Ted Conover has been a correction officer at Sing Sing Prison and a cab driver in Aspen; he hopped freight trains for a year while living as a hobo and crossed the U.S.-Mexican border with undocumented immigrants. All of this in... [more]
Ted Conover has been a correction officer at Sing Sing Prison and a cab driver in Aspen; he hopped freight trains for a year while living as a hobo and crossed the U.S.-Mexican border with undocumented immigrants. All of this in the name of that particular brand of essayistic narrative journalism that has similarly been practiced by Joan Didion, John McPhee, and Barbara Ehrenreich. But none have been as tenacious in living in as close, and often uncomfortable and dangerous, proximity to their subjects as Conover has been. That his studies are reported upon in accessible and forthright prose, and that he is manifestly capable of divulging the nuances of a complicated issue even as he argues – more explicitly than implicitly, but his unambiguous statements and occasional didacticism have a lightness of touch and cleanness of style that make even these forays not unwelcome and often insightful – make his journalistic approach more than a mere gimmick. He is an intensely curious writer, and what many may see as extreme, unnecessary, or contrived methods of research he finds utterly essential. And the fruit of these methods are in vibrant display in such works as Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing and The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today; the former is one of the subtlest examinations of the U.S. prison system, the latter one of the most enjoyable and incisive accounts of the role of roads – symbolically and literally, but primarily literally – in contemporary life, buffered by accounts of the historical import of the road. He is one of the most adventurous and daring journalists in contemporary America, and this has little to do with the marketing-ready exploits he undertakes to do his research.