The Storyteller's Storyteller
No journalist working today spins a yarn quite like TheNew Yorker's David Grann.
Click here to listen to David Grann discuss his latest New Yorker story, on the murder of Rodrigo Rosenberg, on Slate's Culture Gabfest.
Last fall, I approached a bookstore clerk and handed him a printed-out ISBN I'd received at a nearby information desk. Scanning it, he pointed me toward a table where copies of David Grann's reporting collection The Devil and Sherlock Holmes were stacked. I'd already bought two copies upon the book's release in March—one for myself, one for my dad—but with the holidays looming, it was time for a re-up. I planned to bestow the books upon some friends, pushily proselytizing like one of those people who, eyes ablaze, cram salvation pamphlets into pedestrians' hands, certain that anyone who reads the words will become a convert. I carried three copies, along with two copies of Grann's The Lost City of Z, to the cashier. Bagging my redundant haul, he didn't raise an eyebrow. "Yeah, man," he said, nodding. "David Grann."
Grann, a New Yorker staff writer since 2003, has written that he's drawn to people "who get some germ of an idea in their heads that metastasizes until it consumes them," and that through journalism he has come to recognize his own obsessive tendencies: "When I work on stories, I tend to lose sight of everything else. I forget to pay bills or to shave. I don't change my clothes as often as I should." The Lost City of Z (2009) is about Percy Harrison Fawcett, a dogged and doomed turn-of-the-century explorer who hunts for the ruins of an ancient Amazonian metropolis he has no overwhelmingly persuasive reason to believe exists. When Grann, researching Fawcett's unsolved 1925 disappearance, finds himself some 4,000 miles from home, lost and alone in the Mato Grosso—drenched with mud, ravaged by insects—he realizes that he shares more of Fawcett's capacity for monomania than he thought.
It's only natural, then, that Grann himself inspires a devotion in readers that can border on the obsessive. Whether in reverent tones on Twitter or in enthusiastic emails from colleagues, the word that Grann has written a new piece invariably reaches me before my New Yorker subscription does. My friends and I are not alone in our admiration. Three weeks after its publication, Grann's most recent story, about a mysterious Guatemalan murder, remains atop The New Yorker's "most popular" and "most emailed" lists. Last week, Grann's 2010 investigation into the surprisingly seamy world of art-authenticity verification was nominated for a National Magazine Award. And Brad Pitt has purchased the movie rights to The Lost City of Z. TheNew Yorker's pages are full of stellar journalists, but the appearance of Grann's name on the table of contents has come to feel more and more like a major event.
Grann, 44, is a workhorse reporter. Discussing "Trial By Fire," his celebrated 2009 piece on Cameron Todd Willingham—a Texas man executed on dubious arson charges after a 1991 fire killed his three sleeping daughters—Grann told an interviewer: "I spent more than six months on that story. I made many trips to Texas. I had to track down people whose addresses were unknown and who didn't have telephones, and FOIA records on how the case had been handled." The depth of reporting that Grann puts into a piece is evident, however, not because the page drips with his sweat, but rather because volumes of information breeze over us smoothly and inconspicuously.
As befits TheNew Yorker house style, Grann's prose is crisp and measured, but, particularly when he is describing extremes of emotion or behavior, it can generate a quiet power. Describing the last few hours of Willingham's life, Grann starts with a faintly Biblical use of the passive voice, catalogs the dishes in Willingham's final meal—the gluttonousness of which communicates the condemned man's desire both to sweeten his final moments and, however slightly, prolong them—and presents a heartbreaking deathbed admission without fanfare:
Willingham had requested a final meal, and at 4 p.m. on the seventeenth he was served it: three barbecued pork ribs, two orders of onion rings, fried okra, three beef enchiladas with cheese, and two slices of lemon cream pie. He received word that Governor Perry had refused to grant him a stay … Willingham's mother and father began to cry. "Don't be sad, Momma," Willingham said. "In fifty-five minutes, I'm a free man. I'm going home to see my kids." Earlier, he had confessed to his parents that there was one thing about the day of the fire he had lied about. He said that he had never actually crawled into the children's room. "I just didn't want people to think I was a coward," he said.
When it comes to structuring pieces, though, Grann is a showman through and through, exulting in leading his readers through an ever-thickening plot with blinders on, building up our expectations in one direction, then yanking the rug out from under us—often to reveal another rug, soon to be yanked, beneath that one. As a college student, Grann had fiction-writing ambitions, and his best nonfiction stories are marvelous delivery systems of narrative pleasure. Real-life potboilers, they crackle with suspenseful developments, vivid characterizations, emotionally charged stakes, and unexpected reveals. If the endings weren't so satisfying, you'd never want the stories to stop.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photo by Joe Kohen/Getty Images for The New Yorker.