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The Last Magazine by Michael Hastings

I’ll say this much for the blizzard that has left me more or less trapped in my apartment for the weekend – between it and graduating, I am finally catching up on my leisure reading. Most recently, I finally finished a book I got as a graduation gift from one of my professors, The Last Magazine by Michael Hastings.
the-last-magazineThe posthumously published first novel of investigative journalist Michael Hastings, the novel is a semi-autobiographical satire of magazine journalism in the early-to-mid 2000s, discovered on his laptop shortly after his death. In life, Hastings was known as a tough reporter who never pulled any punches or held anything back, and in death, his first and only novel is a fitting reminder of that.

The Last Magazine focuses on the lives of two journalists, Michael Hastings, whose career is seemingly on the rise, and AE Peoria whose career is seemingly on the decline, and uses the twists and turns of their careers to highlight the absurdities and behind-the-scenes struggles of print journalism  today. Hastings, fresh out of college, already has a sinking feeling that he’s joined this trade too late, while Peoria struggles with burnout and disillusionment, while both end up caught in the conflict between their two editors, Nishant Patel and Sanders Berman, who both care more about selling their latest book or snagging TV talking head slots than any actual reporting. Amidst all this, the two looming threats that struck body blows to journalism in the 2000s loom ever larger, the Iraq War that the media rallied for before turning against it, and the rise of web journalism, that the print media still adorably dismisses as a passing trend.

When I say The Last Magazine is loosely based on Hasting’s personal experience working at Newsweek, and stars a cast of characters very loosely on real figures, please note that I do mean very loosely.  Not just because our protaganist shares the name of our author either – I was able to piece together which characters are based on which journalists with even just passing knowledge of them. Patel, described as looking like an “Indian Cary Grant” who wrote a book about “illiberal democracies” is based on Fareed Zakaria, while Berman, a history loving Southerner who “got his wardrobe from raiding Mark Twain’s closet”, is based on Jon Meacham. Meanwhile, gonzo international corespondent AE Peoria, who at first I figured was based on Hastings himself, is based on journalist Adam Piore, who actually appears to be pretty honored by the character. At times it becomes hard to tell what is fact or fiction, what is satire and what is not, but I think the level of realism added more to The Last Magazine than it distracts.

Where The Last Magazine certainly never holds anything back is how it skewers modern journalism, and lays many of its worst sins to bare. Yes, there is how personalities like Patel and Berman care more about pushing their personal brand than actually managing the publication they’re in charge of, or how too often reporters like Peoria get thrown under the bus the moment their reporting upsets whatever narrative the higher-ups are choosing to push this week. But The Last Magazine also highlights so many of the smaller, more subtle moves made, ranging from how American editions of the same magazine often get dumbed-down for no other reason than the perception that Joe Public won’t by something with an international headline,  to how so many more sensational headlines both pan out to nothing or get recycled with a few nouns changed. One of my favorite moments from the book is Hastings being tapped for research by both Berman and Patel, presents the same information to both, and the two charge off in two wildly different ideological directions from the same facts.

More than anything though, The Last Magazine seethes with disgust over how so many journalists gleefully choose advancing their career over reporting the news, where book deals and bylines the price paid for those willing to toss aside ethics to toe the party line. For anybody with a bone to pick with how the media is managed or mismanaged, The Last Magazine will give you plenty to chew on, and even if you aren’t it will certainly raise a few eyebrows at times.

It also helps paint a picture of how journalism in many ways was destined to end up where it is today. For all our lamentations of the decline of print journalism, or the rise of personalities getting pushed to the forefront, you are reading this review on a website with my name slapped at the top after all.

In terms of style, Hastings reminds me a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, and not just because it gleefully tweaks the noses of anybody in a position of authority, or because any chapter from AE Peoria’s point-of-view is almost guaranteed to be rife with substance abuse or lurid sex every other chapter. The Last Magazine manages to achieve that rare mix of humor, energy and merciless send-ups of authority  that’s been often imitated but rarely achieved since the heyday of gonzo journalism. While time will tell if The Last Magazine can measure up to Fear and Loathing, Hastings certainly brought his A-game trying.

The Last Magazine isn’t without its flaws. There are these strange interludes and asides from the main character that wreck the pacing and, on occasion, all but spell out the novel’s themes. The ending is far weaker than much of the rest of the novel, and as a whole, the novel could have used a solid once over to smooth out some rough edges. Much like Michael Hasting’s journalism career, one can’t help but wonder what might have been had the author not died tragically in 2013, as you can certainly see the potential in The Last Magazine, if only the novel had had the chance for another draft or two before publication.

That said, The Last Magazine delivers a biting commentary that is often as entertaining as it is enlightening. Despite some bumps along the way, Hastings delivers a novel that sends up those who choose optics over ethics, newsroom politics over the newsroom itself, and has delivered one last sock to a system electrified while he was alive.

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