Journalism & Shorts

Jonathan Miles is a former columnist for the New York Times and a past or current contributing editor to Details, Garden & Gun, Men’s Journal, and Field & Stream. His essays, criticism, and reporting have also appeared in GQ, the New York Times Book Review, Food & Wine, Literary Review [UK], the Oxford American, the New York Observer, the New York Times Magazine, Salon, Backpacker, Outside, Vanity Fair Italia, and others. Click the tabs to the left for a sampling of stories and reviews.

Men’s Journal | May 2005 Issue

What Goes 95 Miles Per Hour for 17 Days Straight?

In its 27-year history, the Dakar Rally has been the world’s most dangerous sporting event, claiming the lives of dozens of racers. This year the author joined in, and it was more savage than ever.

By Jonathan Miles.

What I am about to do has been denounced by the Vatican as “a vulgar display of power and wealth,” drawn the ire and fire of Islamic terrorists, stranded European royalty and thrill-seeking riffraff in the Sahara, cost hundreds of millions in damages, and claimed the lives of more than 30 people. Likened to “blood sport from a science fiction novel,” it’s been judged the world’s most dangerous legally sanctioned sporting event. Seventeen years ago Sports Illustrated decreed that with “any luck, or common sense,” it would never happen again; yet it did, and has every year since.

Most commonly it is called the Paris-Dakar Rally, though Paris has been just a flickering presence in recent years. More accurately it’s called the Dakar Rally, and it’s a bone-crushing, will-killing off-road race from Europe to the African city of Dakar, in which cars, motorcycles, and trucks slog 5,500-plus miles through the deepest orange undulations of the Sahara, with its biblical sandstorms and locust swarms and arid empty vastness, to the beautiful blue sea-spray of the Senegalese coast. Half my fellow competitors, revving their engines in the starting lineup, won’t see that blue beauty – for every one that finishes, another will fall prey to injury or exhaustion or mechanical failure, and the race will leave them behind. More darkly, the odds say that at least one of us will not return alive; on average, in the Dakar Rally’s 27-year history more than one competitor has died at each running.

This time, however, when it’s all finished, at least five people will lie dead, including a legendary Italian racer, a five-year-old Senegalese girl, and a jovial Spanish motorcyclist who shared my team’s support truck. A suspected Al Qaeda operative will be arrested and charged with “plotting to kill as many participants as possible.” Spain’s Green Party will demand that the Spanish government extract itself from the rally, while a French lawmaker will plead with his prime minister to ban the race altogether. The rally’s major motorcycle sponsor, KTM, will publicly admit misgivings about the race, wondering, as many have before, if death in the desert outweighs the bright glory of a Dakar victory.

At this moment, however, as my partner and I watch the line official count down the start of our first stage with his fingers, five, then four, three…the truth is, at this moment, I have no fucking clue what I’m about to do.

Continue Reading… | August 2008 Issue

The Making of Bobby Jindal

The 37-year-old governor of Louisiana is out to reinvent the Republican Party in his own slick, telegenic image. And if that means purging the GOP of its Dubya-era demons, no matter—he likes a good exorcism, too.

By Jonathan Miles, Photographs by Mark Heithoff

The first thing you notice about Bobby Jindal—everyone says this—is how damn young he looks. Stick him next to John McCain, however, and his appearance skews toward the pubescent. It’s a sun-blasted, sweat-stained late-April day in New Orleans, and Jindal—102 days into his term as the governor of Louisiana, and just 36 years into a life that’s looking increasingly politically charmed—is walking beside McCain down Caffin Avenue in the city’s blighted Lower Ninth Ward. The neighborhood’s few remaining residents—easily outnumbered by the hordes of National Guardsmen and political aides and the reporters sequestered in the flatbeds of two National Guard trucks—are out on their porches, with arms folded, observing this odd promenade. McCain’s giant, gleaming bus (“the Straight,” as his aides call it) looks like an alien spacecraft idling beside the scruffy Caffin Avenue median.

If that implies that McCain is an alien here, well, so be it. This is stop four on McCain’s “forgotten places” tour, after Appalachia, Ohio’s Rust Belt, and Alabama’s Black Belt. These are not the typical bases that Republicans touch on the campaign diamond. It’s as if McCain accidentally swapped date books with John Edwards, and it shows: The senator looks unsteady, almost sheepish, as he passes through the water-wrecked landscape, past weedy lots where shotgun houses stood before Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters crumbled them. McCain pauses in front of Fats Domino’s renovated house, a one-story speck of hope amid the debris-strewn streets. The rumor on the press trucks is that Domino is home but refuses to come out. Whatever the situation, there’s an awkward pause, and McCain, surrounded by his massive coterie, looks a little lost, a little overwhelmed, a little old.

Not Jindal. Jindal could get carded buying a six-pack. And Jindal, he doesn’t know how to pause. Throughout the day he’s been hanging behind McCain and maintaining a running—no, sprinting—dialogue with a Ninth Ward minister and other locals. When the tour ends at a Catholic church on St. Claude Avenue, Jindal continues to hang back as McCain addresses the traveling press corps and goes straight for the headline. “Never again,” McCain says, then repeats the phrase for emphasis: “Never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way in which it was handled.”

It’s strong, stinging stuff McCain’s hurling at his own party leader and president, and it’s amplified by the evocative setting, yet the focus moves swiftly to Jindal. It’s the day’s third question, shouted from the back: Will Jindal be the senator’s vice-presidential pick? “Governor Jindal is one of the great governors of the United States,” McCain says. “I’m honored to have his friendship, and I will rely on Governor Jindal for many, many things in the future, when I am president.”

Continue Reading… | September 2011 Issue

The Billionaire King of Techtopia

Peter Thiel rose to fame by launching PayPal and funding a little upstart called Facebook. You’ll find his fingerprints on—and his seed money in—everything from DNA manipulation to Hollywood movies along with any Silicon Valley enterprise worth knowing about. Now the 43-year-old gay libertarian is embarking on his most ambitious venture: a start-up country on the open ocean that will be governed by his Ayn Rand–inspired ideology. Will it be Thiel’s crowing achievement or the biggest bust since Waterworld?

By Jonathan Miles, Photographs by Tom Schierlitz

When Peter Thiel ventures outside for a run, typically in the early-early morning, when the fog drifts low and slow into the San Francisco Bay, he’s often drawn to what the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “the end of land and land of beginning.” That means the San Francisco waterfront—especially the one-and-a-half-mile stretch of pathway hugging the marshy shoreline from Crissy Field to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Aesthetically, the appeal is obvious—a postcard view of the bridge and the bay, the lapping tidal rhythm, that sort of thing—but for Thiel, a 43-year-old investor and entrepreneur whose knack for anticipating the next big thing has yielded him a $1.5 billion fortune and an iconic, even delphic status in Silicon Valley, there’s a symbolic angle as well. This waterline is precisely where the Western frontier ended, where unlimited opportunity finally hit its limit. It’s also where, if Thiel is betting correctly, the next—and most audacious—frontier begins.

Thiel spends a lot of time thinking about frontiers. “Way more than is healthy,” he admits. Not just financial frontiers, though that’s his day job: He cofounded PayPal, the online money-transfer service, and, most famously, was the angel investor whose half-million-dollar loan catapulted Facebook out of Harvard’s dormitories and into the lives of its 750 million users. (In The Social Network, Thiel was portrayed as the crisp venture capitalist whose investment, and dark questioning, widen the rift between Facebook’s cofounders.) He manages a hedge fund, Clarium Capital, and is a founding partner in a venture-capital firm called the Founders Fund, both of them housed in an airy brick building on the campuslike grounds of the Presidio, not far from Thiel’s jogging path. Yet his frontier obsession extends much further than spreadsheets, further than even technology. Political frontiers, social frontiers, scientific frontiers: All these and more crowd Thiel’s head as he navigates the shoreline.

“We’re at this pretty important point in society,” he says during a brisk walk toward the Golden Gate Bridge, “where we can either find a way to rediscover a frontier, or we’re going to be forced to change in a way that’s really tough.” Thiel is a medium-size man with a compact and blocky frame, close-trimmed reddish-brown hair, and eyes the limpid-blue color of Windex; he has a small, nasal voice and tends to exert himself as he speaks, frequently circling back to amend or reconfigure or soften what he’s saying. Discussing the concept of frontiers, however, animates him to an almost uninterruptible degree; concepts, more than anything else, seem to do that.

“One of the things that’s endlessly dazzling and mesmerizing is this question about the future—what the world is going to be like in 20 years, and what can or should we do to make it better than the default track that it’s on,” he says, gesturing with his hands while maintaining a fixed stare on the pathway. “But it’s a question you can never quite master. I played a lot of chess when I was growing up, and it’s similar to some elements of chess, where you can see some moves but you can’t see to the end of the game. Even a computer the size of the universe couldn’t actually analyze it. There’s, like, 10 to the 117th power possible games and something like 10 to the 80th atoms in the observable universe, so it’s off by something like 37 orders of magnitude. And chess is something much simpler than reality—it’s 32 pieces on an eight-by-eight board. Figuring out the complete future of a chess game is a problem more complicated than anything that can be solved in our universe, so figuring out this planet or just our society in the next 10 or 15 years is just not a solvable problem.”

Continue Reading… | September 2011 Issue

The Amazing Story of the Televangelist and his Gay Grandson

Randy Roberts Potts likes to say he grew up 50 feet and a million miles away from firebrand televangelist Oral Roberts. Now openly gay and a pariah to his family, the 37-year-old is on a mission of his own: to undo his grandfather’s legacy by preaching in churches and touring the bible belt with his new performance piece, The Gay Agenda.

By Jonathan Miles, Photographs by Andrew Hetherington

On a late-fall night in Dallas, Randy Roberts Potts is pushing the gay agenda by watching TV. And by ironing a shirt. Also by doing a puzzle, vacuuming a rug, simmering stew in a slow-cooker, and intermittently stroking the nape of his boyfriend Keaton’s neck in a subdued, abstracted manner, the way his Munna might have stroked his hair when he was a child. It could be a typically staid and eventless evening for Randy, with one fat exception: He’s doing all this on a 6-by-16-foot set on a patch of downtown sidewalk, surrounded by drifting crowds of passersby.

With folded arms and befuddled frowns, the onlookers try to make sense of the scene—to the right, atop rugs laid directly on the concrete, there’s a farm table and a bookcase stocked with cans of black-eyed peas and stewed tomatoes; to the left, a leather couch sits before a black-and-white television on which a silvery episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp is flickering. A few of them lean in to read a printed explanation affixed to a coatrack up front. THE GAY AGENDA, it explains, IS PERFORMANCE ART DESIGNED TO FOSTER LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE. Huh. They glance up at Randy—he’s dipping a spoon into the slow-cooker now, or studying the half-done puzzle—and then lower their gaze back to the paper. In capital letters, they see: THE GAY AGENDA AS CONCEIVED SHOULD BE INCREDIBLY BORING TO WATCH.

Some shrug and wander off. Others remain, transfixed. And still others—nodding, smiling—break onto the set for a burst of encouragement. “You should take this thing to state fairs,” bubbles a middle-aged guy, his wife nodding gamely beside him. “Anywhere there’s a Miss Corn or a Miss Hog.”

A crooked grin spreads across Randy’s face. He is 37, with gray-flecked hair and a light scruff of beard; tonight he’s dressed in a green-and-white baseball T-shirt, gray suit pants, and black Crocs, with a driving cap tilting toward his drowsily downturned eyes. “State fairs,” he tells the guy, “might be dangerous.”

Randy is, nonetheless, taking this willfully unentertaining show on the road. Tonight’s performance in his adopted hometown of Dallas is a dress rehearsal for a tour that kicks off in February in Oklahoma City. He’ll follow that with stops in Jackson, Mississippi; Omaha, Nebraska; Birmingham, Alabama; and several other midsize red-state cities, with either him and his boyfriend or a local same-sex couple going about their humdrum business behind glass in rented storefronts for two days. The idea is to show the neutral, domestic side of gay couplehood—the 99 percent of quotidian gay life, according to Randy, that’s identical to straight life. “It’s a visual that people haven’t ever really seen in conservative towns,” he explains. “A lot of people immediately jump to images of sex or a pride parade. Well, here’s another visual. This is what gay couples look like when we’re together as a couple in love. There’s really nothing to watch, and I want to leave people with that impression. Psychologically, visual images like that go a lot deeper.”

Continue Reading…

Field & Stream | June 2005 Issue

Fishing the Venice Beach Pier

On this narrow strip of concrete in West L.A., the exotic fish of the Pacific meet the funky anglers of Southern California.

By Jonathan Miles, Photo By J.P. Greenwood.

If you visit venice beach and its carnivalesque boardwalk, your eyes will swim in a vast sea of human oddities. Walking past the tattoo parlors and incense vendors and T-shirt shops, you will dodge bikini-clad inline skaters, beer-soaked collegiate tourists, hustlers, chain-saw jugglers, mimes, preening musclemen, break-dancers, sidewalk artists, prophets, snake handlers, conga drummers, Hare Krishnas, junkies, street-corner evangelists, panhandlers, and even a turban-topped, robe-wearing electric guitarist named Harry Perry, the “Kama Kosmick Krusader,” who’s spent the last 30 years noodling fuzzy solos on his bull’s-eye-painted guitar while skating up and down the Venice boardwalk.

The Dawn Patrol If you arrive very early in the morning, when the Pacific and the sky are an almost indistinguishable shade of bruised purple and the dark shops along the boardwalk are silent and shuttered, you’ll notice a small cadre of men pushing homemade carts loaded with bait and tackle and plastic-wrapped sandwiches.

In the gloom, they steer their carts to the gate at the Venice Fishing Pier and wait-10, 20 of them, sipping coffee, the orange glow of their cigarettes specking the dark as they wait for the pier guard to drowsily unlock the gates at 6 a.m. These are the fishermen of the Venice Pier, and when the gates open, they stream forward and take their positions along the pier’s 1,310-foot length. Then, the low mumble of the waves is quickly joined by the whir of lines being cast, by the wet plunk of sinkers hitting the water, by the happy reel-screech of a fish on.

Pier of Dreams If the Venice boardwalk is a human circus, as many observers have described it, then the long, keyhole-shaped pier that abuts it is an angling circus, a narrow strip of concrete where the exotic and unpredictable denizens of the Pacific Ocean-needlefish have been reeled up onto the pier; occasionally someone hooks a sea lion-meet the exotic and unpredictable anglers of Los Angeles.

Piers attract a different sort of fisherman than, say, lake edges, and certainly streamsides-different, that is, though fundamentally the same. For those without the cash or gas or stamina to fish for Castaic Lake largemouths or San Gabriel River rainbows, or to charter a boat and head out to sea, a humble pier can be a thing of beauty. And the fact that no fishing license is required on California piers gilds the lily.

Some anglers revel in the social aspects of the fishing, the easy fellowship of a pier rail. For others, consistency is the draw. “If you have the soul of an artist and can see and feel the rustic charm of old…structures that have long withstood the lash of time and tide,” wrote Raymond Cannon in How to Fish the Pacific Coast in 1953, “you will at once recognize something of the hypnotic spell that compels addicts of pier fishing to return again and again, day after day, to the same old spot. Fish or no fish, rain or shine, you will see them, happy, cheerful, and contented, ensnared in the mesh of a magnetic net of their own mental creation.”

Continue Reading…

The New York Times | January 2010

A Good Decade to Have a Drink

BY now, most of the reviews of the decade-that-just-was have been filed, and a consensus has emerged: If not “the worst decade ever,” as Time magazine put it, the ’00s were awful.

By Jonathan Miles.

Unless, that is, you spent the decade drinking. That sounds like a joke but isn’t, because among all the things that didn’t improve in the last 10 years — macro stuff like the global economy, geopolitical stability, the environment, etc. — one thing, admittedly micro, did improve: the drinks we drank, for pleasure or, considering the above, analgesia.

If you observed the ’00s from a barstool, and limited your reading to cocktail menus (as I did, as author of this column for almost four years), you’d be forgiven for deeming the decade a bona fide golden age. For my final column, then, a toast: to 10 years of fizzes, slings, juleps, sours, cobblers and rickeys, to a time when the avant-garde seemed to shift almost nightly, to the best decade in generations.

We greeted the decade with sugary, vodka-based “-tinis” — which, despite their suffixed claim to noble descent, were in some ways extensions of the neon drinks of the ’80s: alcoholic candy.

Yet a quiet revolution was already under way. Building upon the work of Dale DeGroff, the former Rainbow Room bartender, young bartenders, casting aside process mixers, were gleaning inspiration from their counterparts in restaurant kitchens and perusing antique cocktail books like scholars combing the Dead Sea scrolls. The first half of the decade saw a wave of creativity and experimentation come crashing through barrooms in cities like New York and San Francisco and Portland, Ore., followed, in the decade’s second half, by a counterblast of earnest classicism.

The cocktail was no longer a fashion accessory, as it was in the ’90s. It was fashion itself. What had once merely lubricated conversations became the subject of conversations, in much the same way that dinner parties, with the rise of foodie-ism in the ’90s, became more about the dinner and less about the party.

Bar patrons broadcast their selections over Twitter. Home bartenders blogged about their latest experiments. Surrendering your drink choice to the bartender, the way diners at sushi restaurants request whatever is freshest, became the ’00s hippest drink order.

By the end of the decade, bottle service, once a mark of downtown sophistication, had come to be viewed as the province of rubes. The cocktail — especially the classic, painstakingly made variety, served with hand-cracked ice or in recherché glassware — had triumphed.

And not just here. You can get an expertly made bourbon daisy in Cleveland, an impeccable sazerac in rural Mississippi. Not long ago, in an excruciatingly remote village in the Australian Outback, I was startled to see a bartender in a cowboy hat measuring out a classically proportioned French 75 — something he’d picked up on the Internet, he told me.

Call this a fad at your own peril. Some peripheral aspects of the cocktail renaissance are doomed to pass, and in some places already have: speak-easy chic, bartenders in affected period costumes, an overwrought reverence that smacks of wine snobbery. But we do not go backward from here. Pardon the pun, but the bar has been raised.

Of course, not everyone drank well this past decade. Twenty years from now, when bars are promoting nostalgic ’00s theme nights, the dominant drink special will almost certainly be vodka and Red Bull. Or maybe the mojito, which introduced many Americans to fresh produce in their drink, as well as to longer wait times — owing to the bartender’s need to muddle the fresh mint leaves —associated with the craft cocktail movement.

Continue Reading…

The New York Times | March 2008

Winosburg, Ohio

By Jonathan Miles.

The only display of civic pride evident in Donald Ray Pollock’s first book is a blue tattoo — the words “Knockemstiff, Ohio” — etched “like a road sign” on the bony white backside of a crackhead named Sandy. And even that’s suspect, since the tattoo seems less a proud-spirited nod to her hometown than a dog-tag-like reminder of where she needs to return, or be returned. Located 60-some miles south of Columbus, Knockemstiff, which derives its name from a long-ago fight between two women, is a ramshackle cluster of “shotgun houses and rust-streaked trailers” where the air is suffused with rotten-egg-scented smog from the local paper mill. Once there was a store, selling gasoline and Doan’s liver pills and cigarettes and chain-saw oil, and also a tavern, Hap’s, where the bartender dealt speed on the side. A baseball diamond, built by a Vista worker in the ’60s, then swiftly reclaimed by green briars, and also a church — but that too, as Sandy’s boyfriend notes, “had fallen on hard times.” It’s a mean little place, in Pollock’s rendering, where the dominant occupation seems to be petty crime, where wife-beating louts drink Old Grand-Dad out of car ashtrays and where restless teenage boys spend their weekend nights throwing darts at the fat kid and compensating him with bong hits.

It’s also the central character of Pollock’s collection of linked stories, in much the same way its northern neighbor, Winesburg, played the lead role in Sherwood Anderson’s famed story cycle. Aside from their geographical proximity and formalistic architecture, the two books share something else: a concentrated focus on the lonely, the depraved, the neglected — the “twisted apples,” in Anderson’s phrase, or the toadstools “stuck to a rotten log,” in Pollock’s — that prompted Anderson to originally title his work “The Book of the Grotesque.” But whereas Anderson tucked the grotesque beneath the staid and steady public lives of his characters, doctors and other professional types among them, Pollock’s characters — addicts, runaways, squatters, rapists, aspiring molesters, many of them one signature away from internment in “the group home” — wear their grotesqueness high up on their sleeves. If Winesburg’s social constructs held the unutterable hungers of its citizenry in check, however loosely, in “Knockemstiff” there are no such constructs. Rome has fallen, and it’s a Dark Ages free-for-all. Nothing to do now but huff some Bactine and head to the Crispie Creme at 3 a.m. to watch the cross-eyed waitress doze behind the display case of day-old doughnuts.

That last bit makes up the plot of one of Pollock’s 18 stories, which range in time, gauzily, from the ’60s to the ’90s. In another, two boys burn an anthill while one’s father is beating his mother and while the other boy is girding himself, per his mother’s request, to pretend to be a serial killer and creep up on her in bed with a kitchen knife. In “Blessed,” a small-time burglar and OxyContin junkie discovers that the son he suspected was deaf and mute is neither — the child only acts that way when his father is around. In “Assailants” and “I Start Over,” a pair of men rise to the defense of “loved ones” they themselves find unlovable — one man (partly) taking up for his mentally handicapped wife when a pretty young convenience-store clerk calls her “like totally gross,” and the other, who daydreams about burning his house to the ground with his wife and angel-dust-warped son inside, knocking the tar out of some teenagers who were making fun of that drool-glazed son in a Dairy Queen drive-through.

Obviously, fatherhood is not a varsity sport in “Knockemstiff.” One would need to read the collected works of Pat Conroy to come across so many bad-hearted, whiskey-breathed fathers stomping across the page. “Mine had skipped out on my mom before I was born,” says one character, “and I’d always been ashamed of that.” “But maybe,” he wisely adds, “I’d lucked out after all.” Pollock doesn’t sugarcoat the act that leads to fatherhood, either. There’s gobs of sex in “Knockemstiff,” though not much love. There’s sex with mentally handicapped girls and women — “retards,” in the book’s common parlance — and grim sex-for-drugs exchanges in the backseats of parked cars. Venturing further downscale, there’s sex between siblings, sex with a sibling’s toy doll and various mentions of sex with a mud dauber’s nest, a sweaty sock and a pint of pigs’ brains. In “Knockemstiff” live “the kind of women who, out of sheer loneliness, end up doing kinky stuff with candy bars, wake up with apple fritters in their hair.” Small wonder, then, that when a young man begins cleaning a dead chicken, in one story, his companion’s first impulse is to ask whether he intends to have sex with it.

Continue Reading…

The New York Times | November 2006

Forest Grump

By Jonathan Miles.

Edward Abbey (1927-89) wrote letters the way he wrote books. “The shotgun method, I call it,” he wrote to his friend and fellow novelist Alan Harrington, in which Abbey cranked out “many, many, many books, in all directions, without taking much aim.” In a note to Jimmy Carter after the 1976 presidential election, Abbey blithely suggested hiring Allen Ginsberg to remodel the Pentagon. To the editors of The Arizona Daily Star, “so devoted to promoting mass immigration from Mexico,” he suggested moving the editorial offices to South Nogales, in Mexico, “where you can enjoy today the poverty, misery, squalor and gross injustice which will be the fate of America tomorrow.” He was moved to write again, a month later, to justify “the use of beautiful women in James Bond movies.” He wrote to admonish The Tucson Weekly for an article that deemed cheerleaders “stupid” (“ ‘Stupid’? They’re cute, soft, bouncy, sweet, sexy, beautiful”) two months before chiding a reviewer in The Times Book Review for suggesting that Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” lacked heart. That latter missive was itself a rebuke to a letter Abbey wrote to Bookletter, in 1977, in which he dismissed Wolfe as “the leading pom-pom girl of American journalism” — an insult that, come to think of it, he also partly rectified with his defense of cheerleaders.

If few surprises are embedded in this trim selection of letters, edited by Abbey’s pal David Petersen, it’s because Abbey, on the page, was always Abbey: free ranging, cymbal crashing, an anarchist in mind as well as politics, encased throughout his life in an ever-shaken snow globe of contradictions, provocations, bathroom-wall jokes and fortissimo declarations. Who but Abbey could have written a novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” that helped inspire a radical and deadly serious environmental movement (Earth First!) while containing a scene in which an argument about weather is settled with the line “Rudolf the Red knows rain, dear”? That was part of Abbey’s prickly charm, his Janus-faced appeal. One of the sublime pleasures of “Desert Solitaire,” his canonical memoir of working as a seasonal park ranger in eastern Utah, comes early on, when Abbey admits to stoning a rabbit to death for the sheer hell of it. For a generation accustomed to pious and priestly nature writing, this confession was welcome, a clear signal that Abbey was one of us: a fellow sinner in the temple of nature, part of the problem as well as the solution. Though allied in a common cause, Abbey provided the punk counterpoint to the reverent eco-hymns of writers like John Muir, Peter Matthiessen and Gary Snyder. “Rhapsodies,” he wrote to Edward Hoagland, “put me to sleep.” One’s eyes can’t glaze over while reading Abbey, because he’s forever poking them — sometimes for fun, sometimes for purpose.

Fittingly, then, this is a book of thorns. As a correspondent, Edward Abbey was impulsive, unsparing, irascible, epigrammatic and, by turns, wonderfully long-winded or gruffly economical. (Much of his correspondence, as this book’s title suggests, was on postcards.) For a writer whose oeuvre was so tilted toward autobiography and the physical world, Abbey rarely wrote about his exterior life — what he was seeing and doing away from his desk. “Went down through Cataract Canyon last week, a five-day boat trip,” was about as newsy as he got about his wilderness ramblings, and the world outside his door earned mostly perfunctory nods. “The raspberries are gone,” he wrote Hoagland. “The autumn flowers are in bloom … and there’s a chill of winter in the air after sundown. And so on. Musn’t start sounding like Annie Dillard.” In these letters, Abbey is visible mostly from the neck up, driven to correspond by issues and ideas, by indignation more than affection. Not a single love letter appears, a conspicuous absence for a man who married five times and whose published journals (also edited by Petersen) steam with carnal tension.

Continue Reading…

The New York Times | January 2006

Rider of the Purple Prose

By Jonathan Miles.

Among the few remaining unpublished writings of Zane Grey (1872-1939), the once mega-selling author of westerns like “Riders of the Purple Sage,” “The Light of Western Stars” and “Code of the West,” is a series of 10 small journals locked away from public view, along with several hundred photographic prints and negatives, by an anonymous collector identified only as X. Written in code, the diaries graphically chronicle – and, through the photos, graphically illustrate – Grey’s sexual exploits, stretching from his college years to his sixth decade, with more than a dozen women possibly excluding his wife of 34 years though not, alas, her relatives.

Readers whose eyebrows have failed to rise will be forgiven, since the exposure of writerly peccadilloes, like those of politicians and celebrity tarts, is by now familiar background noise, the static we half expect to find as we dial through an author’s oeuvre. But Grey’s case is different. His novels – however denigrated by critics as empurpled froths of “virgins, villains and varmints” – were only part of the allure that fixed his name in the hearts of millions of Americans. Billed at his death as “the greatest selling author of all time,” with his work exceeded in sales “only by the Bible and the Boy Scout Handbook,” Zane Grey was as much a brand as a writer – a brand that would eventually come to encompass films, television series, a monthly magazine, a saltwater fishing reel, even a Pacific sailfish by the name of Istiophorus greyi. And behind that brand stood the man: a self-made model of rugged rural virtue overimbued with what the critic Heywood Broun acidly called “the sanity, the strength and the wholesomeness” of his novels; a teetotaler opposed to the “jiggle and toddle and wiggle” of jazz-age dancing and all the era’s other “rotten sensual stuff”; and a staunch champion of clean outdoor living and hard work and righteous, simple codes of conduct.

And also, as it turns out, quite the swinger. The revelations about Grey’s blue cache of journals and photos – and about Grey’s considerable harem of mistresses, who openly shared him with his wife and one another – make Thomas H. Pauly’s biography a major correction to the wholesome image Grey enjoyed for almost a century. “The cowboys all had secrets,” Grey once wrote, and, as Pauly freely (though not assaultively) admits, the spilling of this cowboy’s secrets was a central reason for this book. The last and only full-scale biography of Grey was Frank Gruber’s “Zane Grey: A Biography” (1970), long out of print and widely dismissed as unreliable hagiography. Grey’s readership has dramatically ebbed since then. “One of the ways I find out how old people are,” Grey’s son Loren said a few years ago, is to “ask them if they’ve heard of Zane Grey. If they’re over 50, they have. If they’re under 50, they haven’t.” Which presents us with one piece of evidence as to where Grey’s audience has steadily been vanishing: the grave. Yet the cultural forces that wiped westerns off our movie and television screens also took their toll on Grey’s legacy, as did the content of Grey’s novels themselves. Grey’s archaic, overheated prose was a throwback when he wrote it, as if he’d plundered a time capsule stuffed with the discarded sentences of James Fenimore Cooper, and the decades since his death have only widened that aesthetic distance. That is, if aesthetic questions can ever be applied to prose like this:

“I am an outcast. I am hunted. If I made you my wife it might be to your shame and sorrow. . . .’Take me,’ she cried, and the soft, deep-toned, passionate voice shook Adam’s heart. She would share his wanderings. ‘Goodbye, Oella,’ he said huskily. And he strode forth to drive his burro out into the lonely, melancholy desert night.”

Continue Reading…