Where is Edna Buchanan when we need her? Admittedly, the lede on this recent Associated Press story wasn’t half bad:
MIAMI — A witness says a naked man chewing on the face of another naked man on a downtown highway ramp kept eating and growled at a police officer, who fatally shot him to make him stop.
Still, Buchanan, who was the great chronicler of Miami murder before she retired from the Miami Herald in the late 1980s to concentrate on fiction, probably would have come up with something even greater. At least that’s the impression I have from Calvin Trillin’s splendid 1986 New Yorker profile of Buchanan, “Covering the Cops.”
Not to get too meta here, but some would argue that the first graph of the profile is the classic Calvin Trillin lede:
In the newsroom of the Miami Herald, there is some disagreement about which of Edna Buchanan’s first paragraphs stands up as the classic Edna lead. I line up with the fried-chicken faction. The fried-chicken story was about a rowdy ex-con named Gary Robinson, who late one Sunday night lurched drunkenly into a Church’s outlet, shoved his way to the front of the line, and ordered a three-piece box of fried chicken. Persuaded to wait his turn, he reached the counter again five or ten minutes later, only to be told that Church’s had run out of fried chicken. The young woman at the counter suggested that he might like chicken nuggets instead. Robinson responded to the suggestion by slugging her in the head. That set off a chain of events that ended with Robinson’s being shot dead by a security guard. Edna Buchanan covered the murder for the Herald—there are policemen in Miami who say that it wouldn’t be a murder without her—and her story began with what the fried chicken faction still regards as the classic Edna lead: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”
You can see so much of Trillin’s approach in that paragraph. Most prominently, there’s the pleasing and subtly comic juxtaposition of high rhetoric and low subject. “There is some disagreement”; “the fried-chicken faction”; “the young woman … suggested”: the language is appropriate to an exploration of philosophical niceties, not of a lowlife capital crime in a fast-food restaurant. Also characteristic is that the tone, diction and content bespeak an intimate familiarity with and knowledge about the subject. It is a long paragraph, a stylistic habit Trillin absorbed from the New Yorker, his employer for some 50 years. Trillin, like Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling before him, comfortably inhabits those grafs (some of which are considerably longer than the one quoted). Within them, he speeds up and slows down. He digresses. And he often ends them, as he does here, with a choice kicker.
“Covering the Cops,” like all of Trillin’s work, is journalism in the form of essay, or maybe it’s essay in the form of journalism. On the journalistic side, it is grounded in (very) deep reporting. On the other hand, it indulges in none of the egregious conventions of magazine profiles: present-tense scenes; gratuitous insertion of the author’s opinions and activities; catchphrases and clichés; and breathless, breezy, false or self-satisfied language. As I suggested about the lede, it has a faint but pervasive comic tone. This too is true of all Trillin pieces (even his own sober murder coverage, collected in the superb Killings). The tone emerges from his observation that in the world, things often do not turn out the way humans plan or expect, and also that odd and unexpected things frequently end up next to each other.
This sensitivity to juxtaposition may lead to the characteristic Trillin figure of speech, which is the toothsome simile. From “Covering the Cops”:
- Edna’s “conversation tends to sound like that of a rather demure secretary circa 1952.”
- “Edna discusses the prevalence of wiretapping among police detectives in the tone of voice a member of the Citizens Commission on Crime might reserve for talking about an alarming increase in multiple murders.”
- The state of gratitude “is about as common among reporters as a prolonged, religiously inspired commitment to the temperance movement.”
Another device Trillin (in common with other New Yorker fact writers) is fond of is the list. There are a couple of Whitmanesque ones in “Covering the Cops,” including this, which starts midway through the penultimate paragraph:
Edna has covered a few thousand murders by now, and she’s seen a couple of most things. She has done stories about a man who was stabbed to death because he stepped on somebody’s toes on his way to a seat in a movie theatre and about a two-year-old somebody tried to frame for the murder of a playmate and about an eighty-nine-year-old man who was arrested for beating his former wife to death and about a little boy killed by a crocodile. She has done stories about a woman who committed suicide because she couldn’t get her leaky roof fixed and about a newspaper deliveryman who committed suicide during a petroleum shortage because he couldn’t get enough gasoline. She has done stories about a man who managed to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the heart twice and about a man who threw a severed head at a police officer twice. She has done a story about two brothers who killed a third brother because he interrupted a checkers game. (“I thought I had the best-raised children in the world,” their mother said.) She has done a story about a father being killed at a surprise birthday party given for him by his thirty children. She has done a story about a man who died because fourteen of the eighty-two double-wrapped condom packages of cocaine he tried to carry into the country inside his stomach began to leak. (“His last meal was worth $30,000 and it killed him.”)
The progression of items in that list calls to mind Liebling’s comment that an even earlier New Yorker fact writer, the unjustly forgotten Alva Johnston, had “a technique of defining character by a series of anecdotes on an ascending scale of extravagance, so that the reader of the sixth installment wolfed yarns that he would have rejected in the first.”
In his long New Yorker career, Trillin has actually written relatively few profiles; another that comes to mind was of another newspaper person, the New York Times’ R.W. “Johnny” Apple. That may be partly because Trillin recognizes that his high-sheen, highly crafted approach precludes an intense and intimate probing of the subject: the kind of thing you see in a Gary Smith or a Richard Ben Cramer piece. Trillin’s subjects are to some extent always kept at arms’ length. But damn, what great arms.
Ben Yagoda has written about language, writing and other topics for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many others. He’s a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing. His The Art of Fact, coedited with Kevin Kerrane, is a staple of narrative journalism classrooms. His forthcoming book is How to Not Write Bad. Keep up with him via his Facebook page.
For more from our 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.