As a kid, we peeked in windows, climbed trees with a view into the neighbor's yard, even hid under beds to get a glimpse of other people's lives. Now we read Mike Sager.
He's the former Washington Post reporter who's made a name for himself with exquisitely drawn personality profiles for Esquire and others. The latest collection of his work, Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality, profiles a handful of big names as well as a bunch of regular Joes caught in special circumstances. Sager treats them all the same, be they butlers or billionaires. He moves into their lives. He gets inside their heads, and by doing so, he gets into ours. A master at ferreting out detail and using it in service of exposition, Sager makes minutiae part of his technique. Each little morsel is part of the larger dish.
Regular folks become special in Sager's hands. One story profiles a 92-year-old man whose head is so cluttered with memories that it takes him until lunch to remember what day it is. Another follows the "Man of Tomorrow," a 17-year-old kid who ponders his future while juggling relationships with his girl and his mother. Then there's the middle-aged sad sack on the prowl for romantic love at a swingers' convention (he ends up settling for a good bang). The most regular of the folks here are all named Mike Sager, a butcher/baker/candlestick-maker group of guys the writer digs up on a cross-country journey in search of men who share his name.
We may all be sick of celebrity profiles--celebrated author David Foster Wallace refused to include any in The Best American Essays 2007 ("I now actually want to know less than I know about most celebrities," he writes in his introduction)--but Sager gives us star-level character traits we recognize. Roseanne Barr is framed as bossy, demanding and always hungry. The fledgling dot-com billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is just a big, playful kid. Football veteran Mike Ditka, whose anger was famously on display every Sunday during the season, calmly loses big playing gin rummy. Ice Cube, livin' large, sends his posse out to pick up a breakfast of cookies and potato chips.
Sager's story on Roseanne illustrates his observant persistence. Here's a case in which Wallace is right; what more could you possibly want to know about the big-mouthed, wide-bodied Barr? The writer hangs around after the help goes home, and Barr starts to reveal her various personas and the childhood that gave them voice. Suddenly, the story's not so much about Roseanne but about multiple-personality disorder. Reading her story, you can't help but wonder about that time you talked like a bloody pirate for days on end.
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As if his keen eye and ability to let detail tell the story isn't enough, Sager's prose establishes a rhythm that reflects his subject. He moves deliberately when tracing the day of the 92-year-old man. His staccato, dialect-filled piece on Ice Cube is assertive and lyrical, though Cube's rap sounds a bit dated (Rolling Stone published the piece in 1990). He writes a tantalizing introduction, not piling on the who, what and when all at once, but letting the context frame the subject. Reading his work is like walking into a large museum gallery--there's much to see and enjoy, all of it hung on a central theme.
Sager treats the near-celebrities with ironic sincerity. "The Secret Life of a Beautiful Woman" reveals outlandish material desire in a woman everyone wants. The guys who make up Slayer (okay, they're celebrities to Slayer fans) live in suburbia and take care to hide the bong from Dad. Only one story leaves you wanting. The title piece about kids--little kids--who spin around Newark in stolen cars just to give the cops something to do stands a little too far back from the action. Despite the dangers, you wish that Sager would have jumped in for the joyride rather than watch from the sidewalk.
Taken together, Sager's stories paint a cultural and sociological mural--lives as a sign of the times. Life itself is the focus of a tension-filled, tightly constructed recount of the movements of several evacuees during the 2003 Cedar Fire in and around Cleveland National Forest. Seemingly small choices--drive this way or that--meant living or dying. We read the tale during this year's massive fires and were shaken by the images that no television coverage could muster. For those who wish to write with such power, Sager is worth studying (he leads workshops at UC Irvine; the next scheduled for spring 2008). And for busybodies, this curious craftsman is a joy.
Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality by Mike Sager; Thunder's Mouth Press. Paperback, 331 pages, $16.95.