The Magazine Reader

After Plimpton, Onward & Upward

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

George Plimpton is dead, alas, but the magazine he founded, the Paris Review, is alive and well and resounding with the voices of Salman Rushdie, Stephen King, Joseph Stalin, a Serb terrorist, a Chinese public toilet manager and an American woman who impersonated a fictitious female impersonator.

Plimpton was, of course, the "participatory journalist" who became famous writing about getting shot out of a circus cannon, boxing Archie Moore and playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions, goalie for the Boston Bruins and triangle for the New York Philharmonic. But for 50 years Plimpton also served as the unpaid editor of the literary quarterly he started in Paris in 1953. When he returned to his native New York a few years later, he brought the Paris Review with him. He finished editing the 50th anniversary issue on the very night he died in his sleep at age 76.

Most literary mags have the life span of fruit flies, perhaps because most literary magazines are about as interesting as fruit flies. But the Paris Review endured, partly because Plimpton was great at raising money from his rich friends but mostly because his magazine was actually worth reading. It published great stories and poems by then young and obscure writers such as Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac and T. Coraghessan Boyle, but it was most famous for its long Q & A interviews with old masters: Hemingway, Faulkner, Vonnegut, Capote, Garcia Marquez.

When Plimpton died, the literary world wondered: What will happen to the Paris Review?

Now we know the answer. It has gotten even better.

In March 2005, the magazine's board hired a new editor: Philip Gourevitch, a New Yorker staff writer and the author of an excellent nonfiction book on the Rwanda genocide, "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families."

"My mission was to revitalize the magazine, to give it new life for a new generation," says Gourevitch, 44, by phone from the Review's office in New York. "We want to be fresh. We want to be surprising."

No fool, Gourevitch did not mess with the magazine's successful formula. He still publishes good stories and poems by obscure writers and excellent interviews with famous writers, including Joan Didion and Rushdie.

But he did make some changes. First, he reshaped the magazine, literally: "It's a little taller and leaner than it used to be," he says. He also began running a gallery of photographs in each issue. Best of all, he added a feature he calls Encounter, a short Q & A with interesting, obscure people.

One Encounter was an interview with a professional mourner in China. "We used to treat every funeral like a contest," he said. "There were lead wailers and backup wailers, and after the gig was over, members would get together and critique each other's performances."

Another Encounter was with a Chinese public toilet manager. Back in the old days, when human waste was used for fertilizer, he said, it was such a valuable commodity that it was sometimes stolen. "The punishment for stealing human waste," he revealed, "was to recite from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book."

Those Encounters were amusing, but the Encounter with Nikola Kavaja was chilling. Kavaja is a Serb assassin who served 18 years in U.S. prisons for hijacking an American Airlines jet in Chicago in 1979, hoping to fly it to Belgrade and crash it into Communist Party headquarters -- an unsuccessful but eerie precursor to 9/11. Now Kavaja lives in a seedy Belgrade apartment decorated with photos of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company