The Great Zucchini has a secret. And in “The Peekaboo Paradox,” Gene Weingarten exhumes the history that haunts the most popular children’s entertainer in Washington, D.C. The story, which ran in January 2006, is the best thing ever written by the Washington Post’s two-time Pulitzer winner. (Surprisingly enough, Weingarten agrees with this statement.)

“A children’s performer? Really?” you might wonder as you start the piece, but Weingarten is already there, waiting for you:

“You’re writing a story about him?” Vicki Cox asked, amused. I confirmed that I was.

“But … why?” she asked.

A few feet away, the Great Zucchini was pretending to be afraid of his own hand.

“I mean,” Vicki said, “what’s the hook?”

Now, the Great Zucchini was eating toilet paper.

“I mean, are you that desperate?” she asked.

Weingarten uses the skepticism to launch his tale: “if you want to know why that is – the hook, Vicki, the hook – it’s going to take some time.”

That setup is no accident. Writers have compared storytelling to a striptease, which points to the power of the dramatic reveal. But narrative also winds its way through comedy and magic acts. And Weingarten literally pulls rabbit after rabbit out of his, um, hat, summoning devastating answers to why The Great Zucchini can’t drive, has no furniture, and maintains a childlike obsession with children. The power of “The Peekaboo Paradox” lies in the way that form follows content – how the story itself becomes a performance in which Weingarten breaks and then restores the spell of the Great Zucchini.

The peekaboo of the title comes from the beginner’s hide-and-seek done with babies, and Weingarten describes its mechanics explicitly: a loved one disappears, a loved one reappears, and all is right with the world. As we get older, Weingarten argues, we learn to enjoy slightly more sophisticated versions of the gag, though at some level we’re still wanting reassurance, still hoping that peekaboo might be an apt metaphor for the biggest question of our lives.

But Gene Weingarten is not a believer. He is an atheist. And he can’t bring himself to buy the promise that it will all turn out all right – for him, for those kids at the Great Zucchini’s parties, or for the world. And like one performer calling out another, Weingarten begins to realize what lies behind the public face presented by his subject.

If you know even a little about Weingarten, you might be able to guess why he has the Great Zucchini’s number. The guy whose act is filled with cheap novelty items meets the guy whose Twitter avatar is a rubber pile of poop. The middle-aged reporter who promises to get a helpful reader laid encounters the bachelor who looks for romance at a strip club. The writer who, in his 20s, only remembered to pay his bill each month when the power company cut him off comes face to face with the performer whose electricity gets turned off for nonpayment in the middle of the story.

Deep in the piece, we learn that the Great Zucchini has other issues that Weingarten understands just as well. And he tips us to the weight of the coming darkness with the best line in the story:

We are rolling bones.

Later, an assist from the performer’s mother allows Weingarten to corner the Great Zucchini with the real nature of the world those children face. And if history is any guide, it will not all be all right.

Outside of writing circles, Weingarten’s fame doesn’t come from his literary chops. Ask a haphazard assortment of residents of greater Washington, D.C. (where Weingarten lives) to name one thing about him, and the most common answer you will get is along the lines of “The funny guy?”

Yes, the funny guy. But look close, and you come to realize that the Great Zucchini acting like an imbecile, inventing a banana phone and rubbing a fouled diaper on his face, parallels the juvenile material that Weingarten has chosen to tackle in his column at the peak of his career: indulging in borscht-belt goosingmocking people with silly names, and making prank phone calls.

(Presented with this comparison between himself and the Great Zucchini, Weingarten says, “You could argue that the only thing distinguishing him from me is that I married an adult who in some ways saved my life.”)

Here, Weingarten does his act by showing the Great Zucchini doing his. And while readers learn exactly what the Great Zucchini is up to, they may not notice that Weingarten is pulling off the same trick.

“The Peekaboo Paradox” doesn’t work just because the Great Zucchini has a terrifying secret. It works because Weingarten recognizes him, conjures his demons, and then returns him to the height of his powers at a stellar performance for a group of kids with special needs. It works because magic and storytelling – all performances, in fact – come down to the same thing: behind the children’s games, behind the Great Zucchini’s act, faced with our mortality, the show we put on and the stories we tell may be the only things we’ve got. And even when we know that everything will not be all right, the most magical among us, flawed and sorry as they are, get us to suspend disbelief and buy the illusion.

Andrea Pitzer (@andreapitzer) is the editor of Nieman Storyboard. She is also working on a book about Vladimir Nabokov and his century.

Looking for further reading? We’ve posted Andrea’s full Q-and-A with Gene Weingarten about “The Peekaboo Paradox.”

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

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