[25 May 2009]
At a time when people are suggesting that bloggers will replace journalists and that it is possible to tell a story in 140 characters, Hella Nation, a collection of pieces spanning the career of award-winning journalist Evan Wright, offers a persuasive counter-argument. Through crystalline honesty, Wright’s work forces us to butt heads with a reality we would often rather ignore. His subjects are America’s amoral, desperate, unconventional, and perverse. They are neo-Nazis, porn stars, con artists, and downright criminals. The common thread they share is that neither they, nor Wright, believe they have done anything wrong.
Wright’s gift is his ability to trace a story through time and weave together a piece that is chilling in both subtlety and revelation. His analysis of America’s darkest characters is both impervious to judgment or influence of stigma, and hyper-observant. He permits every character, including his own, to develop with a natural exactitude. Wright knows exactly how much to say and when to say it.
He tightly packages and delivers each detail without pomp or circumstance. Wright presents himself as a humble messenger, bearing facts. But it is impossible to mask how fine his skills as investigator are. Nothing escapes him, and or if it does, he weaves such flawless tales that we do not notice.
The stories are timeless; like urban legends, they endure on the basis of their perversity alone. In “Heil Hitler America!” about neo-Nazis members of the “Aryan Nation”, his stark objectivism is downright chilling. His minimalist writing style mirrors the myopic vision of the groups’ members, helping to shape the landscape of their singular community.
The two weakest pieces are the ones that were more obvious choices for conventional media attention. When he is sole investigator, he truly shines. In “The Bad American”, about the murder of a Russian immigrant and “Mad Dogs and Lawyers”, covering the case of a San Francisco couple and their killers dogs, the actual police work detracts from Wright’s natural flare. His eye is unique, and the best stories he tells are the ones that only he sees, such as “Wingut’s Last Day on Earth”, written while trailing a Seattle anarchist during the World Trade Organization conference there. Wright seems to be the only one interested in the anarchist, and he gets a one-of-kind story in his dual role as friend and reporter.
The only story that loses something in being so personal is “Portrait of Con Artist”, in which Wright tells the story of Seth Warshavsky, who was American’s leading Internet porn mogul, until he turned out to be a total fraud. Warshavsky, as described by Wright, is a loathsome, outrageous, unscrupulous, nearly psychotic character. There’s no reason to be believe that he is not all of these things, but he is also Wright’s former employer, and this piece is the only one in which objectivism is lost. He seems to neglect details that he might have emphasized in another piece, such as Warshavsky’s troubled adolescence.
“Pat Dollard’s War on Hollywood”, the wisely selected final piece is where he has truly hit his stride. In the last essay, Wright has finessed his ability to be both in and outside a story, exemplifying the flawless in investigative journalism. He weaves together pieces from history and moments where he engaged in conversation with Dollard about what he will write. Somehow, even these oddly revealing, potentially awkward moments serve to fortify the piece.
The piece on Motley Crue, “Forever Fourteen” is as charmingly funny as “Heil Hitler American” is disturbing. Though not a fiction writer, he has the ability to lead his characters into genre and illicit basic emotions in the reader. The collection is thoughtfully assembled and enables an unassuming but distinctive plot arc to take shape. Although each piece is entirely focused on its characters, when compiled they form something resembling a memoir.
He is unafraid to shine the light of scrutiny back on himself. He applies the same journalistic lack of judgment, to his own story that he does with the others. He writes about his career in the porn industry calmly expressing his strange interests, loves, lusts, fetishes, revulsion and revelry. In the “Dance With A Stranger”, he patronizes dance halls in order to write about them. He casually falls for one of the women, but it is “Scenes from My Life in Porn”, the second to last essay, that truly unearths Wright’s own secrets, and fluctuating sense of self.
He writes “deception and lies are the essence of pornography”. Either he is the best liar in town, or he has broken out of the shackles of deceit, manipulation, vulgarity, and sheer spin he experienced. By the final page, he seems to have acquired a prophet’s ability to elucidate the truth.