I’m in an airport bar, slightly drunk and being glared at for typing too loudly by a man in a “One Tequilla, Two Tequilla, Three Tequilla, Floor” t-shirt. For a moment in this mode, drinking, writing my way through hostile territory, implying a whole lot about a stranger’s character from a single observed detail, I can pretend to feel a kinship with William Finnegan and his writerly persona. But I know that it’s a very, very tenuous connection. Ridiculous, in fact. I’m trying and failing to think of a clever metaphor to express how odd it feels to have Finnegan’s “Silver or Lead” in our Essay Prize pool, jockeying for position with transcendent maps and play essays and talking bags. Perhaps it’s the booze or the hours of awkward, exhausting bar chat about Libya, but all my distracted mind can come up with is Pretty in Pink. Finnegan is Blaine, strolling into a funky record shop in a crisp polo shirt, conventional, successful, amused to be slumming. And we’re Ducky.
It is tempting, therefore, to hate on Mr. Finnegan and list the flaws in his nomination. For one thing, I will guess that he has no truck in essaying and perhaps (gasp) never even thinks to use “essay” as a verb. He is a self-identified journalist, though a “new new” one, part of that elite, McPhee-influenced dream team of white dudes and Susan Orlean. He wins awards given for hard nonfiction and gets paid grownup money. He’s a fucking staff writer for the New Yorker. And his bio picture is the kind of straight-laced handsome that makes me think he plays bi-weekly racquetball games and curses himself in the third person when he screws up. The nominated piece doesn’t seem to be in any way untraditional, at least on the first couple of reads. It’s easy to glance over “Silver and Lead” and find a content heavy, standard piece of reporting, written by a true master of the genre. Finnegan goes to the Mexican state of Michoacan where violence stemming from the drug trade dominates peoples’ lives. He pokes around in this world. A lot. In his meticulous detail, he shows off the specificity of his research. In his frequent admissions ¬— “it was impossible to know for sure,” “I was unable to confirm the reservoir story,” etc. — he lets the reader know that much of the power of his piece will be derived from a sense of fidelity to the gruesome facts. All of which is really admirable, displaying the clear language and dogged work ethic that has made Finnegan so good for so long. But, on the surface, it seems to fly in the face of what the Essay Prize purports to award: “Work that is defined by what it does—the activity that it engages in—rather than what it is—its ‘nonfictional’ verifiability.”
So I didn’t know what to write about “Silver and Lead” for a long while, other than that I find it really powerful. Now, finishing my second inebriated reread, I think I’ve finally realized what it is that makes me like this piece more than I usually like New Yorker articles. Why it leaves me with a sense of wonder and deep, nagging sadness, rather than the dulled effect of simply being told of a reality worse than my own. It’s those admissions that Finnegan makes, his reaching for truth while being forced to acknowledge how hard truth is to find in a terrorized world. Underneath the exhaustive research, the muscular, attempted-expert tone, I think that Finnegan is showing us a writer failing. Sure, he dispenses a lot of information, but as he travels from town to town, he finds no certainty, no answers. He gains no expertise. This is a wandering narrative, a staple of literary journalism that, while captivating, isn’t exactly new, but it feels fresh to me because Finnegan expresses just how desperate, how hopeless, his wandering is. From the very beginning, we are shown a world where the writer has no footing, where there is no reliable authority to guide him through the story. Finnegan enters into a town where “the dismembered body of a young man was left in the middle of the main intersection.” Of course, he wants to find out what happened. The reader expects him to, that’s his job. But by the end of the first paragraph, he’s already conceded that, “I wanted to ask the police some questions, but I was advised not to let the police know I was in town.” By showing us his how all-encompassing the danger and lies are, he’s quickly begun not just to tell us things, but to give us the feeling of a world that is terrifyingly uncertain.
Throughout most of the essay, Finnegan weaves his way through teaching paragraphs that deftly drop massive amounts of research, but he always returns to his own uncertainty, outsider status and fear, tempering the facts with a chilling inferred question – how can anyone know anything for certain here? On p. 47, after nearly a page and a half of fascinating exposition about crystal meth production and distribution within Mexico, the nasty effect of U.S. drug markets and weapons dealing, and the La Familia crime syndicate’s assumed role of outlaw hero, attacking local meth use, Finnegan jumps to his own suspicious gaze in a hidden rehab center in Zamora. His “appearance caused a stir in the street” and the police escort that he still doesn’t trust, but that he needs because nobody else would point him to a rehab, refuses to leave him alone, certain he’ll be hurt. Then, we get a haunting scene – our writer touring the facility with a trusty who claims that La Familia ended meth use in the area, suspicious that this trusty is in La Familia, himself, even as the man “denied any connection.” After giving us all of the information out there about La Familia, its violence and influence, Finnegan is willing to show himself unsure of who to trust, unsure of what will happen next, unsure of just about anything in the place that he set out to report on.
I’m not trying to say that Finnegan explicitly crafted some meditation on the limits of knowledge and managed to slip it past David Remnick’s uniformity scanners. I am aware that this essay is, at its core, hard-hitting, urgent, badass journalism, the kind that prizes content above all else. But still, the effect goes beyond that. Our writer keeps trying, keeps pushing at doing his job, wandering further into secrecy and horror. And I keep going back to the last four pages of the essay, where there is, I think, a real turn. First we get another moment of admittance. Finnegan writes that he had gone into the project with “an idea of how organized crime took over towns” but that was “a composite sketch” that “left out a lot.” From that point on, he forgets about interviewing higher-ups and summarizing outside research. Instead, he ends his essay with a rolling list of horrifying anecdotes. He cannot get an official voice to fully trust, so he seems to give in and let voices that are never heard speak, each expressing unverifiable tragedies. There is no certainty, just pain. We see our writer kicked out of his hotel as tourists swarm for butterfly season, trying to reconcile his gorgeous surroundings with the horror constantly percolating there. We see him flailing for peoples’ stories and then putting them on the page because what else can he do? In the end, we’re given no conclusion because that’s impossible. Instead, just a quiet scene: Finnegan at a family cookout with a man who was almost murdered while innocently building his granddaughter a tree house. The man’s sons are there, too, ever prepared to “avenge him.” They eat and drink and enjoy the sun. It’s a brief, peaceful moment that leads to this last sentence: “The granddaughter’s tree house, they said, was almost finished, which was good, since she would be fifteen very soon.” It’s an odd sentence, sweet, yet also a reminder of the constant chance of a violent death. There’s no closure to it, just the triumph of tenuous survival, a loaded image representing a world that is impossible to really make sense of. It’s a beautiful, artful move, an essayist not leaving us with facts but with disconcerting, unshakable feeling. It’s a bold, unique ending to an essay that makes itself hard to forget.