The Endearing Success of Quixotic Failures

In this “chronicle of fact and fiction,” Jake Silverstein, a failed poet, hops into his 1982 Toyota Corolla and heads west on a quixotic journey to become a journalist. His grand plan is to go where nothing happens, so when something does happen he will be the one to report it. This plan, dubious from the start, is an unsurprising fiasco. Throughout his self-described “numb pantomime of journalism” and tales of scoops gone wrong, Silverstein is evaded by that long-form magazine piece that would announce his journalistic arrival. Still, despite his failures as a journalist, Silverstein’s stories—both factual and fictional—never fail to amuse. His is a voice that is impossible not to like. And although he does not find his way into The New Yorker, Silverstein achieves something more impressive—a vivid portrayal of the desolate deserts of Far West Texas and Mexico.

It is hard to categorize Nothing Happened and Then It Did. It is not a memoir and it is not a novel. The book consists of alternating chapters of fact and fiction, all clearly identified as one or the other. Silverstein’s goal is not to deceive. Nor is he offering commentary on the current state of journalism or a post-modern argument about the relativity of truth. He is immune to such pretensions. Rather, he wants “to permit the real to mingle with the imagined.” This curious mingling is deployed only in the interest of telling amusing stories, and this he does with aplomb.

The nonfiction chapters describe Silverstein’s actual failures as a journalist. They tell what happened when “nothing happened.” The absence of anything happening is not a weakness in these absurd tales, these veritable lessons on how-not-to-do-journalism. In one chapter, Silverstein attempts to find the body of Ambrose Bierce, thought to be buried somewhere in the desert of Far West Texas. Local folklore holds this as the earthly home of the Devil, a fact underscored by the innumerable topographical features named after him. The fiendish tricks that the heat and desolation play on the mind beg Silverstein’s reasonable question: “why would anyone persist in such a punishing locale?” The search for the author of the aptly named Devils’ Dictionary quickly devolves into a search for the devil himself. It’s pretty much downhill from there, as inevitably Silverstein fails to find either Bierce or the Devil.

The fictional chapters ostensibly recount tales of when something did happen, but be warned that the title of the book is somewhat misleading. Not much of anything happens in the fictional chapters either. This is an observation, not a critique, for the foolhardy journey delights regardless of the absence of action. In one hilarious fictional chapter, Silverstein is commissioned to help a photographer from The New Yorker find a single picture that captures the essence of Midland, Texas, the home of George W. Bush. Silverstein accepts the job only after blowing all his money on an article about the drought in West Texas that yields nothing of interest. Led by the whims of the slightly mad German photographer and a swindling Texan who sells petroleum diving rods, the intrepid group eventually finds the perfect shot, but only after enduring a vicious dog mauling. And worse still, throughout the search, Silverstein repeatedly discovers that an industrious reporter from The New Yorker has scooped his drought story. The story that ruined him financially, the story about which he could find nothing interesting to say, has been transformed by a more talented journalist into that elusive long-form piece. Something happened, but not for Silverstein.

The haplessness of Silverstein’s actual and imagined journeys is hilarious, as are his descriptions of the beguiling characters he meets along the way. His other exploits (if you can call them that) include: a search for a buried pirate’s treasure in the bayou of Louisiana (fiction); a decidedly uncontroversial opening of the first McDonalds in the Mexican state of Zacatecas (fact); a piece of reporting embedded with a team in deadly Mexican road race led by a Nazi mechanic (fact); and an ill-fated road trip with a neurotic phonographer searching for his lost sister with only her birthmark for a clue (fiction). Silverstein himself is the thread that holds these disparate stories together, as his observing eyes are a calming presence among these absurdities.

Silverstein’s prose and poetic sensibility is unadorned but not lacking. He has an ear for timing and dialogue, conveyed best in the nonfictional (or fictional?) back and forth he has with a Mexican politician / moving pallet mogul with a penchant for Thousand Island dressing and his sullen but sardonic teenage son, Andresito. But it is Silverstein’s knack for giving the reader a tangible sense of Far West Texas that is most impressive. Silverstein is best in the desert. The desolate terra incognita still deceives, but Silverstein manages to navigate the reader through it with a curious mixture of irony and sincerity by deploying an uncanny ability to capture the essence of the desert with a quick detail. This ability, however, does not travel as well as he does, for the chapters set in New Orleans lack some verve.

In the end, this book’s charm comes from the voice of the author himself. Silverstein is funny and ironic but not in a cynical way. There’s an underlying earnestness to his humor that speaks to the hopeful self-deprecation of a neophyte. The great irony is that Silverstein has become what eludes him in the book—a successful journalist as editor of Texas Monthly. Here’s hoping this new-found success does not go to his head, as traveling with this clever, self-deprecating author in Nothing Happened and Then It Did is a rare pleasure that leaves the reader clamoring for more absurd adventures.

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