June 19, 2018

Dead or alive? That question serves as the engine for countless narratives in every story form we can think of, from fiction to nonfiction, from books to movies. 

The New York Times just published a humdinger, written by Jack Hitt, who sets out to find a missing scholar, obsessed with the James Joyce novel “Ulysses.” This story is so well done that it inspired my colleague Kelly McBride to send me a text message with a link, insisting that I read it immediately. She knows my taste. Evidence that the story works comes from the fact that I read the whole thing on my phone, not my favorite way of experiencing the long form.

About halfway through the narrative, I bumped into something that almost spoiled the story for me. In fact, it made me stop reading for a moment, but I regained my footing and followed the tale to its satisfying, “mystery-solved” ending.

What you are about to read is both an appreciation for a compelling narrative and a mild rebuke for the way it was presented. No editor or producer or designer should show, too early, a photographic image that gives away the ending. In short, when the story engine is “dead or alive,” the reader should have that question answered in the narrative flow before we are exposed to an image of the protagonist standing in the kitchen – or lying in the coffin.

To do otherwise, in the words of my pal Tom French, is to “S-O-N”, that is Step on the Narrative. To demonstrate this critique requires me to give away the ending of Hitt’s narrative. So consider this a spoiler alert. You can read the story and return to my critique. Or you can stick with me and enjoy the full narrative later.

Let’s begin with the headline and subhead:

The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar

Two decades ago, a renowned professor promised to produce a flawless version of one of the 20th century’s most celebrated novels: “Ulysses.” Then he disappeared.

“Strange” and “missing” are great headline words, more often found in city tabloids than in the great grey journals. The subhead is a mini-narrative that promises two stories in one, the first about the work of an obsessed scholar, the second about a mysterious disappearance. Tom Wolfe once argued that writers use the short sentence to give the reader the sense that they are getting the gospel truth, hence the intended power of “Then he disappeared.”

This leads easily to discussion of an under-appreciated narrative form, once called the “I-Search Story” by composition teacher Ken McCrorie. “Re-Search” is a word that suggests some distance between the author and the material. “I-Search” portends something different: that we will experience the narrative directly through the eyes and ears of the reporter, making him a kind of character, perhaps a bit like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

As a reader, I am greatly attracted to this form and find myself diving in and following the narrator until the end. With the World Cup having just begun, I will use an example from the last World Cup in 2014, when one of the game’s best players, Luis Suarez, bit his Italian defender, something he had done before. He was punished for his actions and, over time, became the butt of vampire jokes. 

In response, one of America’s best sportswriters and storytellers, Wright Thompson, set out on a journey to discover whether Luis Suarez was a soccer thug or the sweetest player in the world. Here is his lead from ESPN the Magazine:

Before getting to the alleged mob hit or the mystery of the missing referee, there should be an explanation about how this quest began. An assigned profile of Luis Suarez led to a stack of things to read about his past. Whether it was a tabloid calling him Cannibal! or The New York Times calling him Luis Alberto Suarez Diaz, the portrait is of a cheat and a lunatic. If someone breathes on him near the goal, he falls down like he's been knifed. He has bitten an opponent. Twice. And, back in his childhood in Uruguay, there's an oft-reported incident that serves as explanation, or maybe proof, that he is, in fact, batshit crazy. When Suarez was 15, overcome with anger, he headbutted a referee and received a red card in a youth match, making the man's nose bleed "like a cow," as a witness said.

Before getting to the main clause of the first sentence, Wright gives us “the mystery of the missing referee,” and it is that mystery that the author attempts to solve, with the resources of ESPN, and a journey to South America. When the I in I-Search is Wright Thompson, you know you are in for a wonderful journey of discovery. (No more spoilers.  Please read it yourself.)

To write in this genre, the author usually knows the full arc of the narrative: that the figure you are searching for is alive or dead or lost or found or had amnesia and is now a star of "The Bold and the Beautiful."

Here’s how Jack Hitt sets things up in his lead:

Some 16 years ago, The Boston Globe published an article about a jobless man who haunted Marsh Plaza, at the center of Boston University. The picture showed a curious figure in a long overcoat, hunched beneath a black fedora near the central sculpture. He spent his days talking with pigeons to whom he had given names: Checkers and Wingtip and Speckles. The article could have been just another human-interest story about our society’s failing commitment to mental health, except that the man crouched in conversation with the birds was John Kidd, once celebrated as the greatest James Joyce scholar alive.

Kidd had been the director of the James Joyce Research Center, a suite of offices on the campus of Boston University dedicated to the study of “Ulysses,” arguably the greatest and definitely the most-obsessed-over novel of the 20th century. Armed with generous endowments and cutting-edge technology, he led a team dedicated to a single goal: producing a perfect edition of the text. I saved the Boston Globe story on my computer and would occasionally open it and just stare. Long ago, I contacted Kidd about working on an article together, because I was fascinated by one of his other projects — he had produced a digital edition, one that used embedded hyperlinks to make the novel’s vast thicket of references and allusions, patterns and connections all available to the reader at a click.

An interesting story to be sure – a genius scholar turned unemployed pigeon whisperer – but no mystery until the next two paragraphs:

So was Kidd one of Joyce’s prophesied professors, made so busy by the puzzles and enigmas that he was driven to literal madness? It seemed impossible to say, because not long after that newspaper article was published, Kidd simply vanished. Over the last 10 years, I would occasionally pick up the telephone, trying to scratch out some other ending to the story. I harbored this idea, a fantasy really, that John Kidd had abandoned the perfect “Ulysses” to become the perfect Joycean — so consumed by the infinite interpretations of the book that he departed this grid of understanding.

I started by contacting all the homeless shelters in Brookline. Then I wrote all of Kidd’s old colleagues on the faculty at Boston University, working my way through the directory. “I’d heard that he died,” wrote John Matthews, a Faulkner scholar, “and I suspect that actually is true. … Kidd was a public eccentric in town — the whole ‘talking to the squirrels’ deal. A sad ending.” James Winn, a Dryden man, now retired, wrote that he had “heard rumor of his death, but nothing substantive.” And, if you scour the very bottom of the internet, the last tiny mentions in stray comment sections all speak of a miserable death.

So off we go on a reading adventure, re-launched with a flashback that traces Kidd’s Joyce obsession – to produce the perfect text of “Ulysses” – through his disappearance, followed by Hitt’s search for him.

Wanted by every reader? The answer to the question “Dead or Alive?”

That answer comes to the reader about two/thirds of the way down the narrative. The author receives a clue that the eccentric scholar may be in Brazil. He hits dead ends and then this:

Still, on a Sunday afternoon, I typed out a simple note to the address she passed on to me. I wrote about when we first corresponded, back in the days of textual triumphalism, and I casually mentioned a possible trip to Rio. I hit send.

First thing, Monday morning: “I remember you very well. … When do you plan to be in Rio?” Carnival was coming soon, so I jumped on a plane.

What follows to the end is a profile of the 65-year-old scholar as he looks and works today, no longer working on Joyce, but obsessed with another epic novel written by a Brazilian author. 

Now, finally, my complaint. Remember that I noted that readers discover the fate of the missing scholar about two/thirds the way down the text? Good enough, we don’t need no stinkin’ appearance of Rosebud at the very end.

But halfway down the narrative sits a photograph of an eccentric looking man with flowing white hair.  With this cutline: “John Kidd, very much alive, in his apartment in Rio de Janeiro. Credit Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times.”

Very much alive? VERY MUCH ALIVE??? On my phone, and then when I re-read the piece on my desk-top computer, there it was, a photograph and cutline that gave the mystery away. This is not just stepping on the writer’s narrative, dear reader, it is pushing an ACME safe off a high cliff and crushing it.

I am sure that a justification for this unwanted intrusion is that the main photograph at the top of the story – a wonderful photo, by the way – shows the lost scholar in a setting that captures his eccentric affect as well as his obsessive work ethic.  But the cutline, wisely, says only:

John Kidd. Credit Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times.

We don’t know who he is yet, or why we are reading about him, or whether the photo is taken of a man currently dead or alive.

The New York Times and many other publications have done this before: inserted a photograph too early in the package, giving away important narrative elements that have been saved for the end. You have a great story here, and some fabulous photography. What was needed was a loving marriage, not a shotgun wedding.   

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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