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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Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson