Plays With Expectations
Jake Silverstein mixes fact and fiction, funny and bleak, to dramatize one journalist's coming-of-age
"This is a good detail," Jake Silverstein leans in, motioning at my tape recorder. He tells me that the restaurant we're sitting at, the Eastside taqueria Mi Madre's, is where he ate breakfast every day and wrote big chunks of his new book, Nothing Happened and Then It Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction, back when he was studying fiction and poetry at the University of Texas' Michener Center for Writers (where we were classmates). He's right – it is a good detail – but I can't help but smile at the reporterly assist. He's here to promote his new book, but Silverstein, the editor of Texas Monthly, just can't turn off his journalistic instincts.
That said, he skates wide of another journalism trope –stick to the facts –in his new collection, which inventively blends truth and not-truth to form a comic portrait of an untethered twentysomething – the "character" Jake Silverstein –who sets out on a journey to become a journalist. In chapters that alternate between capital-letter Fact (long-form reportage) and Fiction (short stories), the author describes a Quixote-like quest, equal parts idealism and folly,that sends him digging through West Texas for Ambrose Bierce's grave (fact), into the swamplands of Louisiana on the hunt for Jean Lafitte's buried treasure (fiction), and backseat to an annual road race through Mexico that regularly descends into bloodbath (fact). Throughout, the would-be journalist's expectations are forever upended, his attempts at a scoop ever thwarted, or, as he so eloquently puts it when the grand opening of the first-ever McDonald's in Guadalajara elicits none of the hue and cry he had anticipated: "I had come for a fight and found a jamboree."
I ask Silverstein what his colleagues in journalism will make of a character who is so naive, even inept, at his first swings at landing a story.
"Part of the experience that the character in this book is constantly having is being out of step and a little bit confused by what he's seeing and maybe getting things a little bit wrong. That's not a complete picture of who I am. I don't always get everything wrong," Silverstein laughs. "That's something everyone feels, like they're having trouble making sense of the world, and that experience is one that I chose to dramatize or highlight in this character. And it feels very true to me.
"One of the things about the character in the book that is intriguing to me is how he goes down these rabbit holes and kind of gets distracted by one thing when he's supposed to be paying attention to something else. And he doesn't do that great of a job of sticking to the point and finding what he set out to find. In the context of the book, that's almost the most heroic quality, in a weird way. But that's not the heroic quality that I bring to the magazine, you know? 'Here we will get completely misdirected this month and wind up in a rabbit hole over here!'
"There are huge differences between who I am at the magazine and who I am in this book, but I think there are also some deep similarities too, in both what I do at the magazine and what this book is about – essentially, the fundamental curiosity about the world that is fuel not just for journalism but for writing, any good writing."
He is adamant in referring throughout to the Jake of the book as a character, one who is "like a Dashiell Hammett character, but he inhabits an S.J. Perelman world." As the editor of a nationally renowned magazine (he succeeded Evan Smith in the fall of 2008), Silverstein makes sure I know that the nonfiction has all been vigorously fact-checked and that the fiction pieces – even though they carry over from the nonfiction the same characters and places – are entirely the product of his imagination. But that doesn't mean he can't have some fun teasing readers' assumptions.
"I'm hoping people will think the fiction had to have happened and the nonfiction couldn't have happened."
I admit that when I read the book I started putting air quotes around the divider between fact and fiction, not entirely convinced the line was as fixed as he claims it to be.
"There are some real elements or bases for the fictional chapters, but partly I feel like this is what the novel has always fundamentally been – this kind of mongrel or creole form. It has some nonfiction in it and some fiction in it, and it's all sort of jumbled together," he says.
"But the sort of tongue-in-cheek quality of it is that it's officially separating the fact and the fiction. ... What's in the book itself is not so different from what's in all novels. Maybe what's different is the scrupulous separation. It's like those kids who make sure that their foods don't touch on their plate, you know?"
The book was inspired in part by Silverstein's immersion in the chronicles written by Spanish conquistadores. Dizzied by the foreign landscape and the intense isolation, the travelers sent home dispatches from the New World that couldn't always be trusted.
"It's hard today to imagine, in the connected world we live in, what it must have felt like to get in a boat and sail across the ocean and explore a land that you'd never seen a photograph of and feel like you might get killed perhaps and might not ever make it home. ... And to have that experience, which would be so unreal and strange, and then try to write down factually what you're going through, a chronicle that you would then send home to the king, who himself would have no way of fact-checking or knowing whether or not anything you'd written were true or not. Those chronicles really interested me, and I had those in mind. Certainly the kind of wandering, nightmare quality was in my mind."
In his book's preface, Silverstein elaborates on that nightmare quality and how the stage was set for "the curtain between the real and the imaginary to lift":
"Alone on the plain, a man tells himself stories about who he is that draw from both domains. Fact and fabrication are opposites only where there is a society to verify or deny; for a man in isolation –and who is not? –the two share a greater taxonomy."
Like those conquistadores, the Jake in the book is often hapless and bewildered. But he's also free to follow every lead, to drop everything in pursuit of the next hunt –for stolen gold, a dead author's lost grave, the perfect story that will make his career as a journalist. In contrast, I delicately tick off the developments in the now 34-year-old Silverstein's life: marriage, homeownership, two young sons (one is 3, the other just 10 weeks), and a work week that far exceeds the traditional 9-to-5.
"I'm a fucking grownup," he laughs. "That's what you're trying to say."
He thinks for a minute on how to articulate how he feels about the twentysomething wanderer of the book in contrast to the solid anchoring, not to mention fullness,of his life today.
"To a certain extent, the subject of this book is solitude – that kind of hunt for the self and work and how to find yourself in the work that everybody goes through when they're in that stage of their life, young and setting out.
"The movement of all the chapters I would say is from the outside to the inside, or from innocence to some kind of experience. Or from hope to despair, in some cases. But in almost every case, the movement of the main character starts off in that kind of wide openness that you have when you're primarily alone and young and sorting things out. And that mode is not really as available to me now. But I still think that's a good mode to write in, because as a writer, I like to approach situations that I don't know much about and find my way through them as best I can.
"The balancing of the kind of searching lifestyle of this character with the demands of grownup life is not easy. But I like to think that's what a lifelong career as a writer is, is finding some way to create the room in your life to be searching all the time."
Jake Silverstein will read at BookPeople (603 N. Lamar) on Wednesday, April 21, at 7pm. A portion of the sales of the book that night will go to the Austin Bat Cave, a nonprofit tutoring and writing center for kids. Silverstein will also read at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center (508 W. Center St., Kyle, Texas) on Friday, April 30, and will moderate a panel discussion at the New Fiction Confab on April 17 (see "Hip Lit" for more details).