The best print narratives often take the form of either movie or metaphor. The first approach hinges on complete scenes, allowing a story to unfold as it would in film, through a discrete series of moments or events. This style often works best when a reporter gets out of the way and brings a world directly to readers, allowing them to enter a story and draw their own conclusions.
Hilton Als’ essay “Michael” from the August 13 New York Review of Books falls into the second camp. Als begins with his own childhood and recollects walking by the Starlite Lounge in Brooklyn. As the “female elders” hurry him past the entrance and disdain the bar’s gay clientele, Als hears the “high and plaintive” voice of Michael Jackson singing “Ben” through the open door.
Als moves through his story, bringing in artillery from James Baldwin and binding a series of sketched moments from Jackson’s life to the cultural context of his records. Along the way, we contemplate Jackson as woman, Jackson as white, and Jackson as freak. While Baldwin addresses how intolerable Jackson’s guises are to the world, Als turns Baldwin on his head to suggest how intolerable Michael Jackson was to himself.
The argument closes with what could have been a punch line on any late-night comedy show. But Als uses it to chip away at your heart just a little, even if you didn’t really want to read another Michael Jackson story.