Recently an old colleague from Newsweek got in touch and with curious urgency suggested I pick up a copy of the forthcoming novel The Last Magazine, by the late journalist Michael Hastings. Ten years ago, when I was a junior reporter at Newsweek preparing to cover the war in Iraq, Mike was a 22-year-old intern, parked in one of the cubicles outside my office. He was a friend and a confidant, and later I would come to immensely respect his raw, real war reporting and uncompromising questioning of authority figures like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, who resigned after Mike’s blockbuster story in Rolling Stone.
I hadn’t known about Mike’s novel. Most people didn’t. After his tragic death in a car accident last year, one of his former colleagues sent an old draft to his widow, Elise Jordan, and she found several versions on his laptop. So I got ahold of an advance copy. It was, I saw, a thinly disguised roman à clef about Newsweek in its twilight years, a parable with broad themes about idealism, ambition, and the moral compromises journalists make to succeed in the world of New York City media.
The primary character is a 22-year-old intern named Michael M. Hastings. The other central character, whose journey frames the narrative thrust of the novel, is “a classic old-school journalist” who “fuels his brilliant war reporting with alcohol, drugs and transvestite hookers.” His name is A.E. Peoria.
In the novel, Peoria comes to the magazine after spending 18 months reporting in Cambodia. I did too. Peoria is his early 30s when he heads off to Iraq. So was I. He has two gay parents (I do as well), and his girlfriend writes for a pornography magazine. My girlfriend back then worked for Penthouse Variations, a fact I never hesitated to boast about.
This Peoria fellow was instantly, eerily recognizable. I was slightly unhinged back when I worked alongside Mike—drinking, sneaking naps under my desk, and revealing way too much information about my personal life to anyone who would listen. (Mike writes in the book that Peoria had a psychological condition called “CDD,” or compulsive disclosure disorder.) I didn’t think anyone was paying attention. But apparently Mike was taking notes.
In the book, Peoria leaves his job, sobers up, becomes a journalism professor at a small college, and falls in love. My story diverges on a couple significant details, but I did quit Newsweek for a better-paying job, regretted it, finally sobered up, taught journalism at a small college, and fell in love with my wife and started a family.
It’s an uncanny feeling, to read ruminations about a long-ago, angst-ridden period in one’s life. But Mike, characteristically, does an excellent job, evoking the soul-crushing force of Newsweek’s fluorescent-lit hallways and the frustrations of toiling in the shadow of self-absorbed media “personalities” who spend more time building their personal brands than managing a news organization.