Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier

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Overview

Harley-Davidson bikers . . . Grand Canyon river rats. . .Mormon archaeologists. . . Spelling bee prodigies…

For more than fifteen years, best-selling author and historian Hampton Sides has traveled widely across the continent exploring the America that lurks just behind the scrim of our mainstream culture. Reporting for Outside, The New Yorker, and NPR, among other national media, the award-winning journalist has established a reputation not only as a wry observer of the ...

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Overview

Harley-Davidson bikers . . . Grand Canyon river rats. . .Mormon archaeologists. . . Spelling bee prodigies…

For more than fifteen years, best-selling author and historian Hampton Sides has traveled widely across the continent exploring the America that lurks just behind the scrim of our mainstream culture. Reporting for Outside, The New Yorker, and NPR, among other national media, the award-winning journalist has established a reputation not only as a wry observer of the contemporary American scene but also as one of our more inventive and versatile practitioners of narrative non-fiction.

In these two dozen pieces, collected here for the first time, Sides gives us a fresh, alluring, and at times startling America brimming with fascinating subcultures and bizarre characters who could live nowhere else. Following Sides, we crash the redwood retreat of an apparent cabal of fabulously powerful military-industrialists, drop in on the Indy 500 of bass fishing, and join a giant techno-rave at the lip of the Grand Canyon. We meet a diverse gallery of American visionaries— from the impossibly perky founder of Tupperware to Indian radical Russell Means to skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. We retrace the route of the historic Bataan Death March with veterans from Sides’ acclaimed WWII epic, Ghost Soldiers. Sides also examines the nation that has emerged from the ashes of September 11, recounting the harrowing journeys of three World Trade Center survivors and deciding at the last possible minute not to "embed" on the Iraqi front-lines with the U.S. Marines. Americana gives us a sparkling mosaic of our country today, in all its wild and poignant charm.

Experience the many faces of America with Hampton Sides as he:

AMERICAN ORIGINALS
. . . drops in on the charmed life of skateboarding icon Tony Hawk; studies counter-terrorism at the G. Gordon Liddy spy school; goes Hollywood with American Indian Movement radical-turned-movie-star Russell Means; steps out of the closet with Mel White, religious right ghostwriter-turned-gay activist; mushes the Iditarod Trail with Alaska legend Joe Redington.

AMERICAN EDENS
. . . runs the rapids during a man-made flood in the Grand Canyon; crashes the redwood retreat of California’s elite Bohemian Club; debriefs the “bio-nauts” as they emerge from captivity in the Biosphere; dives into America’s greatest swimming hole; gets ecstatic with the Zippies at their secret all-night techno-rave.

AMERICAN RIDES
. . . ponders silver bubbles at the annual Airstream RV convention; revs it up at the Harley-Davidson rally in Sturgis, South Dakota; sails the Chesapeake with snooty owners of a rare antique sailboat known as the log canoe; roams the streets with D.C.’s hard-core band of bike couriers.

AMERICAN BY BIRTH, SOUTHERN BY THE GRACE OF . . .
. . . speaks in tongues with black Pentecostalists of the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ; fishes for lunkers at the Bassmasters Classic; goes underground with the world’s greatest cave rescuer; unravels the mystery of a notorious teen murder in rural Mississippi.

AMERICANS ABROAD
. . . crosses the Sahara Desert with American endurance runners at the infernal Marathon des Sables; bushwhacks through MesoAmerica with Mormon archaeologists in search of lost tribes of Israel; visits a high school friend who’s become an Uzi-toting Zionist pioneer in the West Bank; walks the route of the Bataan Death March with characters from Ghost Soldiers.

AMERICAN OBSESSIONS
. . . cranks it up with high-end stereophiles at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; gets bowled over by 5,000 squealing salesladies at the annual Tupperware convention; plumbs the mysteries of the "schwa" at the National Spelling Bee; scrapes at the stucco of the neurotic architectural tradition known as Santa Fe Style.

AMERICA, POST 9/11
. . . traces the harrowing stories of three World Trade Center survivors; goes off-roading in the Imperial Sand Dunes; almost embeds on the Iraqi frontlines with the U.S. Marines; remembers Shane Childers, the decorated Marine who became the first American combat death in Iraq.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This may be the best road trip you’ll ever take—full of strange vision, hilarious detours, and sudden beauty in unlikely places.” –Burkhard Bilger, staff writer at The New Yorker

“’The ancient boyhood impulse to Get In,’ as Hampton Sides puts it, fuels this rollicking book. An entertaining investigative trek through parts both familiar and strange.” –Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead

“Hampton Sides’s America is a flabbergasting place. Funny but never at the expense of his subjects, wise but not wiseass, Sides seeks out decidedly non-average Americans who dig themselves deep into things.” –Mary Roach, author of Stiff

“This is a dream adventure you’ll likely never get; fortunately, Sides has been there. Wry, exuberant, and always compassionate, Americana is pure pleasure.” –Doug Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way

“Inside this riveting collection we find a country of hotly competing tribes encamped on the headlands of a still undefinable frontier. These incisive and often humorous stores comprise the vanguard of a new literature about America and its vast complexities.” –Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert

Library Journal
This is a collection of 30 pieces written over 15 years by Sides, editor at large for Outside magazine and the best-selling author of Ghost Soldiers. As the title indicates, the contents chronicle a variety of times and places that for the author paint a portrait of what Americans are all about. Each piece is detailed and absorbing, from a fascinating account of breaking into an exclusive male retreat to the moving description of the death of an American marine in Iraq. What differentiates Sides from other writers is his intelligent, witty tone and well-crafted mix of appropriate dialog, historic research, and personal observation. In his account of breaking into Bohemian Grove, for example, Sides explains the history of this Republican stronghold, both written and in legend. He also describes his initial unsuccessful attempts, including a reconnaissance mission by canoe. With extensive publicity and an author tour to major centers, this book will be in demand at public libraries, and it will be enjoyed by many readers.-Alison Hopkins, Brantford P.L., Ont. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400033553
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/13/2004
  • Pages: 450
  • Sales rank: 277,067
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

A native of Memphis, Hampton Sides is editor-at-large for Outside magazine, and the author of Ghost Soldiers. He won the 2002 PEN USA Award for nonfiction, and in 2003 he was nominated for a National Magazine Award. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, Anne, and their three sons. He is at work on a narrative history about the conquest and exile of the Navajos.
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Read an Excerpt

The Birdman Drops In

Las Vegas, Nevada

The groms press forward, inching eagerly toward the arena entrance. Mullet-haired rampheads, bescabbed halfpipe urchins, scuffling along in their clompy skate shoes, their laces tied with a precise looseness. Eight thousand zitty faces lit with incipient testosterone, waiting to be shown revolutionary ways in which Newtonian physics can be warped, postponed, and dicked with.

They've come to the Mandalay Bay Area in Las Vegas for a new kind of entertainment, a show that pumps the raw crude of male adolescence, a hormonic convergence of phatness and sweetness and straight-out sickness. These young acolytes have come for amplitude, for stunts and biffs, for grinds and grabs and serious air, for loud music and fumy motorcycle farts.

They've come for the Boom Boom HuckJam.

Once through the doors, the grommets come face-to-face with the thing itself. Behind a scrim of netting lies a baroque installation of giant stages, jumps, and ramps glinting in a swirl of strobe lights. Soon the chanting begins-toe-KNEE, toe-KNEE, toe-KNEE-the whole arena surging with raw skate-kid wattage.

Tony Hawk is the mind and wallet behind this unprecedented show. It's his private experiment, designed as a two-hour adrenaline extravaganza, a busy amalgam of motocross, BMX, and live music, with vertical skateboarding taking center stage. Tonight is the live debut of the HuckJam. It represents a huge financial gamble for the thirty-four-year-old skateboarding venture capitalist; nearly $1 million of Hawk's own money is invested in this modern vaudeville act, which he will take on the road this fall.

Toe-KNEE, toe-KNEE!

To my immediate left, sitting with his dad in the VIP section, is Jonathan Lipnicki, the bespectacled twelve-year-old child star of Stuart Little and Jerry Maguire. Lipnicki has been a Hawk fan for as long as he can remember. "Oh yeah, Tony's, like, the greatest!" he says.

Now the circus-barking announcer starts whipping up the crowd: Las Vegas! We need a little thunder!

A few aisles over sit Hawk's mom, Nancy, his wife, Erin, and his sister Pat, who manages the business that is Tony Hawk Inc. Near them is Sarah Hall, Hawk's publicist, who used to work as a tour assistant for the singer Michael Bolton back when he had long, curly hair and lived at the top of the charts. "Tony's bigger now than Michael ever was," she confided to me earlier at the rehearsal. "Even at his peak, even with 'When a Man Loves a Woman.' He's that huge."

C'mon Vegas-we're not with you yet!

In front of me sits an executive from Hansen's, the beverage company. They're poised to inflict a new energy drink on American youth called Monster. The exec says she's been negotiating with Hawk's people to strike up a sponsorship deal. "Tony's hard to walk away from," she says over the roar.

Energy drink? Like ginseng, ginkgo-that sort of thing?

"Caffeine, mostly," she shouts. "And sugar. We use lots of sugar."

Las Vegas, let's hear some more noise!

Now the houselights go out and a bevy of fembots-jiggy young models in silver lamé body stockings, white Lone Ranger masks, and platinum-blond wigs-come out holding signs that signal the start of the HuckJam. From the far stage, swaddled in a dry-ice haze, the punk band Social Distortion cranks up.

C'mon, people, let's DO this!

Here come the skateboarders-zipping down, one by one, from a thirty-foot-high perch in the scaffolding. Like buzzy, looping electrons, Bob Burnquist, Andy Macdonald, Lincoln Ueda, Bucky Lasek, and Shaun White-five of the preeminent vert skaters in the world-power through the massive bronze bowl of the halfpipe and launch high over the lip in a dervish of spins and kickflips, ollies and McTwists. And then-

Ladies and gentulmennnnnnnnn . . .

The man we've all been waiting for dives down the ramp, lanky and tough-sinewed and-true to his name-curiously avian, with a beaky nose and flailing arms and big, alert eyes. He soars through the air and lands effortlessly on the platform with the other skaters, Quetzalcoatl among mere mortals: the Birdman.

Calmly drinking in the adulation, Hawk hoists his board over his helmeted head and tips it toward the roaring crowd in a ritual gesture of beneficence, as if to say, "Welcome, children of the pipe, your sins are forgiven!"

Now let's hear some Las Vegas thunder for TOE-KNEEEEEEE HAWWWWWWWWWWK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

A few days before I first met Tony Hawk, I was skiing down a chute on California's Mammoth Mountain when I hit a patch of ice. The next instant I was pinwheeling, out of control, for three hundred terrifying yards. I ended up in the hospital with a broken humerus and a messed-up shoulder socket. Alex, the ski-patrol guy who sledded me down to the clinic, kept asking me questions. "Who is the president? What do you do for a living?"

I'm a writer, I said. I'm working on a story about a skateboarder named Tony Hawk.

"The Birdman?" Alex's expression changed completely: no longer was I just another boring casualty. I'd seen the same look of reverence on the face of my nine-year-old son, whose room is pretty much wallpapered with Hawk posters. "Growing up, I worshiped him," Alex told me. "I still do. He's like a god."

Three days later, I'm at the Four Seasons Resort in Carlsbad, California, my arm in a sling, and I'm trying to interview the god himself through a fog of Vicodin. The Four Seasons seems like a weird lunch spot for a skateboarder, a very staid, adult establishment with Haydn pomp-and-circumstancing in the background and, in one corner, a bridge game in full swing. But Hawk suggested the place and raved about its buffet. As we settle into lunch, I have a hard time cutting my prime rib with my slinged arm, and there comes an awkward moment when Hawk is clearly thinking, Should I help the poor wretch? He decides against it.

Maybe he doesn't want to seem patronizing. Just as likely, he's unimpressed by my puny injury. Here's a guy, a professional human projectile, basically, who is intimately acquainted with words like meniscus and arthroscopic. A guy who's knocked himself out a half dozen times, fractured his ribs, broken his elbow, sustained several concussions, had his front teeth bashed in twice, all while collecting stitches too numerous to count. You broke your arm-so what?

But as we sit there, Hawk's initial reserve wears off, and he projects an endearing, youthful innocence. Though he's the father of three boys, though he has three stockbrokers and two agents and rakes in eight digits a year, he still somehow carries himself like a kid, a man-teen in the promised land.

Hawk seems bright in the same way a bright sixteen-year-old does-sharp, watchful, with quick reflexes but little use for introspection. His dirty-blond hair is neat and clipped short, almost to the point of spikiness. His voice still has an adolescent crack to it, and he speaks in a Ridgemont High dialect, the stoner-surfer vernacular of Southern California, in which declaratives are haphazardly turned into interrogatives with a little last-second inflection. ("I don't know why, but I've always had, like, a fetish for watches?") His taste in movies is refreshingly juvenile. (Favorites: Caddyshack and Aliens.) He has a young person's radar for musical infractions by artists he views as "lame" and a hypervigilance for the cool currency of brand names (just now he's down on Swatch, a former sponsor).

After lunch, Hawk tips the valet and we hop into his Lexus sports car. As we glide onto Interstate 5, he steers with one hand and recalibrates his driving environment with the other, his long, bony fingers floating over the dials and buttons in the wooden inlay of his $70,000 ride. He adjusts his Arnette sunglasses, checks his Nixon sports watch, plugs in his Apple iPod, and scrolls through tunes until he finds one he likes, by the White Stripes.

"I can fit eighteen hundred songs on a single disk," he says, with a geek's pure faith in the righteousness of electronics. As we head north, the console's navigational screen charts our blipping progress, as if we're trapped in our own private Game Boy.

The Lexus-an SC430 in a metallic plum color that the sales brochure calls "amethyst pearl"-is a recent acquisition, a product of the phenomenal success Hawk has enjoyed since rising to the status of Zeus (or is it Seuss?) in the pantheon of kids' idols. Nowadays, Hawk regularly commands up to $25,000 per skating appearance and has reportedly earned $10 million in personal income in each of the last two years. Hawk owns Tony Hawk Inc.-a San Juan Capistrano-based company that employs fifteen people-and co-owns Birdhouse Skateboards, 900 Films, Blitz Distribution, and SLAM, an action-sports management firm. Through these he markets clothes, shoes, films, skateboards, gear, events, and even a slightly scary-looking remote-control action figure. Hawk's got a foothold in retail, too, with new Hawk Skate stores in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and Paramus, New Jersey. Combined with the licensing deals he's made-lending his name to "signature products"-his mini-empire pulled in $314 million in 2001.

Looming over it all is the astonishing success of Activision's three-game series Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, to which Hawk licenses his name, likeness, and expertise. Since hitting the shelves in 1999, Pro Skater has become one of the most popular video games of all time, generating $473 million, with more than 12 million copies sold. The game's impact has helped make Hawk a fixture on every cable channel aimed at kids. Recent TV triumphs have included stints doing color commentary for skateboarding competitions; an ESPN2 reality-based show, Tony Hawk's Gigantic Skatepark Tour; and a guest appearance on Nickelodeon's hit cartoon Rocket Power. His autobiography, HAWK-Occupation: Skateboarder, which came out in 2000, was a bestseller and has been optioned, perhaps inevitably, by Disney.

Thus the toys have increased in quantity and quality. Cartier watches, plasma screens, Armani suits. Over the summer, Hawk surprised Erin with a new BMW sport-utility vehicle. And then there's the house, practically a zip code unto itself. A few years ago the Hawks bought a home on a lagoon in Carlsbad for more than $1 million. The bodacious five-thousand-square-foot gated mansion has been duly featured on MTV's Cribs. Things have actually reached the point where Hawk has started buying cars for his friends, like Elvis used to do. Because he's a nice guy. Because he can.

Hawk and I speed past signs for Legoland, past the cancerous climb of pink mission-style apartment complexes, past a billboard for a house of worship that says GOT CHURCH? This is Hawk's native turf, a place of beautiful weather, beautiful ocean, and not-so-beautiful suburban sprawl webbed by traffic-snarled highways. Though he travels constantly, Hawk feels at home only here, along this ribbon of coastal enclaves stretching north from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano-the land where he was born and raised.

"Australia's pretty cool," he says, citing a favorite foreign locale. "But I can't imagine living anywhere else but here."

Hawk's Nokia chirps for the third time in five minutes, but the liquid crystal display on the phone reads CALLER UNKNOWN, so he elects not to answer it. "Always suspect," he says, the mild scowl on his face implying that too many strangers have gotten hold of his private cell number.

Hawk, a neatnik, keeps his Lexus immaculate. The only bit of clutter is a stash of DVD games and a PlayStation, which Riley, his nine-year-old son from a previous marriage, uses to occupy himself on long trips. "Those games are awesome," Hawk says. "He never gets bored. He flew with me to South Africa recently, and he was engrossed the whole way. That's like a twenty-hour flight."

One of Riley's favorite games, naturally, is Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. At the outset, players can scroll down a roster of real-life professional skaters and choose to "be" any one of them-Rodney Mullen, or Chad Muska, or whoever. Each one looks strikingly like the real person and has a special arsenal of skating tricks. Riley likes to be his dad.

Riley, as it happens, is our next errand. It's nearly three o'clock, and Hawk has to pick him up at elementary school. But not in this tiny roadster. So we dash by the house and exchange the SC430 for the pickin'-up-the-kids Lexus, this one a roomy sedan. In a few minutes we're idling in the train of waiting moms, some of whom turn away from their cell phones to throw Hawk a smile of recognition. Oh, yeah, there's the millionaire skateboard dad.

Soon the bell rings, and the building exhales a stream of laughing kids carrying backpacks. The traffic is bad- "Cars come through here way too fast," Hawk says-but once there's a gap, Riley crosses over and hops in, a good-looking third-grader with blond hair.

"Hey, buddy," Hawk says, smiling in the rearview mirror.

"Hey, Dad," Riley replies. Then, under his breath: "Who's this?"

Once Hawk introduces me, Riley seems satisfied, if thoroughly bored. He's understandably suspicious of the stream of people vying for his father's time. I make matters worse by telling him that I have a nine-year-old boy who's into skateboarding, too.

"Oh," he says, trying to be polite.

There can be little doubt that Riley Hawk will grow up with one of the most discerning bullshit detectors on the planet. As Hawk informs me later: "Riley's gotten good at telling who really wants to be his friend, and who just wants to come over and skate with his dad. He can weed 'em out real fast."

Way back in the mists of Southern California history, back when the surfboard first sprouted wheels and rolled onto the kelp-strewn shores, in the dark time of teen endeavor that's come to be known as B.E. (Before Extreme), the youth dwelled in a world that was, we now realize, pitifully dull. Gravity was a despot, feared and respected. During these primordial years-the late sixties and early seventies-the skateboard was a pale derivative of its aquatic parent. Skaters, by and large, were surfers who wanted something to do when the waves were flat and junky. They skated like surfers, too, with a hang-five style that was sinuous and cool but fundamentally uneventful.

Then one summer, during an even darker period known as the Late Jimmy Carter Administration, the swimming pools of Southern California went dry. A historic drought was on, and cement ponds were deemed a frivolous waste. In one of those crucial moments of Darwinian advance, packs of kids started sneaking into empty backyard pools to experiment with their skateboards. They discovered that, in a pool with a nicely curved bowl, they could go up and down and up again, almost endlessly, like human pendulums. If they gathered enough momentum, they could soar over the pool's lip, do a little flippety trick in the air, and safely land to do it all over again-in one continuous splooge of adrenaline. And so the board, having shed its fins for wheels, developed wings and broke gravity's tyranny. It could fly.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
The birdman drops in 3
Waiting for Liddy 21
Chief without Indians 37
The gay eminence 51
The toughest guy in Alaska 61
And the bureaucrats said, let there be high water 77
In darkest Bohemia 89
Mystery! Science! Theater! 109
Panther falls 117
Smells like zippy spirit 120
The silver city 135
Woodstock in leathers 149
Waterlogged 161
Blazing saddles 167
Jerusalem on the Mississippi 175
Let us now praise famous fish 191
Crawl space 209
A murder in Falkner 216
Baked 267
This is not the place 280
Baruch 303
Ghosts of Bataan 308
Chasing the white witch 321
Sisters of the bowl 329
Webster's children 343
At home in a fake place 355
Points of impact 367
Among the Kawasaki Republicans 402
Unembedded 412
First 423
Acknowledgments 449
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Hampton Sides, Author of AMERICANA

Q: Why the title "Americana"?


A: The book has the feel of an extended road trip. I've spent much of my life roaming around observing the quirks of modern American culture. Putting together this collection has given me a chance to look back on more than a decade of dedicated wandering. I think "Americana" also reflects something about the country's mood right now in this acutely interesting election year. Since 9/11, we've all heard that we live in patriotic times. As we muddle through two very complicated wars, deal with the hue and cry over the Patriot Act, and experiment with ambitious nation-building on the other side of the planet, we've never been more concentrated on the question of who we are as a nation. What do we stand for? What are our strengths? What about us is likeable and unique?

Q: What are some of those qualities?

A:
I think of America not so much as a single country but as a constellation of groups out there competing for air time, energetically expressing themselves and luxuriating in their right to govern themselves. Freedom is that great vaunted word that's always applied to our country—and rightly so. It's what gave us our greatest quality: the impulse toward invention and the improvisational spirit to push out across all sorts of frontiers. This book, at its essence, is about American freedom. It's about what we do with our freedom, how it gets translated—sometimes humorously, sometimes nobly—into American life.

Q: Jonathan Yardley called you "the scribe among our tribes." What did he mean by that?

A:
Much of myjournalism is about subcultures. America is an archipelago of tribes, a land where people form national families of kindred spirits. That was one of the most perceptive comments Tocqueville made about America—that we form our own little fraternities with amazing ease. We make our own worlds. Observing those worlds has been one of my professional obsessions. I've sort of been an anthropologist of modern America, in a non-academic way. Whether it's Marines or Tupperware salesladies, high end audiophiles or bike couriers, I'm fascinated by the hallmarks of the American tribe.

Q: Where do you think you cultivated this fascination?

A:
It has something to do with growing up in Memphis, this humid cotton town on the river where black and white cultures have been in the blender, stuck on "puree," for a long time. Birthplace of the blues, rock n' roll, and soul. Watching the Elvis pilgrimage phenomenon well up after his death, the great freakshow with the fans coming to Graceland by the thousands every August—this gave me certain ideas at a young age about how quickly America spawns national tribes. It also made me pretty tolerant around odd people. A reviewer said my being from Memphis gave me "an aplomb in the face of exceedingly idiosyncratic behavior." I like that.

Q: What do these tribes have in common?

A:
Often they have an epic national reunion that brings them back, year after year. A lot of the stories in Americana are just me going to these pageants and festivals and feasting on the spectacle, the pure tribal wattage. Also, most of these groups have a charismatic founder, someone who had the force of personality to make an idea stick through time. Like Wally Byam, the founder of Airstream; Tony Hawk, the de facto king of skateboarding; Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet; Brownie Wise, who gave us the Tupperware party; or Ray Scott, the man put bass fishing on the national map. Many of the pieces in Americana are profiles of the patriarchs and matriarchs of their tribes.

Q: How did the idea of creating this collection come about, and why now?

A:
After I wrote Ghost Soldiers, and became known for writing a certain kind of dark historical narrative, I realized there was a completely different facet of my writing that wasn't getting out to readers. In my journalism, I often get myself into ridiculous situations, and I have a lot of fun with my subjects. This collection was a way for me to show other sensibilities that are a real part of who I am as a writer. There's a lot of stuff in this book that, I hope, will make readers laugh. As for the timing, it was a question of when had I accumulated enough good stuff that would add up to something greater than the sum of its parts? And the answer to that was, Not until very recently. Although I've been working this vein for a decade, a third of this book was written in the last two years, after Ghost Soldiers was published.

Q: Are there thematic similarities between GHOST SOLDIERS and the material in AMERICANA?

A:
The central theme of Ghost Soldiers is the limits of human endurance and the astounding ways in which people survive in the face of steep odds. That theme constantly crops up in Americana. Probably the best example is "Points of Impact," a story that was nominated for a National Magazine Award, in which I follow the lives of three survivors of the World Trade Center disaster through their ordeals and recoveries. In the story "Ghosts of Bataan," I go back to the Philippines to trace the route of the Bataan Death March with several characters from Ghost Soldiers. I found it humbling to walk the terrain with these extraordinary guys who'd survived that harrowing experience and lived to a ripe old age.

Q: You were going to embed with the Marines in Iraq but declined at the last minute. Why?

A:
When I wrote about that for The New Yorker, people assumed it was protest journalism. It's true that I had major doubts about the war. But that had little to do with it. I was just plain scared. I got over there and learned I was going to be on the front lines with an outfit called First Recon. If Saddam had WMD it seemed obvious he'd use them on us, the invaders. I felt like a lab rat, coming along to observe—and breathe—whatever Saddam might sling at us. The sum total of my experience with my chem equipment was a 30-minute seminar on a Kuwait tennis court, in which I learned, among other things, that if I barfed in my gas mask I was probably a goner. I stayed up all night at my hotel thinking about the disturbing logic behind this war and realized that—you know what?—I hadn't signed a contract with the Marines and was free to leave.

Q: What did you do after you decided not to embed?

A:
A few days after the start of hostilities, I began to investigate a story about the first American combat casualty of the ground war, who turned out to be a beloved Marine platoon commander named Lt. Shane Childers. One of the longest pieces in Americana ("First"), it's a profile of his life intercut with a second-by-second depiction of his death in the Rumaila oil fields. Had I embedded, I would have been very close to where Childers died and likely would have encountered the same resistance that killed him.

Q: Many pieces here first appeared in Outside. What are your ties with the magazine?

A: I'm editor-at-large for Outside, which means they send me all over the planet on interesting projects. It's a dream job, basically. Years ago, I was a full-time editor at Outside. It's one of the most adventurous journals around and wins more than its share of National Magazine Awards. Outside publishes some of the best practitioners of non-fiction—people like Tim Cahill, Jon Krakauer, Bill Bryson, Ian Frazier, David Quammen. Working with some of these writers has been a huge influence.

Q: Aside from Outside, what other writers have had a major influence on your journalism?

A: Probably the biggest influence on my career was the late John Hersey, who, while he was at The New Yorker, wrote one of the masterpieces of narrative non-fiction, Hiroshima. Hersey was a teacher of mine at Yale, and a friend. He got me to see the possibility of journalism not just as a business but as an art form. I modeled "Points of Impact" after Hiroshima. And in the end, I decided to dedicate Americana to John.

Q: Of the pieces in AMERICANA, which has had the most profound influence on you?

A:
Writing "Points of Impact" just devastated me. It forced me to understand 9/11 from the most excruciatingly personal perspective—from the point of view of three people who barely made it out alive and who will be forever stamped with the residue of that unbelievable day. I flew to New York a few days after it happened and spent months interviewing people. Until I met these survivors and heard their stories, I couldn't fathom this event. It reminded me of the truism that history is, above all, personal.

Q: What were some of the more bizarre things you experienced during your travels?

A:
Getting kicked out of the National Spelling Bee headquarters in Cincinnati for being a "satirist." Witnessing the science-fiction theater the morning the Biospherians emerged from their geodesic ark in the Arizona desert. Maybe the most bizarre experience was being in a room full of 5,000 shrieking, squealing Tupperware salesladies in Florida as the company unveiled its new product line. It was as though a fever had swept the room. I was the only man in the whole convention hall and I felt at any moment the women were going to turn on me in a frenzy, like in The Bacchae, and rip me limb from limb.

Q: Is it true that GHOST SOLDIERS is now being turned into a movie?

A:
Miramax has produced a film that's based in part on my book as well as on other sources. Tentatively titled The Great Raid, it's supposed to come out in the fall. It stars Joseph Fiennes, Benjamin Bratt, and Connie Nielsen, and is directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Rounders). I'm a historical consultant, and what I've seen of it looks fantastic.

Q: What's next for you as an author?

A:
I'm working on a narrative history about Kit Carson and the conquest of the Navajos during the Civil War. You could say it's about the ultimate American "tribe"—the Navajo Nation, which is basically a country unto itself. Like Ghost Soldiers, it's a story about war and resilience during a long, hard exile—and finally, about redemption.
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2006

    My Favorite Book

    Truly a fabulous book! A great anthropological look at the various aspects of American culture. This book made me laugh, think and even cry. The ending really brings home the point of the book - what being an American means to you... I truly recommend it to anyone.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2014

    Ash

    *shrugs* Nope, didn't know that. F*** it. Whatever. Bbyyyyyeee. *leaves forever*

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2014

    Archer

    You don't understand how much what you just said relieved meh. Buh-byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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