Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review: Am I Dead Yet? by John Scully

Am I Dead Yet?
71 Countries, 36 War Zones, 1 Man's Opinion

by John Scully
Published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside

John Scully’s seen plenty, and done plenty. Anyone interested in world affairs, modern history, and the world’s societies would want to sit with this guy over a couple of drinks, listening to his entertaining stories about where he's been and what he's seen.

But an evening of beer-fuelled storytelling is one thing, and a book is another. While Scully’s book is well worth reading, it could have been a much better one with a little more care and a lot more editing.

Scully is a highly experienced reporter, and has worked for most of the major news networks in Canada as well as some in Britain and New Zealand. His work took him on 36 trips to some of the hottest war zones on earth, including Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Sarajevo, Iraq and Iran (during the Iran-Iraq war), and all over the Middle East.

From his experiences he’s pulled together stories that give some of the flavour of working on assignment around the world. The yarns evoke a little of the romance and adventure that are part of a modern news team’s job, and it’s easy to imagine a budding journalist being formed in a teenaged reader.

In practice, it’s a little less effective than you’d expect. Scully flits from time to time and place to place almost at random. He is in Ireland during the Troubles for two chapters, then – without warning – in Iran, and soon after that in India. He doesn’t bother to keep the reader informed of dates, or even cities in some cases.

The vagueness doesn’t really matter that much; this isn’t history, but oral history, history before it’s been processed and trimmed and packaged. That’s how most of the stories play out: as there-was-this-time-when narratives that are often engrossing. This is a writer with an eye for detail, an ear for a good story, and a real and honest knowledge of what makes people tick.

The most compelling stories are the tales of danger and near-death, where Scully and his cohorts face down gun-toting drunks in the former Yugoslavia, rebels and resistance fighters all over Central America, and near-psychopaths in 1970s Belfast. These are stories with dirt under their fingernails, and Scully isn’t shy about details, even those involving the more intimate bodily functions. There’s no denying that his job was a colourful one.

The problem is that Scully does have a few things to say about the wider implications of his experience, especially about the importance of the independence of the press and their ability to record and report on the Truth. These kinds of issues always seem uppermost in Scully’s mind, which is probably what made him such a good journalist in the first place.

The reader is rightly interested in hearing his conclusions. Why does he see the CBC as the paragon of unbiased news sources? How can we determine who is unbiased and who is not? Scully hints at his answers but never tips his hand; just as he gets close to saying exactly what he’s trying to say, he darts away again, off to his next anecdote.

The book also suffers from a serious lack of good editing. Like all oral history, the stories are at their most effective when they are immediate and dramatic, giving the reader an unvarnished sense of the place, the time, and the people. But Scully insists on peppering the book with supposedly humorous remarks that, while they might be charming enough in person, invariably fall flat on the page, distracting the reader from the vignette that inspired it.

The most glaring example of the need for editing is a long chapter (compared to the others) describing Scully’s difficulty in getting some camera equipment through Indian customs. In short: it took days of arguing with various government officials; it cost more than it should have, but less than it might have. The point of this long diversion is, to be charitable, obscure. The story should have been saved for the pub or the press club, and left out of the book altogether.

But for all the book’s flaws, it’s hard not to feel that Scully’s heart was in the right place when he wrote it. The state of the news media in our time should be an issue of great concern for every citizen; if Scully’s aim was to help his readers better understand the the issue from the journalist's side, his book is at least worth a read, if not a total success.


Dr.Dawg said...

Great piece, Matt. But the section on Indian customs officialdom is in my view a good read. Gathering news is not all about trenches and bullets, dysentery and miserable editors back home. Some of it is about routine, banal bureaucratic obstacles. I thought that story was excellent. I agree entirely with the rest of your review, though.

M@ said...

Thanks very much, Dawg. I purposely avoided reading your review until mine was posted, as I was worried I'd inadvertently copy you -- and I'm happy to see we came to many of the same conclusions.

As for the Indian customs section, if it had been -- like many of his other anecdotes -- only a page or two, it wouldn't have bothered me. But around the sixth page of that section I was wondering why on earth I was reading it, and I never really figured out why it needed more time and space than all the other stuff in the book.

But hey, it's a matter of taste. It certainly doesn't doom the book.

Incidentally, if anyone missed Dawg's review, it's here.