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January 24, 2014: Frank Sinatra's Sniffle


ABOUT THE GUEST WRITER: Crispus Mammon is a novelist, writer, and wanderer. Currently on loan from Grantland, where he is a contributing editor, Crispus has also written for Crease MagazineThe CalifornianMugWumpDriftwood Quarterlygrease gunThe Atascadero State BreezeThe New IniquityDimestore, and Rugburn Quarterly. He has no home. There is no God but bourbon, and bacon is his prophet. He plunged himself into the billowy wave and an echo arose from the suicide's grave, Oh willow, titwillow, titwillow.

*  *  *

Strange stories can find you at strange times. Like when you’re trying to write a classic piece of piquant long-form "who'd a thunk it?" journalism for men 18 to 49 years old and suddenly you realized you have murdered a human being.

It was well past noon sometime last spring and I was slumped in my chair in the Johnny Drama Conference Room, in the Grantland offices on Figueroa, across from the Staples Center. I hadn’t asked for those few extra hours of bleary consciousness, rubbing a few bumps of crushed-up Adderall on my gums and chasing it with Nyquil in the bathroom to keep the Sickness down, but I did try to do something useful with them. You’re battling insomnia and headaches and a lot of other things looking at your co-workers, all jammed in the room and seated around you. I don't remember their faces. We were all white guys. The room looked like a jar of tongue depressors.

I write journalism. Sometimes poorly, sometimes less so. Like all long-form journalists, I spend far too much time thinking of ways to turn less material into more narrative. You know the kind of story I write — "Ohio Zoo Massacre," the kind of zaniness long-formers trip over to bludgeon into a narrative some glossy will buy. That's what brings home the bacon and bourbon, not how many words you know — though I do know words, words I can use, like "mer·e·tri·cious," or "a-ga-this-m." I can write those words, on a page, on a page of words about people I write about. Like two words holding hands in a crowd of other words, and I get paid "ducats" for it (look that word up). 

That was the silver lining to my sleeplessness — it gave me more time to think. I've always been pretty good at playing games, but this had to be the biggest game I played. There were so many of us white male writers, reading our books, sipping our bourbon, glazing our bacon, so many out bobbing in the backwash of our thirties, scrambling to grab enough magazine assignments with "illumination" and "depth" that we might someday cobble together a book like Gladwell, and skewer them all with the artificial spine of a catchy neologism — "Squish," or "Kvetch," or something. 

And it was then, during one of those restless nights, that I first realized: no writer has ever killed their long-form subject.

A chill ran down my spine.

I could almost hear Frank Sinatra sniffle. I could almost feel the National Magazine Award in my hands.

It's all about the story, I reminded myself. In the words of my murderous ideological forefather, Esquire's Chris Jones, "Words have meaning; sentences have power; paragraphs can change a life." And what better way to change a life than to end it? Couched as it would be in the ineluctable structure and modality of piquant white-guy storytelling, the gravity of my crime would pass scarcely noticed, and yet the novelty of murdering a profile subject would still register. My editors would obviously have no problem, provided, as iterated before, that the murder was preceded by enough material such that a spurious narrative could be constructed. Who, after all, could honestly believe that just words could lead to death and damnation? Well, Bill Simmons for one, by the time I was through with him. 

Not everybody knows how I killed my subject, or, indeed, who my subject really was. Wrapped as they are now in plastic sheets and honeyed words, their appearance in life is now unknowable, decayed as it has been with the pallor of my deed. You may accuse me of many things, turning such an apparently evil act into the grist of the printer. Did I fail a moral test? Did I write a true story? Did I harm or hinder a speck of life, or rather, explode it in a vale of creative destruction? Did I make man small, or rather, just make myself, the writer, big? I don't know. And apparently, the highest paid elites in my industry don't either — they're still running the piece.

Writing a eulogy for a person who I murdered is an odd experience. What makes it harder is that you're still reading it. And we're still writing it.


General Gandhi

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