Destination: Wherever they send you

A "sensitive outsider" makes a career out of junkets to scary places.

SCOTT CARRIER IS BEST known for his sad, dusty contributions to This American Life (heard on public radio). His sometimes brilliant, oft- rebroadcast pieces, such as the tale about working for "the Friendly Man," established the coolly laconic tone that is one of TAL's trademarks. He's not what you'd call prolific: At age 43, he's collected his best writings here—some from the radio and some from magazines—and they barely exceed 100 pages. What's interesting and admirable about Carrier is that he's clearly not a journeyman hack, ready to wax eloquent on any topic, like so many of the scribes and pundits who soak up newsprint and fill the airwaves (present company excluded, obviously). He seems to have had just a few moments of inspiration, and even those aren't quite enough to carry a book. As the writings make clear, Carrier's career suffers for his own integrity.

Running after Antelope

by Scott Carrier (Counterpoint, $22)

To this extent, "The Friendly Man" essay becomes the volume's perfect capsule. In it, Carrier is a well-meaning freelance radio producer, assigned several prepackaged "life-affirming" stories by his boss, the Friendly Man, a national radio personality in New York (whom I've heard variously identified as Paul Harvey or others). Trouble is, the world Carrier finds doesn't fit the synopsis he's been assigned: The youth basketball program is helping no one; the old folks' "time dollar" exchange program is a depressing joke. "These people were poor . . . they'd been poor for a long time . . . they were probably going to stay poor for a long time," he writes.

But the Friendly Man's high-strung producers aren't interested in hearing about reality; they want to be fed back their own storyline. And at the end, we see Carrier—a man partial to hitchhiking, Sheetrock, and adolescent solitude—climbing into his sleeping bag on a lawn in Kansas City, ready to redo his interviews in the morning, resolving again to be "a professional," to take responsibility for his life and his family. In six pages, Carrier beautifully captures not just the habitual lying that is the media's stock-in-trade, but his own struggle against a melancholy fatalism that won't let him "succeed" like the rest of us, that leaves him feeling, as he writes elsewhere, that he looks out on humanity "from the bottom of a well."

IRONICALLY, OF COURSE, this "sensitive outsider" voice, as popularized on This American Life, has finally given Carrier the writerly success he wished for. (At the end of the book, in one of the most touching acknowledgements I've ever read, Carrier offers a wry thanks to his family, "who saw everything, endured everything, and never doubted that things would work out fine.") But success doesn't really become him.

Several of the book's later pieces are reprints from Esquire, whose editors came up with the notion of sending Carrier to "really fucked-up places"—an idea that elicits faint ironic disdain from Carrier and (rightly) immediate acceptance. These visits to Kashmir, Cambodia, and Chiapas don't give Carrier all that much to push against. While his honesty, as always, is admirable, Carrier is no sophisticated political observer, and he comes off too transparently as what he is: a highly paid writer flown in to a complicated, violent place he knows nothing about, looking to assemble tough-minded anecdotes to run opposite Calvin Klein ads.

Future editors will hopefully take a lesson from the Friendly Man, stop telling Carrier where to go, and just let him stumble into life-changing experiences, like his amazing ride across the country with a Serbian trucker named Zarko. It may be a while before we get another hundred pages from him, but they'll be better than a big stack of Esquire magazines.

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