Mike Sager writes about people we idealize, some we ignore and those we fear. He hangs out with people in roach-ridden motels and in gated enclaves and persuades his subjects to reveal themselves. His reports, especially those from way under the mainstream cultural radar, create a mosaic of American lives that we've looked away from.
In This Modern World, Tom Tomorrow takes weekly aim at the power structure that we know too well is there, and in a few simple panels of cartoons, he showcases its posturing, skewers its deceptions and reveals its malfeasance. Harmon Leon follows people in their peculiar pursuits of happiness and mines their situations for his comedy shtick.
Each of these observers has published a new collection—three varying views of early-21st-century American life that provide a bracing reminder that all the news fit to print or air on TV is only a small portion of the news.
Sager is a writer-at-large for Esquire, and many of the stories in Wounded Warriors, including the title piece about the Wounded Warrior barracks at the Marines' Camp Lejeune, first appeared there. Esquire assigns him to interview celebrities, but only two celebrity pieces, portraits of Kobe Bryant and Al Sharpton, are included. Most of the stories are about people much farther down the food chain: a man who weighs 650 pounds, a 13-year old who steals pit bulls and fights them, a middle-class heroin addict, a man with an IQ of 195 who works as a bar bouncer and members of a once-formidable Chicano gang in Venice whose lives have been undone by crack. You might not have known that you wanted to learn about them, but give Sager an opening:
No justice, no peace!
No justice, no peace!
Oh no! Here he comes again, churning through Wall Street at high noon like a big black tug—shoulders back, arms pumping, hair luffing, flesh roiling and slushing beneath the silky nylon of his teal-blue jogging suit, his trademark, size XXL. Al Sharpton, Al Charlatan, the Reverend Soundbite, the Minister of Hate—a tribal chief leading a militant horde straight up the asphalt seam of America's silk stocking, hollering for justice, threatening the peace.
His cinematic writing whets your curiosity, and the metaphor of the asphalt seam of America's silk stocking resonates into associations you didn't see coming. In a few sentences, Sager's established himself as a reliable guide, and you'll follow him to see what he sees.
Flamboyant when the subject matter requires it, his writing's even more impressive when he's understated. “Wounded Warriors” is a long piece in the book, and our guide keeps a low profile. Mostly, the marines speak for themselves in extended quotes. By the end you've traveled a long, painful journey with the Devil Dogs of Maxwell Barracks and come to a new understanding of the war's toll on its survivors. Sager's barely in the picture, but even though it's the marines doing the talking, you realize that it's Sager who's brought you here. His self-effacing style evokes George Orwell's famous dictum that good writing should be as transparent as a pane of glass.
The long opening scene in “Kobe Bryant Doesn't Want Your Love” is a gorgeously observed vision of Bryant taking a shot at the hoop and worth the price of the book. No camera could show as much as Sager does as Bryant sinks a single foul shot. I'd submit the scene as Exhibit A for why, in an age of video, writing still matters.
In a conversation with Sager, he said he sees the people he writes about as his guides. They've allowed him into their world, and he owes them his best effort to get them right. Not everything he writes is flattering, but all of it is meticulously observed, accurate and respectful.
By contrast, Harmon Leon is a buffoon. His MO is to find a group with high ridicule potential (middle-age swingers, arms dealers, celebrity impersonators), infiltrate the group with an alias and then badger his subjects with outrageous questions to reveal their most damning aspects. At an arms dealers' trade show, he presents himself as a member of the (fictitious) People's Army and tries to buy a missile launcher. He captures some interesting scenes:
“A large man with military haircut says to his buddy, knocking back beers, taking turns with the Lasershot assault-weapon video-training simulator, both thoroughly enjoying the simulation of killing people in an Iraqi home-siege scenarios—just like a giant video game, but with more realistic kills. ‘ He was a collaborator,' he replies with a laugh, adding ‘I got to get one of these in my basement for my kid's birthday party. I can see kids telling their parents, Mommy, Daddy, we got to shoot people!'”
He reveals his subjects as self-important, self-deluding and deeply wrongheaded. But he's so interested in telegraphing his judgments and documenting his own antics that he doesn't probe beyond the damning scene. The reader doesn't learn much about the people he writes about and learns more than she wants to know about Leon's thoughts.
The same exercise repeated nine times between covers—only the targets changing—feels a bit like watching a man shoot fish in a barrel, but reading any one of Leon's investigations is amusing.
Tom Tomorrow's newest book of editorial cartoons, The Future's So Bright I Can't Bear to Look, is brilliant. His laser-knife humor skewers by exaggeration and by the tension between the prim respectability of his characters in suits and '50s hairstyles and the off-the-wall content of their utterances. It's the same package that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert work so successfully: visually credible presentation, deadpan delivery of jaw-dropping outrageousness. Newspapers are history's first draft, and until the historians start rolling out full-bore, exhaustively researched investigations of the antics and horrors of the Bush years, The Future's So Bright stands as a first-draft account, delivered week by week, a little broad on the facts, dead-on on the spirit.