It’s been said often — and was said again by Bill Keller in Sunday’s NYT Book Review — that Christopher Hitchens, the literary provocateur, writes faster than many people read. Hitchens’ output is indeed baffling. There are rumors afoot that Hitchens, while hosting dinner parties, will leave the room periodically to write, allowing, one imagines, the booze and cigarettes to dissipate until more refreshments are called for. Then again Hitchens is not exactly what you’d call a pure reporter, at least not a shoe-leather reporter in the classic sense. He travels and talks to people, sure, but much of his reporting comes from within books. In Keller’s fawning review of Hitchens’ recent essay collection, he questions how much of Hitchens’ writing is based on non-book knowledge. “Hitchens finds much to love about America, ” Keller writes by way of example, “but on the evidence of this collection, he seems to find it mostly in books.” Hitchens’ heroism, what we admire about him, is the confidence we imagine it takes in order to see one’s self as the ultimate source. He is the kind of journalist who might chronicle his own death.
Vanessa Grigoriadis — contributing ed. at RS, VF, and NY — likes books too. In fact, in the same NYTBR she reviewed some Jane Fonda memoirs. But one senses that these exercises in commentary are for her the exception, a slice of chocolate cake she permits herself in between vigorous journalistic workouts. “There’s no percentage in opinion journalism,” she told LongForum last year.
In the past 12 months, Grigoriadis profiled Justin Bieber, Rob Lowe, Kierna Shipka (the actress who plays Don Draper’s daughter), Justin Timberlake, Zynga-founder Mark Pincus, DSK’s loyal wife, and did a deep-dive into Madonna’s charitable debacles in Africa. She covered the 50th anniversary of The Pill, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the kid-hackers behind 4chan and Anonymous. I’m sure I’m missing something.
One could argue that much of her work, up this point, has shared a pop-cultural bent, and perhaps poo-poo it on that basis. But then the September issue of Rolling Stone came: “An American Drug Lord: How A High School Jock from Texas Rose to the Top of One of Mexico’s Most Powerful and Ruthless Cartels.” Nothing soft about that.
In July, Time magazine ran a cover story: “The War Next Door: Why Mexico’s Drug Violence is America’s Problem Too.” Grigoriadis gets at that old theme in a new way, through a meticulous telling of the story of Edgar Valdez, a/k/a La Barbie, an American blonde-haired, Ralph Lauren-wearing psychopath from small-town Texas who outsmarted and outfought Mexico’s toughest padrinos. His strategy involved getting close to his superiors, then selling them out and taking their position. He alienated the leaders of almost every major cartel in Mexico: the Zetas, the Gulf cartel, even the Sinaloa and Beltrán-Leyva cartels he worked for. The first known U.S. citizen to have risen to the top of a Mexican cartel, La Barbie is now in custody.
La Barbie’s arc went from this:
In high school, Barbie was in the popular crowd, horsing around in the breezeways outside of class and waging egg wars after school. On weekends, he went to keggers on ranches, played elaborate scavenger games and hung out with his steady sweetheart, Virginia Perez, a bubbly, blue-eyed blonde…At school, Barbie was an inside linebacker on the football team in a year when the United Longhorns won the district championship. He was a solid player, getting a sack or two a game, but he was never a star. His nickname came from his coach. “We called him Ken Doll, mostly because his hair was blond and kinky like the doll’s,” says a friend from that time. “Then the coach upped the ante to Barbie, and it took off like wildfire.” Barbie took the teasing in stride. “He was a joker with a good sense of humor, walking around in his jockstrap and snapping his towel,” recalls a teammate. When he got an infection his senior year and had to be circumcised, he showed it off in the locker room, telling everyone, “Hey, look, guys, I got my turkey neck cut off.”
To this, 15 years later:
One of the policemen he kept on his payroll had informed him that four hit men from the Zetas – one of the most violent cartels, led by elite, American-trained soldiers who defected from the Mexican army – had been sent to Acapulco to kill him. So Barbie dispatched some of his own guys to ambush the hit men. When one of the assassins stopped in the town plaza to buy a phone card to call his sister, Barbie’s men punched him in the gut and hustled him into a waiting SUV. To their surprise, however, the hit man had brought along his wife and two-year-old stepdaughter, figuring he might as well enjoy a family vacation while he was waiting to kill Barbie…
The hit man and his family were taken to a house surrounded by an electric fence on the outskirts of Acapulco. According to testimony, Barbie’s would-be assassin was then escorted to a bedroom upstairs, where he and his three Zeta accomplices were tied up and ordered to sit on top of a bunch of black garbage bags, which had been taped together to create a large tarp. Barbie climbed the stairs in the afternoon, carrying a video camera and a pistol tucked in his belt…
The words came spilling forth. As Barbie questioned them, the men told detailed stories about kidnapping rivals, killing reporters, burying people’s daughters. They must have thought they were going to get some concessions for divulging so many secrets. But Barbie had other plans. He raised his gun. “And you, buddy?” he asked the fourth hit man.
The man never got a chance to answer. Suddenly, a gun entered the frame and blew the guy’s head off.