Review: ‘Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries’

Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In one of the articles in Jon Ronson’s 2012 collection, “Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries,” he refers to himself as a “humorous journalist,” or some such light-hearted description, as if to take the edge off stories about weaselly psychics, pedophilic music-biz moguls, religious mountebanks, financial fraudsters, and obsessive assistants. He certainly doesn’t tell his stories with stentorian TV news-style drama or hand-wringing sadness; he cracks jokes about his neuroses, is up front in his interviews about his biases, and generally sees himself as the journalistic equivalent of a mouse finding his way through a maze.

But he can’t fool me. I wish I were as bold and astute as Jon Ronson.

I should admit to my own biases here. I’ve read two other Ronson books, “Them” and “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” and interviewed him for both. I greatly enjoyed both books and my talks with Ronson himself. He IS funny, and empathetic, and a fine writer, too.

Still, that’s not what makes him a terrific journalist. He’s a great storyteller with an eye for the telling detail. Like his countryman John Oliver, he’s good at summarizing background while shrewdly weaving in new information – though, in Ronson’s case, he’s usually the one who’s gathered it.

He also has a sense of the big picture. In one of “Lost at Sea’s” best articles, about income disparity and tax burdens, he has the idea to interview people at various income levels, each one with a salary five times the level of the previous one. He starts with B. Wayne Hughes, the billionaire founder of Public Storage, who despite his great wealth is angry at the many people below him – the “takers” to his “maker.” Then Ronson goes to the bottom of the scale, to a Haitian immigrant dishwasher in Miami (who makes less than $10,000), a working-class couple in Iowa ($50,000), himself (“I make $250,000, double that in a good year – if, say, George Clooney is turning one of my books into a movie”), an entertainment producer in New York (seven figures), and an early investor in Amazon (eight figures).

The last, Nick Hanauer, seems to have the healthiest perspective on his money.

“There’s something unusual about Nick, in that he’s come to believe that the system he benefits so richly from is built on nonsense – specifically the idea that ‘the markets are perfectly efficient … based on talent and merit,’ ” Ronson writes. Hanauer notes that he paid 11% in taxes the previous year – certainly a huge amount of money given his income, but one that barely makes a dent in his fortune.

“I don’t even know what my health-care costs are,” he says.

Contrast that with Hughes, whom Ronson likes and makes a point of noting is no cheapskate. Yet Hughes can’t stop complaining about “derelicts on welfare” and “bus drivers who are on permanent stress leave.” They’re his equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen. But Ronson can’t help but think that the guy he’s really complaining about is the Miami dishwasher, who in reality is holding on by his fingernails.

That’s the key: Ronson is always seeing people as human beings – flawed, perhaps confused or awful human beings, but human beings nonetheless. He goes on a cruise with psychic Sylvia Browne, who apparently looks on her customers as idiot marks, but lets those customers tell the story. (For the most part; upon hearing that Browne said he had a “dark soul,” he responds, “Now I know for sure Sylvia isn’t psychic, because I don’t have a dark soul at all. I have a very light soul.”) He can’t help but be sadly amused at music producer Jonathan King, who maintains a cheery attitude while being tried for sexual abuse. It’s a style he’s familiar with, whether it’s letting conspiracy theorists have their say in “Them” or humorless industrialists speak in “The Psychopath Test.”

Still, Ronson’s most effective stories are those in which he follows an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps the most affecting in “Lost at Sea” is the story of Richard Cullen, a working-class mechanic who started taking out credit cards to pay for his wife’s medical costs. (Britons are welcome to “go private,” away from the National Health Service, but as with Americans, there’s always a bill.) One thing led to another and soon Cullen was juggling several credit cards and loans, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, and finally committing suicide when the burden became too heavy.

What Ronson discovers is that Cullen, despite his financial status, was being bombarded with offers, much like Americans during the subprime housing crisis. (Interestingly, the article was published in 2005, two years before the crisis started taking hold.) Ronson sets up his own set of 13 personas – amusingly, he names four after the Beatles and another five after the late-‘60s British hitmakers Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich – and finds out that the less financially stable his persona, the more it’s pursued by banks with credit applications.

Even Cullen’s widow isn’t immune. Not long after she receives a threatening letter from one bank, she gets another offering £15,000 at 10.9% interest if she puts up her house as collateral.

Eventually, the banks write off Cullen’s debts. All it took was publicity about his suicide.

Ronson knows how easy it is to walk in his shoes.

“Since I began writing this article … I have paid Visa about £300 in interest and minimum repayments,” he writes. He could pay it off, “but I haven’t bothered. This is because – like millions of us – I am lazy and stupid.”

Not quite, Mr. Ronson. For which I, for one, am thankful.

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Review: ‘The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man’

The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man

The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In Mark Shipper’s classic satirical Beatles novel “Paperback Writer,” Donovan is introduced as a spacey, easily annoyed prig who totes around bananas as his choice of drug. Upon meeting the singer in India, the Beatles call him “Don,” which makes Donovan extremely irritated.

“Don’t call me ‘Don,’ ” he tells the foursome, with increasing exasperation.

“Snotty little bugger, isn’t he?” Ringo says at one point.

Yes, Ringo, he is.

I should have given up on “The Autobiography of Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man” after the first 20 pages. Immediately you could tell that the Scottish folksinger has a high opinion of himself – quoting his songs and his “poetry,” telling you about the early days of his life as if he were the most important person in the world.

Keep going, I had to tell myself. Sooner or later he’s got to get to his meeting with Bob Dylan, or talk about producer Mickie Most, or describe the trip to India with the Beatles.

He does all those things, but it takes forever to get there. Much to my chagrin, I actually had to finish the book to learn about those details – which meant I had to wade through his self-regard for the lyrics to “Sunshine Superman” or how he says he invented “Celtic Rock.” (If there is such a thing, I’ll give credit to Van Morrison – or the Clancy Brothers.) I don’t recall the last time I felt cheated by finishing a book.

Listen: I actually like some of Donovan’s music. “Season of the Witch” is excellent – cuttingly laconic, in its drama an exception to his often drifty songs. “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is a fine taste of psychedelia, with credit due to producer Most and guitarist Jimmy Page. I even have a soft spot for “Atlantis,” despite the ponderous opening (“and other so-called gods of our legends / though gods they wehe-re,” he says in his brogue), because the “Way down below the ocean” part kicks ass.

But let’s not fool ourselves. On a list of ‘60s hitmakers, the guy belongs somewhere between Blood, Sweat & Tears and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. In his autobiography, he’s constantly bragging about his chart success, but his only U.S. Top 10 album was his greatest hits LP, and just four of his singles made that zone. (He did have eight Top 10 singles in the UK, but so did Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.)

What you want is the stories. He was friendly with the Beatles, after all, and surviving the British Invasion and psychedelia could make for entertaining anecdotes. Instead too many of the stories involve his pursuit of his true love, Brian Jones’ former girlfriend Linda Lawrence (credit where it’s due: they’re still married after almost 50 years), and how often he partook of the herb. His descriptions of his contemporaries are as shallow as his own self-reckoning. George Harrison is a loyal friend; Mickie Most is a conduit for Donovan’s own clever ideas and musical awesomeness. Upon finishing the album “Sunshine Superman,” he writes, “I felt the spirit move within me. I knew that the album I was recording was my masterpiece.”

It’s a very frustrating book.

In real life, he doesn’t mind being called “Don.” (Hell, he’s even kind to “Bobbie” Dylan, who mocked him – and everybody else – in “Dont Look Back.”) But his autobiography is missing the kind of self-deprecating humor that carried, say, Rod Stewart’s memoir. Even Graham Nash, who also has an ego, told some rich, charming tales of his youth with the Hollies’ Allan Clarke in his book “Wild Tales.” For such a lover of the mystical, Donovan has little of that sense of “How did I get here?”

Better to stick with the singles. “The Hurdy Gurdy Man” is a long way to go for a few worthwhile stories.

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