One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America
By Gene Weingarten
Blue Rider. 374 pp. $28
Reviewed by Karen Sandstrom
In the heyday of print news, human interest stories were part and parcel of daily newspapers across the country. The point of such pieces was to reveal human nature, not to cure it. Gifted columnists and feature writers deployed prose powerful enough to bring readers to tears over a veteran down on his luck or a humble prizewinning zucchini.
Maybe that’s why I felt clubbed by nostalgia when I read Gene Weingarten’s new book, One Day. Here, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist indulges his uncommon storytelling gifts on behalf of the (mostly) common man and woman. Weingarten takes immense pleasure in sifting through facts for meaning, then selecting the right language to draw readers close. I hadn’t even noticed how much I missed such stuff.
One Day is built on an appealing — if familiar — gimmick. Readers may remember A Day in the Life of America, a handsome coffee-table book that aimed to show a nation to itself through a montage of photographs all captured on May 2, 1986, a day no more notable than any other.
One Day uses words to achieve something similar. And, weirdly, although Weingarten took some entertaining steps to inject chance into his selection of the day, he, too, landed on 1986: Dec. 28 this time. That settled, Weingarten began the search for events worth revisiting.
The task must have been daunting, especially given the timing.
“Any journalist can tell you that Sunday is the slowest news day of the week, and what little news there is often goes under-reported by skeleton newsroom staffs,” Weingarten writes. “That’s why, particularly in the journalistically flush 1980s, the local newspaper that would on all other days thud onto your driveway like a sack of wet succotash, would, on Mondays, settle like a leaf.”
Add to that the fact of the holiday week — another slow-news factor — and you can't begrudge Weingarten a touch of apprehension. He need not have worried. Weingarten won his Pulitzers for two unforgettable stories. The first chronicled classical violinist Joshua Bell playing music in a Washington, D.C., subway station; the second was a haunting look at parents who accidentally killed their children by leaving them in overheated cars.
Some of the stories in One Day are just as dramatic, and all earn their ink.
Chapters are titled by time and location, starting just after midnight in Charlottesville and ending at 11:55 p.m. in Oakland, Calif. Each begins with a key event in the life of a character or two; most fan out to encompass multiple topics and dramas.
Weingarten starts strong with the tale of surgeons called to take a heart from a brain-dead 19-year-old and sew it into the chest of a sick nursing student. The donor has just killed his girlfriend and shot himself in the head. The recipient hopes to be a professional healer. A less-sophisticated writer would be satisfied to let that story tell itself, but Weingarten braids in other strands: medical history, the politics of transplantation, the familiar-seeming details of young love gone tragically wrong and, finally, the life of the patient in the aftermath of receiving her complicated gift.
Scenes toggle between cultural panorama and vivid close-up: "The heart as a whole is a large, unsubtle organ, and those vessels feeding it that aren't the circumference of a D battery are still as fat as thumbs."
The book ends up being a portrait of the nature of time itself, because we see clearly how events bleed into one another and overlap. Beginnings and endings are rarely clear-cut. This is abundantly evident in a chapter that starts with a fatal house fire in Falls City, Neb., in which a prevailingly nonheroic young man attempts an act of heroism. Later, his girlfriend gives birth to their son, who grows up to be a bank robber. Then, well — let's just say the piece is full of hairpin turns.
A book about 1986 requires a chapter on AIDS. The disease at that time was widely recognized, if not well understood, and very much associated with gay men. Weingarten points out that 1986 was the year when a school district expelled a 9-year-old who had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. But the core of this chapter is the contrast between two men who ultimately died of the disease: Joel Resnicoff, a flamboyant artist, and Terry Dolan, a right-wing activist who kept his sexuality undercover.
Very little goes off the rails in One Day, although I had a hard time wrapping my head around a chapter on race relations. Here, Weingarten reports on incidents from New York to Arkansas to Arizona. Thematically, these pieces tie together, but the chapter doesn’t unfold with the organic elegance of others in the book.
Much of this sounds heavy, but plenty of light seeps in. There's a delightful little chapter about a controversial weather vane, and a wholly unexpected story of a long marriage that survives a bout of violence.
Weingarten’s sharp wit supplies so much of the reading pleasure. He describes a doomed married couple as “settling at first sight.” In an upside-down helicopter, two characters dangle from their seat belts “like marionettes undergoing the Heimlich maneuver.” He sketches one character this way: “dull-witted, servile, and emotionally immature — somewhere between a schmendrick and a tool.”
One Day is full of scenes and wordsmithing that can make a reader elbow her partner in the ribs and force him to listen to a read-aloud. That’s the hallmark of memorable feature writing. More, please.