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Another magazine masterpiece: GQ's "Leave No Man Behind"

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by WaylonJennings, May 21, 2008.

  1. This one by Wil S. Hylton.

    It's about a military crew that globe trots to recover the remains of MIAs of old wars. The narrative centers around a trip into an obscure island in the South Pacific to find a football coach's father's remains.

    Warning: If you read to the end, you will cry:


    P.S. I'm pretty sure The New Yorker ran a similar piece about this a couple of years ago, in which they traveled deep into Cambodia or Vietnam and found the sliver of a bone that they were able to match up, DNA-wise, with a solider missing in action. I loved that one, too.
  2. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    I can't really comment on a GQ story without it seeming like professional jealousy. But -- while this is a very good story -- I'd be interested to see a discussion here about the use of the first person in it. It bothered me early on, but if Wil hadn't used it early on, the ending might have seemed jarring, with him suddenly appearing. I wonder if there was a way to write the ending without Wil in it. Or whether I'm overly sensitive about seeing "I" in a story.

    Either way, it's pretty fascinating, the heart of this story. I love stories about these little self-contained universes that most of us don't know exist until we read a story like this one.

    If I'm being honest, I would liked to have gotten to this one before Wil did, but I had no idea this work was going on. It's hard to find secrets anymore -- the best stories expose you to worlds that you never even dreamed of seeing.
  3. Inky_Wretch

    Inky_Wretch Well-Known Member

    I wish every magazine site had an option to display the story on one page. I got through about three pages of that and got tired of hitting the "Next" button.

    I'll have to pick up a physical copy of the magazine to finish it.
  4. alleyallen

    alleyallen Guest

    Man, that was a great piece. It really spoke to me on a lot of levels.

    When I first joined the Navy in 1988, prior to my senior year, I joined to be a diver. But some physical issues left me out of the program and my career went in a different direction. However, I was fortunate to have been stationed at various places that always left me in contact with others...an amphibious assault team that worked closely with SEALs, the submarine school in Groton where divers teach underwater escape drills.

    And Jones, you're right. These stories that show us those little insights into unknown universes are incredible. I once did a story (not even close in quality to the one I just read) about a Texas DPS trooper who also doubled as a diver, working search and recovery missions, evidence discovery, etc. He also did debris search and recovery following the space shuttle breakup a few years ago.

    One of those little universe details that's stayed with me for years: He told me the most common things he finds at the bottom of EVERY single body of water he's been in for his job are beer cans.
  5. Jones - We will have to agree to disagree here. In fact, I have always been under the impression that magazine editors actually encourage their feature writers to use first person (it's practically in the "New Yorker" stylebook to attribute using "told me").

    It works for a couple of reasons:

    1. In a profile, it is a subtle way of establishing the writer's limitations. You can't be everywhere with this person. You are basically presenting a tiny slice of his/her life that he/she allowed you entry to. This is your way of acknowledging that. I think, for example, that it would have worked with your John McCain pieces. You are taking the reader behind the scenes with this person, acting as his/her tour guide. I think it establishes rapport between reader and writer.

    2. Same thing with travel/adventure writing. And, basically, that's what Hylton's piece is. A great piece of travel writing about a mission imbued with serious purpose.

    When used in magazine narrative, I don't find first-person jarring whatsoever. In fact, I find it more jarring when writers try to creatively write around it: "Told a reporter." Or, often, you'll have the subject seeming to talk words into thin air. First-person gives us a narrator to latch onto and identify with. In Hylton's piece, for example, one of the manly men who take him to the island shout something about the sweat soaking his shirt when they land. Many writers would have left "We" out of the following passage:

    "Stepping onto the tarmac, you are instantly drenched in sweat.

    " 'Get used to it, guys,' the senior team leader, Captain George Mitroka called out as we piled off the KC-135.'You won't be dry till you get home.' "

    It's subtle, yes. But I think it's more effective. We have a tour guide for our journey that we can recognize and identify. And it's better that way. Again - it establishes the writer's limitations. And though Hylton writes with absolute authority, I think it can be disarming for a reader to feel like, "Hey, this guy is just like I would be, going on this trip." Used skillfully, I think it engages readers in a way that dispassionate third-person PoV falls short.

    If I'm ever fortunate enough to break into magazines, which is the dream -- more like a PIPE dream -- I look forward to being able to be a little more liberal with the use of first-person in storytelling. My current editor is aghast at any use of it - even in columns.

    That being said, this is saying that every tom, dick and harry should use it on their Johnny Schoolboy feature. And I'm hesitant to give it my stamp of approval for the MySpace generation just yet. Because what it can turn into is a story about the writer rather than a story that uses the writer's experience as a vehicle for the real story. Every first-person use should be in service to the story. The story shouldn't be in service to the writer's narcisssim. Obviously, that's not Hylton did.

    Jones, I'd love to see you give the device a spin. Can never have too many clubs in the bag.

    There's a lot of stuff about first-person narrative in "Telling True Stories," the book of essays on the craft put out by the Harvard Nieman Foundation. I'll try to find excerpt some thoughts about it later on today if anybody is interested.
  6. I liked this piece. Certainly not as much as I enjoyed Jones' recent article, but this was a very interesting story about something I'd be interested in learning more about. There was emotion there, especially at the end.

    I also got a chuckle that Andy Baldwin (from the Bachelor) played a part in the story.
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