“Like a silver-tongued Margaret Mead, Sager slips into foreign societies almost unnoticed and lives among the natives, chronicling his observations in riveting long-form narratives that recall a less tragic, less self-involved Hunter S. Thompson and a more relatable Tom Wolfe.”
“Sager has made a career of finding the unexpected story and telling it with empathy and narrative skill—a talent that’s on display throughout this eclectic and consistently arresting collection.”
“Entertaining and fascinating. It draws the reader into these lives; at the end of the book, you will find yourself changed in some way… You will remember these men that you read about long after putting this book to rest.” FIVE STARS.
MWSA’s Founder’s Award for 2008
–Military Writers Society of America
“Because Sager is such a charismatic observer, skilled interviewer and pyrotechnic stylist, his magazine stories are haunting, memorable. Book publishers, fortunately, have recognized the universality of Sager’s stories, placing them conveniently between book covers.”
His self-effacing style evokes George Orwell’s famous dictum that good writing should be as transparent as a pane of glass…The long opening scene in “Kobe Bryant Doesn’t Want Your Love” is a gorgeously observed vision of Bryant taking a shot at the hoop and worth the price of the book. No camera could show as much as Sager does as Bryant sinks a single foul shot. I’d submit the scene as Exhibit A for why, in an age of video, writing still matters.
–San Diego CityBeat
“Good profile writers make connections that others miss, uncovering truths about not just their subjects but about all of us. And Sager is a good one.”
–San Diego Union-Tribune
“Wounded Warriors is a sampler of the best of American magazine writing over the past 25 years, even if the stories all come from a single author.”
“Mike Sager has a new, excellent essay collection. His gripping, wonderfully written pieces examine an enormous range of people, from Marines recovering from traumatic brain injuries at Camp Lejeune to Kobe Bryant to heroin addicts… As usual, Mike doesn’t shy away from his subject, so be prepared for some serious shit.”
–The Book Blog, Esquire.com
“Sager writes with a keen eye, grit, and insight. This is a compelling book that is guaranteed to both shock and haunt long after the final page has been read.”
“A craftsman of superior talent…Sager is at his best in this stunning collection. “
–Augusta Metro Spirit
“Sager looks into the lives of some of society’s walking wounded and sees their humanity, their accomplishments, and their everyday battle to survive…He dissects his subjects with surgical skill, serving up juicy splices of lives lived in the trenches.”
“This collection of pieces from Mike Sager is just brilliant—brave, written with soul and beauty, and unflinching in the depiction of a real America that needs to be revealed. Bravo to Sager for being one of the few writers left willing to do it.”
–Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights and A Prayer for the City
“Sager is a master at identifying points of tension, getting people to reveal themselves, and getting out of the way. He shapes his pieces carefully and selects details wisely…Wounded Warriors is poignant and unflinching, a collection of stories that have too long gone untold.”
–Magill Book Reviews
Mike Sager, writer-at-large for Esquire, and formerly a writer for GQ and Rolling Stone, is the Switzerland of reporters. No matter how heartbreaking, provocative or shocking the subject matter, Mr. Neutral coolly watches and writes. And the 11 pieces here require an even hand, as they deal largely with extremes.
Sager tells us about one of the world’s smartest men (by IQ, at least); one of the world’s fattest men; one of its greatest basketball players (Kobe Bryant); one of its many 10-bag-a-day heroin users. The wounded warriors of the title story are maimed and brain-injured Iraq veterans arriving home at a new re-entry facility run by the Marines. One warrior, Sager tells us, still has shrapnel working through his skin; when he turns over at night, it snags the sheets.
The most powerful story in this collection tells of inner-city teens in Philadelphia who raise and fight pit bulls. I read the piece three times in amazement—and I never, ever, want to read it again.
–Charles McNair, Paste
“Sager has written a gripping account of how these Marines are coping with their combat-altered lives. An experienced interviewer, he lets the Marines’ stories speak for themselves…Powerful stuff.”
The Broken Boys Club
Mike Sager Intimately Knows The Men He Writes About–He’s Just Like Them
Write what you know–the writer’s adage. Some people dispute this advice because it suggests that writers play it safe and recycle worn material, but the axiom is rooted in the idea that the only way to get at the nuances and telling paradoxes of a subject is to be intimately familiar with them.
Mike Sager, an Esquire writer at large who has never been accused of playing anything safe, tells his own story again and again in tandem with the stories of sundry subjects in his nonfiction collection Wounded Warriors: Those for Whom the War Never Ends (DaCapo Press). And the surprise is not that the material feels anything but worn, it’s that the story of a stoic man revealing other stoic men is not terse and belligerent, but expansive and dignified and vulnerable.
Personally and professionally, Sager challenges the age-old maternal admonition to line up, follow the rules, and avoid drugs because otherwise you’ll never amount to anything. And even as he himself wonders whether he has amounted to anything, he writes like he amounts to the best voice in the genre Walt Harrington calls “intimate journalism”: “Everyone seems to have a kind of psychic slash mark bifurcating their lives. Waitress slash sculptor. Bartender slash musician. It’s like the whole world is on hold, phone cradled to ear, Muzak playing.”
He’s a detail-picking savant: “Ronald K. Hoeflin is a mild man with graying hair who wears his watch on a string around his neck.” And he uses verbs like “vogue,” as in “He vogues his loose wrist.”
But here’s the proof that Sager is sublime. Somehow you won’t be at all surprised to learn that the above lines are referring to hipsters in New York’s East Village, a man with an IQ of 164, and a gay Puerto Rican drug dealer. He’s that good. His words are worth a thousand pictures.
Oh, and here’s Sager immersed in an L.A. gang about which he is writing: “Yogi, Lil’ Sleeper, Panther, and a white guy named Mike, your reporter, were taking turns crouching behind a wall, doing blasts, taking hits of crack.”
Sager’s life is a mess. His demons aren’t cute, cool, superficial, or for your benefit. And the mingling of his and other men’s brokenness, conveyed in prose that aches with their disappointment, is the raw subject of this book. The title story is about seriously injured Iraq war vets recovering at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Sergeant Durgala describes their situation this way:
Lance Corporal Robert J. Wild, or “Wildman,” is a 22-year-old Brat Pitt look-alike. “Before, I was really fun,” he says. He had hobbies and studied carpentry. He even built a 2,000-square-foot house for a foster family, which made him feel really good because he had been a foster kid.
Then he joined the Marines, went to Iraq, and got thrown head-first into a wall by a rocket-propelled grenade. “The main problem,” he says, “is my frontal lobe. It’s not functioning.”
Today, Wildman’s affect is flat and his short-term memory is shot. “It makes you feel like you’re stupid,” he says. “People don’t understand what your problem is. . . . So all they do is judge you.”
Over a pre-dawn cigarette, Wildman states matter-of-factly that therapy doesn’t seem to be helping; he’s pretty sure he’s getting worse. “I don’t know what to say,” Sager writes. “I put my hand on his shoulder and squeeze, and then I pat his back a few times–hard, manly pats, like you’d do with a big friendly dog.”
Wildman gently refuses Sager’s awkward gesture: “‘It’s cool, bro,’” he says, “‘don’t worry about it. It’s a normal thing for me.’”
You can’t talk about men interrupted in America without talking about men of color, and Sager tackles Al Sharpton among many others. Sharpton speaks with a voice reminiscent of the battle-weary but determined vets. “‘To a white mind,’ says Sharpton, ‘it’s tangible wins and losses that count in the world. . . . To a black mind, I’m successful ’cause I’m still here. I’m a survivor. I carry on.’”
It’s the last story–the one in which Sager has the least access to his alter-ego subject and is therefore most self-revelatory–that lies at the heart of this book. “Hunting Marlon Brando” is about just that: Sager’s quest to find and interview the reclusive actor. Whether Sager gets his interview becomes immaterial, although it certainly wasn’t to Sager at the time. This story is about the quest, about a man–quixotic and in search of a redemption that will never materialize–trying. “The measure of a man,” he writes, “is what he does in a crisis, how he acts when things don’t go as envisioned. All you can do is forge ahead.”
And Brando is the perfect white whale. First, he’d become really fat. Second, he invented the ideal man as we understand him today: handsome, flawed, uncivilized, but still somehow heroic. Sager quoting Harper’s magazine:
That’s the truth Sager reveals via himself and his cast of deviants: With due respect to mothers everywhere, the problem with breaking the rules, deliberately or inadvertently, is not that you won’t amount to anything–it’s that whether you do or whether you don’t, the world will tell you what’s broken is you, not the rules. And sometimes you’ll believe them–and that’s when you break. Wounded Warriors welcomes us to the Broken Boys Club, and reminds us that we’re in very good company.
–Heather Harris, Baltimore CityPaper
‘Wounded Warriors’: Dispatches from the front lines of life
“Wounded Warriors,” the title of Mike Sager’s third collection of magazine stories, makes it sound like a book about soldiers, but that’s only partly true. It’s about warriors in a broader sense.
Basketball superstar Kobe Bryant is at war with his own limits. Charlie Van Dyke, who weighs more than 600 pounds, is at war with what people think of him. Activist Al Sharpton is at war with— well, take your pick.
They all come alive in surprising ways in Sager’s hands. Good profile writers make connections that others miss, uncovering truths about not just their subjects but about all of us. And Sager is a good one.
Here he is on Van Dyke: “Charlie Van Dyke is a fat man in a low-fat world. Once upon a time, fat meant jolly, godly, prosperous – think Buddha, Venus, a Roman senator, a Medieval friar, Reuben’s women. Today, in our health-obsessed culture, fat is a symbol of shame – a sign of weakness and sloth and lack of discipline, an antisocial act.”
Here he is on Bryant: “He sees his work as his art, his calling. Like Jason Bourne and James Bond, two of his cinematic heroes, Kobe sees himself as an uber-practitioner: a modern warrior able to solve any problem, able to train his way into dominance.”
Sager, who lives in La Jolla, has been writing magazine pieces (Esquire, Rolling Stone, GQ) for 25 years. This book features 11 stories that he describes in the foreword as “particularly dear to me,” stories “that have helped to shape me as a journalist and as a man.”
Included is the first one he ever wrote, in 1983, on Vietnam vets who moved to Thailand after the war and stayed, and it includes one from last December, the title story, about Marines “irretrievably broken” by the war on terror. Both benefit from the long hours Sager spends with his subjects, watching and listening. They get comfortable with him, and open up, and he comes away with insights not possible through the hit-and-run journalism so widely practiced these days, especially on television.
Some of the stories are harrowing. In “A Boy and His Dog in Hell,” Sager goes to the slums of Philadelphia, where boys trade (or steal) pit bulls and make them fight, sometimes to the death. He captures the savagery in frightening detail (“She locks Diablito just behind the head. There is much growling and squealing. There is blood.”) But he doesn’t revel in it.
What lingers is the sadness, how the boys don’t seem to mind that they have no future. “This is life as they know it,” he writes. “It’s the only one they have.”
In “Generation H,” he hangs out in New York with a heroin addict, who becomes a window into the world where dope has become fashionable: “the fuel behind the music, the route to the sunken cheeks of the waifish model, the chemical prop in films and clubs, the self-administered antidote to diminished expectations and sensory overload in an era of ennui – 180 channels and nothing on, nothing new anyway, and nothing to look forward to.”
The heroin piece also has a remarkable description of what it’s like to be high on the drug, an integral part of understanding its lure, but something usually missing in stories, for obvious reasons. “Heroin is who I am,” the addict says at one point, and you don’t doubt it for a second.
Happily, there are lighter pieces here, too. “The Smartest Man in America” is about people with super-high IQs who have a hard time fitting in. One works as a nightclub bouncer for $6,000 a year. Another is writing a philosophy book that he knows is already too long to be published – 1 million words and counting.
They’re lost, and it’s always somebody else’s fault. Sager doesn’t pass judgment on them, although it’s possible to detect a smile behind the inclusion of quotes like this one, from one of the geniuses: “I’d love to clone myself, I really would. I would know how to raise me to reach my full potential.”
The final story, from 1987, is about Sager’s futile and funny attempt to interview Marlon Brando. He goes to Tahiti (tough assignment!) and then to L.A., and even though we never meet the actor, we learn a lot about him, and about celebrity and our growing obsession with it.
All in all, a fine collection, but there’s one bothersome aspect. In the foreword, Sager explains that all the stories “have been renovated, refined, re-edited, and, in some cases, subjected to healthy cuts.” But he doesn’t tell us why, or what was gained (or lost) in the process, and we’re left to wonder how true they still are to their time and place. Reviewed by John Wilkens
—San Diego Union-Tribune
Gritty ‘Warriors’ profiles world of the wounded
Mike Sager quit law school for a nowhere night job at the Washington Post. Eleven months later, Sager had climbed the ladder at the Post to staff writer, promoted by the metro editor at the time, one Bob Woodward.
Apparently, America’s best journalist is also a great talent scout. Woodward has never written as compellingly as Sager does.
That’s just one of many good reasons to read Sager’s new book, “Wounded Warriors.” The writing is crisp and clear in every one of the book’s 11 chapters, each a reworked story previously published in one of America’s best writers’ magazines, from Rolling Stone to Esquire to GQ.
In fact, Wounded Warriors is a sampler of the best of American magazine writing over the past 25 years, even if the stories all come from a single author.
The secret to Sager’s storytelling is the use of vivid scenes that drop readers into a North Philadelphia alley where 13-year-old boys fight pit bulls to death, or into a Thai bar full of Vietnam veterans who prefer living in cheap, loose Southeast Asia, or into the size-15EEEE sneakers of a 650-pound man.
Sager’s range is prodigious, but his focus never wanders. He is sighted squarely on the wounds he’s found in each of his subjects.
Those wounds can be literal, like those suffered by recovering soldiers in the Wounded Warrior Regiment of the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Or they may have been inflicted from years of being different in a society that hammers the uneven nail, like the man with the IQ of 195.
Sager looks at his “assortment of winners and losers and cautionary tales” with crystal-clear realism, a style that includes language or facts that may be a little too real for some readers. For example, nearly half of the stories fleetingly refer to the effects of war wounds, drug use or other problems on male sexuality. Sager doesn’t leave any question unanswered; he is giving us the whole story.
In some scenes, the scars appear still pink and fresh and agonizing. In the Wounded Warrior barracks, one soldier works a limp arm through a sleeve. Another takes a prescription drug to block nightmares. A third struggles to get the half of his brain that still works to remember the name of … that guy.
In others, it’s clear the really deep, causal wounds have scarred over — no father at home, genetic aberration, economic oblivion — but too often, the old wounds contribute to new, self-inflicted wounds.
Sager gets so close to his subjects that readers may feel like a rush-hour commuter rubbernecking at a wreck — maybe you should avert your eyes, but then again maybe you shouldn’t, because truth is being revealed. The throbbing of these wounds is real, and we should know, we need to know, what these men and women feel and experience so we can empathize and act.
Despite the gritty details, Sager has a deft, easy, readable touch that never becomes heavy-handed. He clearly cares for these people, and in his hands, so does the reader.
–Tad Walch, Deseret News
“A downbeat but engrossing volume, Wounded Warriors chronicles the marginalized, forgotten and despised in cool, transparent prose that eschews judgment and melodrama…A clear-eyed, upsetting volume…Rewarding reading”
As a young Washington Post reporter sent on a Veterans Day assignment, Mike Sager was laughing about the idea of interviewing old men wearing war medals — until he actually heard their stories.
“When you talk to them, it’s like going to war was the single most outstanding moment in their entire life, and nothing since has been that great or terrible,” he said.
Stories from such veterans now form the title piece of a new collection of “milestone” articles from Sager, a Pikesville native who now writes for Esquire magazine and lives in La Jolla, Calif.
Although the crux of “Wounded Warriors: Those for Whom the War Never Ends,” released in October by Da Capo Press, is the story of a group of injured Marines living in the Wounded Warrior Barracks at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the other 10 stories also explore the lives of marginalized men who are “wounded” in various ways.
“Everybody’s got their battle. Everybody’s got their cross to bear,” Sager said.
He has published articles from his 25-year career in magazine journalism in two other collections, “Scary Monsters and Super Freaks: Stories of Sex, Drugs, Rock ’n’ Roll, and Murder” and “Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival, and Multiple Personality,” but the articles in his new book “were the stories that I was holding onto.”
Raised by parents who were used to keeping a low profile as two of the few Jews in the towns of Fredericksburg and Culpeper, Va., Sager, now 52, could relate to outsiders from an early age while growing up in Pikesville.
“My family did not feel that comfortable in Pikesville, which was a very ‘out’ society of Jews,” he said. “What it created in me was a sense of otherness. I never belonged, really.”
While attending Pikesville Middle School, Sager became close with students from “the other side of Old Court Road” and started going downtown and exploring how other people lived.
“Cultural safaris became part of my teenage milieu,” he said.
Those safaris never ended for Sager, who will also be inducted into Pikesville High School’s Alumni Hall of Fame on Nov. 14.
The account of his most recent adventure, into the Wounded Warriors Barracks full of permanently disabled or drug-addicted soldiers, carries a message, he said.
“This is the best anti-war story you could write. War is not healthy for anyone, and these people prove it,” he said. “If you went into this (barracks), you would never again let anyone go to war.”
The Military Writers Society of America was moved enough by Sager’s book to give it the organization’s Founder’s Award for 2008.
Bill McDonald, founder of the society, wrote in his review of the book that he was initially skeptical of Sager’s comparison between veterans and celebrity “outsiders” like Marlon Brando and Al Sharpton but then found himself immersed in the book.
“Call it empathy, or just a compassionate response to have seen and become aware of another man’s pain and suffering, but you will remember these men that you read about long after putting this book to rest,” McDonald wrote.
Mike Sager will be signing “Wounded Warriors” at Barnes & Noble, 1819 Reisterstown Road, in Pikesville, at 7 p.m. Nov. 13.
–Bryna Zumer, Owings Mills Times
Journalist Mike Sager is a craftsman of superior talent
AUGUSTA, GA – A veteran voice in the world of journalism, Mike Sager returns in perfect form with his fourth book, “Wounded Warriors: Those for Whom the War Never Ends.” Showing off his talent for finding the heart of intense environments, this latest collection is a bevy of experience wrapped around life’s most intricate curiosities.
Probably most renowned for his form of literary anthropology, Mike Sager spends his life in the worlds of others hoping to cast light upon diverse forms of existence. Having published works in Rolling Stone Magazine, The Washington Post, Esquire, and numerous other publications, Sager has developed a reputation as a craftsman of superior talent in the journalism field, which has led him to lecture at many of the most prestigious schools in America. The author of two previous collections and a novel, Sager enters the lives of his subjects like the best of qualitative social scientists, and finds meaning in the uncommon existence.
The search for meaning lies at the heart of this latest collection. From the opening piece, which provides the name of the collection, Sager seeks a depth of understanding in the experience of soldiers injured in combat. Weaving his own narrative descriptions around the self-told stories of the soldiers themselves, Sager provides a stark glance at the harsh realities of war that often never find room on the sensationalist front papers or the ratings driven nightly news. In this regard, he brings readers a glimpse of the personal side of warfare, and within his discussions with soldiers – one of which just happens to be from Augusta, Georgia – we find a vision of humanity all too often lacking in the average news report.
Sager is at his best in this stunning collection, and as a result, intrigue and promise can be found in any of the selections offered. Some highlights include a fascinating behind the scenes look into the life of Kobe Bryant. Along with following one of professional sports’ most intriguing characters, Sager offers first hand observations concerning heroin usage, a genius who happens to pay the bills as a bouncer, dog-fighting, and Mexican gangs. Throughout the selections, he paints a portrait focused on gritty realism and understanding.
Furthermore, a splendid gift of written magic and craft can be found in the selection concerning the daily routine of Reverend Sharpton. Within the preparations for protest rallies, the planning involved in getting arrested, and especially Sharpton’s self-dialogue concerning his obligations versus being arrested for the cause create of a vivid picture of the underbelly of the contemporary social world.
Finally, the last selections offer an introverted version of the norm. With an interesting twist of style, Sager spends the last selection in search of himself while searching for an elusive actor.
Throughout the work, Sager displays an uncanny ability to craft poignant stories of vivid realism, and in so doing, he offers a display of the diversity to be found within contemporary life. An award winning, best selling, author, Mike Sager is a breath of fresh air portraying the vivid menagerie that is the modern existence. J. Edward Sumerau, Augusta GA Metro Spirit
– J. Edward Sumerau, Augusta GA Metro Spirit
When I got my hands on a copy of author Mike Sager’s book Wounded Warriors: Those for Whom the War Never Ends, I was not expecting powerful stories of such diversity. The treatment he gives the book and how he writes about such seemly different people somehow all perfectly fit into the author’s theme that ‘In one way or another, every one of us is a wounded warrior. All of us are engaged in wars, large and small, that may last forever.’
Being a Vietnam veteran and a recipient of a Purple Heart for wounds received in combat, I was somewhat skeptical and a little offended by Mike Sager’s comparisons between actual wounded soldiers and people like Kobe Bryant, Al Sharpton or Marlon Brando. So, I began reading his book looking to find fault with his metaphorical thread of comparisons. However, I found myself totally engrossed in how he tied it all together emotionally and even spiritually at some base invisible level.
Sager starts right off with huge emotional chapter dealing with wounded veterans from our present day wars in the Middle East. He compassionately, and without personal prejudices, manages to gently and psychologically dissect what he sees and senses. He brings his points of view into the story of these men without showing anything more then their own behaviors and words. The raw pains and the emotions are all there. It is a powerful tale of a group of marines baring their souls to the author on a military base in a special unit set aside for wounded warriors. For some people this chapter will open their eyes and their hearts to what these men are going through. If this chapter does not move you then nothing will.
I found my own personal interest peaking when Sager profiles a group of old Vietnam veterans living in Thailand. It seems that for these men the wars within have never really emotionally ended. They live out their lives as expatriates; away from home. Between the booze, the freewheeling sex, and macho encounters with fellow veterans and others, the author picks up on the loneliness and sadness that haunts these men still. These men are in many ways damaged goods. Their souls are still in pain and at war.
I found the stories about Al Sharpton and other non-combatants to be a huge surprise. The author enables the reader to see through all the public hype about these men. He gives us portraits of real human beings with flesh and blood emotional issues; and yes, with their own inner wars!
This book may add some new insights to your thinking, but the bottom-line is that it is entertaining and fascinating. It draws the reader into these lives; at the end of the book, you will find yourself changed in some way. Call it empathy, or just a compassionate response to have seen and become aware of another man’s pain and suffering; but you will remember these men that you read about long after putting this book to rest.
I fully recommend this book. I give it the Military Writer’s Society of America’s highest book rating of FIVE STARS. I am also proud to honor it with this year’s MWSA’s Founder’s Award for 2008!
–Bill McDonald, founder and past President, MWSA
“Veteran journalist Sager (Revenge of the Donut Boys) presents an amalgam of celebrity portraits and cautionary tales in a collection as addictive as the drugs and violence that fuel much of the author’s reporting. The title story goes inside a pioneering program at Camp Lejeune, N.C., that helps wounded Marines—many suffering from traumatic brain injuries—return to society. In other pieces, Sager extends his war metaphor in portraits of the famous, the anonymous and the tragic: the “misunderstood” Kobe Bryant, Rev. Al Sharpton (“one of the most reviled men in America”) and nightclub bouncer and “smartest man in America,” Chris Langan. Some of the most compelling, and tragic, portraits are drawn from the darkest corners of American society: Generation H—“children of the nineties”—heroin addicts in New York City and teenage gang members in Venice, Calif. The author turns the spotlight on himself in “Hunting Marlon Brando,” a highly personal and quixotic odyssey to track down the elusive actor. Sager has made a career of finding the unexpected story and telling it with empathy and narrative skill—a talent that’s on display throughout this eclectic and consistently arresting collection.”
Inner Battle Rages On
As a writer of magazine features, Mike Sager never ceases to amaze. He finds access into the private lives of individuals good and bad, rich and poor, famous and nearly anonymous.
Having gained access, Sager hangs out with them, with the goal of understanding them at least as well as they understand themselves. Then he publishes their failures and successes for strangers to read, in magazines such as Esquire, GQ and Rolling Stone.
Because Sager is such a charismatic observer, skilled interviewer and pyrotechnic stylist, his magazine stories are haunting, memorable. Book publishers, fortunately, have recognized the universality of Sager’s stories, placing them conveniently between book covers.
“Wounded Warriors” is the third collection of Sager’s journalism, in the wake of “Scary Monsters and Super Freaks: Stories of Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n Roll and Murder” plus “Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality.”
In the new collection, the “war” of the book’s title does refer to U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the most part, though, Sager is using the word “war” generically. Each person is fighting a personal war, or two — or more — and not always on a foreign battlefield where the deaths can be tallied in the thousands.
The 11 stories in “Wounded Warriors” immerse readers inside the worlds of drug addicts (those from good stations in life, and lower stations); the high-functioning obese (Charlie Van Dyke, a 650-pound fat man in a low- fat world); teenagers in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of Philadelphia who stage pit bull fights to the death; those with high IQs who sometimes find their braininess a curse instead of a blessing.
There are also stories of Los Angeles street gang members whose thuggish dominance is threatened by the infiltration of crack cocaine; American Vietnam War veterans who tried to establish new lives in Thailand rather than return to the United States; and celebrities — specifically in this collection professional basketball player Kobe Bryant, political activist Al Sharpton and actor Marlon Brando.
Sager has reread and revised the stories, making them unique to the book, and thus making the book something more than a warmed-over personal anthology.
No egotistical master of his craft, Sager realizes that not everybody can be explained fully. In his affecting foreword, he shares his attempt to understand his father, a successful professional as a medical doctor, but somebody who rarely spoke about his feelings. While in college, his curiosity developing nicely, budding writer Sager sent a letter to his father: “Who are you? Are you ever afraid? How did you become a man?”
His father replied, “Do not try to dissect me, it cannot be done.”
Thought Sager, “dissect” was an interesting word choice for a man who had majored in biology.” Sager never made another attempt to enter the depths of his father’s soul.
Fortunately, Sager rarely gives up with other sources and subjects. He has come to comprehend that “in one way or another, every one of us is a wounded warrior. All of us are engaged in wars, large and small, that may never end.”
For Sharpton, it is a war against racism. For Bryant and Brando, it is a war against known personal limits as they dominate their professional realms. For addicts, it is the less noble war “against the overwhelmingly potent call of the next hit of your drug of choice.”
Maybe not noble, but real. That’s the strength of Sager the journalist: allowing readers to experience reality without leaving an armchair.
–Steve Weinberg, Denver Post
THE FOLLIES OF MEN
Mike Sagerwrites about people we idealize, some we ignore and those we fear. He hangs out with people in roach-ridden motels and in gated enclaves and persuades his subjects to reveal themselves. His reports, especially those from way under the mainstream cultural radar, create a mosaic of American lives that we’ve looked away from.
CampLejeune, first appeared there. Esquire assigns him to interview celebrities, but only two celebrity pieces, portraits of Kobe Bryant and Al Sharpton, are included. Most of the stories are about people much farther down the food chain: a man who weighs 650 pounds, a 13-year old who steals pit bulls and fights them, a middle-class heroin addict, a man with an IQ of 195 who works as a bar bouncer and members of a once-formidable Chicano gang in Venice whose lives have been undone by crack. You might not have known that you wanted to learn about them, but give Sager an opening:
No justice, no peace!
No justice, no peace!
Oh no! Here he comes again, churning through Wall Street at high noon like a big black tug—shoulders back, arms pumping, hair luffing, flesh roiling and slushing beneath the silky nylon of his teal-blue jogging suit, his trademark, size XXL. Al Sharpton, Al Charlatan, the Reverend Soundbite, the Minister of Hate—a tribal chief leading a militant horde straight up the asphalt seam of America’s silk stocking, hollering for justice, threatening the peace.
His cinematic writing whets your curiosity, and the metaphor of the asphalt seam ofAmerica’s silk stocking resonates into associations you didn’t see coming. In a few sentences, Sager’s established himself as a reliable guide, and you’ll follow him to see what he sees.
Flamboyant when the subject matter requires it, his writing’s even more impressive when he’s understated. “Wounded Warriors” is a long piece in the book, and our guide keeps a low profile. Mostly, the marines speak for themselves in extended quotes. By the end you’ve traveled a long, painful journey with the Devil Dogs of Maxwell Barracks and come to a new understanding of the war’s toll on its survivors. Sager’s barely in the picture, but even though it’s the marines doing the talking, you realize that it’s Sager who’s brought you here. His self-effacing style evokes George Orwell’s famous dictum that good writing should be as transparent as a pane of glass.
The long opening scene in “Kobe Bryant Doesn’t Want Your Love” is a gorgeously observed vision of Bryant taking a shot at the hoop and worth the price of the book. No camera could show as much as Sager does as Bryant sinks a single foul shot. I’d submit the scene as Exhibit A for why, in an age of video, writing still matters.
In a conversation with Sager, he said he sees the people he writes about as his guides. They’ve allowed him into their world, and he owes them his best effort to get them right. Not everything he writes is flattering, but all of it is meticulously observed, accurate and respectful.
–Barbara Davenport, San Diego CityBeat
Hey, How Do You Do “Literary Anthropology” For Esquire?
‘Too many times, you read about people existing in the lands of others, and they’ve got an attitude. I keep my attitude out of it’
“Literary anthropology” is what Esquire writer Mike Sager calls his brand of in-depth reporting about hard-to-penetrate subcultures. During his 30-year career, he’s lived with a crack gang, brain-damaged Marines, a 625-pound man and teenage pit bull fighters in Philly, experiences all chronicled in his latest collection, Wounded Warriors. His career reads like a J-school student’s dirtiest fantasy: He spends weeks or months getting inside the minds of his subjects, then retires to the ocean-view home he shares with his wife and son near San Diego, where he spins hours of tape and pages of notes into award-winning narrative journalism that’s been optioned into films like Boogie Nights and Wonderland. mediabistro.com caught up with Sager to reflect on what’s he’s learned from three decades in the biz.
Where did the term “literary anthropology” come from?
A woman once told me, “You’re like the male Margaret Mead.” Prior to Mead, anthropology was this statistical, analytical, scientific thing, but what she did — living among the natives and judging them non-ethnocentrically — that’s what I do. Over time, it’s become “literary anthropology.” Part of it is the nonuse of first person. Too many times, you read about people existing in the lands of others, and they’ve got an attitude. I keep my attitude out of it.
What’s your rule for acknowledging your presence in a story versus keeping yourself out?
I try to leave myself out always. There’s enough first person in the atmosphere right now. If you read my gang story, it’s obvious that I smoke crack. I don’t have to tell you that I did it. As writers, we all feel special, and we want to be heard. But if you’re going to be the precocious child that stands up and sings at the family gathering, you better be good, and you better not make it so about yourself that you’re obnoxious. Unless there’s a reason for you to be in the story, it’s just showing off: ‘Look at my byline, look at me.’ Humility is very important. I don’t feel humble inside — I’d rather read my own stuff than anyone else’s, and I think all writers are like that. Every word in my stories I have chosen, brilliantly (laughs). But I don’t want it to read like I think that.
“A lot of journalists are more interested in the sound of their questions than the sound of the answers. I don’t really have any questions. I pull up a log at the campfire, and I fit in.”
You’ve profiled people notorious for being inaccessible, from gang members to movie stars. How do you get your subjects to let you in?
Slowly. Observe the rules of dating. They have the same objective: you want to get into the person’s bedroom in the end, because that’s where the person lives. Like your mother would say, leave them wanting more after the first date. Another thing about dating: “I think you’re a great person because I’ve done all the talking.” That’s how most people are. Most people don’t even listen to anyone else. In the middle of a conversation, you say something to spark someone’s imagination, and they’re not listening to the rest of what you’re saying; they’re preparing their own soliloquy. That’s why I love the tape recorder, because it listens for me. A lot of journalists are these really smart people who, like me, are a little insecure in the outside world, so they go back to acting like the smartest kid in the class. They’re more interested in the sound of their questions than the sound of the answers. I don’t really have any questions. I pull up a log at the campfire, and I fit in. If somebody needs me to clean a dish, I’ll clean the dishes. I’ll pick something up. I’m just there.
How much time goes into a typical Mike Sager story?
I’d say four months, but I don’t know if that’s right. Sometimes I have to go six days or 13 days, but then when I’m home, I never leave the house. I go to all my son’s games. One time, I was doing a story about a high school kid, so I went to high school in Orange County for four months. I would come home on Thursday night, on Friday I’d coach basketball practice, on Saturday we’d have our game, and then Saturday night I’d go back up to O.C. and go on date night with the kid and his girlfriend. I try to work it out as best I can. I’ve never been gone more than three weeks since Miles was born.
How long did you live with the crack gang?
Six weeks. Two three-week sessions. I had to get out about midway, take a break.
How much money goes into one of your stories?
A lot more than people would think, who think journalism should be done for free, that they can’t pay the writers. It’s laughable what people pay for writing. I met an editor who sincerely wanted me to write a story for 50 cents a word. I started out writing for a dollar a word in 1983. In what other profession are they paying less today than they paid in 1983? It makes no sense. Esquire pays for what it costs to do the story. If I’m a writer filling up all those pages, it should be worth something. Those fuckin’ people in business who don’t think content matters, they’re so wrong.
Your type of career seems to be disappearing in today’s media landscape. What do you tell your students about the marketplace for this kind of writing?
It doesn’t look good right now, but if you look through the history of a planet, there’s probably never been a time when human beings thought everything was wonderful. Probably, there’s always been a sense that the sky is falling. When I grew up, we thought we were going to be blown to smithereens by nuclear weapons. The fact is, the odds are against you. Probably, it’s as hard to be a writer as an NBA player. If you don’t have to write, go get an MBA or go be a boring lawyer. But if you have to do it — like Gene Kelly sings in that old movie, “Gotta dance!” — try it for a few years and see what happens. But you’ve got to have a clear vision of yourself: If you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it. Some people want to be on American Idol, and they can’t sing. If it ain’t happening for you, it’s nobody else’s fault.
Will there even be magazines in 20 or 50 years?
There’ll be content; it just might not be on paper. People want to read. In the shakeup of the media, magazines aren’t doing too badly. They’ve lost advertising, but they haven’t lost readers, because people like the services they provide. It doesn’t bother your generation to read a long story online; somebody’s gotta write all that shit. I don’t think content’s going anywhere, and I don’t think thinking’s going anywhere.
“It doesn’t matter who you write about, because it becomes universal. If you write about a 90-year-old properly, it’s not going to be every single person, but you’re going to get it.”
What are some of the biggest mistakes you see writers and/or editors making today?
There’s a little too much blogging and not enough reporting. Everybody wants to be a columnist, and nobody wants to be a reporter anymore. As a human being, you need to get out of your house, even if you don’t like to, which I don’t, and go see how other people live. You can’t sit in your room and get smart, no matter how many books you read or Web sites you visit. As to the trends, I always considered myself out in left field. I do my thing outside the hubbub. When you’re in New York socializing with all the people, you think what everyone else thinks. Even the smartest people in New York all think the same thing, then there are three or four subjects that we have unique opinions about.
What was your best or worst celebrity interview?
There’s a famous run-in I had with David Duchovny. It’s the last year of The X-Files, and Duchovny keeps blowing me off. I’m at the set, trying to talk to him — you know, a good interview is someone who talks, but some people are determined to get out of the question. Finally I said, “Listen, you don’t want to do this. I don’t want to interview you, because I’m not in the business of pulling teeth.” I put my hands up and turned to walk away, and as I turn, he’s like, “No, no, no.” And he goes, “I don’t even know why I’m doing this interview. I have nothing to sell. I kind of have this reputation for being smart. I know I’m not that smart, and I don’t really have that much to say, and you’re just going to find that out. So why would I do this?” That was the most honest minute and a half of tape. He gave me this amazing little gem of knowledge. The other thing about my anthropology is that it doesn’t matter who you write about, because it becomes universal. If you write about a 90-year-old properly, it’s not going to be every single person, but you’re going to get it.
You basically invented Esquire‘s “What I’ve Learned” page; after 30 years, what have you learned?
I’m like a found-art assemblage of pieces of all these people whose life views I’ve had to stop and consider and live in, and suspend my own prejudices. I called up Roseanne [Barr] once, and she came to the phone after like 20 minutes of Muzak and said, apropos of nothing, “All hate is just fear. All fear is insecurity.” It’s so true; that is the secret of life. That blond girl that acts like a bitch is not a bitch; she’s just insecure. That country that hates you, they hate you because of what you have or what they don’t have. That religion that hates you, they hate you because you’re not them, and if you’re right, how could they be right? They’re insecure.
Five tips for aspiring literary anthropologists:*
1. Apply the laws of dating. If something drops, pick it up. Give good foreplay, however limited the time. You talk first — explain, inform, charm, introduce tape recorder. Undress them slowly, then ask questions.
2. You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
3. Respect your source, no matter how lowlife. You have no story without him or her. Employ the notion that an article is “our story” — something that requires the source’s participation, something the source has an investment in.
4. When writing, work behind the scenes. Never let them see you sweat.
5. Don’t be one of those reporters who ask questions because they love the sound of their own voice. The answer is the thing that’s important. It’s not about you (until the typing starts). Don’t put yourself in stories unless absolutely necessary. The byline should be enough.
–Maya Kroth, MediaBistro.com