“I’m wary of praise on book jackets, but in this case I swear it’s true: Nobody alive today is writing better long magazine pieces than Mike Sager. If you want to find out what the gold standard looks like, or if you just want to read a breathtaking portrait of our motley nation, buy this book.”
–Kurt Andersen, author of Heyday and Turn of the Century, host of Studio 360 and founding editor of Spy Magazine.
“Sager writes in convincingly novelistic detail and supple pinpoint prose. Rating: A-”
“Sager plays Virgil in the Modern American Inferno…Compelling and stylish magazine journalism, rich in novelistic detail.”
“Like his journalistic precursors Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, Sager writes frenetic, off-kilter pop-sociological profiles of Americans in all their vulgarity and vitality. But compared with the new journalists, who celebrated the subjectivity of the narrator, Sager is a relatively self-effacing observer. He writes with flair, but only in the service of an omnivorous curiosity. The articles collected here—published between 1985 and 2006, mostly in Esquire magazine, where Sager is a writer at large—the famous, almost famous and not famous all get the same Sager treatment. He is teasingly affectionate (Tom Araya of the heavy-metal band Slayer speaks like “a mixture of Valley doper, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and mambo king”) and meticulous (he’s the kind of reporter who notes his subject’s shoe size). He defies expectations in pieces that lesser writers would play for satire or sensationalism: Newark teenagers who steal cars for fun, a group of professional beach volleyball players who go on strike, a Frederick’s of Hollywood model who wants to lock in a husband while she’s still young. Sager’s celebrity interviews—Roseanne Barr describing her multiple personality disorder, Ice Cube pondering race and fame—are sympathetic but not fawning. The book’s closing selection, in which Sager talks to other people named Mike Sager (a police captain, a meteorologist, a politician), is not, as it might seem, narcissistic. His conclusion ought to be read instead as a Whitmanesque ode to teeming humanity’s mystical unity: ‘Call us all Mike Sager.’”
–The New York Times Book Review
“Mike Sager is the best magazine journalist at work these days.”
–Patrick Beach, Austin-American Statesman
“Sager takes everyday life and makes it compulsively readable.”
–Kia Momtazi, San Diego CityBeat
“Revenge of the Donut Boys is weird and wonderful. Don’t miss it.”
–William Greider, author of The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy, national affairs correspondent for The Nation.
“With Mike Sager, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.”
–Barry Siegel, Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, Director of Literary Journalism at University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming A Claim of Privilege.
“These are savvy, deftly written highlights from a talented career.”
“Mike Sager is one of the best nonfiction writers going right now.”
–Baltimore City Paper
“The book…provides incisive looks into a range of subjects, from music to crime to the swinger lifestyle, with the deft precision that more than twenty years of experience provides.”
“This collection of stories — reprints of articles for Esquire, Rolling Stone and other magazines — is a case study for anyone interested in learning the art of literary journalism. But more importantly, it’s a masterfully curated collection of that most exquisite of all curios, the human personality. Grade: A-.”
“Esquire contributor Mike Sager writes with a novelist’s voice about elementary-school car thieves, Slayer fans, struggling actors and swingers in this collection of nonfiction pieces. It’s journalism you can’t get by Googling. Show it to the kids like you did the 8-track tapes. On bookstore shelves now.”
–Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Take a world-class journalist, add in the eye of a seasoned anthropologist and the style of an award-winning novelist, and you begin to get an idea of Mike Sager’s talent. These are stories about America told with insight, honesty, compassion and incredible detail.”
–Henry Schuster, author, Hunting Eric Rudolph, producer, 60 Minutes.
“All of you who appreciate great writing should go get it.”
–Lang Whitaker, Slam Online
“Mike Sager is an original. His work resounds with the voice of a writer who pursues truth doggedly into society’s strangest corners and remains unafraid to show what he sees.”
–Neil Henry, professor, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, author, Pearl’s Secret and American Carnival.
“Sager Plays Virgil in the modern American Inferno.
“William Carlos Williams wrote “the pure products of America go crazy;” journalist Sager (Esquire, Rolling Stone, GQ) collects an astonishing range of profiles that support the poet’s assertion. Quite literally, in some cases: The opening piece on comedienne Roseanne focuses on her oft-proclaimed personality disorder, to alternately amusing and chilling effect. Sager also vividly limns the inner lives (in a manner strongly reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s landmark works of “The New Journalism”) of neighbors trapped in a horrific California wildfire; professional beautiful woman Brooke Burke; a man trapped for days in a wrecked van, plumbing the depths of the survival instinct; young and nihilistic Newark teens and pre-teens who have made a sport of stealing cars to wreck them at high speeds (the “Donut Boys” of the title); an aristocratic Renaissance man who finds his skills best suited to butlering; and a host of other American men named Sager, tracked down on a cross-country drive. A few of the articles, such as the heartbreakingly emphatic portrait of an accomplished and vital 92-year-old man living out his last days in a bland retirement community, make indelible impressions. The lighter fare, including mordant looks at the world of professional volleyball players and sagging swingers adrift in Florida, is funny and engaging. A profile of erstwhile rapper and current family-film star Ice Cube bristles with the excitement of the then-burgeoning hip-hop community, and is a surprising reminder of what a fierce and focused talent Cube once was—though Sager’s earnest explanations of the basic tenets of rap culture are, at this late date, unintentionally funny.
“Compelling and stylish magazine journalism, rich in novelistic detail. A reminder of what can make sifting through all of those glossy advertisements and subscription cards worthwhile.”
Mike Sager is an august purveyor of New Journalism, giving frontline reports on everything from the rapper Ice Cube to expat Vietnam vets in Thailand to suburban-Maryland Tupperware saleswomen. His new book, Revenge of the Donut Boys, collects highlights of more than 20 years worth of Sager’s articles for many leading magazines, mostly Esquire, for which he is a writer at large.
Here is Sager hanging out with Roseanne and her multiple personalities; playing high-stakes gin with the football legend Mike Ditka; observing adolescent Newark car thieves (the titular “Donut Boys”); even traveling the United States on a quest to meet as many other Mike Sagers as possible. Nearly all of the ethnographic pieces in Revenge of the Donut Boys encourage you to think that most people are venal megalomaniacs, most societies decaying and lawless, and everyone’s engaged in wanton self-delusion and self-destruction.
Sager may capture our current cultural mood, but his stylized, aggressive, laconic writing suggests that America’s funk dates at least to the Reagan era, when Sager rose to prominence: In his piece on the insouciant dot-com billionaire Mark Cuban, Sager refers to Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko and the Tom Cruise star-maker Risky Business in the same paragraph. The DeLoreans are gone, but it’s still 1987, right?
–Adam Sobsey, Independent Weekly
“Sometimes when you read literary journalism you think, “But how could the writer know his subject ‘blinked twice in rapid succession’? He wasn’t there. That doesn’t happen with Mike Sager’s work. In these pieces, mostly from Esquire, Sager writes in convincingly novelistic detail and supple pinpoint prose about the inner lives of a high school junior, a 92-year-old man, Slayer fans, swingers, struggling actors, Mike Ditka and wildfire victims. The title piece is one of his best, the short true story of some car-stealing Newark kids. “They’ll rustle up a car,” Sager writes, “to drive to elementary school, in lieu of bus fare. Rating: A-“
“Esquire writer-at-large Sager (Scary Monsters and Super Freaks) demonstrates a lively curiosity about other people’s lives, hopes, fears and disappointments in these 17 previously published articles. Sager’s nimble celebrity profiles include Emmy winner Roseanne Barr, who attributes her multiple-personality disorder to an abusive mother, but more affecting are the everyday struggles of “almost famous” actors Steve Bean and Lynn Clark, who stay sane in the face of numerous professional rejections. Sager’s best pieces showcase people battling nature: aging hippie and sandal-maker Lee Risler cuts off his own arm to free himself from a wrecked van and wears his stump as a badge of honor. Despite some forgetfulness and frailty, 92-year-old widower Glenn Brown Sanberg has a girlfriend with Alzheimer’s and writes a weekly newspaper column. In a whimsical yet satisfying search for other Mike Sagers the author finds instant kinship with a police captain, a politician and a preacher. These are savvy, deftly written highlights from a talented career.”
It doesn’t take special skill as a writer to find humor in a gathering of swingers at a Florida hotel. All those body parts, contortions and sex toys are bound to provoke laughs. But Mike Sager doesn’t settle for either the excitement or the ridiculousness of recreational sex with multiple partners. Instead, he digs until he uncovers the pathos behind the individual decisions to participate. Everyone is looking for something, and orgasm is only the start. That kind of multi-layered storytelling is what makes Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality so absorbing. Sager is expert in catching glimpses of the humanity in all of his subjects. He clearly relishes characters who at first glance seem to defy the possibility of sympathy: juvenile car thieves and notoriously offensive Rap stars. But he also has room for the apparently mundane — for example, 39 people across the country named Mike Sager. Introducing a group of marines, he finds “the varied styles of their expectorations somehow befitting, a metaphor for each personality.” This collection of stories — reprints of articles for Esquire, Rolling Stone and other magazines — is a case study for anyone interested in learning the art of literary journalism. But more importantly, it’s a masterfully curated collection of that most exquisite of all curios, the human personality. Grade: A-
Mike Sager is one of the best nonfiction writers going right now. His first book, Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, was a compilation of magazine pieces that took the reader along on a break-in with the Animal Liberation Front, explored the Heaven’s Gate cult suicide, and hung out with Rick James, bitch. Now a writer at large for Esquire, Sager is a standard bearer for the type of new journalism that made that magazine famous, and there’s too damn little of that around nowadays. Tonight Sager is reading and signing his new book, Revenge of the Donut Boys, which collects his more recent work. From the rich and famous to the people you’ve never heard of, Sager makes them come alive in a way that few writers can.
–Chris Landers, Baltimore City Paper
When long-form journalist and de facto pop anthropologist Mike Sager writes about Mike Sager, he’ll usually mention how he ditched
–Amanda Hess, Washington City Paper
On the Road with Mike Sager– Publisher’s Weekly
Mike Sager has what some journalists might call a dream job, and others a nightmare. Writing for magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone, he immerses himself in the lives of celebrities like Rosanne Barr and Kobe Bryant, often actually living with them for months at a time, and comes back with pieces that are equally hilarious and touching. PW caught up with him on tour for his second collection of magazine pieces, Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality, and got his take on making journalism out of nothing, taking abuse for the sake of a scoop and writing lovingly about pimples.
These are magazine pieces, written, perhaps more than other kinds of writing, with a general interest audience in mind. Do you find that they translate well to reading aloud?
I discovered that I kind of write out loud: when I write I mumble. I found I really enjoyed it. I write in 1500 word chunks a lot of times, so that’s kind of what I read. I’ve figured out belatedly that when you’re a famous writer people come to your readings because they already know you. I think that with my readings they are attracted by hearing about a magazine writer and that world and the celebrities. Then they end up surprised by what they hear, and I end up gaining a reader or two along the way.
The piece on Rosanne Barr’s Multiple Personality Disorder is absolutely riveting. Do you read it much?
I really love reading that one. I sometimes start with that. Everybody you meet they always tell you they have a name for their autobiography, and mine would be The Glam Life of a Journalist, because I’m always in some shitty place doing some shitty thing; that was the ultimate example. I loved her and she’s so brilliant, but she’s really just abusive. Not only that but celebrities famously screw you around for time, or they’ve got dental surgery or something. She brought the idea for the piece up to me out of the blue, then she said she wanted to write about it, then she had approach avoidance for months, so we just screwed around for months and months. I would go up there and spend some time, and she didn’t want to trot out the personalities, and I even talked to her shrink. Really, it was a hard won story, which really made it great. The access was great.
Is it rare for a celebrity to give you that kind of access?
That’s the whole problem—I just spent five days with Kobe Bryant, and it was really about five or six hours. I was not allowed to be alone in the car with him, I was not ever alone with him. I got a glimpse of a wonderful story. Nobody really understands this guy. Everyone hates him, and he doesn’t get it, because he’s a machine. All he wants to do is be the best basketball player ever. I related to him on the craft level. He is an amazing craftsman. He’s trying to get Nike to design socks that stick in the shoes so he won’t lose one one-hundredth of a second when he makes a cut. It’s fascinating stuff, but he won’t give it to me. I got glimpses of it I have a certain style and technique of working, which is immersion, and these people won’t let you immerse.
Nonetheless, you keep pursuing this kind of story.
I spent a long time chasing after crime stores, and that sort of thing culminated with I get to a story and there’d be producers with checkbooks and CNN truck rivets in the grass in front of the house, and there was no way I was going to work my charm as this guy who comes in quietly and has honor and gets the true story. I couldn’t compete with that, so I went and did what was always first love, anthropology, where there’s no other reporter within ten miles and no other reporter would even see a story there. Everything doesn’t have to be negative to be true: you write about the model, and you write about her pimple, but you do it in a loving way.
Your pieces are so lively and social; they seem suited for performance, though your medium is paper—it must be refreshing to hear an audience’s response.
My stories run under the radar. Almost universally, the reaction to my stories is silence. Writing for magazines, I get no feedback whatsoever. I live in San Diego, where I’m sure a lot of people read, but I don’t know them. I sit in my office, I type, type, type all day long. It’s great getting actual feedback—when you’re reading and people are listening, there’s a palpable presence to their listening, and you can just feel them lean in or lean away. It’s very affirming.
–Craig Morgan Teicher
CityRead: Tall tales
This week in City Read: Revenge of the Donut Boys—True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality, by Mike Sager.
I enjoy reading Mike Sager because he likes to write about the same stuff I do, only with more celebrities. (Full disclosure: Mike Sager lives in
and I am his part-part-time assistant). Currently a writer-at-large for Esquire and a former contributor to GQ and Rolling Stone, Sager specializes in people. Young, old, loony, powerful, beautiful and—when he’s at his best—ordinary.
Donut Boys is Sager’s second collection of magazine stories. (His first, Scary Monsters and Super Freaks—Stories of Sex, Drugs, Rock n’ Roll, and Murder came out in 2003.) This one includes goodies like “The Multitude of Roseanne,” in which Sager interviews Roseanne Barr and her seven alternate personalities; “Deviates in Love,” which follows a couple through their first weekend at a swingers’ retreat; and “Fact: Five Out of Five Kids Who Kill Love Slayer,” in which, essentially, Sager hangs with the band and makes a really good story out of it.
The thing he does that I really admire is take everyday life and make it compulsively readable. He does this in stories like “Fifty Grand in San Diego,” a profile of an ex-marine turned stay-at-home dad; “The Man of Tomorrow Goes to The Prom,” a profile of an Orange County high school senior; and “Old,” a profile of a 92-year-old man named Glenn Sanberg who lives in Sun City, Ariz. It’s no secret: Sager’s a disciple of “new journalism,” a not-so-new style of literary nonfiction whose grandaddies include dudes like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and even Truman Capote. This style appeals to writers (myself included) because it allows for colorful, descriptive, cinematic writing. It appeals to readers because it’s as engaging and entertaining as fiction, with the added kick of being a true storyp.
But there’s the catch. For some people, highly-stylized nonfiction sometimes veers too far off-course moving away from documentation towards invention. “He opens his eyes, blinking against the light,” Sager writes in “Old.”
“Through the cracks in the partially opened vertical blinds, he can see the sky, a wan blue, vectored with contrails, overhung with wispy clouds. He thinks of the cold, clear sky of a northern
winter. He thinks of Joan digging in the garden, a smudge of mud on her nose. Dad sitting in President Eisenhower’s chair in the White House, a proud and grave expression on his face. Tom bagging his first buck with the Savage .303. Mickey reeling a fat pike on a sparkling mountain lake. Little Eleanor, limp in her bed, scarlet fever. Joan falling against a door. Lucy falling against the curb. Ann Black, front row center at the Greek Week songfest, legs crossed, dark eyes beaming. Jeffy’s warm, tiny hand inside of his.”
But how does Sager know what the man is thinking?! some of my colleagues demand to know, and it’s a valid question. How can he know exactly what someone else saw, thought and felt at a particular moment? How can this possibly be 100 percent true?
The only way to decide is to read it yourself. Odds are, you’ll have a lot of fun doing it.
–Kia Momtazi, San Diego CityBeat
Here Be Dragons:
For three decades, Mike Sager has explored the uncharted land next door.
It’s almost entirely reasonable to assume that Mike Sager is making it all up. Everything the Esquire writer-at-large puts to paper — or at least everything that graces the pages of that magazine, or GQ, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post or any of the other publications his work has gotten into — reads like fiction.
That’s because first, it channels the adage about the relative strangeness of truth. And second, it seems unlikely, or just impossible, that Sager can capture such details as “a trio of indigenous rabbits nibbles at the foliage bordering the lawn, leaving behind turds the size of Milk Duds,” or “In his mind, he saw a picture of a hospital burn ward. And then he thought about the Glock. It was loaded. One in the chamber, like always. It was on the bedside table, next to the money.”
The first quote comes from a story about a 17-year-old who may or may not have found the meaning of life. The second is from a story about the deadliest forest fire in California’s history. Both come from the second collection of his stories to emerge unscathed from a 30-year career, “Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality.” The stories have to be true; the title’s too long for fiction. Sager, 51, practices what he calls an “anthropological style of journalism,” immersing himself in the culture of the savages next door, whether they be swingers or drug dealers or the pre-teen, car-stealing Donut Boys. Or 39 other Mike Sagers. “The boringest fucking place in the world can be fascinating,” he says. So he does what any good explorer does: He goes to the unknown parts of the map, where the dragons be. “I never know what the story is,” he says. “I’m gonna go live with a crack gang, I’m gonna live with a fat guy.”
Nowadays he lives (mostly) with his wife, Rebekah, and son, Miles, in La Jolla, Calif. His byline shows up unpredictably on Esquire stories, the “prose poems to Hilary Swank and Christina Ricci,” lyrical celebrity stuff that is much less dark than the 1989 Rolling Stone story on porn star John Holmes that went on to inspire “Boogie Nights” and “Wonderland.” He likes to be able to come home to his family on weekends. But the rest of the time he’s living in those dragon stories. He just got back from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he was working on a piece about wounded soldiers. It’s a long way from where he lives, but not too far from where he started.
Sager was born in Charlottesville, grew up in Baltimore and went to college at Emory. None of this Southern-ness registers in his voice and manner, which has the kind of late-afternoon mellow that must have come from his years in California. And none of his manner seems to point to a fascination with chasing down what Hunter S. Thompson called “the darkest possible side of wretched humanity.” Matter of fact, there’s an innocence to his writing, a genuine affection for his subjects that caused Maury Povich to accuse him of actually liking this pimp Sager was following around.
“People are afraid of what they don’t know and they defend themselves against it,” Sager says. But even his wife says he could probably find something to like about Hitler. Which is saying a lot, because Sager’s Jewish. But “to be a good journalist you have to be a good human being,” he says.
So here’s Sager, three weeks into his law degree at Emory, considering life as a writer, walking down the steps of his frat house when he realizes, “I just want to see how far I can go.” Then he’s in the uncharted territory of the Washington Post’s bowels as a copyboy, then a staff reporter, roving around the rural areas of Front Royal and Culpeper, where his family hails from, and that’s when he begins to see the culture next door as one worth considering. “I became well-known for doing stories about nothing,” he says.
And that’s 30 years. That’s a tour of duty of the major American houses of journalism, two collections (the other one, whose title, “Scary Monsters and Super Freaks: Stories of Sex, Drugs, Rock ’n’ Roll and Murder,” is also too long to be fiction) and, next year, one novel, “Deviant Behavior” (short title, fictional tale, 10 years in the making). Which is pretty good for a guy who at 20 thought there wouldn’t be “writing” by the time he was 51.
But all of it stinks of truth: It’s revelatory, often unpleasant, and you’re left feeling there’s no going back. There’s no way, for instance, to un-know that Roseanne Barr has multiple personality disorder, or that Brooke Burke, while beautiful, is really kind of silly. And these are things that forever change our perspectives of the loved ones on television. Or next door.“People are basically insecure, and all hatred is just fear and all fear is insecurity,” he says. Sager called Roseanne one day and she told him that, he says. “And I stole that shit and put it in my novel.”
–Brandon Reynolds, Style Weekly
Author of Revenge of the Donut Boys returns to Atlanta
Mike Sager’s “literary anthropology” approach to narrative journalism stands on the shoulders of Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese. Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality, a collection of his magazine articles, includes profiles of Ice Cube, Mark Cuban and the Newark, N.J., car thieves of the book’s title. The Emory University graduate (and former CL intern) will appear Thursday, Oct. 4, 4 p.m., at Emory University (White Hall, Room 207), and Friday, Oct. 5, 7 p.m., at A Cappella Books (484-C Moreland Ave. 404-681-5128).
How did you get your start at the Washington Post? I worked at night and sort of the first few months started taking everything in and then started to freelance. I would come in during the day in my three-piece plaid interview suit left over from college … then I’d go home back to Arlington and change into my T-shirt collection and jeans and come back at night and do the 7-at-night-till-3 shift. It was such a psychological battle that people were saying, “Oh, your brother was here.” … I was doing story after story. [Bob] Woodward was the editor of Metro at the time, so I was constantly up his butt and everyone else’s butt to get in there. I took a tip over the phone and just went and did it myself. And it turned out to be this Senate investigation. I guess that was finally the thing that Woodward could relate to.
At what point in your career did you think of your own identity as a writer? For so many years, it was never quite right. I mean, it was good, and people liked it. Esquire‘s really nurtured me. They’ve let me do this stuff that no one cares about, essentially. I think what I do best is this kind of anthropological literary journalism. No. 1, it has all of the elements of a novel when you tell it, but the way you go report it is like Margaret Mead. You go, sit around the campfire with the tribe, and you live with the tribe, and you keep your mouth shut and your eyes open.
One of the things you tell aspiring writers is to master technique and listen to your heart. It sounds like that heart part has played an even more prominent role in how you write now. I think I’m a big sap to a certain degree. I cry easily. I got it from my mother. I remember being in fights in school and crying really hard when I was fighting. (Laughs.) It’s so embarrassing. I guess what I think my gift originally was not with words but a sense of empathy … and that’s what underlies it all, the sense of heart. I can somehow put myself in other people’s shoes. People say it’s fly on the wall … but it’s more than that. Other people have called it method writing, and it’s kind of like that.
–David Lee Simmons, Creative Loafing
I was a Mike Sager fan before I even realized it. Throughout high school and college, magazines were my drug, and the pages of Esquire, Rolling Stone and GQ were among my major suppliers, particularly when Sager penned a profile of a celebrity, a group or an ordinary Joe.
Thumbing through his 2003 collection SCARY MONSTERS AND SUPER FREAKS: STORIES OF SEX, DRUGS, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL AND MURDER, I was astounded to learn that all these articles that gripped me the first time around shared the same byline. And now the same goes for that anthology’s little brother, REVENGE OF THE DONUT BOYS: TRUE STORIES OF LUST, FAME, SURVIVAL AND MULTIPLE PERSONALITY.
No one in journalism writes like Sager. Try they might – and admittedly, even I have – he has a gift for storytelling that can’t quite be duplicated. His non-fiction reads like fiction, finding compelling stories out of the mundane and wringing something interesting out of megawatt stars who normally bore.
Sometimes it happens by accident. Consider the book’s opener, “The Multitudes of Roseanne.” Written in 2001, it begins as a standard profile of Rosanne Barr/Arnold/Thomas/Whatever, who unsurprisingly shows herself to be demanding, bitchy and belittling. Then she casually drops a bombshell: that she has multiple personality disorder. From there, he’s trying to coax her alternate personalities to be interviewed, and when she relents, it’s fairly disturbing.
That’s an adjective that can be applied to several articles included, particularly “Deviates in Love,” a 1992 piece that follows various people who converge to Pensacola, Fla. for a swingers’ “fantasy weekend.” Sager follows both the old pros and the newcomers who descend into a few days of uninhibited, no-strings-attached sex, where couples swap spouses and others participate in full-on orgies in the hospitality suite. Behind all the fun in fornication, however, they reveal themselves as empty and damaged.
Sadness pervades 1996’s “Almost Famous,” which profiles two struggling actors in L.A. One day they’re employed and seen by millions; the next, they’re not and contemplating quitting the biz altogether. One person who has no such problem – yet – is actress/model/Burger King shill Brooke Burke, whom Sager featured in 1999’s “The Secret of a Beautiful Woman.” She shows herself as every bit the vapid, superficial girl you’ve always suspected, but how he does it makes it a highlight. (When I met Sager earlier this year in Washington, D.C., he said he has to write celebrity features the way he does because “these people don’t say anything” of interest.)
On the other side of the entertainment biz, Sager profiles rapper Ice Cube (”The World According to Amerikkka’s Most-Wanted Rapper”) in 1990, when he still a gangsta and not a teddy-bear movie star, and hangs with various members of heavy-metal band Slayer in 1992 (”Fact: Five Out of Five Kids Who Kill Love Slayer”). No matter what the subject – volleyball superstars, teenage kids, Marines, Mike Ditka – the article is always insightful, with richly flavored sentences and an eye for incredible detail.
My one beef lies with DONUT BOYS’ closer, “Mike Sager by Mike Sager,” in which he locates people all across the country with the same name and sees what their lives are like. In early 2005, I started work on a similar article on the Rod Lotts of the world when I opened the pages of Esquire to see Sager already had beaten me to the brilliant idea, dammit.
That said, I’d like to take this opportunity to tell Rod Lott, evangelism coordinator of Poplar Creek Church in Bartlett, Ill., that it wasn’t very Christian of you not to return my e-mail.
–Rod Lott, Bookgasm.com
“Magazine journalism gets a much-justified bad rap for kowtowing to celebs, pushing overpriced fashions and obsessively chronicling trips to rehab. But a few writers get it really, really right and one of them is Mike Sager, currently a writer-at-large for Esquire. “Scary Monsters and Super Freaks,” his 2003 collection, was both scary and super; “Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality” (Thunder’s Mouth, $16.95 paperback original) is much less scary and no less super. Yes, there are celebrity profiles but Sager, whom I must disclose I know a bit, is at his best here in more mundane corners of existence. He profiles an adolescent boy, a very old man, a bunch of other guys named “Mike Sager” and details “The Secret Life of a Beautiful Woman” with extraordinary verve and detail. Here he is at, of all things, a Slayer concert: “In the red smoke and chaos the demon appears, a spirit in black leather before a field of broken skulls and empty coffins, eyes gleaming, maniacal grin, hair a nimbus of floodlit hellfire.”
“Floodlit hellfire?” Folks, that’s just good writin’. These two collections make a strong case, although he’d never make it himself, that Mike Sager is the best magazine journalist at work these days. Try not to inhale it. We might have to wait before the next collection.”
–Patrick Beach, Austin-American Statesman.
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. 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.
–Bill Kohlhaase, Orange County Weekly