Stop shopping for your Easter bonnet, and put down those 1040s – it’s time for a new Editors’ Roundtable! This session, our editors are looking at Michael Paterniti’s “The Boy from Gitmo,” which ran in the February issue of GQ. Paterniti’s piece explores the relationship between Mohammed Jawad, a boy who was sent to Guantánamo Bay eight years ago, and Eric Montalvo, the defense attorney who represented him at trial. We’ve also posted a talk with Paterniti, but here, our editors weigh in with their thoughts on the mechanics and memorable elements of the story.
Comments appear in the order in which they were made. We asked editors to note what they thought did and didn’t work in the piece, and to explain why. (For full bios of the group, see our January post announcing the Roundtable.)
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
As you read “The Boy from Gitmo,” pay attention to Michael Paterniti’s decisions.
He starts the story in the middle of the action. We’re in the C-130 with Eric Montalvo. He’s thinking: “What the fuck have I gotten myself into now?” Paterniti allows the mystery to unfold.
He controls the point of view. He tells the story primarily through Montalvo’s perspective. But there are passages where we shift POV – the scene where the two U.S. soldiers get injured and a few passages on the boy’s experience at Gitmo. In a story with several characters, the writer selects who has the primary POV, and who, if anyone, has the secondary POV.
He tells half the story before identifying the prisoner. We know him as “the boy” or “the kid,” only learning his full name when a judge rules him no longer detainable. We realize the prisoner is not only young, but stripped of his identity.
He uses surprising language, transcending standard description. Some Kabul glimpses: “the ash taste of burning refuse blooming,” “a low cloud of dust sparkles,” “the women cocooned in blue burkas.”
I wanted more about Montalvo’s history. We learn just a bit about a friend’s murder and Montalvo’s discovery about his father. A little more context would have helped me understand his motives: “Being here this time, too, has triggered that unconscious need to do something for those who can’t do for themselves.”
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune
Paterniti did a great job of reporting this piece and figuring out a theme and a structure, and he worked just as hard when it came to the writing of it. He never slacks off. His descriptions are terrific and his verbs are surprising and strong: Things stalk and ping and wedge and sweep and skitter and butterfly. (Butterfly! What a great and unexpected verb.)
Montalvo is “slightly fattened.” The boy feels a “spindled pain” in his head. The view of Cuba from the plane is brief but brings an instant picture to mind. The piece is a delight to read.
As Tom says, the point of view is primarily Montalvo’s, and so Paterniti uses language that Montalvo would use. But when he switches, for a nanosecond, to another POV, he does it deftly. Again, it’s all about careful selection of words. (The boy wonders what judge or “wizard” will make the decision to get him out of Gitmo – “wizard” is brilliant, because it reflects his complete bafflement and lack of understanding of the process.)
Regarding structure: It’s basically straight narrative, starting when he heads off to Cuba, ending some years later in Kabul. But there are crucial pivots to work in the background, and, again, he does this deftly. The pivots are short and vivid and they, too, are narrative. There’s no leaden backstory here, no plodding experts. The action, even though it is not always going forward, never stops.
The last line is powerful, but I wonder if it is truly earned – despite Montalvo’s demons, I think it applies more to the boy than it does to Montalvo himself. It was the only thing about the story that I questioned.
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times
I also tripped over the last line, but only the last line. The story carried me along effortlessly for more than 9,000 words.
The headline and blurb lead the reader to believe this story is about the boy, but it’s about the lawyer. The boy causes some key changes in Montalvo and how he sees the world, and the boy shows the reader something new as well, but we see it from Montalvo’s perspective. That’s why it’s a problem that I don’t understand him better. Like Tom, I finished the story hungry for more on his background and his motivation. I wanted more emotional punch.
Paterniti attempts to address this in a couple places, most notably here: “Montalvo will never be able to explain it to them, or anyone. Not even his kids. This boy needs him. It’s that simple.” But I found that unsatisfying. After such a long story, I wanted a richer conclusion.
That said, this is a gorgeous story. It’s a schooling in descriptive writing and in use of language. Paterniti always leaves me marveling at his ability to put me under a spell.
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com
This is one of those rare pieces of journalism that reads, front to back, end to end, like a fine work of fiction. It allows the reader to inhabit a world, inside out, and a stream of riveting events, characters and conflicts that flow from beginning to end.
It does this through
1) Language – telling the story in words that convincingly mimic the spoken cadence of contemporary American warriors thrust into the hellish belly of wars in alien and hostile territory. Consider this first moment where the story suddenly lifts you out of your complacency and places you back down on the edge of your seat, where you stay for the rest of the wild ride. As the attorney meets the terrorist he is assigned to defend, shackled to the floor, the two have this exchange:
“Don’t you know that if that door were opened and we both were out there free, I’d kill you?” Nothing has prepared Montalvo for this kind of venom, but his reaction is visceral. He leans forward and says, “Don’t you know that if that door were open and we both were free, I’d kill you first?”
Wow. And when the attorney meets the possibly innocent child accused of throwing a grenade at American soldiers:
Despite everything, the alleged enemy seemed, well, hopeful. As if a clerical error had been made. Like the boy believes he should be going home soon, once he’s been heard by the president or judge or wizard, whoever’s in charge.
The wizard. Beautiful!
2) Absolutely stunning detail, vividly described but not overcooked. Describing the grenade attack:
In the next instant, Lyons lies slumped over the wheel, unresponsive, blood gushing from a tear in his femoral artery. His legs are mangled; his left foot is missing a toe. Meanwhile, Martin, who’s still in the passenger seat, looks down at his hands to find them covered in blood. But whose?
There are some misfires, but they are insignificant compared to the overall achievement here. Unfortunately the primary fault is in the lead. Let’s retire the “This is a story about” gimmick in the first sentence. WAY overused and totally unnecessary in such an amazing tale as this. If tempted to use that, force yourself to think of something powerfully unique to this story.
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism
Ditto the writing lessons: sparkling verbs, language steeped in situation and character, narrative structure that spools out like a surreal movie. The “wizard” behind this piece is Paterniti himself.
Note the reporting behind that wizardry:
Interviewing: Few traditional quotes. External and internal dialog, and other interview-based storytelling, develop character and put readers in the scene.
Background and documents: Lyrical writing is grounded in deep, fundamental reporting – homework essential to credible narrative.
Observation: Descriptions of place and action give the story the quality of being not so much read as experienced.
Yet I found too-frequent speed bumps:
Confusion of time, place and character. I often had to backtrack to orient myself. The lead defense attorney comes out of nowhere. What is a “bad attorney’s back”? Who apprehended the suspects at the bomb site? Over what time period did the boy’s weight drop? Deft time and place cues would help ease shifting time sequences. Attention to pronouns would delineate multiple characters. (Sometimes the story reads as if passages were cut, then not rewoven.)
Transparency. Paterniti’s signature use of detail often serves as its own implied attribution. But this subject is politicized and opaque (which makes the reporting all the more impressive). A few sophisticated clues – direct or secondary sourcing, first-hand or reconstructed scenes – would aid understanding and trust.
Cohesion. Was this primarily about Montalvo’s motivation, which seemed underdeveloped, or about abuses at Gitmo and beyond? The opening and ending didn’t tie the whole together.
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation
Disclosure: Mike is a friend.
All I can do is echo my colleagues, particularly with regard to Montalvo’s motivation and the risks of helping Jawad. As an editor, I’d have had few large questions: Why the talk about a court martial, for instance? I didn’t understand how Montalvo’s actions rose to the criminal level.
Other edits are at the local level. The conflicting use of italics: Early on ital indicates Montalvo’s thoughts (What does a forty-pound dip in a growing male indicate?) but the device kind of wanes. Also, I’ve have pushed for small tweaks: “Unlike the al-Bahluls of the world, who face their incarceration with defiance – spitting and throwing feces at the guards – the boy is known to call out his mother’s name in the moments of his deepest despair.” It wasn’t clear whether Jawad called her given name (surely not) or “Mother” or what. Dialing it in: “Unlike the al-Bahluls of the world, who face their incarceration with defiance – spitting and throwing feces at the guards – the boy is known to call for his mother in moments of deepest despair,” or even: “The al-Bahluls of the world face their incarceration with defiance – spitting and throwing feces at the guards; in the boy’s moments of deepest despair he is known to call for his mother.” By ending the sentence on the strongest possible word, this option would leave us at “mother,” which is more emotionally powerful even than “despair.”
But do you see how I’m reaching?
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated
I love this piece. What affected me most was the sheer feeling of it – the outrage, frustration and despair. The story works brilliantly as a metaphor for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Many of the same forces that make it impossible for Montalvo to help Jawad – fear, corruption, conflicting agendas, mutual incomprehension – also doom the U.S. effort in Central Asia. It’s a great example of using a small story to illuminate a larger one. I didn’t feel shortchanged on Montalvo’s motivation. We get enough of it, and if there’s still some mystery there, well, who knows what finally motivates people?
The one awkward break in chronology comes at the end, when Jawad’s flight to Pakistan is inserted before the final scene of Montalvo and Jawad in Kabul. The story changes focus and point of view seamlessly, with one minor exception: During a description of Jawad’s interrogation that seems to come from government documents, we suddenly read something that could only have come from Jawad or from the writer’s imagination: “They keep … blasting him with words until he loses his grip on them, until an opaque glow comes between him and them….”
Many of the descriptions are terrific: the “arid land of organ-pipe cacti and big loping rodents called banana rats”; the taxi “hitting people with the open door as it goes, the bloody legs dangling”; the boy appearing “again and again in Gitmo’s strange pointillism, hungry, lonely, trading for whatever he can.” There’s the occasional head-scratcher (“a hollow thud, like an empty bottle rolling on the floor”) and non sequitur (“al-Bahlul is also among the most doctrinaire, having been locked away in solitary for years”), but these are minor quibbles. To repeat, I love the story, and it’s all about the feeling.
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot
I agree with so much of what’s been celebrated, particularly about the terrific reporting and word choice.
I also love this story for its restraint. Writers sometimes struggle with drama. They feel compelled to make sure you understand that THIS IS A DRAMATIC MOMENT. Here, Paterniti never overdoes it.
This scene is brilliant:
In a room, she waits for her son. And then comes a young man with an impressive beard and blemished skin, a heavy brow, and dark, penetrating eyes. Her first reaction is, no, there must be some mistake here. But the man insists he belongs to her. She reaches out, to touch his head, her hand to the spot where her son had always had a knob, and then she knows and can’t speak anymore, holding him close.
Look at what he didn’t include.
Great lessons here as well in how to use dialogue and quotes. The voice in Montalvo’s head conveys a lot of the doubt and angst he has about his personal choice, and what he says out loud is essentially him answering his own questions. He’s explaining why he had to get involved. It’s very effective.
I do think the writer is trying too hard with the lead. And like others, I thought the ending felt wrong. The attorney doesn’t seem free – in fact, quite the opposite. Also, the idea that “this boy needs him” exposed the emotional crater in the story. I related to Montalvo as a parent, and that’s what tied me in knots. The most wrenching dilemma here is whether he loses his own family to save this kid.
Some would say this story isn’t so much about the attorney as it is about America’s bad behavior and the madness we’ve created, but I’d say, I’ve read that story. I was drawn in by this man’s quest to right a wrong.
See what Michael Paterniti has to say about his story, and stay tuned for the next installment of the Editors’ Roundtable in early May. (Or check out prior Editors’ Roundtables.) In the meantime, if you have a piece you’d like to see our editors dissect, please send it along to email@example.com. The story has to be already published, available online and worth a tug or two at its seams to see how it works.