Hurting for words

In 1985, a 23-year-old spanish chef was asked to cook a partridge. Escabeche de perdiz, a standard dish. Like countless chefs all over Spain, he had made it countless times, but now, faced with the task of cooking it again, he froze. He just couldn’t do it.

“How to deal with this sad bird?” the celebrated magazine journalist Michael Paterniti writes in his book, Love and Other Ways of Dying. “Wasn’t there something greater, some secret waiting for release in this food? Perhaps [he] had no right to see the partridge for what it wasn’t, or for the multiplicity of what it could be, but if eating is as necessary as laughter or a sob, then where was the emotion in having charred partridge delivered to your table?”

It was nowhere, of course; it had been bled out by the years of mindless repetition. So the chef began to riff. He pinched the meat from its bones; peppered it and mixed it with asparagus, leeks, onions, carrots, zucchini, and finally, lobster, and sent it out to the dining room: an ecstatically deconstructed Mediterranean partridge. And to his surprise, it wasn’t sent back. The diner discovered great unexpected pleasure where before there had been merely convention. The world discovered the incomparable Ferran Adrià, who went on to found elBulli. And for a time, in a remote little pocket of a world teeming with charred partridges, there were no more charred partridges.

In the promotional materials for Love and Other Ways of Dying, a selection of Paterniti’s previously published Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, and New York Times Magazine pieces, a publicist, displaying her tribe’s native incapacity for embarrassment, predicts success for this book due to an “EXPLOSION OF INTEREST IN LONGFORM,” adding, “recently the longform style of nonfiction has gained a massive following.”

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But the fatalist wonders if this explosion of interest isn’t actually an explosion of concern for the viability of longform work. And that concern is warranted. Not only because we’re exiting the era of contract writers—which allowed slow, meticulous workers like Paterniti to take time with a piece—but also because in order for there to be good writing, there has to be good reading, meaning there have to be good readers, willing to stick with a story when it meanders, and feel a story when it hurts, and even be exasperated by a story when it overreaches or loses its way.

Such attentiveness and care is required by Paterniti’s work, which shows an unshakable faith in both the power and range of great magazine stories and the reader’s ability to read and appreciate them, even when the going gets rough. Whether he’s writing about a crippled jetliner that hits the sea with such force that it “degloves” its passengers, stripping meat from their bones and depositing a single heart onto the surface of the water; a Ukrainian farm boy transformed into a sorrowful giant by a nick of a surgeon’s scalpel; or the pathologist who stole Einstein’s brain, Paterniti’s stories are animated by deep reportorial curiosity. They also share a spirit of restless experimentation and philosophical inquiry. Here, facts have been formed into meditations and incantations, torqued and pressed and styled until they cough up their secrets and reveal, if only fleetingly, glimpses of far bigger game than mere giants and geniuses and air disasters: love, fear, oblivion. To tell these stories straight would be to neglect the multiplicity of the partridge.

All of this, I recognize, may make these pieces sound rather bloated and purple, everything newspaper writers hate about magazine writing. And sometimes they are. Sometimes they come apart under all the futzing and stylization. The book, for example, contains several profiles in the second person. And sometimes alchemy turns into Frankenstein, as when the Ukrainian giant story is bent into a metaphor for Paterniti’s own efforts to raise a family. But in most instances, these pieces are extraordinary.

Take, if you will, the degloving.

“The Long Fall of Flight One-Eleven Heavy,” Paterniti’s Esquire report on the 1998 crash of Swissair Fight 111 into the sea off a small Nova Scotia fishing village after suffering an electrical failure, is the kind of story you will read, and never forget, and never want to read again, and maybe wish you’d never read in the first place. Not just for its effectiveness in capturing in genuinely horrifying detail what a plane crash does to the human body (the engines were still firing when it hit the water), but also for conveying what is lost to all when that human body ceases to exist.

It’s about what was recovered—money, shoes, that floating heart—and how, but also what can never be, and why. We see a widow, maybe in schock, maybe half-mad with grief, trying to reassemble her husband’s hand, which has been sent to her by crash investigators. (“‘I can get the thumb,’ she said, ‘but I can’t get the next part.'”) We see bereaved families sleeping with torn shirts and stuffed animals recovered from the sea. We see a father and his wife promise to “stop their imaginations at that place where their daughter had boarded the plane, their minds would not wander past that particular rope,” and then we see the father wander past it and pay dearly.

But we also imagine the people as they are marked for death. We get some of their backstories, and we’re made to ponder the unfairness that they never knew the end was upon them as they packed and traveled to the airport. “Like lovers who haven’t yet met or one-day neighbors living now in different countries, tracing their route to one another, each of them moved toward the others without knowing it,” Paterniti writes. “Do you remember the last time you felt the wind? Or touched your lips to the head of a child? Can you remember the words she said as she last went, a ticket in hand?”

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would risk melodrama, but with Paterniti it makes the story hurt. It makes you steal furtive glances at the front door, waiting, a little anxiously, for your wife or husband or mother or child to come home. It’s not literary nonfiction, whatever that’s supposed to be; it’s journalism elevated beyond its ordinary capacities, well into the realm of literature.

“the long fall of flight one-eleven Heavy” opens the book, which feels like a misstep, as it’s so dark that it throws off the balance of the rest of the collection. (Reading the ecstatic account of eating at elBulli afterwards, at least at first, feels vaguely inappropriate.) But it does succeed in establishing the twin preoccupations to which Paterniti will return again and again in these pages: love, and the cosmic injustice of dying an impersonal death.

There is a very high body count here, often from plane crashes. The mercurial Yankee great Thurman Munson—whose many loves and contradictions are beautifully reported—is burned alive in a small plane crash. Another jetliner goes down into a frozen river in Washington, DC, “bodies floating round, human hands and legs trying to hang on to the wrecked tail of the plane like toddlers without water wings,” spurring a government clerk to an act of insane heroism.

Even when no planes actually crash, air disasters are a persistent metaphor. The maligned partridge dish is described as looking like “it had been electrocuted at altitude, in midflight, and then had fallen two miles to the plate, battered and charred.” A profile of “Alfred,” a homeless, stateless man who has lived at de Gaulle airport for 15 years, takes a sudden turn:

It’s possible that our most religious moments occur in airports rather than in churches … Apprehension, longing, and the fear of complete disintegration—what palpably animates an airport full of passengers about to take to heaven at the speed of sound—is what drives us to our gods.

The disasters don’t unfold solely in the air. The 2010 Haiti earthquake sends a police chief walking across ruined Port-au-Prince in search of his daughters, who are almost certainly dead, encountering along the way “arms and legs dangling from the compacted buildings, limbs set at oblique angles, the dust-covered dead appearing as ghosts.” A man sees his wife washed away by the 2011 Japan tsunami after he blithely assured her that they needn’t flee. He quickly realizes his error. “This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear,” Paterniti writes. “It’s the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water.” The man winds up nine miles out to sea on his roof, scrawling, “On March 11, I was with my wife, Yuko. My name is Hiromitsu,” on the pages of a comic book that floated up to him. Later, back on land but still hopelessly adrift, he pens a lament about how she never comes to him in his dreams.

And in these pieces, humanity is every bit as capable of delivering impersonal death as nature or mechanical failure. In a story about the Khmer Rouge, Paterniti meets one of the seven survivors of the notorious camp S-21, and ponders the character of the man’s tormenter, who later claimed he only did what he did because his superiors threatened to kill his family if he refused—an argument that finds sympathy with the tormenter’s Cambodian defense attorney, himself a victim of the Khmer Rouge. After Columbine, Paterniti ponders a student killed shortly after completing her college application: “That’s what’s most hard to imagine: how in midsentence, in the throes of some idea, in the beginning of some meaningful life, the girl was entered by some dark, crippled thing and became a memory.”

In an introductory essay, Paterniti states his theme:

The more willing we are to suffer pain and loss and even great throes of happiness, to live fully inside these big emotions, the closer we come to—what?

The folded hands of the universe?

Our humanity?

Infinity?

It must be something.

Ultimately, it’s the meaning of life he’s after. With each piece, he’s telling the foundational story of the human species: matter seeking meaning before reverting to dust. And he’s telling that story at such great length, and with enough side trips, plane trips, road trips, dinners, and hotel stays that it’s impossible not to gaze upon them and think, this must have cost a fortune. And then to wonder if this kind of work is destined for an impersonal death of its own, at the hands of some other dumb and implacable force, like falling ad revenues or shrinking reader attention.

Who knows. Maybe people never really read the big, heavy magazine stories in the first place, and we never knew because there was no real way to gauge interest, or we never really cared because revenues were strong enough that such efforts could be underwritten without having to lay off an editorial assistant and two photographers.

Or maybe people did read them, and they will rally, and continue reading them, and more importantly, pay for the experience. I hope they do, and I hope that these pieces in particular, and big, deep, beautiful stories in general, continue to find audiences big enough to inspire future generations of writers and publishers to take chances and honor the boundless multiplicity of the human organism, as Paterniti has done here.

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Joe Keohane is a writer and editor in New York. Follow him on Twitter @JoeKeohane. This story was published in the March/April 2015 issue of CJR with the headline, "No charred partridges."