Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe

You can basically sign me up for anything that Patrick Radden Keefe writes. After I finished Say Nothing, I was a devotee.

Rogues is a collection of ‘true stories of grifters, killers, rebels and crooks’, all written as long-form investigative pieces for The New Yorker.

As with any collection, some stories stand out. The opening essay, The Jefferson Bottles, about a wine seller who had managed to ‘find’ and sell vast quantities of the world’s most rare and valuable wines sucked me in from the outset. Keefe tells the story focused around wealthy wine collector, Bill Koch, who purchased wine from the seller that was said to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson. It offers interesting insights into the single-mindedness of hard-core collectors and the importance (or not) of authenticity. As Koch told Keefe, he wants to collect rare wines and never drink them, because collecting is the point.

There were a number of essays that were of the traditional ‘true crime’ genre. Crime Family, about how one of the Netherlands’ most notorious gangsters was betrayed by his own sister proves that truth is stranger than fiction. A Loaded Gun tells the story of a mass shooter’s tragic past, and The Worst Of The Worst profiles Judy Clarke, the defense attorney in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers. As well as being incredibly thought provoking, the story highlighted the emotional toll, intensity and vicarious trauma experienced by Clarke as part of her work. Clarke observed –

“None of us, not any one of us, wants to be defined by the worst day or the worst hour or the worst moment of our lives.”

There are two absolute gems. The first, Winning, is about reality TV producer Mark Burnett and his role in helping Trump win the presidency (through the television show, The Apprentice). It’s nothing short of astounding.

What made Trump so magnetic as a reality-television star was his impulse to transgress, Levak continued, and it is the same quality that has made a captive audience of the world, “That somebody can become that successful while also being that emotionally undisciplined–it’s so macabre that you have to watch it, ” he said “And you keep waiting for the comeuppance. But it doesn’t come.”

The second is the admiring and insightful portrait of Anthony Bourdain, Journeyman. The piece, written in 2017, highlights both Bourdain’s passion and sadness. Bourdain, reflecting on his checkered past, his health and dying, said to Keefe that if he got ‘a bad chest x-ray’, he would happily renew his acquaintance with heroin. Read in the context of his suicide a year later, the piece is crushing.

Most of the stories in Rogues are what Keefe calls ‘writearounds’ – articles about a subject who declines an interview. Keefe likes the challenge of writearounds –

It takes a lot of creative reporting to produce a vivid portrait of someone without ever getting to speak to them, but these pieces are often more revealing than the scripted encounters you end up with when the politician or the CEO actually cooperates.

And it’s Keefe’s attention to the small details and the eloquent description of these details that create the portrait – a banker is described as having a ‘…a posture of heavy-lies-the-crown fatigue’ and a mass-murderer enters court and ‘…the shackles around her ankles jingled like sleigh bells as she shuffled past’.

In contrast to Say Nothing and Empire of Pain, Keefe is clearly a part of these stories – there’s no allusion to impartiality, and he shares his own impressions and interpretations throughout. A in the introduction, when he is describing his lifelong love of magazines, resonated –

I used to love, as a child, arriving at the house of some family friend to discover a shelf of National Geographics, those resplendent yellow squared-off spines all lined up in a row.

Ah yes, he is a talented storyteller.

3.5/5 I wanted more of some, less of others.

8 responses

  1. Enjoyed it as well but as you say, I wanted some of the pieces to be longer. I found it harder to engage with the stories of the mining and financial scandal, just couldn’t get into those worlds. I still think he should write a biography of El Chapo. Have bought ‘Empire of pain’ to
    disappear into over Christmas.

  2. Kate, you and I read such different books! Reading about real-life charlatans getting away with stuff just makes me angry and unhappy that I can’t do anything about it.
    I’m afraid I’ve never seen The Apprentice but ‘transgressive’? He’s a lot worse than that, and so lacking in intelligence that I am embarrassed to listen to him.

    • Thankfully none of the charlatans in these essays get away with anything… perhaps with the exception of Mark Burnett/ Trump. But you have to think the Trump story is not over yet…

  3. Great review. He has been on my radar since What’s Nonfiction recommended the podcast The Winds of Change which I listened too. Totally captivating. I have his Empire of Pain at home to read, and am happy to hear most of his books seems to be exciting reading.

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