Photo by Pamela Hanson
On a couple of occasions in Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser mentions The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair’s novel set in the slaughterhouses of Chicago. Such was the furor generated by The Jungle that President Roosevelt ordered a federal investigation of the author’s depiction of conditions in the food industry. Investigators confirmed the accuracy of Sinclair’s fiction, and later that year Congress passed food-safety legislation. Schlosser’s own book may not have had such instantly specific and dramatic results, but it has had a considerable and worldwide effect on public awareness of what goes on behind the counters of the junk-food industry. Perhaps the comparison says something not only about the way the public perceives the trade both authors write about but the form in which they have chosen to do so. If The Jungle proved conclusively that the novel could be an effective instrument of political intervention, books like Schlosser’s suggest that investigative reporting can hold its place alongside the best contemporary literary fiction.
As a teenager in England in the 1970s I became aware of something called the “New Journalism.” I didn’t know what the “old” journalism was, but it became pretty obvious that Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe and the like occupied a more prominent part in their own copy — both stylistically and as participants in the events they recorded — than I was used to. They also seemed to go on and on about things forever. Economy, brevity were clearly not at a premium. In fact I often got bored and failed to finish the ramblings in The New Journalism anthology that enjoyed some kind of canonical status at the time but which I subsequently discarded without regret. And yet, as things have turned out, I have myself turned out to be a keen practitioner of ego-driven reportage. I recently went to Tahiti to write about Gauguin and a contemporary artist whose work had been inspired by his own trip to French Polynesia. When the article was published I got a terse e-mail from the artist, indignant that, in 5,000 words, I had only mentioned him a couple of times, in passing. This is pretty much par for the course. If I am ever asked to go somewhere and write about something, I assume that the most interesting thing about the story will be, well, me. I hardly ever do any reporting, never “investigate” anything or interview anyone and rarely take adequate notes. The result is journalism only in the sense that it ends up in a magazine or newspaper.
Perhaps this is why I am so full of admiration for the diligent, responsible, research-intensive journalism practiced by Schlosser. Other recent extended examples that spring to mind are William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Philip Gourevitch’s devastating dispatches from Rwanda, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. In each of these books the reporter is on the scene as a necessary observer but not as an intrusive personality. Even Ehrenreich, whose own experiences are crucial to the conception of the project (to see if it is possible to survive on low wages in America), does not hog the reader’s attention in the way that the boorish and verbally bloated Mailer so often did. To an extent, writers like these share a quality remarked on in the course of journalist Janet Malcolm’s protracted legal wrangle with Jeffrey Masson: While some people have a powerful presence, it was observed, Malcolm had an equally palpable absence.
The triptych of long pieces arranged under the allusively sensational rubric Reefer Madness (Houghton Mifflin) is exemplary. Addressing the production and distribution of marijuana, strawberries and pornography respectively, the pieces are united by what they reveal of the burgeoning underground economy in America (in L.A. the underground is, apparently, “responsible for between 9 percent and 29 percent of the city’s economic activity”). All are focused, in classic journalistic style, on particular human stories that highlight the wider implications of the area under scrutiny. In the first, Schlosser concentrates on the plight of Mark Young, who, in Indiana in 1992, was convicted — “solely on the testimony of co-conspirators who were now co-operating with the government” — of brokering a marijuana deal and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The last piece is woven around the strange case of Reuben Sturman, who “dominated the production and distribution of pornography not only in the United States but also throughout the world.” The middle piece — hammocked, as TV schedulers put it, between two more obviously enticing items — is concerned not with high-risk, illegal adventurism but the routine drudgery and exploitation of migrant labor in California. ä
Schlosser’s first great skill is his journalistic ability to find a story that will turn an issue into a gripping narrative. These tales are intercut with more discursive reflections on the history of the war against drugs, attempts to avoid minimum-wage legislation, and the battle between anti-pornography zealots and the people who make and watch it. Since the things he tells us are often scarcely believable — some of the marijuana cases that come to court resemble nothing else so much as Stalinist show trials — Schlosser is careful to back up his stories of smut and pot with statistics.
In this respect a comparison can usefully be made with an article about the porn industry by Martin Amis, first published in Talk and then reprinted in the London Guardian. Amis’ research revealed some extraordinary figures: “The average non-homeowning American male spends more on porno than he spends on his rent. Porno accounts for 43.5 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.” In the next paragraph Amis concedes that these figures are “bullshit.” He made them up. It’s a flamboyant rhetorical flourish (succeeded, it has to be said, by some real stats) and one alien to Schlosser, who uncovers real statistics that are scarcely less mind-blowing. In 2000 “a poll conducted by Christianity Today magazine found that 27 percent of America’s pastors sought out porn on the Internet anywhere from ‘a few times a year’ to ‘a couple of times a month or more.’” (By definition the economics of the underground are off the record, but, as evidence of how rigorously he has compiled and sifted his material, Schlosser ends with a note on sources that is of a heftiness normally associated with scrupulous academic practice.)
Amis’ essay is a tour de force, powered, as usual, by his superstud style. Schlosser’s prose is altogether less spectacular, lacking the characteristic turns and topspin returns of phrase routinely served up by Amis, but his knack for the telling detail is often as acute as the novelist’s. Take, for instance, his 1996 meeting with Sturman, by then age 71 and serving time in jail in Kentucky. “He had a firm handshake and a strong air of authority, like a proud, recently deposed head of state.” This encounter also says something about Schlosser’s handling of structure. Up until this point we don’t know he’s actually met the fallen emperor of hardcore. The meeting is no less charged for having been completely unexpected. Throughout, Schlosser’s artistry is no less impressive for being so discreetly concealed.
In the final piece he is perhaps discreet to a fault. Amis had great fun detailing porn’s amazing ability to sate every taste, however niche-specific (the piece opens with him asking a well-known pornographer to “account for the truly incredible emphasis on anal sex” in the industry). Schlosser doesn’t get off on this kind of thing at all. His ultimate concern, after all, is always economics. Still, I don’t think the fact that I felt a bit shortchanged on this score was down to my interest being salacious. Or at least it was not just down to that. Given the genre’s near-religious devotion to explicitness, it feels a little odd for Schlosser to be so well-mannered. Using the argot of the industry, he talks, broadly, of the pressure on porn actresses to do “‘nasty things.’” However, it probably is a failing of this reader that, having been captivated by every line of the marijuana section, he became impatient, reading about toiling migrant workers, to move on to porn. But again, that in itself is probably symptomatic of the attention-deficit culture that the underground economy seeks to serve and exploit and, in so doing, exacerbates. To that extent the difference between the underground and overground economy is as slight as the traffic between them is substantial. If you’re in a hotel room it’s difficult to immerse yourself in a paperback of The Grapes of Wrath when Unfaithful From the Front, Punished From Behind is available on pay-per-view and one hand is already fingering the remote. It’s a problem facing even the very best American writers.
Geoff Dyer’s most recent book is Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It. He is the Weekly’s 2003 critic in residence.