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How Do You Explain Gene Weingarten?
Comments () | Published December 5, 2011

Weingarten and his wife, a lawyer, have two kids, who are now grown. Photograph of family by Michele McDonald, courtesy of Gene Weingarten

Weingarten in person is a lot like Weingarten on the page—witty, inquisitive, neurotic. The only difference I notice is that his language is saltier in conversation, though if you follow him on Twitter you’ve already had a taste of Weingarten uncensored. For instance, he called Buzz Bissinger—author of Friday Night Lights and, more recently, a goofily bellicose Tweeter—a “pussy.”

Bissinger replied by tweeting that Weingarten laughs at his own jokes and bears an uncanny resemblance to bow-tied film critic Gene Shalit, two assertions I don’t think anyone, including Weingarten, would dispute.

It took several months of e-mails to get Weingarten to sit for an interview. His hesitation is understandable. Why let someone do a job you could do better yourself? And it’s a job he’s already doing. There are autobiographical morsels strewn throughout his many columns and online chats. He’s written about his father’s failing health and his daughter’s departure for college. He’s written about a long-ago flirtation with heroin. He’s revealed that he suffers from a mild form of prosopagnosia, a condition that makes it hard if not impossible to recognize faces. He recently admitted in a column that he’s extremely freaked out when people rub their palms against fabric.

At a certain point, there’s nothing left to divulge.

The man wrote an entire book about his own hypochondria. He had trouble selling the proposal at first. Then publishers learned that he had hepatitis C and probably had five years left. The notion of a funny book by a person facing imminent demise was appealing to the suits at Simon & Schuster. He writes in the book that “there is a pretty good chance that I will be dead before you will.” The book ends by scolding readers for expecting him to send a message back once he arrives in the hereafter. “What are you—stupid? I’ll be dead.”

That was more than a dozen years ago, and Weingarten is now disease-free, or at least free of that specific disease.

He used his grim prognosis not only to get a book published but also to finagle a better position at the Post. His request to be put in charge of the Sunday Style section in the early ’90s was granted. (“Who could say no to a dying man?” he says.) That move was about trying to create a mini-Tropic within the pages of the Post, and he mostly succeeded, founding the Style Invitational, a humor contest that still maintains the silly/smart DNA of Weingarten’s time at Tropic.

In the late ’90s, he transmogrified from editor back to writer. He had stopped being a writer because he thought he would never be a great one. All those years of fixing other people’s copy had made him a student of narrative assembly. He had developed theories, including a grand philosophy of storytelling. All good stories, Weingarten had come to believe, are about the meaning of life.

In his introduction to his collection, The Fiddler in the Subway, Weingarten writes that a feature story “will never be better than pedestrian unless it can use the subject at hand to address a more universal truth.” Those universal truths always come around to a favorite maxim of Weingarten’s, one that he cribbed from fellow neurotic Franz Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it ends.”

I called a bunch of Weingarten aficionados. Most are people who have worked with him; a few have followed his career from afar. I asked each to name his or her favorite Weingarten story.

Ben Montgomery is more an admirer than a buddy of Weingarten’s. An enterprise reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, Montgomery runs Gangrey.com, a Web site whose tongue-in-cheek tagline is “prolonging the slow death of newspapers.” It’s where practitioners of narrative journalism debate their craft. Whenever Montgomery reads Weingarten’s stories, he’s overcome by feelings of inadequacy. “Because his best stuff—I know I’ll never do that,” he says. “It’s paralyzing.”

The story he names as his favorite is “Tears for Audrey,” about a mother whose three-year-old daughter is left in a vegetative state after nearly drowning in a back-yard swimming pool. The mother, who is Catholic, believes that God is causing miracles to happen because of her daughter, that her daughter is a “victim soul” who can absorb the pain and sickness of the faithful. The most tangible proof is the curious fact that oil flows from the religious figurines in her daughter’s room. Believers make pilgrimages to witness the dripping oil and to gaze upon her unresponsive daughter.

If you’re a skeptic, you want Weingarten to uncover the hoax. He doesn’t. What he does instead is persuade you to empathize with the mother. You never learn what Weingarten actually thinks. If you know he’s an atheist who once said in an online chat that he’d made a chart titled “Mathematical Proof That the Likelihood of a Deity and/or Other Supernatural Explanations for Life and/or Afterlife Declines to a Probability Approaching Zero,” then you know he probably doesn’t think Jesus is making liquids dribble from curios. But he doesn’t say that in the story. What he says is “Linda Santo has defied conventional wisdom and kept her child alive through heroic love. . . . It’s a miracle, says the Washington Post.

Madeleine Blais, who worked with Weingarten at Tropic and is now a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says her favorite Weingarten piece is “The Ghost of the Hardy Boys.” It’s an unusual choice because it’s not one of Weingarten’s scene-driven, exhaustively reported tours de force. It’s an essay about Leslie McFarlane, the ghostwriter of the Hardy Boys series of children’s books. Really, though, it’s about worthy versus lousy writing and about the compromises you make in life, the dreams you give up to get by.

“Sometimes,” Weingarten writes, “homely things are done for the best reasons in the world, and thus achieve a beauty of their own.”

Next: Weingarten's toxic workspace

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Posted at 02:15 AM/ET, 12/05/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles