by Hank Stuever
(Henry Holt & Co.) $24
When I was just out of college and among the crop of interns at one of Seattle's daily newspapers, we young reporters used to talk about Hank Stuever the way prisoners talk about the guy who has escaped over the wall. Here we were, spending our early 20s doing the journalistic equivalent of stamping license plates--the briefs about car crashes, the announcements of state lotto jackpot winners--and there was Stuever, not much older than most of us, sitting at the Washington Post writing beautiful, lengthy epics about subjects our editors would hardly have considered noteworthy. In one celebrated instance, he produced a 2,500-word opus concerning nothing more unusual than a couple trying to move their too-big couch up a tiny set of stairs.
That piece, "The Couch That Warped Space-Time," was, to our minds, a trick on par with that performed by the "sofa surgeon" who appears in Stuever's story to rescue the frustrated couple. (The sofa surgeon disassembles their Hecht's Special, a couch that is "cream-colored and modular and ultimately unremarkable," and thereby gets it up the tiny stairs.) In writing about this, Stuever takes a domestic occurrence so banal that it might as well have been colored cream--small stairs, large couch, ho-hum--and dissects it until he finds within it an irresistible narrative about the size of the universe, the stubbornness of love, and the hopes contained in objects. Then, for his final trick, he manages to get the story into the long gray columns of a serious daily newspaper.
Fittingly, the couch story opens Off Ramp, a new collection of Stuever's newspaper writing, and the fact that this writing has been bound between hardcovers (most newspaper writing, after all, is thrown away) should tell you something about the quality of Stuever's work. (That he has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer should tell you something, too.) Newsrooms, it may surprise no one to hear, are filled with people who wish they were creating something more lasting than the day's news, people who say, late at night over beers, that they would rather be real writers. Failing that, these types of reporters hope at least to one day be as funny in print as Stuever is allowed to be, or to write sentences such as this: "My great-grandfather, Joseph Jacob Schneider, is fixing windmill blades on the family's western Oklahoma wheat farm on a November day in 1922 when, somehow, he loses his grip, falls, breaks his neck, and dies."
This is a short story. This is a memoir. This is a historical biography. Actually, it's Stuever's tenderly detailed and moving newspaper account, republished and expanded in Off Ramp, of the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, his hometown. Like Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood showed that the factual reporting of a murder and its aftermath could, in the right hands, become something much more expansive, Stuever's writing elevates (and reinvigorates) the journalistic form. But unlike Capote, Stuever decided long ago to take as his subjects not the typical newspaper fodder, such as a murder and its aftermath, but rather "stories that contained almost no important news" and, preferably, were set in the unphotogenic places and moments he refers to as the American "Elsewhere": storage units, Kmart, bland buildings, campgrounds spelled with a K, nine-ish in the morning.
"Let's say you're dead" is the first sentence of Stuever's 3,500-word piece on a strip-mall funeral parlor, and re-reading this sentence in Off Ramp one thinks that he might as well be talking to the newspaper industry, where slipping circulation figures and an aging readership have led to warnings that the dailies should start envisioning their own, swift demise. Desperate to attract younger readers, many newspapers, including the one where Stuever works, are now putting out free, dumbed-down versions of themselves, tabloids with snappy names such as Thrive and Quick and, in the Post's case, Express. Who knows if these newspaper knockoffs will stop the death spiral, but in creating them the newspaper industry is certainly giving rise to exactly the type of depressing, desperate, slightly funny, and very American phenomenon that Stuever loves to write about. In other words, while he has been looking Elsewhere, his medium has begun to appear much like his favorite subject.
Hank Stuever reads at Elliott Bay Book Company (101 S Main St, 624-6600) on Thurs July 29 at 7:30 pm, and it's free. You should go.