Review Of Work And Other Sins, by Charlie LeDuff
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/25/05


  The name Charlie LeDuff was, a couple years ago, associated with another of those scandalous incidents of a newspaper reporter’s malfeasance. There had been reporters accused of making up details to ‘liven up’ their reportage, and some even won Pulitzer Prizes for it, but LeDuff was accused of plagiarizing some parts of a book about kayaking down the Los Angeles River for a fluff story he was writing about the same topic, even though it was merely an uncredited distillation of factoids. While this had nothing to do with his reporting his name was bandied about as another example of the faux ‘liberal media bias’ because LeDuff is a decidedly pro-working class writer, much in the vein of a Studs Terkel.

  I do not know whether the charges of plagiarism were true or not, yet know that such charges are rife in the literary world, to discredit people whose opinions- usually political, differ from the accuser’s, but this had no bearing on his reporting, nor the flavor of the mini-vignettes he paints, culled from a weekly New York Times column called Bending Elbows, he wrote in the late 1990s-early 2000s, in the book Work And Other Sins: Life In New York City And Thereabouts. In dozens of small tales LeDuff really captures the essence of New York City’s underside, the way, a century earlier, Jacob Riis chronicled it in photographs, in How The Other Half Lives.

  LeDuff proudly declaims, ‘New York is a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies’, and on that score he is right. But, o, what nobodies there are! from people coping with the aftermath of 9/11 to the remains of what was once New York’s thriving fishing and gaming industries, to the gay underworld, to assorted dives and bars around town, LeDuff paints unflinching portraits of real people. Yet, they are snapshots- not studied portraits. We get a wry smile, a man atop the Empire State Building, men who think they can get around the rules and regulations of the city, be it in Jamaica Bay, or in a strip club, or immigrants who will never make it in the new land, hopeful, perhaps, that their children will….We are left wanting more, as we so often are in life, and I know, and state here, that these slight but beautiful portraits will be transmogrified at some future dates in works of mine into fully realized characters. There seems to me, at least, an inner demand to do so. Such is the power of LeDuff’s prose. Yet, there are limits on it. The best of the pieces clock in at 800-1200 words. Above that threshold LeDuff’s magic genericizes, and he becomes just another reporter.

  Yet, below it, New York city thrums and vibrates as a creature in its own right. LeDuff has a reporter’s eye, but a craftsman’s touch. His prose is clipped and spare, at its best, and free from useless and excess moralizing. One need not moralize about manifestly poor lives being lived in squalid conditions. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the best portrait series is that about the 9/11 aftermath- especially one incident where a 9/11 widow is confronted by an angry radio show caller who thinks she and the other 9/11 families are basking too much in their stature, and asking for too much from the rest of us. Yes, there are certainly political aspects to the book, and LeDuff makes no bones that he sides with the All-American Common Man, or the ‘nobody’ as he calls him, but there is no screeding, merely revelation of what is in the dark, exposed by his words. The most blatantly political pieces are those called At A Slaughterhouse, Some Things Never Die, filed from North Carolina, when LeDuff got a job at a slaughterhouse, and reported on the racial tensions between poor whites, blacks, American Indians, and Mexicans employed there. The series was part of a larger one that earned the Times a Pulitzer Prize. He writes: ‘The first thing you learn in a hog plant is the value of a sharp knife. The second thing you learn is that you don’t want to work with a knife. Finally you learn that not everyone has to work with a knife. Whites, blacks, American Indians and Mexicans, they all have their separate stations.

  LeDuff, who claims to be half Ojibway Indian and half Cajun, seems to be able to use his ethnic middle ground to slip into places other reporters could not- be they upper or lower crust. Yet, this is not the most political thing about the book- that is how LeDuff seems to bristle at the notion of journalistic objectivity. How can one not empathize with the discarded, the abused, the cheated, the spat upon? Most of the ridiculously claimed ‘liberal media’ gives even less of a damn about those people than Right Wing politicians, for they do not buy newspapers, nor surf the web, so stories about them rarely appear. Luckily for them LeDuff is his generation’s Studs Terkel- able to squeeze maximal descriptive powers from the minimal word choices.

  I do not know whether the claims of plagiarism, or another charge of misquoting a soldier, have any merit, but the writing does, regardless. Journalism, like science, is supposed to be the search for truth, something art is not, but in his words LeDuff capture both literal and essential truths, and that’s an achievement for anyone- be they reporter, artist, or even scientist.

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