By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
“Chevron apparently wrote an extremely pissed-off letter,” says William Langewiesche, thumbing through the June issue of Vanity Fair, where the month before he published a story about the oil industry’s ecological decimation of the Ecuadorian Amazon. We’re at a newsstand on a warm evening in Portland, and when he realizes the letter is not in the issue, he buys a pack of cigars and continues his walk up Broadway.
I am walking with him, and he is, as he is each time we’ve met, wearing a white dress shirt and navy sport jacket. Practical. Packable, a necessity for a journalist who says he spends “not much” time at home, in Northern California and Paris. This week thus far, he’s been in New York, Chicago, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco, reading from The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor. The book, his sixth, follows some of the known players in the underground nuclear-weapons trade, explaining which groups might be able to get their hands on one, who’s likely to use it and how survivable an atomic strike will be.
“The book tour continues in London,” he says, as we settle in a cool, dim bar for drinks. After London, he will go to Iceland, at some point to China, but first back to Iraq, where he has intermittently worked and lived, outside of the Green Zone, since 2003. His article, “Rules of Engagement,” about the killing of 24 Iraqi men, women and children by U.S. Marines in Haditha, won a 2007 National Magazine Award. Still. “I would like it to be my last. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of war,” he says. “I don’t hate it or anything like that, but it’s unpleasant.”
Unpleasant is a word some might apply to the places Langewiesche, a commercial pilot before becoming, in 1993, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, has taken the reader. Trapped in the stairwell of a ferry sinking in the Baltic Sea; into the cockpit of a Boeing 767 the pilot has decided to smash, along with its passengers, into the Atlantic Ocean; sitting in the cabin crew with the astronauts of the Columbia, clueless that they are about to be spun free from the shuttle and free-fall to Earth.
It was after the publication of American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center that Langewiesche found himself flying through an editorial shitstorm, launched in part by New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who accused him in print of being “coldblooded” and the book “quite at odds with the solemn reasons that led to the cleanup efforts.” It was evidently of no consequence that he was the only journalist granted full access during the removal of the 1.5 million tons of rubble and remains, or that he was on the ground with engineers and excavators, and also watching, from a pier in Newark Bay, as the Trade Center’s structural steel beams were torched into 3-foot sections and shipped off to China, where they would be smelted and used to build other structures.
I suggest that at the time, hope was perhaps too forward a response.
“She didn’t like my emotional distance from the tragedy,” he says.
As if there weren’t enough emotionalism going around.
“It wasn’t enough, obviously, for her,” he says, and does not need to explain that being maudlin (a word he applies to the Times’ “Portraits of Grief”; also, “abysmal” and “illegitimate”) is always an impediment to getting done the work that needs to be done.
But what exactly is that work? If you were an excavator, it was clearing the debris. If you are a writer, how do you make sense of what so terrifies most people they freeze or propagandize or sit in their closets and cry? How do you organize that which is constantly threatening to fly into pieces? If you are Langewiesche, you part it out, lay the pieces on the ground, walk around them, and say, okay, this is how this works. In each of his books, he takes what seems too vast to grasp — the ocean (The Outlaw Sea), the air (Inside the Sky), the U.S.-Mexico border (Cutting for Sign) and, now, nuclear weapons — and puts it in the reader’s hands and holds it there, as if to say, calm down, yes, it’s tough, but this is what you must deal with.
It’s utilitarian, a quarry man’s job, except for the prose. In Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert, he writes of the Belgian husband and wife and their 5-year-old son who decide to make an adventure of crossing the desert in an old Peugeot, in which they make a wrong turn, and then, break down.
The Belgians hoped a truck would come along. For a week they waited, scanning the horizon for a dust-tail or the glint of a windshield. This was in a place, more or less, where the maps still insist on showing a road. The woman felt upwellings of panic. She began to write more frantically, filling pages in single sessions. The water ran low, then dry, and the family grew horribly thirsty. After filtering it through a cloth, they drank the car’s radiator fluid. They had arrived at the danger stage . . .