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The Great Zucchini. A Hit at Children's Birthday Parties.--

At James Lileks' suggestion, I just read an amazing journalistic article on The Great Zucchini, a quirky performer at children's birthday parties in the Washington, DC, area. Lileks says:

This piece should be taught in J-schools. This is Pulitizerian. Stick with it, and you'll see what I mean.

I agree. Indeed, it's better than most of the Pulitzer-prize winning pieces I've read.

The article by Gene Weingarten was published in the Sunday "Washington Post." I was blown away by Weingarten's writing. In some strange way, it reminded me of the feelings that I had on reading some of the great journalism in the 1970s "Rolling Stone": Joe Eszterhas on Evel Knievel, Tom Wolfe writing the articles that later became "The Right Stuff," and Hunter Thompson on the 1972 campaign. The topic may not be grand, and Weingarten's style is very different from Eszterhas's, Wolfe's, or Thompson's, but Weingarten has a sympathetic, light touch that Eszterhas and Thompson never possessed.

W&M 3L:
I read this a few days ago at the behest of a friend, and it brought me to tears. The follow-up LiveOnline chat with Weingarten is good too. Eric Knaus makes an appearance, and updates us on his life since the story (some good news).

link
1.30.2006 11:45pm
OrinKerr:
Wow, that is an incredible piece. Thanks for the link, Jim -- I hadn't seen that.
1.31.2006 12:07am
Medis:
My thanks as well to both Lindgren and W&M 3L--I probably wouldn't have decided to read something like that given a superficial glance, but it was indeed well worth it.
1.31.2006 12:28am
Laura Heymann (mail):
Darn -- and here I was thinking Weingarten fans could keep him our secret. His weekly humor pieces for the Post are generally amusing, but he really shines in his long-form writing. (Here's another example.) His weekly WP chats (which, of course, I read only off the clock) are smart, honest, and funny, although replete with in-jokes for the faithful.
1.31.2006 12:32am
James Lindgren (mail):
Thanks, Orin, Medis, and W&M3L.

Frankly, I wish I could write like that.

Jim
1.31.2006 12:33am
Medis:
Me too, Jim. I think one of the really compelling things about this story--including within its scope the writer as well as the subject--is the possible connection between genius and dysfunction. And I find it very interesting that I still envy people like that.
1.31.2006 12:41am
geoff manne (mail):
A great story. It reminds me of a song I know, by Robbie Fulks. The song, Godfrey, is on an alt-country children's music compilation put out by the great Bloodshot Records. Here are the lyrics (but, of course, it's better heard than read):

Godfrey
by Robbie Fulks

Who's the feller by the jungle gym?
All the children in town love him.
He can pull a pigeon or a root beer float
Out from his camel's hair overcoat.
He's kinda cranky and he coughs real loud,
But that's no matter to the pint-sized crowd.
He's their hero because they know
He just loves to do his magic show!

(And what's his name?)
Godfrey, the sickly unemployed amateur children's magician,
He's got wonders up his sleeve.
Godfrey, the sickly unemployed amateur children's magician,
If you'll only make-believe.

He's got pigeons in his trouser seat.
Is that a trick or luncheon meat?
Just say no to that root bear float!
It's made of stuff from inside his throat.
He can eat food outta garbage cans.
Wiggle his scars in a cha-cha dance.
Cut a bug in half turn his eyelids out.
Tell you things you shouldn't know about.

(And what's his name?)
Godfrey, the sickly unemployed amateur children's magician,
He's got tricks you haven't seen.
Godfrey, the sickly unemployed amateur children's magician,
Never made it look routine.

One sad day when the kids came 'round
Godfrey wasn't at the old playground.
Searched behind every bench and tree,
Where could the cut-rate Kreskin be?
Then in homeroom the very next day
Came this message on the school P.A.:

[Begin spoken word]
Excuse me, students and faculty. Couple of announcements here this morning. Godfrey, the sickly unemployed amateur magician, will no longer be available at recess. The authorities have led me to believe that he's been incarcerated up in Belleville for a number of months. So he'll no longer be by the jungle gym. From now on we shouldn't mention him.
[End spoken word]

But if you know the secret of make-believe
Godfrey never really has to leave.
He's wherever little kids may be,
Though he's in a strait jacket technically.
But as long as rodents roam across the land,
As long as children have a mucus gland,
As long as body fluids gurgle and flow,
Anyone can do a magic show!

(What's his name?)
Godfrey, the sickly unemployed amateur children's magician,
He's got wonders up his sleeves!
Godfrey, the sickly unemployed amateur children's magician,
If you'll only make believe!
1.31.2006 1:15am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
In some strange way, it reminded me of the feelings that I had on reading some of the great journalism in the 1970s "Rolling Stone": Joe Eszterhas on Evel Knievel, Tom Wolfe writing the articles that later became "The Right Stuff," and Hunter Thompson on the 1972 campaign.

Funny--in some strange way, it reminded me of the feelings that I had on rereading Stephen Glass' New Republic articles after his exposure as a fabricator. Is this detail true? Or did he massage it a bit, just make the story more engaging? Or did he make it up out of whole cloth? Did it bother him at all when he did? Should it bother me?

Who knows--maybe every detail in Weingarten's story is true. But then, why is he writing as if it were short fiction?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: as long as journalists are admired primarily for producing stories that are as engaging as fiction, the line between journalism and fiction will continue to fade.
1.31.2006 1:22am
Defending the Indefensible:
I think one of the really compelling things about this story--including within its scope the writer as well as the subject--is the possible connection between genius and dysfunction. And I find it very interesting that I still envy people like that.

Genius requires a childlike curiousity about the world, and it is hard to be simultaneously a child and hold onto adult responsibilities. It is no surprise that such a connection exists. Sadly, many who do learn to cope cease to be capable of sustaining their earlier capacity.
1.31.2006 1:58am
Apodaca:
Dan Simon suggests that Weingarten might be a fabricator. Anyone familiar with Gene's past work (and his history at the Post) knows what a bald libel this is. Gene has to be one of the most brutally honest writers at the Post, although that doesn't stop him from being cleverly sly with his disclosures to interview subjects. (For what must be the best "I'm a reporter working on a story" disclosure of all time, see this October 2000 story about his dealings with a mail-order diploma mill. Best line: "Also, if I took nuclear chemistry I would have got a B. I am not making up these grades I would have got.")
1.31.2006 7:45am
Bob Bobstein (mail):
Unbelievable story. Thanks, W&M 3L and Jim Lindgren.
1.31.2006 8:25am
AppSocRes (mail):
Powerful stuff. I'm passing it along to people I think will appreciate it. Thank you.
1.31.2006 8:58am
Ted F (www):
Gene's piece where he visits a massage parlor in downtown DC is also a classic. He's severely underrated.
1.31.2006 9:39am
Cold Warrior:
Agreed. Interesting story; even more interesting presentation.

Lindgren's comment about it reminding him of the great pieces of late 60s/early 70s journalism (Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe) provides some insight. Weingarten, the reporter and commenter, is always present in the story, but in a quite non-self-conscious way. Not really "gonzo," because the piece never descends into being about Weingarten. As a refugee from suburban life, I was also quite taken with the sharp social commentary of the neglected first part of the story.

I caught the link from Lileks. Thanks to him for pointing it out. By the way, I find it interesting that Lileks, who has let just a little hint of show-offiness creep into his blogging, is big enough to recognize that Weingarten pulled off something Lileks hasn't (can't?). Lileks is a superbly entertaining essayist and cultural commenter, but he's never really done classic journalism.

Again, if you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so right away. And while you're at it, take a look at the post-article online chat transcript with Weingarten, in which an unexpected guest shows up.

[By the way, the Glass comment really isn't that far off in terms of style. But there's a big difference: the Weingarten story is so open, so confirmable, that it would be hard to imagine that anything but the tiniest details (artistic license?) were added by the writer.]
1.31.2006 10:21am
Apodaca:
The post-article chat to which Cold Warrior refers is here.
1.31.2006 10:40am
Doc:
That was a good article (I also clicked through from Lileks). Reminds me of some of the best stuff in New Yorker too. Long enough to give great detail and short enough to keep you going through it.
1.31.2006 10:45am
smc78 (mail):
As a regular reader of Gene's Below the Beltway humor column in the back of the Post Magazine (on Sundays) and his weekly chats (Tuesday's with Moron aka Chatalogical Humor) on the post web site, I have to say this article was the best I've seen from him.

I disagree with him on most issues politically 100 percent, but he is a fantastic writer and quite funny. He actually discovered Dave Barry while an editor at the Miami Herald as well as David Von Drehle and Achenbloch. I really recommend you go read his stuff. A lot of his stuff is fantastically funny. He's a Washington treasure or national novelty gag item, like rubber dog poo, according to his chat intro.
1.31.2006 11:18am
Jim Rhoads (mail):
Empathetic, compelling social commentary which is informative, caring and without being preachy is seldom found in today's popular press.

I thought the article was superb. The comments linked by W&M3L reinforced my impression that Mr. Weingarten is a most sensitive and talented observer of the human condition.
1.31.2006 12:09pm
Chart:
I thought the writing was slightly overwrought and affected, and it seems a strange subject for a profile. The most interesting and useful bits concern the rapport with kids and the parenting culture in DC. Other than that, I'd save the Pulitzer for crisper writing and weightier subjects.
1.31.2006 1:48pm
Justice Fuller:
Weightier than human psychology?
1.31.2006 1:53pm
Apodaca:
Chart opines:
The most interesting and useful bits concern the rapport with kids and the parenting culture in DC.
This is the equivalent of saying that Vertigo is about a police detective's fear of heights.
1.31.2006 2:31pm
Delurking (mail):
He gets paid after the show in the opening anecdote. Later in the story it says he insists on being paid up front, when the party is booked? Was this not immediately noticed by anyone else?
1.31.2006 2:52pm
Chart:
Apodoca might be right -- maybe I was too hasty. I was turned off by the writing style, and I'm often reluctant to agree with those who are ready to give any piece of writing the Pulitzer on a first read. I will grant that the article is an interesting study of a complex individual. I question, however, this particular profile of this particular individual. Maybe that's unfair -- after all, why shoul a popular children's entertainer merit less attention than, say, David Addington or Stephen Colbert? But I won't yet drop my original misgivings about the piece -- affected writing, and, from my perspective, a somewhat arbitrary subject. But I'm happy to change my mind.
1.31.2006 3:02pm
Jim Rhoads (mail):
Chart:

You are a tough audience. I sure am glad you aren't/weren't my editor.
1.31.2006 7:00pm
DRJ (mail):

He gets paid after the show in the opening anecdote. Later in the story it says he insists on being paid up front, when the party is booked? Was this not immediately noticed by anyone else?

I think the article states that there were times when the Great Zucchini sought out advance payment in order to pay gambling debts. The impression I got was that he did not normally require advance payment except when his debts were past-due and (how should I say this?) in urgent need of payment.

As I also recall, the discrepancy in payment arrangements is one of the things that caused the author to look more closely into the Great Zucchini's background - as opposed to thinking he was merely eccentric.
2.1.2006 12:25am