Entertainment

Book Notes: Longform nonfiction with a palpable edge

Rae Padilla Francoeur More Content Now
Posted: Jan. 30, 2019 9:14 am

“Dirty John and Other Stories of Outlaws and Outsiders” By Christopher Goffard, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. New York, November 2018. Paperback. $17

“A Private War: Marie Colvin and Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels and Renegades” By Marie Brenner. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2018. Paperback. $16

Longform feature writers Christopher Goffard and Marie Brenner have a few important things in common. They are excellent storytellers, they know how to dig for their material and develop a trusting rapport with their sources. Their work is edgy, vivid and experiential. Both have recently published compilations of some of their more notable pieces.

Christopher Goffard wrote for the Los Angeles Times and the St. Petersburg Times, where he developed his unique style of storytelling. Readers feel like they’re in the room, privy to the characters’ thoughts and actions as they unfold. Some may know his podcast based on the title story, “Dirty John.” The piece also inspired a TV mini-series.

In one of my favorite pieces, Goffard tracks the growth of a young and desperate public defender in a story titled “The $40 Lawyer.” Goffard walks us through Charley Demosthenous’s long and arduous path to competence as he defends the down-and-out likely criminals. Smart but not performing at peak potential, he turned to the public defender’s office in Hillsborough County as a last resort. Until then, no one was interested in hiring an inexperienced young lawyer who flunked his bar exams three times.

Things take shape for Charley as a public defender. Some of his personality traits become attributes. “Charley’s different,” writes Goffard. “Yes, he fights for his clients’ future. But with every trial, every argument, his own future feels at stake. In his mind, the options remain stark: Be somebody, or be nobody. What’s more, he realizes, he just hates losing. He takes it personally. He has had enough for a lifetime.” How Goffard manages to track the dramatic details of Charley’s up-and-down trajectory over the months is a mystery, but readers are treated to the amusing, at times upsetting, always suspenseful story of how a young lawyer finds his way and develops his chops.

In “The Accusations,” a young father and businessman is falsely accused of rape and torture of his ex-wife. He loses everything as he waits in jail for his trial. The piece is tense and disturbing. Readers are not sure if Louis Gonzalez III is guilty or not, but, despite the horrific nature of the crime, his guilt grows increasingly questionable as Goffard feeds us detail after detail in the police department’s investigation. The procedural nature of the reporting feels like a Michael Connelly novel - but this story is real life and people’s careers and families are at stake.

We are taken to the southern border in “Border Warrior,” where a middle-aged man suffers great physical discomforts in order to do what he thinks is his part watching for people attempting to cross into the United States illegally. This up-close-and-personal view shines an informative light on the complexities the country and individuals face as they grapple with immigration. Max Kennedy’s empathy feeds his growing ambivalence, giving this story, like all the others in the collection, a tremendous sense of suspense.

The title story is hard to read but riveting all the same. “Dirty John” is about a successful middle-aged business woman, Debra Newell, who marries a con artist that everyone but her can see is dangerous, deceptive and crude. The story is long and twisty. Just when we think things are going to be okay, they’re not. Everything we learn about John Meehan’s past is very scary. And it’s not long before we find out that Newell’s sister was shot to death by her abusive husband. You would think she’d be on high alert. Alas, she’s loving, forgiving and ready for a fifth try at matrimony.

“A Private War” by journalist Marie Brenner is another great journalistic read. The title story was the basis for the critically acclaimed movie of the same name about Marie Colvin, the bold, hard-driving reporter killed in a bombing in Syria. Brenner, whom I happened to hear speak while in New York City, consulted during the filming. The longform article and the movie are closely aligned.

“Her particular talent,” writes Brenner about Colvin, “was giving voice to the voiceless.” Colvin suffered debilitating bouts of PTSD, complicated by heavy drinking. She lost an eye earlier in her career, and was known for her black eye patch and her commitment to reporting in some of the world’s most dangerous and impenetrable regions. “Bravery,” said Colvin, “is not being afraid to be afraid.” She understood fear and she was fully aware of the job’s perils, but she did it anyway, often with a cocky defiance. She was undaunted by power and celebrity. She was said to have told Arafat during the Oslo peace accords, “Just put the pencil down and sign it already.” She is famous for having charmed Qaddafi and gaining unprecedented access. In social circles, in the newsroom and in war-ravaged regions, she was determined, persistent and always a dynamic personality.

Colvin interested Brenner, possibly because of their common traits. Brenner is relentless and feisty, smart and determined. Her stories about Donald Trump are already legendary. Reading them now, it is impossible not to marvel at her prescience. In “After the Gold Rush” we see Trump in action at his newly acquired Mar-a-Lago. It is 1990 and his marriage to Ivana has begun to display signs of failure. His social skills are limited. His bluster is in full bloom, all the same.

Brenner’s reporting on Trump and his real estate ventures is comprehensive. Her vision into the realities is penetrating. She writes: “Trump, the Music Man of real estate, could set off in (the lawyers and bankers) the power of imagination, for his real skill has always been his ability to convince others of his possibilities. The line between a con man and an entrepreneur is often fuzzy.” Even back then, he spoke in torrents and “appeared to free associate” referring to himself in the third person.

In one interview with Trump, he told Brenner, “I’m more popular now (1990) than I was two months ago. There are two publics as far as I’m concerned. The real public and then there’s the New York society (expletive). The real public has always liked Donald Trump. The real public feels that Donald Trump is going through Trump-bashing. When I go out now, forget about it. I’m mobbed. It’s bedlam.” Trump has had a firm handle on his attributes for some time.

In Brenner’s final and newest piece in this compilation, “Donald Trump and Roy Cohn’s Ruthless Symbiosis,” we find out that Trump really resented Brenner’s “After the Gold Rush” profile. She writes that, in a public gathering, he snuck up behind her and dumped red wine on her and then fled before she could turn around and confront him. As for the relationship between Cohn and Trump, between Trump and Roger Stone, we see the way kindred spirits collaborated and lifted Trump to power.

Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at rae@raefrancoeur.com.

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