The Storyteller’s Storyteller

No journalist working today spins a yarn quite like TheNew Yorker’s David Grann.

Click here to listen to David Grann discuss his latest New Yorker story, on the murder of Rodrigo Rosenberg, on Slate’s Culture Gabfest.

David Grann 

Last fall, I approached a bookstore clerk and handed him a printed-out ISBN I’d received at a nearby information desk. Scanning it, he pointed me toward a table where copies of David Grann’s reporting collection The Devil and Sherlock Holmes were stacked. I’d already bought two copies upon the book’s release in March—one for myself, one for my dad—but with the holidays looming, it was time for a re-up. I planned to bestow the books upon some friends, pushily proselytizing like one of those people who, eyes ablaze, cram salvation pamphlets into pedestrians’ hands, certain that anyone who reads the words will become a convert. I carried three copies, along with two copies of Grann’s The Lost City of Z, to the cashier. Bagging my redundant haul, he didn’t raise an eyebrow. “Yeah, man,” he said, nodding. “David Grann.”

Grann, a New Yorker staff writer since 2003, has written that he’s drawn to people “who get some germ of an idea in their heads that metastasizes until it consumes them,” and that through journalism he has come to recognize his own obsessive tendencies: “When I work on stories, I tend to lose sight of everything else. I forget to pay bills or to shave. I don’t change my clothes as often as I should.” The Lost City of Z (2009) is about Percy Harrison Fawcett, a dogged and doomed turn-of-the-century explorer who hunts for the ruins of an ancient Amazonian metropolis he has no overwhelmingly persuasive reason to believe exists. When Grann, researching Fawcett’s unsolved 1925 disappearance, finds himself some 4,000 miles from home, lost and alone in the Mato Grosso—drenched with mud, ravaged by insects—he realizes that he shares more of Fawcett’s capacity for monomania than he thought.

It’s only natural, then, that Grann himself inspires a devotion in readers that can border on the obsessive. Whether in reverent tones on Twitter or in enthusiastic emails from colleagues, the word that Grann has written a new piece invariably reaches me before my New Yorker subscription does. My friends and I are not alone in our admiration. Three weeks after its publication, Grann’s most recent story, about a mysterious Guatemalan murder, remains atop The New Yorker’s “most popular” and “most emailed” lists. Last week, Grann’s 2010 investigation into the surprisingly seamy world of art-authenticity verification was nominated for a National Magazine Award. And Brad Pitt has purchased the movie rights to The Lost City of Z. TheNew Yorker’s pages are full of stellar journalists, but the appearance of Grann’s name on the table of contents has come to feel more and more like a major event.

Grann, 44, is a workhorse reporter. Discussing “Trial By Fire,” his celebrated 2009 piece on Cameron Todd Willingham—a Texas man executed on dubious arson charges after a 1991 fire killed his three sleeping daughters—Grann told an interviewer: “I spent more than six months on that story. I made many trips to Texas. I had to track down people whose addresses were unknown and who didn’t have telephones, and FOIA records on how the case had been handled.” The depth of reporting that Grann puts into a piece is evident, however, not because the page drips with his sweat, but rather because volumes of information breeze over us smoothly and inconspicuously.

As befits TheNew Yorker house style, Grann’s prose is crisp and measured, but, particularly when he is describing extremes of emotion or behavior, it can generate a quiet power. Describing the last few hours of Willingham’s life, Grann starts with a faintly Biblical use of the passive voice, catalogs the dishes in Willingham’s final meal—the gluttonousness of which communicates the condemned man’s desire both to sweeten his final moments and, however slightly, prolong them—and presents a heartbreaking deathbed admission without fanfare:

Willingham had requested a final meal, and at 4 p.m. on the seventeenth he was served it: three barbecued pork ribs, two orders of onion rings, fried okra, three beef enchiladas with cheese, and two slices of lemon cream pie. He received word that Governor Perry had refused to grant him a stay … Willingham’s mother and father began to cry. “Don’t be sad, Momma,” Willingham said. “In fifty-five minutes, I’m a free man. I’m going home to see my kids.” Earlier, he had confessed to his parents that there was one thing about the day of the fire he had lied about. He said that he had never actually crawled into the children’s room. “I just didn’t want people to think I was a coward,” he said.

When it comes to structuring pieces, though, Grann is a showman through and through, exulting in leading his readers through an ever-thickening plot with blinders on, building up our expectations in one direction, then yanking the rug out from under us—often to reveal another rug, soon to be yanked, beneath that one. As a college student, Grann had fiction-writing ambitions, and his best nonfiction stories are marvelous delivery systems of narrative pleasure. Real-life potboilers, they crackle with suspenseful developments, vivid characterizations, emotionally charged stakes, and unexpected reveals. If the endings weren’t so satisfying, you’d never want the stories to stop.

That compulsive readability begins with Grann’s choice of subjects: “If I can find the right idea, I can get out of the way and do a good story,” he’s said. Grann has delivered memorable portraits of Rickey Henderson and New York’s antiquated water-supply system, but he seems most at home telling tales of crime and intrigue. Grann has written about, among other things, a giant-squid hunter; a septuagenarian stick-up man; a postmodern novelist tried for a murder that resembles a killing described in his book; a Haitian death-squad leader turned Queens, New York, real estate agent; a fireman who forgot 9/11; and a Sherlock Holmes scholar found garroted inside his apartment, which had been locked from the inside. (Note that spoilers lie ahead.)

Grann describes his subjects, even bit players, pungently. In his 2008 piece on the serial impostor Frédéric Bourdin, the author introduces a private detective with the unlikely name of Charlie Parker:

With silver hair and a raspy voice, Parker, who was then in his late fifties, appeared to have stepped out of a dime novel. When he bought himself a bright-red Toyota convertible, he said to friends, “How ya like that for an old man?” Though Parker had always dreamed about being a P.I., he had only recently become one, having spent thirty years selling lumber and building materials.

Like Fawcett—who becomes convinced that there is a story to be found at the heart of the jungle and, on little more than blind faith, chases it tirelessly—Parker is something of a surrogate for Grann. The detective, working without a client and driven only by a hunch, digs into and eventually helps unravel Bourdin’s most elaborate deception: pretending to be the missing adolescent son of an American family, despite being 23 and French. In the Cameron Todd Willingham story, Grann finds another kindred spirit in Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright who devotes herself for several years to investigating discrepancies in the arson case against Willingham—not, initially, because she believes his professions of innocence or because of any personal connection to him or stake in his survival (the two met through a prison pen-pal program), but simply because she senses on some level that the official account of the fire doesn’t quite add up, that there’s a counter-narrative whispering out to be pieced together.

The collision of different narratives, each of them jostling messily for reification, is at the center of Grann’s most dynamic pieces, to a degree that verges on self-reflexivity: He is a storyteller drawn time and again to stories about storytelling. This takes different forms. In the Willingham piece, the state’s arson-forensics experts—whom Grann convincingly reveals to be practitioners of a folkloric pseudoscience, reciting untested “old wives’” tales, as one source puts it, handed down from their forebears—tell damning stories about “pour patterns” and “V-shape” burn marks that send Willingham to his death. (A similar struggle between intuition and scientific rigor propels “The Mark of a Masterpiece,” Grann’s 2010 art-verification story, though in that case the putative representative of science, opposed to a community of elite connoisseurs, turns out to be a huckster.) “Trial By Fire” isn’t the only story of Grann’s where competing narratives duke it out for legitimacy in a courtroom. In “True Crime” (2008), Jacek Wroblewski, a Polish homicide detective obsessed with “the coldest of cold cases” (like Gilbert and Parker, he’s something of a Grann stand-in), reads Amok, a postmodern novel by his only suspect, writer Krystian Bala, and, finding several similarities between the crime and the book’s plot, assembles a theory of Bala’s guilt based partially on Bala’s fiction. In Amok, the protagonist announces that, in the contemporary moment, “truth is being displaced by narrative” —a displacement Bala bemoans in the courtroom, Grann writes, complaining “that the prosecution was taking random incidents in his personal life and weaving them into a story that no longer resembled reality.” As a journalist, Grann is invested in the notion of truth as a stable quantity but, across his writings, the issues that animate Bala’s Derridean rants—the instability of interpretation, the contingency of meaning—clearly fascinate Grann and inform his reporting.

The deaths of Sherlock Holmes scholar Richard Lancelyn Green, in “Mysterious Circumstances” (2004), and Guatemalan businessman Rodrigo Rosenberg, in this month’s “A Murder Foretold,” echo each other. In each story the question of why the men were murdered (both had cast themselves as targets of conspiracies, telling friends they’d run afoul of powerful, shadowy interests) leads to a remarkable twist: These men, it seems, were in fact suicidal fabulists who only wanted people to think they’d been murdered, concocting elaborate fictions and ultimately sacrificing their lives to put those fictions across. In “The Chameleon,” we meet one of Grann’s most audacious storytellers, the pathological impostor Bourdin, who, working from muddled motives, pretends to be a series of adolescents: infiltrating youth shelters and classrooms, hiding his balding pate under a baseball cap, creating new biographies each time. In 1997, fearing imprisonment in Spain, Bourdin convinces authorities that he is Nicholas Barclay, the missing 16-year-old son of Beverly Dollarhide, a Texas woman. It’s an outlandish claim that Beverly and the rest of Nicholas’ family initially corroborate, aided along, apparently, by their joyful relief at Nicholas’ safe return and by certain physical similarities between Nicholas and Bourdin. Eventually, though, Bourdin grows to suspect that Beverly and her son Jason are in fact humoring the impostor—that they never once believed he was Nicholas—in a shady attempt to hide their own involvement in the boy’s unsolved disappearance. The tale ends on a tantalizing note: Were Beverly and Jason, in fact, just using Bourdin’s storytelling as part of their own? The question that beguiles Grann here isn’t who done it, exactly, so much as who told it?

Toward the end of The Lost City of Z, Fawcett’s younger son Brian flies over the Amazon, searching for traces of his father and the ruins the elder Fawcett was after. In the distance, Brian sees “a crumbling city with streets and towers and pyramids,” but when he gets closer, the “city” is revealed to be an illusion, just “freakishly eroded sandstone.” Brian must confront the possibility that Z never existed. “The whole romantic structure of fallacious beliefs, already rocking dangerously, collapsed about me, leaving me dazed,” Brian wrote. Grann’s readers have grown used to the feeling.

What makes Grann’s twists so powerful, rather than Shyamalan-style trifles, is that his showmanship—his manipulativeness—carries resonance and purpose, and seems to both extend from and mirror the narrative slipperiness of his subjects. When he leads us to put our trust or sympathies in one version of things—withholding until a dramatic reveal the details of a counternarrative that upends the first—Grann is showing and telling. “I love the magic of stories and the power of stories,” he’s said. It’s the kind of bromide we’ve heard from any number of writers, but in this case, the invocation of magic and power isn’t throwaway. Not only do Grann’s pieces have high-stakes consequences, but, in both content and form, they richly demonstrate the way storytelling can bend the world around us—transforming inglorious canvases into multimillion-dollar museum pieces, sending men to their deaths, building cities and making them crumble.