Let me backtrack and say something else. In the publisher’s rush to market (which I thoroughly applaud), they tend to spin things: oh, he writes about subcultures. Or: the underworld. What I’m really interested in is people who are voiceless. And voiceless doesn’t necessarily mean somebody who’s powerless, cowering in the corner, afraid to speak. It’s people who we’ve seen again and again in televised media, and yet we have no idea what they actually think or say.
Would the WTO anarchists in “Wingnut’s Last Day on Earth” be one example of that?
Right. For a week the international media saturation-bombed us with images of these kids in black smashing windows, but nobody was really talking to them. Same thing when I went to cover the military. There was all this footage of our troops as heroes, and of course most reporters tend to talk to the officers—because reporters go to college, and officers go to college. So I decided to write about it from the standpoint of enlisted personnel.
What else draws you to these voiceless subjects, whom you call “rejectionists” in your introduction?
Well, here’s a little personal narrative that I didn’t put into the introduction. In a nutshell: when I was thirteen, I was insanely obsessed with Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice. This was in rural Ohio, where I wanted to lead a Black Panther revolution. I ran away, and was sent to a home for troubled kids. That all resolved itself, years ago, but I still have a real affection for people struggling with some ridiculous obsession. I want to be a voice for the voiceless—you know, that noble thing—but I also have a personal affinity for rejectionists.
One great strength of the book is that you can write about Wingnut and his comical cadre without making fun of them.
I’m glad that comes across. I’m trying to reject the whole hipster irony culture. You know the idea: you leave New York or Los Angeles (two places where I’ve spent most of my adult life), and then you find idiots in the hinterlands, and show what buffoons they are. I suppose that because I actually am from the hinterlands, I dislike that kind of journalism.
In any case, it exists more on television. The saddest part about being a print person is that we’re saddled with all of the sins of TV. I mean, I’m out in the world working as a journalist, and people tell me, “I hate the mainstream media!” I have to correct them: no, you hate television. They’re the ones who do the worst things. We’ve got Judith Miller from The New York Times, but we’re not nearly as bad as TV.
In “Scenes from My Life in Porn,” you note that “porn video is indigenous Southern California folk art. The cheesy aesthetic—shag-carpet backdrops, tanning-salon chic, bad music, worse hairdos—and the everyman approach to exhibitionism are honest expressions of life in the land of mini-malls, vanity plates and instant stardom.” To what extent do you mean your portraits of America’s “lost tribes” to tell us something about the bigger culture?
I want to throw it out there, the possibility of commenting on the bigger culture, but I’d rather the readers draw their own conclusions. One of my pet peeves is that I dislike journalism that tells us what to think about the big picture. I should also say that I was paraphrasing (not plagiarizing!) a line of P.J. O’Rourke’s there. He once said that serial killers were a form of American folk art. It’s a little homage.
Later in the same piece, you describe your stunned state of mind on the set of The World’s Biggest Gang Bang II. You were, as you write, in the midst of “a group of people deliberately and methodically engaged in acts of insanity.” That sentence might apply to more than one of your pieces, don’t you think?