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To Know the Truth : A Newspaper Novel of the '50s Kindle Edition
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Meanwhile, Billy also covers the emerging mayoral candidacy of a GM heir and successful business man, falls in love with the candidate's stunning secretary, Cindy, and she with Billy, covers violent labor corruption, possibly involving Jimmy Hoffa and attracting a cameo appearance by Bobby Kennedy, and covers a strange series of torchings of dry cleaning shops. Only six months at the Journal, Billy is blessed with a wise team leader, whose credo above his desk on yellow newsprint reads, "Clean copy. Hard work. Better to know the truth than not."
Billy helps peel away at all of this yielding truth and a piece of national news. But the emerging truths about the people involved, none of whom including Billy is pure, for me, outshines even a fine plot. What matters to us? Can Billy, son of an idealistic socialist in at the founding of the United Auto Workers, Billy who, despite fast growing worldliness, takes seriously the worth of a reporter's quest for truth, last with Cindy, child of wealth, whose parents think Billy's stint at reporting is OK for a few years before he turns to something (banking is mentioned) in the real world of money and power? If the answer seems too easy, add in Cindy's gentle protection of Chuckie. Or reflect on a gifted member of the cast, who while guilty of an act of ultimate depravity, mentors a 10-year old black boy toward a better life.
We mystery fans already have excellent works starring reporters, books by Stieg Larsson and Denise Mina among them. In addition to his well-wrought plot and memorable characters, however, Larry Martz provides the best instruction I've encountered on workaday journalism and what keeps reporters on their quest.
Larry Martz is an exception. His book, To Know The Truth -- A Newspaper Novel of the 50s, is simply outstanding: It is funny, it is peopled by interesting, believeable characters, it is well plotted and it eloquently captures a time and place no longer with us. Its narrator and protagonist, Billy Morgan, is a young reporter newly arrived on a major Detroit daily, striving to make his way while he learns the business of newspapering and life in the real world.
Billy's hero is his editor, Sandy Bell, whose credo is "Clean copy. Hard work. Better to know the truth than not." Sandy is part of an old newspaper breed perhaps no longer with us in our sped-up electronic age, "short, lean, soft-spoken and unobtrusive, with a quiet wit and a slow, amused smile. It has taken me years to understand how remarkable he really was. He was in his fifties then, a remote and incomprehensible age to a 24-year-old, but even I could tell that Sandy wasn't like most men his age. He was going to end his career as an assistant city editor on a provincial paper, an aging bachelor with no money to speak of and no name to survive his passing. There was a big hole somewhere in his life. ... He wasn't what you could call contented, ever, and he could be testy, especially with fools. But he was a cheerful man, canny, and a good friend. He was an optimist without illusions: he saw people whole, for what they were. In the end I disappointed him, moving on ..."
Elsewhere Billy says, "Being a reporter was a fine grab-bag of experience, from hobnobbing with cops to interviewing a visiting archeologist about his excavations in Peru. You had to learn each new subject from the top down. ... I thought of myself as a professional dilletante. ... But reporting was also a kind of evasion. I had spent my life waiting to be a grownup, to join the real world, and I was still one step outside, hanging back. I told myself I didn't take sides, but what I was really avoiding was commitment."
The story takes place in the 1950s, and opens with what appears to be the sex killing of a little girl under the chapter heading: "Tot Slain; Seek Pervert." That headline and those that follow, introducing each chapter, poke fun at the business and hint at its seamy underside in a way every stiff who's ever drawn a not-quite-enough newspaper paycheck will recognize at once.
The story leads into a steamy relationship with a foxy rich girl, glimpses of what passed for the high life in Detroit and Grosse Pointe in them days, and a fairly true to life account of what went on with auto unions and management and good guys and bad guys. The protagonist Billy is learning about life and trying to understand himself and his motivations, and here the writing stands out as Martz delineates the inner conflicts, class struggle and ambivalent views that compel Billy's failings as well as his course of action. This is beautifully done: "And so I fell in love. I had done it often enough before -- every other year, on average, since I was 15 -- so I recognized the symptoms right away: the lurch in the stomach, the slight dizziness, the sense of inevitability when I stared into Cynthia Howell's pale blue eyes and tried to remember what I meant to say." Billy goes on to talk about love and lust and his expectations regarding Cindy, who isn't about to fit any mold he is dreaming up.
Martz is a consummate pro, an old newspaper hand as well as a reporter, editor and writer at Newsweek for over 30 years, so he knows his stuff. My only quibble was with the title: I much preferred the racy chapter headings but Martz clearly is just an old idealist who had to give his editor Sandy the last word.
Buy the book: It's swell.
FPG, a Michigander who reads 2 or 3 books a week
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