October 18, 2007


Encounters with the Strange and Unexplained. By Matt Hoyle. Andrews McMeel. $24.95.

Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality. By Mike Sager. Thunder’s Mouth Press/Da Capo. $16.95.

      Truth is slippery. It has to be interpreted in order to be presented – and that inevitably exposes it to the interests and biases of the interpreters, as in these two books. Encounters with the Strange and Unexplained has a title that is a bit of a cheat, since photographer Matt Hoyle did not actually have any encounters with strange and unexplained phenomena. What he had was encounters with people who claimed to have encountered such phenomena – and Hoyle went out and photographed the people, usually in or near the place where the phenomena supposedly occurred. The photos themselves are top-notch, and this handsome oversized paperback book showcases them beautifully. Atmospheric, penetrating, beautifully framed and distinctively lit, Hoyle’s portraits are always interesting and sometimes stunning. But they have nothing directly to do with what the book promises to deliver. Each two-page spread of the book features a wonderful Hoyle photo and a brief description of what the person pictured – identified only by first name and location – claims to have seen or experienced. Thus, we see Fran of Lincoln, Rhode Island, a statuesque woman wearing a veiled black hat and an old-fashioned red-white-and blue dress made of elegant fabric, sitting in front of a picture of Abraham Lincoln; and the text has her saying that her house “is full of love,” but strange things happened after “a paranormal group visited,” such as her being unable to shut off the water in the bathroom. Ed of Everglades City, Florida, seen at night, leaning in toward the camera and shining a flashlight at it, tells of being 13 and hearing “a god-awful sound” and “footsteps, too, like a squishing noise,” and then seeing a strange five-foot-tall creature. Denise of Seekonk, Massachusetts, seen in bed in a dimly lit room, half sitting up, with a puzzled-to-frightened look on her face, talks about seeing the “ethereal form” of her ex-boyfriend, who had recently committed suicide, “like a cloud of milky energy.” There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of these stories – and no reason, on the basis of this book, to believe any of them. As a photographic study of a wide variety of people, Encounters with the Strange and Unexplained is excellent. As a book about what it claims to be about, it is guilty of false self-promotion.

      There are no pictures – except word pictures – in Mike Sager’s Revenge of the Donut Boys. But many of those word pictures are quite vivid. The 17 essays here, mostly from Rolling Stone (where Sager was a contributing editor) or Esquire (where he is currently a writer at large), are written in a sure-handed magazine style in which a focus on details of people’s external lives is used to help readers infer things about their internal ones: “Dave smiles, tiptoes, putting down the box, moving into the living room, where he begins alphabetizing his CD collection across the fireplace mantel.” The subjects are wide-ranging within the realm of popular culture and what may be called “unusual and offbeat Americans.” Celebrity-focused pieces deal with Roseanne Barr’s multiple personality disorder and rapper Ice Cube’s rise to fame. Pieces that might be called “extraordinary lives of ordinary people” include one on sexually adventurous, mostly middle-aged couples who attend swingers’ gatherings (this piece has the unfortunate title, “Deviates in Love”), and one on would-be movie stars Lynn Clark and Steve Bean. The title story is about kids stealing cars – sometimes kids so young that one handles the steering wheel while another works the pedals. There’s a piece on a 92-year-old resident of Sun City, Arizona, who has an Alzheimer’s-afflicted girlfriend, and one called “The Secret Life of a Beautiful Woman,” whose main point seems to be that being beautiful and being empty have a lot in common. Sager doesn’t exactly look down on his subjects, but he tends to look at them a bit sideways, as if using peripheral vision to avoid seeing their essential flawed humanness face-to-face. He observes their lives keenly and writes what he sees clearly and effectively (he’s a onetime Washington Post reporter). But he is irritatingly unwilling to take a forthright stand on anything he observes – while often seeming to smirk condescendingly at the people he watches so closely. In a magazine context, where these pieces appeared months apart and in the midst of many others, the approach probably worked better than it does in the book, where Segar’s parade of subtly judgmental stories becomes tiresome after a while.

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