As far as I can tell, the New Yorker staff writer Ian Parker has no Twitter feed, no website, no LinkedIn page and no TED profile. Even for that magazine, he’s pretty anonymous. I think he may be the best semi-anonymous nonfiction writer on the planet, and I admit to wanting to write about his work partly just to create an extra Google hit for his name.

Parker’s 2008 profile of the actor Alec Baldwin has stuck with me over the years. The most obvious reason is that Baldwin’s just a fantastically vivid character – hammy, wistful, bright, self-critical, crazily ambitious, agonized, jubilant – and Parker gets terrific access. He’s on the set of Baldwin’s sitcom 30 Rock, he’s there in Baldwin’s Mercedes, he hangs out at his home in the Hamptons, and he quotes all the people you want to hear from in an Alec Baldwin profile (his less-accomplished brothers, Saturday Night Live creator and 30 Rock executive producer Lorne Michaels, etc.). But it would be wrong to attribute the success of this piece to the subject alone. I’ve read other stuff about Baldwin and it’s not this good.

There’s nothing self-consciously poetic or flashy about Parker’s story. No formal innovations. The prose style is New Yorker to the nth degree – elegant, exact. The tone is wry but not coy, with hidden layers of empathy and earnestness. The structure is direct. Parker comes right out with a clever image that immediately stamps his signature on the piece:

Alec Baldwin, who stars in “30 Rock,” the NBC sitcom that has revived his career and done nothing to lift his spirits, has the unbending, straight-armed gait of someone trying to prevent clothes from rubbing against sunburned skin.

The basking! It burns! Here’s the Baldwin tale in miniature: An extraordinarily talented actor has an amazing life, a life any of us would kill for, yet he’s unhappy. You could flake off this sentence, pot it in new soil, and it would grow a whole new story. Same goes for the full first paragraph, which, like most Parker leads, is both long (330 words) and dense (it includes three quotes, five references to people other than Baldwin, and one form of the word “fuck”), and establishes that the writer knows exactly what his story is and is in control of the telling.

A big part of the joy of this piece, for me, is the contrast between the exquisite precision of Parker’s prose and the careening, restless energy of Baldwin. Parker basically follows that energy wherever it goes, whether it’s someplace grim, like the topic of Baldwin’s marriage and divorce to Kim Basinger, or someplace funny, like the set of 30 Rock, where Baldwin says, while eating a taco, “I still want to do the episode of ‘30 Rock’ where we make fun of Grey’s Anatomy – where everyone on our show talks about something important for thirty seconds and then goes in a room and fucks each other.” Big, bombastic personalities like this can be paradoxically hard to write about – they talk so much, they’re so emotional, they’re so bright that you end up overwhelmed by raw material – but Parker figured out how to dole out just the right amount of Baldwin at just the right time. Whenever he needs to rein him in, he tosses off these little lines that contextualize and explain him:

Alec Baldwin does not regard himself as unusually volatile – one wonders if his verbal facility has sometimes stood in the path of introspection – but he acknowledges that he used to have a sunnier self.

Baldwin can be quite earnest, even as he keeps an ironic eye on his earnestness.

Baldwin is perhaps too easily seduced by a narrative of grand failure, rather than accepting a quieter story of qualified success; but by his account – one that hurries past some fine performances – almost everything he did in film from that point on was, at best, dissatisfying.

And then of course there are long stretches where Parker lets out the leash, and those are great too. There’s a scene toward the end of the story where Baldwin takes Parker for a ride on his speedboat, and it’s worth quoting at length:

We drove to the East Hampton Marina. “We’re going to be so happy,” Baldwin said. “We are going to be so fucking happy.” For the first time since the previous summer, he was going out on the water. Geoffrey Briggs, the yard’s owner, looked doubtful – “You remember how to work it?” – while Baldwin made a fuss over a small dog: “Chopper! My Choppy! Grrrr!” A few minutes later, we were in Three Mile Harbor, in Baldwin’s sleek speedboat, which has white leather seats and pale-brown trim. He explained that the boat, at twenty-five feet, was as long as it could be while still providing the initial pop of speed that would allow a man weighing more than two hundred pounds to water-ski. “This is why we do sitcoms in Queens!” he said, as he accelerated to fifty-five miles per hour.

The clouds were low and threatening, but the water was calm. He headed toward Shelter Island, making fast, sweeping turns. … He talked about Presidential politics, and an idea for a second book – about “the social and political and legal fabric of male and female sexuality” – and his hope that Anne Heche would play his girlfriend in the third season of 30 Rock. We became slightly lost, and quite cold. We nearly ran aground. Baldwin’s spirits remained high; or, at least, his determination to be high-spirited remained strong. “I’m so glad we did this,” he said. “I’m so glad.” At one moment, he let out, as if for the first time ever, a cautious whoop of pleasure.

By the end, the piece has achieved such a beautiful and total transparency that when you get to the final paragraph, which comes right after the speedboat scene, Parker doesn’t even need to guide you at all. He simply reels off a giant quote of Baldwin talking to his assistant while riding in a limousine. And it’s all you want, and it’s perfect:

“You told him no dice to the event, correct? What else? Saying what?” Pause. “What else? Which is when? What’s on the calendar now? Right? And her event is what? Whenever you see an invitation that says ‘What could be more magical than an evening under the stars in the Hamptons?’ you press delete. What’s going on with my voice-over for Major League Baseball? What’s their deadline? What else?” He banged the steering wheel. “What? Speak more clearly, I can’t hear you. He said what? Satellite broadcast goes where? I’ll look at that. What else? O.K. Take a deep breath. I don’t know what you’re talking about. What does their letter say? O.K. What else? O.K. What else? O.K. What else?”

Ian Parker: He makes it look easy.

Jason Fagone (@jfagone) writes about science, sports and culture for Wired and for Philadelphia magazine. An author with Crown Publishers, he is working on his second book, about American inventors and a $10 million contest to build a super-efficient car. Ingenious will be available in May 2013.

For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each Tuesday for a new shot of inspiration and insight. 

 

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