It can be hard to know what makes a good feature story good. But sometimes you just know — you finish a piece and, with a contented sigh, say to yourself, "I wish I could write something like that." Expect to do a lot of this sort of sighing if you pick up "Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries." "Lost at Sea" is a collection of Ronson's recent (and recent-ish) magazine work, and it is excellent.
What it comes down to is that Ronson, author of "The Psychopath Test" and "The Men Who Stare at Goats," is a very, very good storyteller. And a versatile one at that: The stories in this collection range from an investigative profile of an assisted-suicide practitioner to coverage of a pop star's pedophilia trial. If there's a thread, it's Ronson's desire to report on and attempt to explain human dysfunction in its various, colorful forms — witness the titles of the book's four sections: "The Strange Things We're Willing to Believe''; "High-Flying Lives''; "Everyday Difficulty''; and "Stepping Over the Line.''
Ronson revels in showing us the hidden sides of seemingly one-dimensional characters. When he follows the troubled pop star Robbie Williams to a Nevada UFO conference following the latter's sudden interest in the subject, for example, we're expecting to see an obsessive nodding along to the tales of abductions and implants. Instead Ronson presents us with a more conflicted Williams; yeah, he believes in this stuff, but he also understands that he could be simply searching for a distraction. He used to read all the trashy British tabloids, he explains to Ronson. "Eventually I had to stop looking because I'd find things that would upset me, whether it would be about me or about somebody else. So I had to fill that void. And that void has been filled with this stuff."
A lesser journalist would have highlighted Williams's oddness — "Pop Star Obsessed With Aliens!'' is such a seductive headline, after all. Instead, Ronson digs in, treats Williams like a human being, and gets a much better story as a result.
"Lost at Sea" is littered with memorable stories, like "Who Killed Richard Cullen?," a prescient and very cleverly executed pre-Great Recession tale of one family's tragic collision with morally bankrupt credit-card solicitors, and "Amber Waves of Green," in which Ronson interviews his way up the socioeconomic ladder, trying to figure out what binds — and distinguishes — people at different income levels..
But the best of the bunch is "Santa's Little Conspirators," from Ronson's 2006 trip to the small town of North Pole, Alaska, which bills itself as the Christmas capital of the world (if you address a letter or postcard to Santa Claus, it will probably end up there). Ronson went to investigate a narrowly averted school-shooting conspiracy organized by six local teens.
In the course of his reporting, he interviews the town's residents about what it's like to live immersed in a perpetual haze of Christmas cheer. What emerges is a profoundly weird and completely irresistible mix of schmaltzy Christmas feel-goodery, small-town Americana, gun culture, and potential mass murder. Ronson interviews the father of one of the co-conspirators, who says that his son told him, "We were just going to shoot the bad kids" — a dark appropriation of Santa's naught/-nice list. Ronson explains that the local sixth-graders are conscripted into serving as letter-replying elves (their teacher tells him he instructs his students to be vague, to not make any promises about presents). He tries to track down a Santa Claus lookalike who legally changed his name to Kris Kringle, who may or may not have been hit by a car and killed — the townspeople won't say.
It's a wonderfully twisted, colorful story, and the brightest item in a collection of extremely satisfying journalism.
Jesse Singal is a contributing writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast and a graduate student at Princeton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.