The power of ‘Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow’

Read this story. Read about Jack Hooker, a former cattleman living in Dodge City, Kan.

Dodge City is a cow town, a real cow town, a place surrounded by cattle feed yards and filled with “the stink of manure and lowing slabs of cow.”

Now Jack Hooker manages a motel. The Astro Motel. Runs it with his wife, Bev. They run the Astro Motel, and on either side of them are the Thunderbird and Holiday motels. Those two motels are owned by a woman named Bout Sinhpraseut and her family. Bout goes by Donna. She’s from Laos. Came here years ago to work in the slaughterhouses, scrimping and saving until one day she was able to buy the Thunderbird and the Holiday. So she competes every day with the Astro Motel, with Jack Hooker and his wife, Bev. They are all chasing the same thing.

The Astro offers rooms for $28 a night. Donna goes with $26.95. Jack Hooker puts up an “American owned” sign. Donna plants American flags around her motels.

Read this story and feel the uneasy tensions, the questions about race, class, immigration, economics and the American dream. These are topics very much on the tips of tongues today.

But this story — “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow” — is not new. It’s from 1997. Seventeen years back. Nearly a generation ago. Esquire magazine ran the story, and a guy named Michael Paterniti wrote it, back when he was only on the verge of breaking out as a bold-faced magazine writer. You didn’t catch the story when it came out. You read it years later. Writers pass it around from time to time, astounded at its style, its scope, its ambition. And you reread it still to remind yourself of what can be done.

The story stands out. It is long. Nearly 9,000 words. And it doesn’t include any charts or stats or experts to support it. It doesn’t include any quotes. It doesn’t follow any form so much as drop you into a place, into a town and a fight between roadside motels, these lives of two people, a story that tackles important abstract themes while staying grounded in the tiniest of lives.

And because of that, the story resonates today as it did then. It doesn’t play out in neat ways. No gift ribbon. No three-act closure. Jack Hooker, as you expect, bristles at the competition from “the gooks” and how the country has changed. He “realizes that he hates and is hated.” But Donna Sinhpraseut, too, shaken by what she faces in her new country and frightened for her children’s future, “hates and understands that she is hated back.”

One is as American as the other.

So, today, when you read articles that coldly detail the latest academic studies, the newest polls, the revelations of the deepest data dives, you find yourself needing to reach back to a story like this one, and only then can you begin to understand.

Todd C. Frankel is a reporter covering people and policy. You can follow him on Twitter: @tcfrankel.

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Jeff Guo · August 6, 2014