Normally I would feel a bit awkward about making a confession like this, but I have a feeling I’m not alone: I don’t actually read the New Yorker magazine.
To be clear, I subscribe to the New Yorker; I have done for years.
And the arrival of each new issue is the beginning of a multi-part ritual: scan the table of contents, whisper “Oh, I’ll have to read that,” put the new issue on the coffee table, and, three to five days later, move it to the stack of older issues in the basket beside the couch, where it languishes forgotten, creating a stratified fossil portrait of the year’s progress.
Admit it: you do very much the same. It’s the curse of the New Yorker, something about good intentions.
There are, however, three exceptions to this ritual: the fiction issues get devoured, cover-to-cover (though they may have to wait for vacation). A new story from George Saunders requires prompt attention (this was previously known as the “Alice Munro exception”).
A new piece from Patrick Radden Keefe? I will drop everything to read it. Immediately.
With his last two books, Keefe has established himself as one of the finest non-fiction writers of his generation: “Say Nothing” was a brilliant exploration of the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the lens of a mysterious disappearance, while “Empire of Pain” was a deep dive into the Sackler family and the ongoing opioid crisis, and his podcast series, “Wind of Change,” explored the possibility that the CIA might have written the Scorpions’ power ballad which some credit with ending the Cold War. Yes, you read that right.
It is in the shorter form, however, where Keefe is truly at his best.
Keefe’s new book, “Rogues,” collects a dozen pieces from his ongoing tenure at the New Yorker, and serves as a reminder not only of just how good Keefe is as a journalist, but of the immense power of the magazine feature as a genre (and a good introduction to the New Yorker’s quality of journalism, if you’re not already a subscriber.).
As he writes in the book’s introduction, Keefe “first fell for magazines” in junior high school. “[E]ven as a student I came to think that at least where nonfiction was concerned, a big magazine article might be the most glorious form. Substantial enough to completely immerse yourself in but short enough to finish in a sitting … both attentive to the reader’s attention and respectful of her time.”
That early observation seems to serve Keefe as a guiding principle throughout the pieces collected in “Rogues.”
Keefe’s talent is the sort which defies easy pigeonholing: no matter the subject matter, Keefe delivers a thought-provoking, high stakes, utterly compulsive piece. While I have no interest in wine, for example, I was completely absorbed by “The Jefferson Bottles,” Keefe’s account of possible counterfeiting of ultra-rare wines, in this case, the purported French cellar belonging to Thomas Jefferson. “A Loaded Gun,” Keefe’s exploration of Amy Bishop, a neurobiologist who shot several of her colleagues during a faculty meeting, and “The Hunt for El Chapo,” his sprawling story of the notorious Mexican drug lord, are both more immediately enthralling (higher stakes from the outset), but each twists and shifts in unanticipated ways. Even his profile of Anthony Bourdain — the closest Keefe comes to a standard, celebrity-driven piece — is threaded through with questions and consequences, touched with darkness (“‘It’s a gloriously doomed enterprise,’ he acknowledged. ‘I’m in the business of finding great places, and then we f—k them up.’”), more so now with the benefit of hindsight with Bourdain’s passing in 2018.
Perhaps Keefe’s foremost gift as a writer is this comfort with ambiguity, the uneasy reminder that nothing is ever black and white. Despite seeking — and providing — answers, Keefe also recognizes that it is in the lingering questions, the unresolved, the greyness of moral complexity, that a story takes on its greatest power.