Thursday, September 17, 2020

Killings by Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin spent a couple of decades as a reporter on the road, mostly for The New Yorker, mostly writing medium-length pieces about interesting news stories every three weeks. [1] Some of those pieces went into his U.S. Journal collection, but the strongest ones had a common thread -- well, the best stories usually have something to do with death somehow, so it's no surprise.

Someone realized that, Trillin or an editor. And in 1984, there was a themed collection of those stories about deaths, whether murders or accidents or something in between. That was Killings.

In 2017, a new edition of Killings came out. It's unclear whether any of the stories from the 1984 edition were omitted, but six stories originally published from 1985 through 2009 were added at the end. (I read the original edition of Killings sometime in my first run through Trillin back in the '90s, but I lost that copy in the flood, and now can't say if the old book really was only about 160 pages long.)

Trillin is a great reporter: he tells the stories he finds clearly and precisely, and leaves in the ambiguities as he finds them. More than that, he signposts the ambiguities, walking around all sides of them to see what exactly is ambiguous, what's clearly known but ignored, and what can't be spoken about. Each one of these twenty-two pieces benefits from his eye and words: we know more and understand better each of these situations than we would have otherwise.

Twenty-one of those stories are about a sudden, violent death. Usually one that's someone else's fault -- though a lot of these have arguments in at least two directions, including, as is always the case, the dead person him- or herself. Sometimes, a particular person was found legally responsible, and Trillin goes through that process as well, with the same level of skill and ability that he brought to the stories of the deaths. He also is deeply interested in what a fancier writer would call the milieu of the deceased: where and how they lived, what kind of people they were part of, what communities are in this town or city or country and how they interact. I'm putting that in a quiet way, since Trillin strives to be factual and specific, but any death has some level of passion surrounding it -- and many of these deaths had far more passion than that. There are conflicts between "straights" and "freaks" at the beginning of this book, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and other more modern conflicts later on: refugees without as much of a lifeline as they needed, farmers losing everything, men falling into bizarre theories to explain why their lives didn't go as planned. And of course, families -- it comes down to families a lot of the time.

The last story -- out of chronological order, on purpose -- is a profile of Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan in 1986, before she turned her hand to fiction and became more famous, back when she was just a well-respected reporter on the hottest beat in a hot city. Buchanan was a fancier writer than Trillin, in a modified tabloid style, but one master will acknowledge another.

Trillin has the strengths of the best reporters: he can tell you the facts so that you understand more than the facts. He can explain, as much as anyone can, why people do what they do, and describe what they did do honestly but not salaciously. And Killings is one of his best books of reportage: maybe because it has the best material, maybe because it was written during the time he was most intensely a reporter. The stories here, many of them, still resonate in 2020 -- these are stories about American deaths, in ways that Americans still die today.

[1] Or I can let him explain it, better than I could, from his new introduction to this edition:
For fifteen years, starting in the fall of 1967, I traveled around the United States to do a series of reporting pieces for The New Yorker called "U.S. Journal" -- a three-thousand-word article every three weeks for somewhere in the country. (Magazine writers asked, "How do you keep up that pace?" Newspaper reporters asked, "What else do you do?")

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