Monday, October 22, 2007

Jason Fagone

Jason Fagone is an author and freelance journalist.

His first book, Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, was released last year in the U.S. and the U.K, and was also translated into Japanese.

Not so long ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Here are a few books I've been reading this fall:

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder: flawless. A long profile of an American doctor, Paul Farmer, who built a hospital and a health system in a remote part of Haiti and changed the way we think about treating the poor. Really, I had never read anything by Kidder, and I don't know why. So concise, engrossing, exact, powerful ... beyond the pull of the Farmer tale, this amazing story of a modern saint, I was just blown away by the craft, probably because I had just finished a long reporting project about infectious disease, running into all these problems trying to explain the science -- figuring out what I needed to explain in detail, what I could get away with describing vaguely, issues I imagined were inherent to the job of writing about science -- and then I read this book and it seemed like Kidder was writing around all of those same problems. Or through them. Just gliding on by with grace and elegance.

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder: okay, same deal. Wow.

Lord of the Barnyard, Tristan Egolf: Egolf wrote this when he was 23 years old. It's a huge, weird book that rides on the hypnotic storytelling voice of a sensitive white kid who grew up in Amish country, in the part of Pennsylvania that's often called Pennsyltucky. I love this book. I feel like it could have changed my whole life if I'd read it when I was a little younger. In Europe, where it was first published -- Egolf had been bumming around Paris, playing Dylan songs on the street for tips -- reviewers called it a masterpiece. Then it was published in the U.S., where reviewers mostly condescended to Egolf and ripped him for being too messy and exuberant and uncontrolled. The writing is actually remarkably precise, remarkably controlled. There's a storytelling mastery here -- basically, it's the yarn of an outcast garbageman from the midwest, John Kaltenbrunner, who starts an apocalyptic garbage strike after he and his fellow garbagemen get fed up with their crappy health-insurance plan. Beyond that it's hard to describe ... it's profane and angry and sweet and modern and archaic all at the same time, with riffs about exploding toilets set alongside these gorgeous lyric passages about the countryside where Egolf grew up.

What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer: This one I read back in the spring, actually. But it's stuck with me so I figured I'd include it. This is a book about the 1988 presidential election. It's 1,000+ pages. Were you perhaps under the impression that the 1988 presidential election was one of the boring ones? Bush/Dukakis? Yeah, I was too. But no. No no no no. Because Cramer was on the trail and I swear to god, he has stories about the Dukakis campaign that are so tragicomic, so excruciatingly well-observed, so full of pride and good intentions gone awry and all the rest, they will make you want to cry ... for Mike frickin' Dukakis. And for Joe Biden too. And Bob Dole. And maybe even Dick Gephardt. The book is fueled by curiosity and rage. The curiosity is a massive, bloated, almost childlike curiosity about the motivations of the people who run for president, leavened with an adult canniness and intelligence -- Cramer's no dupe -- and the rage is vented at the journalists who cover campaigns as if they're more about mechanics and consultants and fundraisers than people and ideas. It's arrogant and bullheaded in that Cramer's ambition here is not just to write the definitive book about that 1988 campaign but the definitive book about ALL AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS. And, you know, I feel the same way about this book as I did when I read this recent New Yorker article about David Simon and The Wire. Simon says all these outlandish things about his show, comparing it to Greek tragedy, to great novels, etc. And there wasn't anything Simon said where I thought, "Yeah, that guy's overstating it. He didn't really do that." I don't think you can overpraise this book.
Visit Jason Fagone's website and MySpace page, and learn more about competitive eating from his book and his article in Slate, "Dog Bites Man: The past and future of competitive eating injuries, from death by cheese to the dreaded ruptured stomach."

--Marshal Zeringue