critical eye

A parting shot

Michael Hastings' posthumous novel skewers the media elite
July 1, 2014

The Last Magazine
By Michael Hastings
Blue Rider Press
352 pages
Hardcover, $26.95

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 fiancΓ©e; 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.

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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, 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.

Had Hastings lived, these are flaws that an editor, or a rewrite, might have fixed. As it is, his untimely death lends both a bittersweet patina and a morbid fascination to the enterprise. Fortunately, there is also great fun–and a few insights–to be gleaned from his vaguely postmodernist dissection of the politics and rituals of newsmagazines in an era of decline.

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert famously said that he saw himself in the character of his doomed protagonist, Madame Bovary: Madame Bovary, c’est moi. Aspects of Hastings surface not only in the temp on the rise, but in the person of A.E. Peoria, the drug- and booze-addled foreign correspondent whom the Hastings character will admire, befriend, and perhaps betray.

The book’s narrative voice actually alternates between Hastings and Peoria, a somewhat awkward structural choice. Then again, there is a rationale for Hastings to know what Peoria is thinking. The correspondent tells Hastings that he suffers from “Compulsive Disclosure Disorder,” or cdd: “I’m always revealing very personal and intimate details about my life, and there’s nothing I can do about it unless I want to get on medication, and I just don’t want to get on medication right now because I would have to give up drinking, and it’s just not time for me to give up drinking.”

The Last Magazine has been touted as a roman-Γ -clef about Newsweek, and the fine points of Hastings’ satire will be best appreciated by those who were there at the time. But some parallels are easy to spot. Matt Healy is an undisguised stand-in for Michael Isikoff, the ace investigative reporter who broke the story of the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton, a scoop that Hastings dubs “the Pentagon Papers of Blow Jobs.”

The two rivals for the top job may also have real-life counterparts. Nishant Patel, The Magazine‘s international editor, evokes Fareed Zakaria, who held a similar position at Newsweek during that period. The exquisitely tailored Patel has written a book–on “benevolent dictatorships”–and has a penchant for television appearances. He arrives at a party trailed by two assistants “carrying two of his BlackBerries and his personal mobile telephone.”

His competition, the managing editor Sanders Berman, “a thirty-seven-year-old trapped in a sixty-seven-year-old’s body,” also has written a book, The Greatest War on Earth. (To what extent he shares personality tics with Jon Meacham, Newsweek‘s former editor, only a Newsweek alum can attest.) What these and other editors have in common, Hastings notes, is that “they never actually read our magazine, unless it is to see who got in the magazine that week and who didn’t.”

The novel’s opening scene is a news meeting in which Patel coolly dismisses a potential story on a genocide in eastern Chad by declaring, “That’s not new . . . . We’ve read it before.” Instead, picking up on a suggestion by the magazine’s business editor, he assigns Peoria to report on rising mobile phone sales in Africa. Peoria learns the news as he is trying desperately to get a satellite signal on top of a remote hill while none-too-friendly refugees look on.

No wonder Peoria is having a career crisis. “How much simpler life would be,” he thinks, “if he were a brain surgeon or a physicist or designed helicopters for a defense contractor–a simple, stable career path with a well-defined destination, so much easier than this constant and vicious battle he was in with himself over this New York magazine media world he lived in.” Worse, he was “Thirty-four, and never had a book party.”

Back home, the news is the media drum roll leading to American involvement in Iraq, with Berman and Patel falling over each other to make the case for war. Peoria heads for the front lines, where he barely survives a desert ambush in the company of an injured soldier. Later, he will help set up the magazine’s Baghdad bureau and escape for R&R in Thailand, where he descends into the miasma of sex tourism and related debauchery.

The Magazine will eventually break a controversial story, co-bylined by Healy and Peoria, about the abuse of Iraqi detainees–again, an echo of actual events. When the piece comes under criticism and sparks riots in Iraq, Peoria is tricked into taking the fall.

Meanwhile, Hastings, after doing some work for the online edition of the magazine, is offered a full-time position as an associate Web editor. But Nishant Patel pulls rank and blocks the promotion, telling Hastings: “The Web is a black hole . . . . There’s not a future on the Internet.”

Hastings, of course, knows better. But he isn’t so sure that future won’t be a dystopian one. “Wretched certainly seems to be where the industry is heading,” he tells Timothy Grove, its founder. Grove not only panders to readers’ worst instincts, he “runs what is more or less the media equivalent of a sweatshop.” And Grove isn’t the only problem. Hastings describes a group of bloggers in withering terms: “They are hyper-consumers” with “a desire to be noticed and to criticize the criticizers of the world, to gain its acceptance by rejecting it, breeding a strange kind of apathy and nihilism and ambition . . . .”

Ah, ambition again–the thread that ties together old media and new, us and them, young and old. There are no heroes in The Last Magazine, it turns out; not even–perhaps least of all–Hastings himself. No heroes, and only the most ephemeral of happy endings.

Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.