August Editors’ Roundtable No. 1: GQ ponders truth, lies and mystery
Our first Roundtable of August considers “Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph Basketball Scandal,” by Michael Mooney. The story spotlights a high school basketball player who stirred up questions about truth and identity that the town of Odessa, Texas, is still struggling to answer. “Blindsided” ran in the July issue of GQ and was edited by Michael Benoist.
For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated
On the importance of the setup and kicker:
This story reminded me of the French film “The Return of Martin Guerre,” in which a character who appears out of nowhere might or might not be who he says he is. Like the movie, the lede of “Blindsided” both makes you care about Jerry Joseph – an overgrown child of misfortune longing for a home and a family – and plants seeds of doubt about him. The supposed facts of his life are carefully attributed: “He said he didn’t really know what day he was born. His parents were both dead before he turned 5, he said. . . . Jerry Joseph’s birth certificate read January 1.” The attributions indicate that we don’t know these things to be true. Jerry’s life, another character guesses, might be a dream.
Even Jerry’s feelings at his birthday party are either reported or imagined by others. This deftly tells us that this story will be substantially about the way people reacted to Jerry and that we may never hear the truth from him. We will learn it, though: A line about Jerry’s foster father, Danny Wright, hints that the mystery has been solved (“It’s a moment Wright keeps coming back to”). It’s logical to imagine right away that Jerry Joseph will turn out to be a fraud (especially if you’ve been reminded of “The Return of Martin Guerre”), but as a reader you’re in the same position as the people around Jerry, and you won’t know for sure until they do. You have to read on.
Even after the mystery is solved, the story’s final section keeps it alive. We know Jerry Joseph’s real name is Guerdwich Montimere, but we really don’t know who he is. We only know who he wants to be, perhaps even believes he is. The author repeats the theme of the story, which he stated once before, well into the narrative: “Every man dreams about it. … How much fun it’d be to replay the game of life if given a second chance.” We finally meet Guerdwich, and he says his name is Jerry.
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation
This is worth repeating: We’re often too quick to refer to any long feature story as a narrative. Just because a piece is long doesn’t make it a narrative, and just because a piece is short doesn’t not make it a narrative. One of my favorite narratives is an 835-word story by the wonderful Larry Bingham, about a Texas man who, at age 98, learned how to read.
A narrative contains arc, character development (doable even in a straightjacket, as Bingham proves), nuance and, to some degree, suspense. By suspense I don’t mean sounding the Here’s Some Drama! gong via strained writing and an authorial desire to make structure do the hard work of reporting/writing; I mean perfuming the air with an intriguing question or two. A mystery on any scale keeps us turning pages.
Mooney’s piece lent itself to a slow tell because the story itself is a mystery – that always helps – but he easily could’ve ruined the thing by overwriting, which tends to happen when you’ve underreported or when you’re stumped by the mechanics of a story that’s missing some of its natural parts. The development of suspense started not with the writing but rather with the reporting. In keeping key questions in mind as the investigator/writer, he nurtured them on the page: Is Jerry a fraud? Who the hell is Jerry? If he isn’t who he says he is, why all the fakery? How will Coach Wright, and Odessa, handle the revelation?
Those answers are the destination; Mooney seeds the story with foreshadowing details that move us there. Details about trust. Details about warning pings that sounded when Jerry first took off his shirt. Think of these as Chekhov’s firecrackers.
Also, as crucial as it is to work toward a killer kicker, it’s just as important in a story of this length to hone section kickers. Individually, Mooney’s section kickers keep you reading; collectively they’re the dovetail joints holding the whole cabinet together.
- “Who were we to question his story,” Anders says. “He was the first Haitian most of us had ever met.”
- Just when you knew where Jerry was going, he went in a completely new direction.
- He needed to know one thing: Was there a girl?
- “Where’s Jerry, Daddy? Where’s Jerry?”
His ultimate kicker is powerful in its simplicity and also in its complex message about human identity. Plus, it leaves us in a moment of currency and forward spin.
On the art of withholding and revealing:
A lot of writing involves deciding how to release information, what to reveal now, and what to conceal for later. The idea is both to make a complex set of facts painless for the reader to absorb by managing the download of information, and (as Paige notes) to create suspense. Michael Mooney proves to be a master of both in this piece, a mastery he demonstrates before you even get beyond the lede. In the very first paragraph, he jumps right in to the literal middle of the story, but by careful selection of what facts he presents, he manages to make a complicated story comprehensible.
He economically conveys, in this order; 1) the mystery, 2) the unusual circumstances, and 3) the foreshadowing that something is wrong with this picture.
The mystery is conveyed directly, but with sparse information: “He said he didn’t really know what day he was born. His parents were both dead before he turned 5, he said, and he’d never celebrated a birthday in his life.”
The unusual circumstances: “But Jerry Joseph’s birth certificate read January 1, so on New Year’s Day 2010, his family gathered around him. It would be a new year, a new decade, a celebration of Jerry’s brand-new life.”
The incongruity is the cherry on top: “There were flimsy cardboard hats and streamers and wrapped gifts. Jerry, who at six feet five and 220 pounds was several inches taller than anyone else in his adoptive family, was presented a white cake adorned with candles in the shape of a 1 and a 6.”
Note how he chooses to never actually say the age “16.” Allowing the reader to pick this up only by indirection ironically manages to magnify its significance. Without ever saying it directly, he’s assured that every reader will emerge from the lede knowing that the mystery of Jerry’s origins and his age will be the most discordant issues in what otherwise might just be a feel-good story about a privileged family adopting an underprivileged boy.
Two paragraphs in, readers are already far more involved and curious than if the writer had simply explained what the story would be about in a traditional nut graf. He has delivered a keen intuitive sense of what will make this story worth reading, and a sense of delight in anticipation of a story told in a dramatic, rather than pedantic way.
He keeps his narration steadfastly nonjudgmental by taking Jerry’s increasingly implausible claim that he is not a fraud at face value – a stance that pays wonderful dividends at the end, when we discover that Jerry’s insistence that “I am not that person” has taken on more than a literal meaning, that Jerry’s lie has become, on some level his truth.
The overall principle here is one of respect for the readers, and an understanding that the more you enable readers to divine for themselves, using expertly arranged clues, the more they will get out of the reading experience. Of course, this is a risky strategy, because it requires unerring judgment to prevent the sense of enlightenment a reader experiences from degrading into mere confusion. Mooney’s sure hand here removes any threat that will happen.
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot
On developing character without the character’s help:
The question that drives this story, of course, is “Who is this guy?” and not “Is he Jerry Joseph or Guerdwich Montimere?” Who was it that the people in Odessa met and became attached to – a decent person or a fraud? Or possibly both?
The writer here has to reveal character, and has to do it without the character’s help.
That’s a dilemma we find ourselves in from time to time. Sometimes, a person is reluctant to share his story. Or he clearly wants to embellish his tale, to make himself come across in a stronger light. Occasionally, we’re writing about someone who has disappeared or passed away.
It’s not impossible to succeed in those circumstances, but it is challenging.
A reporter is forced to ask people who crossed paths with the character to help provide the telling details.
Michael Mooney does a lot of work here. He shows us what they saw:
- Danny Wright … noticed the kid get misty-eyed, just as he had at his first Christmas a week earlier.
- Lots of people saw him out there in the hot August sun. Three miles each way, jogging through the streets like he was Rocky or something.
- He skipped down the halls when he thought nobody was watching.
He tells us what Joseph told townspeople:
- He said he didn’t really know what day he was born.
- He’d been homeless in Haiti, he said.
- He said that most of his life was spent herding goats.
He gives us physical description, mannerisms:
- The kid had all sorts of tattoos, inflated pecs, and shoulders like a racehorse.
- Jerry had a beautiful wide smile and what nearly everyone describes as an exotic “swagger.”
- Fans remarked that with his flat-top haircut and the way he always seemed drenched in sweat, Jerry looked a little like Boobie Miles, the star-crossed running back from the Friday Night Lights season.
He shares what people were thinking about this guy:
- A few of the teachers joked that Jerry was secretly an adult.
- Anders wondered if maybe the kid wasn’t some kind of prodigy.
- “He knew the game like a coach.”
And the nicknames they gave him:
- They called him Grandpa and the Haitian Sensation.
He describes Joseph’s actions:
- Jerry was popular with the teenage girls, a good employee – never late, never snapped at anyone, never had any money missing from his register.
- Just seconds into the first quarter, he snatched the ball and drove the length of the court, throwing down what several teammates describe as a “gorilla slam.”
- If he thought he’d miss church, he made sure to e-mail Pastor Skelton saying he’d be thinking of them.
Imagine the litany of questions Mooney had to ask – what did Joseph do and say? What did you notice about him? What were you thinking each time you were with him? What were your conversations like? How did you react to him? Why didn’t anyone challenge his account of his past?
All those answers built this story.
At the end, readers are left much like the townspeople, holding out hope that it wasn’t a total betrayal. But if it was, at least we can understand how a stranger managed to win this town over.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
On finding the emotional core of the story:
(Full disclosure: I was Mike Mooney’s editor when he was an intern at The Dallas Morning News in 2007.)
While the character of Jerry Joseph stands at the center of “Blindsided” – he is the reason for the story, after all – Mike Mooney develops the emotional heart of his story through another central character: Danny Wright.
As Maria Carrillo notes, Mooney paints the portrait of Joseph through the perspectives of people whose lives he touched. Still, Joseph remains an enigma. Is he the ultimate con man, or is he psychologically damaged, or is he both? We may never know, and that’s where Danny Wright comes in.
Most stories need a central character that readers can identify with, and it helps if the character faces a dilemma.
Wright is a good man. He’s the 50-year-old basketball coach who used to direct the local Boys & Girls Club. He’s known as “Dad” or “Pops” around town, and he and his wife have taken in as many as 18 kids over the years. “The oldest of five in a single-mother household, Wright has been taking care of kids his whole life,” Mike writes. “It’s why God put him on this earth.”
Wright always sees the good in people. The dilemma he faces is that, while he can see a lot of good in Jerry, he can’t decipher what’s truth and what’s fiction in Jerry’s story. His faith in people is shaken.
Mooney’s storytelling benefits from Wright’s ability to observe what’s around him and reflect upon it. For example, the first scene – of the birthday party – is based largely on Wright’s memory. And the question Wright asks in hindsight launches the story. “It’s a moment Wright keeps coming back to, when Jerry closed his bright brown eyes. What could the boy have wished for? he wonders.”
Like Wright, we are driven to ask this question throughout the story as we learn more about Jerry’s fabrications. When Wright finally learns the truth about Jerry Joseph, we feel his heart breaking – our hearts break, too – even as his anger rises.
“This is you,” Coach Wright said, barely able to contain his anger.
“That ain’t me,” Jerry said.
“Look,” Wright said, leaning in, “I’m not asking for confirmation. I’m telling you. I don’t know what you’re pulling, but you need to get your things and be on your way.”
By the end of the story, Wright’s family is torn – his wife and kids still love Joseph, but the coach has his doubts. And he’s no longer sure whether he can still help needy kids.
Mooney’s story, then, is not only about the mystery of Jerry Joseph. It also follows the emotional journey of Danny Wright, from faith through betrayal to doubt.
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