Every once in a while there comes along an author whose work is so well done I stop to realize, hey I’ve read all of his or her books! This astonishes me as I have access to so many writers how could one gain this praise but it is generally very well deserved. I am a tough customer when it comes to books.
I remember in 1984 when Ted Conover’s book Rolling Nowhere about riding the rails came out as part of the Vintage Departures Series. It was one of the first books in the series and so far I haven’t read one that I didn’t like. I would have thought these would be grouped together on the Random House website but alas they are not.
from Rolling Nowhere:
“ ‘Well, at least you got the best of life/Until it got the best of you’ a song consoled a hobo who fell off a train and died. Few could claim as much, I thought; I wanted them to be able to say that about me.”
Conover is a great writer of nonfiction, he takes his readers inside a world you might not otherwise know about. After Rolling Nowhere about riding the rails as a neo-hobo came Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Mexican Migrants about crossing into America illegally and living among these illegals. Has has a great affection for the people he met writing this book and he still speaks about this with fondness in his voice.
“Teo,” asked Jesús, “how do you say it when a girl is wearing perfume? What do you say to her? I like your smell? Is that it?”
“I like the way you sm —– ?”
“Yes, yes, that’s it, ‘I like the way you smell,’” he interrupted. “Well, you know what I said to my girlfriend there one night?”
Jesús had dated a number of American girls, none of whom spoke Spanish. I shook my head.
“We were driving in the owner’s car—that old Cadillac he gave us—and she smelled good, so I took her real close, like this, and I said, ‘Baby, I like the way you stink.”
Then he wrote Whiteout: Lost in Aspen a bit off his usual and then Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing about working as a prison guard at Sing Sing Penitentiary which was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
“Then tell me, Conover, if I understand correctly. It says in this article that the government is planning right now for the new prisons they’re going to need in ten or twelve years. I got that right?” Again I nodded.
“What’s wrong about planning ahead?”
“Because, dig this: anyone planning a prison they’re not going to build for ten or fifteen years is planning for a child. Planning prison for somebody who’s a child right now. So you see? They’ve already given up on that child!”
His “you are there” style and well-crafted books remind me a bit about of my hero Studs Terkel. Conover goes where others fear to tread and bring readers back a story well told and captivating. He is willing to admit when he is scared and in an interview on the Longform Podcast he speaks about his writing and experiences undercover particularly to write a piece for Harper’s about his two month stint in a slaughterhouse called The Way of All Flesh (yes he still eats meat).
His most recent book is Routes of Man: How Roads are Changing the World and the Way we Life Today about how roads and our inter-connectedness has altered various communities worldwide.
From Routes of Man:
“ ‘I don’t want to be rude,’ I said to her, ‘but I really would like to live to the end of this trip.’ We consulted, and soon Li Lu announced from the back seat that we both really wished Mr. Zhu would slow down a bit. Zhu looked at me sidelong and then, if anything, speeded up.”
Conover holds a special place in my heart. He is a brilliant writer and currently teaches writing at NYU. We have aged together and I have felt lucky thirty years ago to have stumbled onto his books.