By Brent Eades
Gene Weingarten may not be as widely known as he should be.
A working journalist since 1972 and currently a columnist with the Washington Post, he’s the only person to have won two Pulitzer Prizes for Feature Writing. An exceptional reporter, Weingarten has a special gift for finding unexpected depths in seemingly ordinary stories. (See, for example, “The Peekaboo Paradox.”)
That gift is on full display in his latest book, One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America.
The genesis of the book was a one-sentence email Weingarten sent to his friend and editor Tom Shroder in 2012: “I wonder what happened on May 17, 1957.”
Shroder liked the premise—could the events of a single day, one they would choose at random, be spun out into an entire book?
It was, Weingarten says in his introduction, “a stunt at its heart,” one that would “test a journalistic conceit I embrace: That if you have the patience to find it and the skill to tell it, there’s a story behind everyone and everything—that although great matters make for strong narratives, power can also lurk in the latent and mundane.”
To pick the random date, he and Shroder brought an old fedora to a Washington restaurant and had diners and a waitress draw a year, month, and day of the month. The result was Sunday, December 28, 1986—“grotesque bad luck,” Weingarten says, since Sunday is the slowest news day of the week, and the post-Christmas period the slowest news week of the year.
What followed was six years of research and over 500 interviews, punctuated by a recurring “biblical sense of doubt” as to whether the thing was even feasible. But, he told the Guardian, “You’re stuck with that day, and your job is to find whatever happened.”
Quite a lot, as it turns out. The book’s chapters are arranged chronologically, beginning at 12:01 A.M. in Charlottesville, Virginia and ending at 11:55 P.M. in Oakland, California. The stories Weingarten unearths range from the brutally tragic to the quirkily offbeat, and make for compelling reading throughout.
The prologue sets out what’s to follow:
“At midnight on the West Coast, a young woman’s body lies undiscovered in a culvert beneath an abandoned highway overpass as her family crisscrosses the roads above in a frantic search to find her.”
“Just past three A.M. in a small town in Nebraska, a sullen young man, a dedicated hell-raiser who has never done anything right, finally does, and it kills him.”
“At 8:15 A.M. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a man with a big secret is awakened by his beaming wife on the morning of his thirtieth birthday. She has a present for him.”
And on through the day and the country.
A gifted storyteller, Weingarten weaves these tales into a compelling whole. Some touch on the lives of the famous, but most are about events and people that went mostly unnoticed even at the time. Many continue to reverberate into the present day, as he reveals through his extensive follow-up interviews.
One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America is the work of a talented journalist at the top of his craft.
Blue Rider Press
Released October 22, 2019
Available at Chapters-Indigo