Book review: Dirty John and Other True Stories of Outlaws and Outsiders, by Christopher Goffard (Amazon / Book Depository)
Christopher Goffard, the journalist behind last year’s wildly popular Dirty John podcast, opens this frequently California-centric collection of his long-form investigative reporting with an introduction explaining the beginnings of his journalism career. It has to be among the best intros in recent memory.
When I interview people, I try to make myself small, colorless, forgettable, the better to channel them. The pronoun “I” makes no appearance in my stories; my interests are subordinated in the service of others’ stories. This is, of course, a kind of illusion, in the same way no documentary film captures objective reality: every angle in every scene is a choice, a function of the artist’s special obsessions. These stories are an oblique map of my own.
He begins with climbing his way up from desperate unemployment to a job as a typist at his hometown paper, and eventually how he honed his style in the “stories” – not “articles”, that he pursues and writes now.
I begged for reporting assignments, which got me work at a small weekly, then a small daily, then bigger dailies, and—in the twenty-two years since that first job—access to crime scenes, courtrooms, judges’ chambers, ERs, morgues, the living rooms and back porches of innumerable strangers, the makeshift genocide courts of Rwanda, the birth of a nation in South Sudan, the denizens of Skid Row and the Los Angeles River, death rows in Florida and California . . . and to the people you will meet in this collection.
He ends this piece, as promised the only one here using “I”, by acknowledging that the hit podcast he grew from his story about a “predatory creature expert at its mimicry,” and the scripted series soon to come from it, are responsible for a level of success not exactly typical for his field of journalism. He’s grateful, obviously, but it seems like publishing this collection may be an effort to remind us where his passion lies and what other stories he’s capably, sensitively, told.
Dirty John worked so well not only because of the shocking actions of the titular con man, but because it had a full-fledged story arc with all the trimmings from the get-go: desperate romance, roiling family conflict, an unlikely heroine, secrets from the past, and so on to infinity. It was a complete story there for the telling. Granted, he told it exceptionally well, but he’s told a lot of others that way too, including ones that don’t have neatly resolved, satisfying endings. I liked the podcast but wasn’t as crazy about it as others (judging by its popularity).
And although the title piece is well told and engrossing, it didn’t feel like the strongest in this collection. It’s a fascinating narrative, but I think worked better in podcast format, where more details and interviews could bring it even more horrifyingly to life.
There’s not necessarily an overarching theme uniting these stories, although there are commonalities. Goffard likes a good underdog, social justice that shows a slice of life instead of preaching or ranting, people seeking peace with their pasts, and of course, convoluted tales of criminality – whether many-layered cons or a bizarre frame-up in a southern California community. I’m not sure how apt the “outlaws and outsiders” subtitle is, it might be reaching, but it matters less when these tales are so compelling and well told. They’re highly readable, easy to get lost in, distracting.
As Goffard describes them:
They are about criminals and their victims, about people in the coils of faceless systems or their own obsessions, about the falsely accused and the born-trapped, about outsiders and the forms their desperation takes. They are sorties into the private psychic territory more commonly associated with fiction.
My favorite may have been “Framed”, about those Irvine housewives, which includes this line summing it up well: “At times the case approached the threshold of farce—a mash-up of Benny Hill, David Lynch, and Desperate Housewives.”
Some work better than others. A piece about a soldier fighting his unreliable memory appealed more than one about runaways riding the rails cross-country, who I found hard to sympathize with. One about a Syrian woman who made it to Sweden, where she hopes against hope that her family, stranded in Turkey, will be able to join her, was moving and excellent.
Some feel too brief, especially considering the emotional wallop they pack. “How She Found Him” is noticeable in this regard. There’s a lot we can read between the lines in this story of an elderly mother who travels from Vietnam to California in a last-ditch effort to locate her emigre son who hasn’t written home in years. It’s heartbreaking but triumphant in its way, yet so much was left untold that I couldn’t help but feel unsatisfied with it.
That can be a risk with long-form journalism – it’s one of my favorite things to read because it packs a story neatly into a concise format that doesn’t leave much room for extraneous, distracting details or author insertion, but when there’s a story or element that you’d like to know more about, it does often fall short.
Despite some depth that feels lacking in spots, these are undeniably fascinating, well paced and structured. I loved learning something about Goffard’s storytelling style and ethics, and as we’ve been discussing the use of fiction techniques in nonfiction, it’s worth noting that he’s simply a master here, and it’s what makes even the lesser compelling stories interesting anyway: “I began to perceive that it is possible to write stories that are true in every particular, but partake of a novel’s intimacy and immersiveness by borrowing some of its techniques (like scene-by-scene construction, point of view, and dialogue).”
Investigative reporting at its best, showing all that it’s capable of – curious and captivating true stories, carefully considered narrative style and technique, and practiced journalistic integrity.
Dirty John and Other True Stories of Outlaws and Outsiders
by Christopher Goffard
published November 13, 2018 by Simon & Schuster