TED MORGAN has done just about everything worth doing in journalism, from his Pulitzer prize-winning book on the French to a chilling profile of 13-year-old killers in New York. He is as fine a writer as he is a reporter, with a highly individual style that has survived the editorial ministrations of very different publications. Now it appears that the reporter is up to something altogether new as a writer.
One might describe this book as an autobiographical memoir, or a series of intimate vignettes, but that would be an attempt to place it in a category where it doesn't belong. Rowing Toward Eden is not personal journalism and it is not autobiography. The character who appears under the name "Ted" is just that -- a carefully wrought character.
The stories themselves are carefully wrought fiction -- whatever their basis in fact -- because they rely on the imaginative narrative techniques that form the sinew of short stories and novels. There is none of the obtrusiveness that usually charactizes journalistic attempts to graft such techniques onto straightforward reporting. These stories represent a sea change rather than a graft.
It is best to skip the first chapter, titled "Night Rewrite," which gives the entirely misleading impression that this is another journalistic pilgrim's progress from the valley of obituaries to the shining pinnacle of foreign correspondence. Morgan is at his best when he moves into the realm of the displaced -- emotionally, psychically, geographically. The book really begins with "Lady Cuba," a story of women encountered in post-revolutionary Havanna.
"At six I knocked on her door, with a pad and pencil in hand. She had drawn the curtains, leaving only a bedside lamp on, and she was wearing a nightgown of almost transparent material . . . The expression on her face combined an awareness of what she was, a woman whose best years were over, with a stubborn refusal to accept her condition. As I faced her in the dimly lit room, I realized that this was part of our transaction. I would pretend, as I had pretended to share her enthusiasm for the regime. I turned out the light, thinking, why not, at least I can give her this."
In "The Dry Tortugas," a marriage breaks down when a man takes leave from his job as a public-relations officer for UNESCO to write a novel.
"He kept a diary, which he deliberately left on the night table, so that Susan could read his entries about herself. 'Every five minutes she asks me if I'm happy,' he wrote. 'She kisses me and removes my coat in the same motion,' he wrote. 'I want two distinct motions.'"
The tales are told in a detached, almost merciless voice -- even, or especially, when the author is the first-person narrator or one of his own characters. The unmistakable voice of the outsider is one of the many traits that distinguishes these stories from conventional autobiography -- which Morgan took care of in an earlier book, On Becoming American, explaining why he left behind his native France and his original name, Sanche de Gramont.
Morgan's unusual background may or may not explain his concern with emotional expatriation (it is, after all, a theme that has absorbed countless 20th-century writers who never left their native lands), but it certainly has something to do with his perfect ear for and ability to reproduce dialogue. There is something about the conscious bilingualism of those who have learned, or taught themselves, to write in a second language that creates a special prescience about the way spoken words and unspoken thoughts will "sound" as they arise from the printed page. Journalism does not offer a showcase for this brand of linguistic prescience.
One of the best examples, a scene between husband and wife, happens to be bilingual: "At lunch with my cousin Rene, we all ordered salmon. Nancy asked the waiter for la sel. 'La selle is a saddle,' I said, 'le sel is the salt. You only got off the boat eight years ago, but nothing penetrates your thick skull. Garcon, une selle pour madame, s'il-vous-plait.'"
The petty conjugal meannes is profoundly intensified by the deliberate use of language as a weapon; these stories draw blood.
One measure of the book's artistic success is its failure to engender the prurient interest, focusing on the question of what is and isn't literally "true," that is inevitably aroused by inept confessionals in the guise of fiction as well as non-fiction. The matter of who did what to whom in the real world becomes irrelevant, as it always does when a writer succeeds in creating his own world. Morgan sears the heart in his cool voice.