Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

by Jon Ronson (Riverhead)

Jon Ronson is enormously likable. And while likability is not a quality that’s necessary to successful journalism, for the kind of writing he does it really helps.

A practitioner — possibly a forerunner — of a certain “well I’ll be damned” style of reporting, Ronson investigates oddities amidst the everyday and shows us how weird a place the world truly is. In his first major book, the provocative and charming Them: Adventures With Extremists, he investigated the belief held be some that the world is controlled by a small group of people, a “shadowy elite” made up of Christian fundamentalists, or members of British Parliament, or something. 

Lost At Sea is about more ordinary people who are nonetheless doing extraordinary things. We meet a tiny religious group called the Jesus Christians whose members are trying their hardest to donate a kidney each to a stranger on the organ donation waiting list, even though they’re not legally allowed to. In the book’s most unsettling piece, we’re introduced to a Unitarian minister from West Virginia who helps depressed people commit suicide. In its funniest one, we accompany Ronson as he recreates, in a borrowed Aston Martin, a James Bond journey from London to Geneva while freely admitting that he’s never understood the appeal of James Bond. We meet the people who were accused of cheating the UK game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; a science hobbyist who figured out how to split the atom in his Angelholm, Sweden apartment; and a robot that was created in the likeness of a billionaire’s wife.

An important feature of Ronson’s work is that he includes himself in these stories. We learn what he does to get his interviews and travel along with him as he goes to conduct them. Reading a Jon Ronson essay is like spending a day or week or months in his company, which is fun for us because he’s self-effacing and witty but unfailingly skeptical, with one metaphorical eyebrow permanently cocked.

Ronson is British, but he lives between London and New York and sometimes writes for American publications. This gives his reportage an interesting bipartisan perspective: In a cultural climate where making fun of Americans in a clever way could almost guarantee a British writer some degree of success, Ronson has opted to make his work about both countries and accessible to people in either of them. Further, he approaches his work with a freshness that all journalists should have, though many don’t, often walking away from scenarios marked by a seemingly unassailable ludicrousness with his mind changed or his feelings conflicted.

In “Santa’s Little Conspirators” he visits North Pole, Alaska, a real town that “celebrates” Christmas year-round with decorations and carols. Children’s letters to Santa often end up here because it’s said to be the place where the real Santa lives — and last year, it was also the site of a planned middle school massacre that was stopped before its six 13-year-old instigators had a chance to carry it out. In other words, North Pole, Alaska is everything that’s wrong with modern-day American culture all wrapped into one hideous package. But Ronson doesn’t use the occasion to moralize or crack jokes. Instead he draws vivid character sketches of the people he meets there, allowing us to feel disdain and deep sympathy in equal, uneasy measure.

It’s this decentness that probably accounts in large part for Ronson’s success. (And he is successful — two of his books have been international bestsellers and one of them, The Men Who Stare at Goats, was made into the 2009 film starring George Clooney.) In the story that opens the book, Ronson interviews Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope of the rap duo Insane Clown Posse in an attempt to understand why these notoriously angry men might have written the song “Miracles,” a sweet and dopey ode to the wonders of the universe. Insane Clown Posse is known for their violent, misogynistic lyrics and also for the serial-killer clown makeup the singers (and their fans) wear, and they have a devoted following made up mostly of people like themselves: poor, disenfranchised white folks from the midwest. Many journalists have already written about the perceived idiocy of the music or attended their record label’s annual festival in order to make fun of the subculture that’s grown up around it, which is as uninteresting as it is mean. It’s a measure of Ronson as a writer and a person that he did not set out to make these guys look foolish, but instead shows them as the unhappy and conflicted — and yes, pretty foolish — human beings that they are.

Bright, entertaining, and sometimes very moving — it’s hard to imagine who you couldn’t recommend a book like this to. And yet there are a couple of problems with presenting his work in the way it has been here. Ronson’s process, which is so effective and appealing in a single essay, begins, after reading several of them in a row, to feel a bit shticky, making him seem less ingenuous than he most likely actually is. (It seems worth mentioning that when I was a new journalist myself, I was so taken with Ronson’s book Them that I talked a small magazine into letting me interview him, and he and I had a memorably warm and spirited phone conversation about his reporting process and his favorite books. Ronson has the kind of generosity of spirit and genuine interest in other people that, when you’re speaking with him, makes his intelligence feel like your own.)

In other words, my only complaint is with the way the book was made, not the way Ronson wrote it. It’s presented as a cohesive, themed collection, when it’s actually just a bunch of pieces originally published in the Guardian and American GQ. I felt set up to expect a neater conclusion or a narrative through-line when in fact the book wasn’t written this way and the nature of Ronson’s reporting is such that the reader is usually left to form her own opinions — which happens to be one of its strongest features. It’s too bad, because there isn’t a thing wrong with a collection of essays on a variety of topics by an entertaining and seasoned journalist. And that’s exactly what this is.

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