“Perhaps,” wrote Michael Hastings, in the last sentence he ever published, “more information will soon be forthcoming.” For a short life devoted feverishly to the pursuit and disclosure of information, there can be no more fitting epitaph. The article, published on BuzzFeed and headlined “Why Democrats Love to Spy on Americans,” was a characteristically full-throated jeremiad against excessive government secrecy; it mentioned me, among other reporters, as a target of the Obama administration in its war on leaks.
I never met Hastings, who died in an automobile accident in Los Angeles a year ago. But I was intrigued by him. Who was this hotshot gonzo reporter for Newsweek and Rolling Stone who famously loved, lost and went long-form in war zones; took down one of the nation’s highest-ranking generals with a single scathing profile; and wiped out in a blur of drugs, speed, twisted metal wreckage and conspiracy theories — all before the age of 34? Hastings’s legacy has grown even larger in the past month, as his seminal 2012 story for Rolling Stone about the life and e-mails of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has attracted renewed attention.
Now, with the posthumous publication of “The Last Magazine,” a first novel stashed in Hastings’s files, more information is indeed forthcoming for readers and colleagues who, like me, want to rescue the man, extract him with jaws of life, from the trappings of mythology. The first-person protagonist, an ambitious young intern at a Newsweek-like periodical called the Magazine, bears the name Michael M. Hastings. But many readers, in and out of the industry, will see the real Michael Hastings in the novel’s superstar war correspondent, A.E. Peoria, a gifted, cynical and reckless careerist given to drug-and-alcohol binges and avid indulgence in Bangkok nightlife.
However, it is probably more apt to say that both of these characters reflect Hastings at different points in his career, and that the author — if this novel is really as semi-autobiographical as it seems — was forever struggling to reconcile the disparate facets of his personality. “I grew up,” the narrator tells us, “reading media satires, reading about the corporate culture, massive layoffs, and polluted rivers, reading about censored stories and the national security state, our imperial sins, FBI investigations into masturbation in the executive office, reading Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and Tom Wolfe and Pat Buchanan and Hunter S. Thompson. . . . I grew up reading Holocaust literature at the beach, Gulag literature on winter holidays, Vietnam memoirs on spring break.”
This self-disclosure occurs in the first of the novel’s “interludes,” short passages of gray-colored pages in which the idea of “The Last Magazine” as a novel is almost entirely abandoned. It’s as if the artifices of fiction were too much for Hastings to take; they had to be subverted periodically. “We’re about fifteen thousand words into the story,” the first interlude begins, “a good seventy thousand more to go. Adjust your schedules accordingly.” It ends with a promise to imbue his fictional self with “a more cynical edge, whether or not I actually had it at the time” – and, presto!, the reader feels the torque applied, and enjoys it.
The plot alternates between chapters narrating young Michael’s willing baptism in the religion of office politics and chapters depicting the steady disintegration of Peoria, whose existing complex of neuroses is badly aggravated by a traumatic tour of reporting duty at the start of the Iraq War.
The Magazine, you’ll not be surprised to learn, is a mid-Manhattan snake pit of literary ambition and fame-lust, where the international editor, an Indian intellectual-cum-socialite, vies with the managing editor, a bow-tied Southern historian, for the throne of editor in chief. The publisher has played up the parlor-game angle, and yes, some fun is to be had identifying Media Luminaries skewered here via roman à clef (Fareed Zakaria, Nick Denton, Lally Weymouth, et al.).
But what makes “The Last Magazine” of enduring value is the scope of its testament, how broadly, and yet with such telling details, it captures our times: the period defined by Sept. 11 and Iraq, the digital revolution already churning and burning everything in its path, forcing the great societal shift from paper to pixels, from journalism to “content,” with educated young people mindlessly careening from internship to trendy bar, unfazed by their own cynicism. After all, as the narrator reminds us, they have been raised — nourished — on Vietnam and Watergate, Mountain Dew and Internet porn, and have never for a second doubted that America is hopelessly dysfunctional at home and widely derided, if not hated, around the world.
Here is the duality that appears to have gripped Hastings most profoundly: America as Good vs. America as Not Living Up to the Hype of Good. He sees this in the Green Zone and in Columbus Circle. Of his contemporaries in media, he writes:
“They are important, or believe in their own importance, even if only expressed with the required self-mockery. They aren’t artists, and not really a community of writers, either; they are bloggers, and their focus is each other. They are hyper-consumers; they don’t write, they create content, stripping away any pretense of some larger ethos or goal except that it is somehow hip, rebellious — though they’d never use those words and they mock hipsters and rebellion too. A desire to be noticed and to criticize the criticizers of the world, to gain its acceptance by rejecting it, breeding a strange kind of apathy and nihilism and ambition, floating in a kind of morally barren world.”
“The Last Magazine” is tender and brutal, worldly and inbred, high-minded and gross, smartly rendered and rough around the edges — and quite often hilarious. Its author had a gift for capturing the way his generation talks, as when the Thai government’s public-service ad campaign for condoms is seen curbing the spread of HIV, “protecting its sex industry for at least another generation or two, until some new [expletive] supervirus came out.” I’ve no doubt that, were he here, Hastings would denounce me as a cheap whore for saying so, but “The Last Magazine” is the funniest, most savage takedown of the American news media since “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” by his hero Hunter S. Thompson.
This novel also amounts to an extended viewing of Hastings’s soul, of a sort not on display in his three previous books (nonfiction based on his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and on the 2012 campaign trail). When Peoria describes the demented state of Baghdad in August 2003, after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the prose surely applies to Hastings himself, his lifelong ambivalence, in all its multifaceted and unrelenting forms: “Mental illness can give everything perceived the same exaggerated value, worth and worthless indistinguishable. It wasn’t about value: it was about letting the mania take hold, allowing the mania to equalize all things considered, with the only solution for the hysteria to wind itself down, exhaustion the only cure. Following the mania there was a depressive crash.”
Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News.
The Last Magazine
Blue Rider, 336 pp., $26.95