I have to say something about Henry Allen, a journalism story that’s mostly staying in journalism circles and probably that’s where it belongs, because it has no greater import or anything. I mention it mainly because I always wanted to work for or with Allen, a legendary writer and editor at the Washington Post, whose career ended abruptly last Friday when he scuffled with a writer who was chapping his ass. He literally went down swinging, and while I can’t condone punching one’s colleagues, I can certainly understand the urge to do so, and given that no one was hurt, let’s chalk it up to a final glimpse at a certain Front Page standard of newsroom behavior and leave it at that.
I first encountered Allen, then a superstar of the Style section, when I took a two-day writing workshop very early in my career. It was a strange trip — a hot weekend in late May. My salad-days starter car didn’t have air-conditioning, and I drove from Columbus to Champaign, Ill. with the windows down, wearing a pair of bib overalls with a bikini top for maximum air circulation. It was a long trip, and I arrived windblown and looking crazy, at least if I’m to judge from the looks the desk clerk at the hotel gave me. Things went further downhill when I realized I’d packed all my career clothes but not my career shoes, and had to attend the workshop and networking sessions in jeans and a T-shirt. A few of the young reporters stayed up late the first night, drinking wine in the courtyard of the hotel, asked by management several times to keep it down. (“It’s that girl with the overalls and bikini,” someone undoubtedly said.)
Allen’s seminar was the following day, and what I mainly remember about it was that I fell in love. He quoted a colleague at the Post: “I want to write stories people can dance to,” and I got it immediately. The guy next to me didn’t — I could tell by the look on his face — but I committed the phrase to memory, and use it from time to time when I’m teaching young writers. Prose, even journalistic prose, has rhythm and mood and recognizing it is very much like having an ear for music. It’s hard to teach that quality, but show me someone who understands the phrase — writing you can dance to — and I know I can work with him or her.
From then on, I mainly just sat there and made dreamy eyes at my new hero. He made fun of AP leads and talked about the drive in from the airport, and afterward, I came up to gush. He said he had a book coming out, and could he send me a copy? Who, me? Um, sure…. “Fool’s Mercy” arrived at my apartment a few weeks later, with a note, “Please, run to your library and demand it be taken off the shelves.”
(Recalling that note, I wonder who might be the source of this Amazon reader review, penned by A Customer: “This is a novel that has taken the art of shaping the reader’s worldview and raised it to the level of physical intervention. By that I mean that Mr. Allen has discovered techniques of using English syntax to alter synaptic relationships within the brain itself, possibly permanently. He may have gone deeper, as well, functioning as the analog of a computer hacker as he cracks the DNA code and blithely rearranges the human genome with untold consequences for generations to come. Were this novel some outre exercise in modernist befuddlement, the danger would be minimal, but Mr. Allen’s darkest motives are masked by a brisk yet poignant thriller populated with haunting personalities. As such, it may pose the severest test the First Amendment has faced since the founding of our republic — a book that is what the law calls ‘an attractive nuisance,’ but a nuisance on the level of Jacob-Kreutzfeld syndrome, the human equivalent of “mad cow” disease. It should not only be banned, but all of its known readers should be rounded up like cattle and incarcerated pending central-nervous-system biopsies. Meanwhile, it remains available to an unwary citizenry from Dryad Books, of 15 Sherman Ave., Takoma Park, Md. 20912.” I have a sneaking suspicion.)
I still take “Fool’s Mercy” off the shelf from time to time, to soak in his graceful prose style. Is it a great thriller? Probably not enough plot, and characters a bit too three-dimensional. But there are some wonderful descriptions, and, well, it was sent to me personally by the author. Those books are always special.
The story linked above said Allen, a 68-year-old former Marine and Vietnam vet, was moved to violence by the reaction of a reporter whose error-ridden “charticle” he was criticizing:
(Allen) gave pretty much the same sharp-elbowed spiel to both Hesse and Roig-Franzia. Hesse responded by asking for the story back so that she could iron out some of the wrinkles.
Roig-Franzia responded by saying, “Henry, don’t be such a cocksucker.”
Oh, well. As is noted in the story, this is a new era in journalism. Chicago Sun-Times writers don’t pee off the ledges into the river anymore, either. It doesn’t mean we can’t miss the good ol’ days, at least a little.
Enjoy retirement, Henry. Write another novel. I’ll buy it. And I’ll still pay any price to hear whatever writing advice you might give at another University of Illinois workshop.
So. Up until 2 a.m. last night, but with an E-day school holiday, got to sleep clear until 8. They say you can count the hours of sleep Roger Penske gets on one hand, and that he is master of the power nap. He’ll announce, “I’m going to grab 40 minutes,” put his head down, fall asleep immediately and awaken 39 minutes and 59 seconds later.
My role model.
My other role model is Elmore Leonard. What does it say about me when my role models are old men? Vigorous old men, but still. The next thing you know, I’ll be asking for a Viagra prescription.
As you can imagine, yesterday was in the crazy-busy, and today will be the same. With that heedless extra hour of sleep I had to cut something, and today it was: Gym. Haven’t done that in a while. (Where’s my medal?) But if I’m ever going to learn Russian I have to give my homework the respect it deserves, and today I have to write 10 sentences, using the genitive singular. I’m inspired because I watched a Russian-language movie Friday night, one of the few truly indolent me-times I get in the week, and I understood more of it than I thought I would. It’s like I’m trembling on the brink of another leap in understanding, and I want to nurture it along.
The film? “The Italian,” or, as imdb.com insists on transliteration, “Italianetz.” Worth your time, even with subtitles.
One of these days it’ll be you folks I cut loose. Don’t assume I’ve been kidnapped or anything.
One brief item of bloggage: Eric Zorn finds the new GOP in North Carolina. Cooze, is this one of your neighbors?