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.

"How many I killed is not important," he says. "I count to 17 and then stop counting. It's just a number."

The magazine's current issue -- Gourevitch's fifth -- is fairly typical. It contains poems by Billy Collins and Mary Karr, short stories by Mohsin Hamid and Gyorgy Dragoman, a gallery of color photos from a Cambodian swimming hole, excerpts from Robert Frost's notebooks and an excellent interview with Stephen King.

There's also a bizarre collection of cartoons, recently found in a Communist Party archive in Moscow, drawn by those wild, wacky guys who composed Stalin's inner circle in the 1930s. One of them, created by a member of the Politburo, shows Nikolai Bryukhanov, the people's commissar of finances, being hung by his privates. When this charming artwork was passed to Stalin, he wrote a comment on it: "For all the sins, past and present, hang Bryukhanov by the [gonads]. If the [gonads] hold out, consider him acquitted by trial. If they do not hold, drown him in the river."

Ah, good ol' Uncle Joe Stalin! What a cutup!

This issue also contains what Gourevitch calls "the Paris Review's first scoop." It's an interview with Laura Albert, who was recently unmasked as author of the much-praised novels and short stories written under the name JT LeRoy, who was said to be a former teenage junkie and transvestite truck-stop prostitute but who was actually a figment of Albert's fertile imagination.

The San Francisco Chronicle called the LeRoy affair "the greatest literary hoax in a generation." But this fascinating interview reveals that the real story was far more complex and interesting.

As Albert tells the tale, she began creating fictitious characters as an unhappy teenager in New York, calling youth hotlines and pretending to be various troubled kids, some Southern, some Irish. Then she became a phone sex operator, a job that allowed her to indulge her love of fantasy. After moving to San Francisco in 1989, she says, she began a series of phone calls with a sympathetic psychiatrist, pretending to be a 13-year-old street kid named Jeremiah LeRoy and spinning elaborate stories of drugs, abuse and prostitution.

"I never thought, My God, this isn't true," Albert says. "It felt more alive and more true to me than any of the things in my world."

The psychiatrist asked "Jeremiah" to write down his stories, and Albert did. Raw and compelling, they were ultimately published as the work of JT LeRoy, who became a cult figure with a following that included Madonna, Lou Reed and Drew Barrymore.

At least that's what Albert says happened. Who knows? She is, by her own account, a master liar and could be making all this up. Either way, though, it's an amazing story, probably as good as anything written by "JT LeRoy."

In the last three years, the Paris Review's circulation has risen from under 5,000 to more than 13,000, Gourevitch says, and, thanks to various donors, it's on a solid financial foundation.

Gourevitch has proven himself a splendid successor to Plimpton as editor of the review. But that doesn't mean he's planning to attempt any of Plimpton's more colorful adventures.

"Fortunately," he says, "getting shot out of a cannon is not in the job description."

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