Nathaniel Rich is the author, most recently, of Odds Against Tomorrow. (June 2016)

To the Lighthouse

Edward Hopper: Lighthouse at Two Lights, 1929
The history of the American lighthouse is a history of calamity, insanity, and, in at least one case, cannibalism. The Boon Island Lighthouse stands six miles off the coast of York, Maine, on a modest granite outcropping barely above sea level. For decades ships crossed the Atlantic only to founder …

James Baldwin & the Fear of a Nation

Today, like sixty years ago, much of the public rhetoric about race is devoted to explaining to an incurious white public, in rudimentary terms, the contours of institutional racism. It must be spelled out, as if for the first time, that police killings of unarmed black children, indifference to providing clean drinking water to a majority-black city, or efforts to curtail the voting rights of minority citizens are not freak incidents but outbreaks of a chronic national disease.

An Amazon Without Certainty

Antonio Bolivar as Karamakate and Jan Bijvoet as Theo in Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, 2015

It’s a story as old as Alexander von Humboldt: white explorer treks into the Amazon, becomes lost and disoriented, paints face with mud, eats beetles, and has visions of galaxies and exotic reptiles, before finally achieving enlightenment—or total madness. But Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is strange enough to resist the worst of the old clichés, which is to say it resists moral certainty.

A Most Dangerous Occupation

A crewman next to a winch on a crab boat entering the port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, during an episode of The Deadliest Catch, October 2012
This is the second of a series on the most dangerous occupations in America. The first, about the deep sea divers who repair offshore oil rigs, appeared in the February 7, 2013, issue. A deckhand on a shrimp boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico recently packed his …

The Very Great Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt, 1803
The Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) is all around us. Yet he is invisible. “Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten in the English-speaking world,” writes Andrea Wulf in her thrilling new biography. “It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.” Wulf’s book is as much a history of those ideas as it is of the man. The man may be lost but his ideas have never been more alive.

A Prodigal Struggle with Demons

Muriel Parker Roth and Henry Roth (left) with Muriel’s sister Elizabeth Parker Mills and brother-in-law John Mills IV (right), shortly after the Roths’ marriage. In 1939, the Millses invited the Roths to move into their penthouse apartment with them on East 23rd Street.
When Henry Roth’s debut novel, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934, critics judged it second as a work of fiction, and first as a work of anthropology. An autobiographical account of immigrant Jewish life on the Lower East Side, the book was praised in the New York Herald Tribune …

The Super Bowl: The Horror & the Glory

New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (without helmet) leading his team off the field after his game-saving interception against the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, February 1, 2015
An NFL player can expect to live twenty years less than the average American male. The average NFL career lasts 3.3 years. By that measure, each season costs an NFL player about six years of his life. Football fans, in other words, must ignore the fact that we are watching men kill themselves.

Remnants of New Orleans

Richard Sexton: Ruin of a leper colony hospital, Caño del Oro, near Cartagena, Colombia, 2010

“While it actually resembles no other city upon the face of the earth,” wrote Lafcadio Hearn of New Orleans, “it owns suggestions of towns in Italy, and in Spain, of cities in England and in Germany, of seaports in the Mediterranean, and of seaports in the tropics.” There’s no better illustration of this than the photographs of Richard Sexton.

The Heart of New Orleans

‘Bourbon Street Jazz Bars’; illustration by Franklin McMahon
Two new books serve as powerful correctives to the prevailing myths about New Orleans. They explain why Bourbon Street and the flawed response to Katrina are crucial to understanding the city’s identity today—just not in the ways that most Americans, and even most New Orleanians, might believe.

Authenticity All Right: Lee Friedlander’s New Orleans

Lee Friedlander: Second Liners, 1961

Lee Friedlander arrived in New Orleans at a high point in the jazz revivalist movement, when fans of jazz as it was originally played in New Orleans in the first two decades of the twentieth century (before the perceived corruptions of swing and bebop) descended on the city with tape recorders and notepads and cameras, hoping to catch some of the old magic and document it for posterity.

A Killer Con Man on the Loose

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in an immigration photograph from 1978 (left); as Christopher Chichester in the 1980s, when he is believed to have committed murder (right); and as Clark Rockefeller in 2008, during his arraignment in Boston on kidnapping charges and shortly before the discovery of his true identity (center)
In Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn has created a fascinating, expertly paced, strikingly written ouroboros tale of two con artists circling each other—a lower-stakes replay of a trope familiar from film noir (Two of a Kind, Night and the City, The Usual Suspects, The Spanish Prisoner, and the recent American Hustle) and even screwball comedy (Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise remains the gold standard). Blood Will Out, like all of these stories, keeps the reader guessing. Who, really, is being conned here?

The Music of Big Questions

Richard Powers, New York City, 2002
Richard Powers has equal claim to being the most forward-looking American novelist and the most old-fashioned. What is old-fashioned is his unabashed desire to write novels that are, in their essence, philosophical. His novels tend to possess the qualities we expect from the best literature—vivid characters, engrossing stories, and surprising, …

Amanda in Wonderland

Amanda Knox arriving at the court in Perugia during her appeal trial, four days before her murder conviction was overturned, September 30, 2011
Waiting to Be Heard is, as her publisher put it, Amanda Knox’s chance to “tell the full story from her point of view for the very first time.” It is remarkable, though, how little of her story hasn’t already been told.

A Light in the Dark

The great Northeast Blackout of August 2003 passed without Robert Silvers’s notice—or at least without him giving the impression of noticing. While I and the other assistants, racing to the windows to see what was happening outside, frantically speculated about terrorist attacks, Bob sat at his desk, resolutely editing a manuscript about Mesopotamian art of the third millennium BC.

The Nightmare of the West Memphis Three

Jason Baldwin—one of three teenagers imprisoned for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas—being led to a pretrial hearing past the fathers of the ­murdered boys, November 16, 1993. From right to left are Steven Branch, father of Steven Branch; Todd Moore, father of Michael Moore; and John Mark Byers, stepfather of Christopher Byers.
In May 1993, Jason Baldwin was a skinny redheaded teenager whose favorite activities were listening to Metallica records and fishing behind the trailer where he lived with his mother. His cat, Charlie, would sit beside him; whenever he caught a fish, he fed it to Charlie. Baldwin was sixteen that year, but he looked no older than twelve. In an interview filmed at the time he appears shy and quiet, with an awkward, insecure smile that reveals a snaggletooth. A baggy orange prison jumper hangs like a blouse over his matchstick frame. On the table in front of him are a half-eaten Snickers bar and a plastic bottle of Mello Yello. He turns to the camera. “I didn’t kill those three little boys,” says the little boy.

Diving Deep into Danger

A diver exploring a gap in the ice of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica
Today it is an economic and even geopolitical necessity for oil companies, in order to maintain pipelines and offshore rigs, to send divers routinely to depths of a thousand feet, and keep them at that level of compression for as long as a month at a time. The divers who do this work are almost entirely male, and tend to be between the ages of twenty-five and forty. Were they any younger, they would not have enough experience or seniority to perform such demanding tasks. Any older, and their bodies could not be trusted to withstand the trauma.

Virginia’s ‘Persuadables’

Vice President Joe Biden campaigning in Virginia, 2012

There are few acts more debasing than knocking on a stranger’s door and asking for his vote. Picture the scene: early afternoon, an empty residential street in Cleveland, Tampa, or, in my case this past week, Virginia Beach. The canvasser stands on the doorstep bedecked like a jester in colorful stickers. The stickers, which bear candidates’ names, are important; without them he might be confused for a bill collector or traveling salesman. He juggles clipboard, pen, voter information forms, and pamphlets (the “literature,” in campaign-speak) and forces a smile. Dogs growl as soon as the doorbell chimes. If the canvasser is lucky, the door opens. Small children and pets escape, attacking his legs. A wary figure appears: a woman on the phone, holding an infant; a dowager in a flowery housedress; a man in gym clothes who hasn’t shaved in a week.

‘Things You Never Thought Possible’

Tom Wolfe, New York City, November 2011
The writers of Tom Wolfe’s generation who discovered Miami before him—writers whose careers began in the era of the Cuban Revolution and the Bay of Pigs—described Miami as the nerve center of America’s secret history. In the late 1980s, Joan Didion observed that unofficial meetings at private homes in Coconut …

So Deep in the Dark

Lauren Bacall, David Goodis, and Humphrey Bogart on the set of Dark Passage, 1947
Dark Passage, Nightfall, Black Friday, The Moon in the Gutter, Street of the Lost, Street of No Return: judging by titles alone, a reader might not expect much sunshine from the novels of David Goodis. But it’s not quite accurate to describe these novels as gloomy. There is gloomy, melancholy, …

The Mask Behind the Voice

Spalding Gray performing Swimming to Cambodia, New York City, 1986
In 1981, while teaching a class in the Experimental Theatre Wing of New York University, Spalding Gray asked his students to walk twice around the block and report what they saw. Listening to their stories, he began to panic: Slowly it dawned on me that they saw what I saw …

The Passionate Storyteller

John Sayles on the set of his film Passion Fish, 1992
The only successful coup d’état in American history occurred on November 10, 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina. At the time, the city was one of the most prosperous ports on the East Coast and a center of African- American economic and political power. The local government had been controlled by …

The Insane Boys Blew It

Ellen Burstyn and Jack Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972
The death of the old Hollywood studio system can be traced back to a short, single-column advertisement that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety on September 8, 1965: Madness!! Auditions Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers For acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age …

Screwball Noir

Barry Gifford, Barcelona, 2002
Barry Gifford is now more than forty years and forty books into his career, yet still no one seems to know what to do with him. Andrei Codrescu calls him “a great comic realist,” while Pedro Almodóvar likens him to the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Jonathan Lethem describes his style …

The Gambler

Robert Altman directing McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
“I love him,” says Julianne Moore. “And he means more than anything to me.” Keith Carradine speaks of a lifelong “love affair with Robert Altman,” while Tom Skerritt “just loved the guy from the first.” “You’d always love him,” says Geraldine Chaplin; “You’ve got to love him,” adds Mark Rydell.

The Deceptive Director

During the filming of Forever Amber (1947), Otto Preminger yelled at Linda Darnell almost daily for two months, until the actress collapsed on the set and was ordered by a doctor to take ten days off to convalesce. In rehearsals for his production of Herman Wouk’s A Modern Primitive—a play …