The brooding moral universe of writer Chris Jones. This week, we feature Matthew Scianitti’s story from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism.
Chris Jones dials a number in Scottsburg, Indiana, and Gail Bond answers with her slow Midwestern twang. “My name is Chris,” he says. “I’m a writer with Esquire and I’d like to write a story about your son’s journey home.” Gail’s voice tightens and she begins to cry. Then Chris cries, too. “I’m a stranger to you, you’re a stranger to me. Just trust me. I’m not going to stain the memory of Joey.” Gail likes that the reporter calls her son Joey. They share a tearful, hour-long conversation.
He tells her about a news story he read on CNN.com about American forward operating bases in Iraq. Members of Sergeant Robert Joe “Joey” Montgomery’s unit had carried him back to base after an improvised explosive device killed him. Montgomery was just a regular guy who ended up a casualty of war, and Chris wondered about his journey home from the desert.
But Gail doesn’t want to be the first person he interviews. She doesn’t want to lay bare her sorrow if no one else will talk. Chris agrees, and then does what he always does: he reports the hell out of the story. He logs thousands of kilometres tracking down every hand that touched the body, speaking to 101 people in all. With each source, Chris repeats the mantra: “I just want to talk to you about your role in that journey—what you did that day, how it affected you. I’ll ask you some strange questions because I want to get it right.”
Five months later, in January 2008, Gail offers a home-cooked meal and Chris heads down Interstate 65 to Scottsburg (population 6,040). He gets to a little ranch-style house on the corner of Elm and South streets. The eight-foot-tall stone slab that marks Joey’s grave is steps away at Scottsburg Cemetery. Gail answers the door, her eyes damp. They embrace. Gail likes Bud Light, one of Chris’s sources told him, and he brings bottles. Turns out she likes cans.
Inside, everything is neat and in place. Chris sits down at the round kitchen table. Gail serves pot roast with potatoes and carrots. It’s rich and hot. She smokes as she watches him eat. Chris wants to tell Gail he felt like he’d come to know Joey during the reporting. Neither fit in when they were in high school, and they would have been friends. But he waits. Instead, he asks her how she found out about Joey’s death. She asks him about Joey’s journey home. It’s not really a formal interview, just two people talking. Gail tells Chris she thinks of him like a son now. Chris tells Gail he feels just like another person helping her son come home.
“I wanted to do right by Joey,” Chris Jones now says of “The Things That Carried Him” which Esquire published in May 2008. In 17,000 words, he told the story of one soldier’s return home, structured backward from his funeral to the moment an IED broke his body. He sprinkled details—a girl in a flowered dress and the two yellow ribbons tied to a tree on Elm Street—that act as emotional cues and lend lyricism to the writing.
The piece won the 2009 National Magazine Award for feature writing. (In 2005, he had won the same prize for “Home,” a story of life inside the International Space Station after the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.) Jones spent eight months travelling and interviewing for “The Things That Carried Him,” and as with most of his stories, its strength lies in accumulated detail. While he layers just about every sentence with facts, literary flourishes are few, and he rarely indulges in metaphor. His prose is powerful because he draws close to a story, learning intimate aspects about important characters and moments. “In journalism, objectivity as this ideal should be replaced with truth,” he says. “As long as your story is 100 percent accurate, no one can question you.”
Although authenticity is paramount, Jones uses facts to portray a binary world without shades of grey: good-bad, life-death, truth-lies. He might sound judgemental, sometimes even pretentious, but Jones insists he wants readers to feel the human texture of everyday life.
Jones doesn’t deny he’s been lucky. If John Fraser, master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College and former editor of Saturday Night, hadn’t found Jones typing in his residence one night while paying him a visit, then Jones wouldn’t have left personal essays underneath Fraser’s office door. If Fraser hadn’t insisted Kenneth Whyte take notice of the urban design graduate student, the National Post’s first editor-in-chief wouldn’t have bargained with sports editor Graham Parley to let Jones join his department. Read the rest.