Friday, January 23, 2004

Recently, I've grown slightly obsessed with the work of Stephen Glass. Glass was a very well-read and respected journalist who wrote human-interest stories for The New Republic. He published pieces in many different magazines: Harpers, George, Rolling Stone, Slate, Policy Review. Recently, he was the subject of a minor movie called Shattered Glass.

In May of 1998, Glass published an article called Hack Heaven, describing how a teenage hacker was hired by a big-time software company after he managed to hack into their system. The story was further investigated by the now-defunct Forbes Digital Magazine which discovered that it was a complete fabrication, from start to finish.

The New Republic conducted a review of Glass's articles and found that, in fact, most of them were figments of his imagination. Glass was fired and disgraced; recently, he published The Fabulist, an autobiographical novel about a reporter who fakes stories.

For me, though, Glass' stories do not lose any value merely because they are inventions. I can't help but be moved by his account of his work as a phone-in psychic in Prophets and Losses. I can't help but laugh and shake my head at his portrait of a fanatical evangelist in Savannah Postcard. In fact, I only respect him the more for inventing the characters in his pieces, who are too good to be true on the one hand and too human on the other.

I'd like to close this post by quoting the first few paragraphs of Savannah Postcard:

Every Sunday evening, after a long and trying day of missionary work here, Jim Johansen drives 300 miles to Atlanta, where he lives. Along the way, he applies to himself the regimen he has developed over the years to restore body and soul after a tough stint on the conversion trail. He drives first to one of Savannah's Krispy Chic restaurants and orders the Better Deal Bucket, which consists of ten deep-fried drumsticks, plus a large side of mashed potatoes, although Johansen skips the potatoes. He puts the bucket on the car seat next to him, and, as he drives, he works his way through it, drumstick by drumstick. He doesn't gollup his food. He doesn't even allow himself the first drumstick until he has merged onto I-16, the road that connects Savannah to Macon, halfway to Atlanta. In between drumsticks and throughout the day, he smokes non-filtered Camel cigarettes, a great many of them.

In 1991, when Johansen was trying to convert Buddhists, he averaged two packs of cigarettes each Sunday and five drumsticks on the drive home from Savannah to Atlanta. In 1992 and 1993, when he was trying to convert the "miscellaneous," as he calls members of the smaller and more exotic sects, he increased his intake to seven drumsticks and a wing, and four packs. Now he is trying to convert Savannah's Jews, and, on each Sunday drive, he goes through a full Better Deal load of ten drumsticks. As for Camels, he claims to be up to a terrifying six and a half packs a day. The effects show. Johansen looks like Orville Redenbacher gone portly, and his white beard is stained nicotine yellow all around the rim of his mouth.

"It's hard work converting Jews, and that makes me hungry," Johansen says. He speaks in staccato bursts between puffs on his cigarette. Lighting a fresh cigarette off the butt of one that is guttering to its last gasp, he ruminates on the challenge. "Yep, they may be the hardest [puff]. They're harder than anyone [puff]. Harder than the Chinese [puff]. And the Chinese were hard." He shakes his head. "After these ten legs [puff] ten legs! [puff] I'm still [puff] still hungry."


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