The Last Magazine
By Michael Hastings
Blue Rider Press
Michael Hastings first burst onto the national scene in 2010 with his George Polk Award-winning feature in Rolling Stone on General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, and the general’s faltering counterinsurgency strategy. Letting down their guard—or perhaps believing themselves off the record—McChrystal and his aides joked in front of Hastings about their differences with the Obama administration. Rolling Stone titled the piece “The Runaway General,” and pretty soon McChrystal was out of a job.
As for Hastings, his career, which already included coverage of two wars and presidential politics, was just revving up. A Newsweek veteran, by his early 30s he was a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, a correspondent at large for BuzzFeed, and a regular contributor to the Current TV show The Young Turks. He also had published three nonfiction books: I Lost My Love in Baghdad, a memoir about the Iraq War-related death of his fiancée; The Operators, an account of his time with McChrystal, and Panic 2012, on Obama’s re-election campaign.
Hastings’s life seemed on perpetual fast forward. In June 2013, speeding in Los Angeles, he was killed when his Mercedes crashed and exploded. He was just 33, and some friends and internet commentators argued that his death might not have been an accident.
Their speculation fueled stories such as New York magazine’s “Who Killed Michael Hastings?” After rehearsing the reporter’s growing paranoia about the national security state, the subject of his recent reporting, the magazine suggested that the answer to its provocative question was, most likely, Hastings himself. The man had, after all, lived with gonzo, self-destructive intensity. Between his struggles with apparent PTSD and bipolar disorder and his periodic bouts of drug and alcohol abuse, his early and violent death seemed almost to have been overdetermined.
Hastings left behind one final document—an autobiographical novel titled, elegiacally, The Last Magazine. Keenly observed from Hastings’ own ringside seat on the business, the novel chronicles the period from 2002 and 2005—a time when old and new media stood on different sides of a stark cultural and generational divide. Hastings, at once character, narrator, and author, attempts somewhat uncomfortably to straddle that divide, while viewing both sets of players with a jaundiced and satirical eye.
Speaking of Newsweek on the Young Turks, Hastings once said: “The stuff that I was most interested in never actually made it into the magazine.” His residual frustration with the limits of establishment journalism seems to have fueled his novelistic impulse. “This book is a story about the media elite,” says Hastings, as narrator, in the meta-fictional opening pages of The Last Magazine. “Maybe you’re interested in that world.”
Hastings is both ferocious and very funny in his sendup of the magazine business and its denizens. (Evelyn Waugh’s satire on war correspondence, Scoop, is an obvious inspiration.) He doesn’t spare his namesake character, presumably a version of his younger self: an ambitious unpaid intern-turned-fledgling, part-time researcher who strives slavishly to please his bosses by dutifully reading their books, studying their many television appearances, and trying to anticipate their demands.
Ambition, along with the ethical compromises it encourages, serves as the novel’s thematic glue. The Last Magazine is, in part, a comedy of (bad) manners about two arrogant and self-promoting managers locked in a death struggle for ascendancy at a publication called The Magazine. (One irony is that the institution of the newsmagazine is also approaching its death throes, though its pompous leaders are oblivious to that fact.)
The Last Magazine borrows, too, from the tradition of the bildungsroman, immersing us in Hastings’ education in the folkways of the media elite. He is, we know, headed for a fall. “Until your own hopes and dreams are shattered, or just slightly cracked, shouldn’t you be allowed a bit of innocence?” the narrator asks.
The novel also captures the recklessness and adrenaline-fueled drive of the typical war correspondent, so at odds with the buttoned-down bureaucratic culture of the home office. Nor does Hastings spare the sleazy, blackmailing boss and shallow worker/blogger bees of a Gawker-like site called Wretched.com, which thrives parasitically on gossip about old media.
None of this is to say that The Last Magazine is a first-rate novel. In its current, perhaps deliberately raw form, it veers off course periodically in tone and subject matter, interrupting its sometimes-brilliant satire with graphic depictions of kinky sex and an off-kilter and ultimately unconvincing love affair.