Wednesday, March 31, 2004

John Sack, remembered 

Oh, wow. I had not been expecting this in the slightest. When I saw the news posted on The Elegant Variation, I actually gasped with shock. It wasn't that he was too young, because at 74, of course he was. It wasn't that his loss is palpable as he was one of the founders of the "New Journalism" that graced the pages of Esquire back in its heyday of the mid-to-late 1960s. It wasn't that he had the unique status of being a correspondent in the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf and War on Afghanistan. It wasn't just that he managed to stir up a shitstorm of controversy with his 1993 book AN EYE FOR AN EYE, which detailed atrocities perpetuated during World War II by Jews against other nationalities. But because of what is now one of my favorite books, and my own tenuous, utterly slight connection with the man.

As I've said a great many times here, my first foray into the World Wide Interweb was in putting together the Shel Silverstein Archive. Though it's basically a dormant site, I spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours finding archival data, poring through microfilm, emailing (and occasionally speaking by telephone) to those that knew Shel at some point during his sixty-eight years on this earth. One of the odd little bits I stumbled across one day was information about a then-long-out-of-print travel book called REPORT FOR PRACTICALLY NOWHERE. Published by Harper & Brothers (which became Harper & Row, which became HarperCollins, the juggernaut that it is today) back in 1957, it was an account by a man who had visited thirteen extremely obscure, extremely tiny countries--most of which don't even exist today. Written with a tremendous amount of wit, humor and tongue firmly in cheek, I thoroughly enjoyed the author's adventures in these countries, where he came across self-styled meglomaniacs, interesting architecture, and encounters with strange animals trying to harm him. And much more. The man, of course, was John Sack, who had already been the author of a couple of books written in his early 20s, THE BUTCHER: THE ASCENT TO YARPAJA (1951) and THE ROAD TO SHIMBASHI (1955). REPORT featured marvellous illustrations that Shel contributed, which you can see here.

Once I found this out, and then tracked down a copy of the book (which returned to print about 5 years or so ago) I was besieged by an all-important (at least to me) question: how did Shel and John get together on a project? I decided to ask Sack, and found out from him that they had served in the army together in Korea about the same time, both working on the army paper, The Stars & Stripes, which was truly the paper of record. I'm not exactly sure what Sack's contribution to the paper was, but Shel was the cartoonist, whose work was later collected in the Army publication TAKE TEN! (1955) and reissued in paperback the next year as GRAB YOUR SOCKS! After both were discharged, they each ended up at Playboy doing pretty much what they had been doing before--Sack contributing long travel pieces, Shel cartoons. Evidently, they didn't spend all that much time together working on REPORT--Sack would send short pieces to Shel, wherever he was (since he tended to travel extensively doing his own travel pieces with trusty photographer pal Larry Moyer in tow) who would work on the illustrations and send them back in the mail. The book was thus completed and published with some (but not much) fanfare in 1957.

It was a young man's book, but REPORT still holds up pretty nicely, in spite of it being awfully dated and even a tad quaint. But it was a harbinger of things to come for Sack, as he would go on to cut his teeth at Esquire and beyond. Though we never exchanged much more than a few emails some years ago, he was very friendly and willing to answer questions that I had--even though many times, he didn't always have as detailed a response as I would have hoped. But as a journalist, his work was filled with narrative depth and went far, far beyond what usually passes for reportage. I suspect Sack's influence stretches far more deeply than many journalists realize, but it's important to pay him a little debt and respect upon his passing.

And I think I'm going to reacquaint myself with REPORT FROM PRACTICALLY NOWHERE--since I'll likely never get to visit places like Sark, Lundy or Athos, I'll let Sack's words entertain me in describing his own voyages to those places.

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