Eli Saslow’s stories for the Washington Post and ESPN The Magazine show a narrative journalist in control of his craft. The guy is incapable of writing a forgettable story. If you haven’t been reading him, have a look at the one about the Massachusetts mom whose basketball-star son left her heartbroken and evicted with his criminal deals; or the one about the 9/11 widow 10 years after the attacks; or the one about a teenage player in a savage, ancient rugby ritual in Scotland. Saslow’s editor at the Post, the narrative master David Finkel, recently told Storyboard, “I love editing him; he’s like half my age and he has moves that I envy.” (Saslow’s answer to that: “I feel so lucky. The industry and the paper feel so under assault in so many ways, but the Post really cares about narrative and validates it. Especially Finkel. It’s so great to work with him. He’s so relentless on himself. He never allows you to take anything—a word or a sentence—for granted.”)
The Saslow story we’ve chosen as our latest Notable Narrative is “Life of a salesman: selling success, when the American dream is downsized.” It’s about a swimming pool salesman in dry times. The curtain opens on middle-aged Frank Firetti of Manassas, Va., as he walks out of his office on the hottest day of the year, saying, “What a perfect day to sell a pool.” Saslow sticks with Frank through a season of sales pitches and promises, and the inevitable disappointments, ultimately delivering a layered story of one struggling man, one desperate economy.
This story, like his others, is like a master class in the kind of observation that immerse the reader in story. We like to imagine Saslow on the job with a notebook in hand and red lasers shooting out of his eyes, just zap-tagging details: Frank rummaging through six pairs of shoes “before grabbing his dockside loafers;” Frank sitting on a “knee-high stool in the center of the room” and grabbing a box containing 42 swimming-pool contracts; Frank walking into his corner office; Frank’s son “bumping his head” to rap music on his iPod; Frank’s father, Sal, “taking the stairs up to the office two at a time, chest hair rising over his yellow Hawaiian shirt.”
Also, voice. Listen to this:
The more he learned about pools, the more he found them representative of something larger. They were carvings etched into back yards as a mark of ascent, commemorating a customer’s arrival in the upper middle class. They were a signal: You had a pool, you were an American somebody. Frank loved to visit his construction sites, exchange his few words of Spanish with the crew and then patrol the area with a digital camera. The crews sometimes found it peculiar, but Frank didn’t care. He wrote into each contract that he was allowed to take pictures and chronicle his creation. A black hole in the earth became a smooth bowl of white-and-blue speckled plaster, filled with water so calm and pristine that it offered a promise. Here was a place of undisturbed relaxation, of aqua blue and sandstone, a monument to luxury that could be owned. He hung photos of his favorite pools in the office and brought others home to show his wife. He wanted one.
Tomorrow we’re talking to Saslow about this story and more, so check back.
And have a happy Thanksgiving!