Journalists of a Certain Age

Tribune rewrite man Jerry Crimmins has just published an elegiac thriller; we read it with the oddest feeling he’d done some digging through our ego.

Meet Crimmins’s hero when you’re young and you’re apt to be struck by the lone wolf side of this newspaper operative. Sam Nash is a man of silent calculations and seat-of-the-pants hunches, of solitary excursions into the city’s murk, etched by an unquenchable hunger for strange, beautiful women.

Yet Nash–and his creator, and his creator’s natural audience–are all old enough to recognize how profoundly he depends on other people. Without the old friends and sources he has spent a lifetime acquiring, without editors who put up with him and run interference for him, without a wife who tells him to stop drinking and she’ll take him back, he would be nothing. “Living alone was grimy unless you made something of it, Nash concluded. He had not.”

Sam Nash is the mainstay of Obits and Murders, a press procedural that slowly becomes vastly more than that. We hesitate to urge this novel on you only because the conventional thinking has roundly discredited it. On the strength of the first three or four chapters, which Crimmins sent out, his work was rejected by 18 agents and 18 publishing houses. With no one to tell him “Keep it short and sweet and we’ll buy it,” his manuscript grew beyond 500 pages, became digressive and contemplative, prodded the moral ambiguities of its author’s line of work, and pondered a generation at middle age. Obits is set in the early 80s, when Crimmins was about the age of Sam Nash, who’s 39. Now Crimmins is 48. “These characters got so real to my wife and I that we used to pray for them,” Crimmins told us. “I’d tell my wife, ‘Say a prayer for Sam and Kate, they’re having a lot of trouble.'”

Obits and Murders is suffused with romanticism. “Nash is a guy who has all kinds of friends in taverns and knows all the bartenders,” Crimmins said. “The kind of guy I admire, in a way, a guy who knows everybody and everybody knows him. But it’s just not my style, you know. Though I knew plenty of guys in the news business who were like that. And when you’re with them and everybody greets them it’s kind of fun, you know, to see it.”

Yet now Nash feels old. “He discovered he wanted money. He really wanted it. Just as Kate had always wanted him to, he wanted it. . . . He felt a yearning for power and position. He realized he had taken the wrong path to be a U.S. Senator or president of General Motors, and he wondered why he had been so stupid. How could he have been so stupid?”

It’s hard to get old at a newspaper, we said. Nash is not a star and he’s not going to be a star. Crimmins himself got to the point at the Tribune where he’d been doing the same things too many times and wondering why. “We all go through that and I went through it. Thank God it’s over. It took years.” How did you learn to deal with it? we asked. “I think I said in the book Nash realized after a while that he couldn’t control the various emotions that welled up inside of him but he could control his activities. I would think it would be hard to get old in a lot of professions. It’s hard to get old and be a surgeon. It’s hard to get old and be a soldier.”

Crimmins said, “I kind of hoped that it would be a story of a man that was one of our generation in the Chicago newspaper business. A real character that we all knew, in all the senses except that he was fictional. But he was like Frosty the Snowman. If you put a hat on his head he could walk into any newsroom and people would know him. ‘Sam, how are you? How’s the wife?’ In a way, I not only wanted to capture the man but capture the era for all of us, the women and the men. It’s pretty much past now. Do you know the era I’m referring to? The era of O’Rourke’s and that?”

What’s different about the new group? we asked him. “They are all much more prepared than I was,” Crimmins said. “The only thing they don’t seem to understand that I understood really well was police reporting, but they’re all good learners and they pick it up real fast.

“They don’t seem to drink much,” he went on. “And they don’t have a lot of parties.”

Before Obits, Crimmins had been studying Chinese. But he gave up the idea of going to Beijing for the Tribune because it’s one of the dirtiest cities on earth and his middle child had asthma. “I needed a new challenge,” he told us. “Plus I needed money to put my daughter in college. So I thought I’d write a novel and make a few bucks for tuition. It never worked out that way. She’s 25 now, a college graduate.”

What did they say was wrong with your book? we asked him. “One guy said it was too linear,” Crimmins explained. “He obviously didn’t read enough. I think you can tell it’s not linear, it doesn’t go where it’s seeming to go. Another young lady said the hero is too stereotypical. He is stereotypical, but in this case the stereotype is based on a fairly well established type of person in the business. One lady gave it to a college kid to read. He was her assistant. And he gave me a list of changes he wanted me to make in the book. Basically, he wanted Nash to be more like a private eye on TV. He wanted him going in chimneys and running down corridors with people chasing him. I refused to do that. I wanted him to be a real reporter.”

Finally Crimmins did something remarkable. He published the book himself, at a total out-of-pocket cost beyond $12,000, and placed it on consignment at Stuart Brent’s, Barbara’s, a couple of Kroch’s and Walden’s, and a few other stores.

“The principal reason was to get it out of my basement and get it into book form so people will read it,” he says. “And to set a good example for my children. I don’t want them to think I gave up. I want them to see me take it from start to finish.”

Crimmins sent an autographed copy of the book over to us and we let it lie on our desk, marginally more willing to ignore a friend’s labor of love than to lie about it. Then we heard from Charles Dickinson, the Chicago novelist who’s also an assistant Tribune metro copy editor. Dickinson made us feel like a fool. He said Crimmins’s book was amazing.

Like Rumor Has It, Dickinson’s own recent novel, Obits and Murders is set at a dying newspaper (“It’s a theme of journalism in our time that papers are failing,” Crimmins says) and is hung loosely around a search for truth. A crazy lady calls Nash and babbles that she thinks someone was killed at a state mental hospital; it’s either a big story or her fantasy. For reasons sufficient to his state of misery, Nash starts poking around.

Crimmins said, “I wrote the book for the money, but that doesn’t give you any content. I wanted to write a book that would give people hope, make them smile, but at the same time it would be an adult book. It would give them hope based on reality instead of some rock-and-roll tune that makes you feel good for a minute and a half. I wanted to show a real marriage and have it go through the fire. I wanted to show, as distinct from most modern literature and movies, decent people acting decently. All these people do small but very nice things for other people without asking for compensation, in a way in which I think the real world operates. Does that make sense?”

We thought this was one of the least commercial-sounding plot outlines we’d ever heard in our life.

Crimmins agreed. “You couldn’t sell a book if you wrote that as a summary. People would throw that in the garbage. But I didn’t write what I just told you. I wrote a story, which is a real story, a story you can sit around a campfire and tell. It’s exciting and it’s suspenseful and it’s physical and it’s sexy and it’s mysterious, and I try to inject a sense of wonder into it.”

The boundaries that distinguish doers from brooders dissolve over time nearly to the point of indistinction. The sense of generation Crimmins spoke of eventually takes the form of an almost belligerent collectivism, in which anything done by anybody can be claimed by all. Obits and Murders could have been mothered by a campfire. In addition to telling more about how journalism is done than any other book we’ve ever read, Crimmins answers questions about his time that no one may care enough to ask: What did they do? How did they sound? Were they happy?

Foxhole Phobia

Last weekend’s big question about Bill Clinton’s first 100 days was how quickly the nation’s most famous noncombatant would override his military brass and permit homosexuals to serve in the armed forces. In columns and on talk shows skeptics more than once made the point that there’s no analogy between Truman’s racial integration of the services after World War II and whatever it is Clinton will do for gays. They tried to remind us that segregation, which everyone now despises, turned entirely on the accident of color, while gays are feared for their disconcerting, demoralizing behavior.

Come on! The mere accident of color was too frail a reed to support bigotry. Something much more than a system for keeping apart incompatible identities, segregation was rooted in the belief that the black soldier was too slow, untrustworthy, and just plain cowardly in his conduct to share a foxhole with a white. By those lights, today’s gays get off easy. The “behavior” argument against gays isn’t that they’ll run away or switch sides–too many gays have excelled under fire already for that canard to float. It’s that some might not keep their eyes and their hands to themselves, an idea that gives many straight servicemen the willies.

If gay misbehavior turns out to be a problem at all, it sounds like one within the capacity of the Pentagon to deal with. The building’s swarming with bright young minds of all sexual persuasions ready and eager to write regulations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.