Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Halberstam, R.I.P.

By Mark Dorroh

There have been rather a lot of people of my age and slightly older dying off lately, but the one I'll miss the most is David Halberstam.

He, William Manchester and a few other "pop historians" taught me new ways to look at complex stories, to find the precise angles of attack, the approaches to gathering and distributing information which are most logical, which serve the narrative best … and which are unquestionably the most fun to read.

As coincidence would have it, I had just finished re-reading (and passing along to a motorhead friend) "The Reckoning," chronicling the parallel fortunes of Nissan, Ford and other Japanese and American auto manufacturers beginning in the immediate postwar years and going through the mid-80s.

"The Reckoning" is as good a book as any for analyzing the author's strengths and savvy. Halberstam was able to take a number of years to gather the information and write it, and it shows. The depth and girth of the information provided (along with some very clever understandings of how people in different cultures handle similar problems) makes those years of (no doubt enjoyable) toil well worth the candle.

"The Reckoning" is a sprawling nonfiction saga of the sort, as Tom Wolfe warned so many years ago, which used to be the exclusive preserve of novelists.

Halberstam was not a New Journalist, but his narrative skills, coupled with his superb reportorial sensibility, made his work every bit as crisp and page-turningly readable as Gay Talese or Hunter Thompson. His characters said and did amazing things, things with a dramatic quality one would like to see employed in works of fiction, but which, as Wolfe famously observed, had been left out of so much of the navel-gazing fiction of the 1960s and -70s. Halberstam's use of natural drama and the telling detail indeed rivals Wolfe's own.

We'll not see his like again any time soon.

David Halberstam, rest in well-earned peace.

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