Nellie Bly and Ambrose Bierce, when journalism was a true and perilous adventure.

Even then, he can get misty-eyed where it really counts. When he discusses the disappearance of Baltimore’s historic burlesque clubs, or how the Colts’ relocation tore the heart from his hometown, he persuades us that this really matters. His bold voice and willingness to take sides make even personal reminiscences on personal loss and age into something we can share.

Like William Shirer before him, Ward took journalism in new and hopeful directions. Where Shirer broke new ground in scholarly journalism, though, Ward made journalism accessible. By bringing the novelist’s gaze to journalism, Ward pushed past the limitations of each form and made both more interesting. His powerful, incisive language makes this disillusioned instructor wonder whether he could have a future in journalism.

This collection, sprawling over a wide swath of time and a range of topics, runs over four hundred pages, yet Ward’s voice propels readers along smoothly. You could read this book in one rainy Saturday and wish it was longer. When journalism has the strength to blindside you this way, it reminds us why journalism is an art and a life-affirming pursuit.

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