A few weeks ago I finished reading Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side, a book that starts quickly with a rapid-fire account of the 4.5 second play that ended Joe Theismann’s NFL career. Theismann, you may or may not recall, was brutally smacked from behind by defensive end Lawrence Taylor. Most people remember only the gruesome image of Theismann’s leg bone being snapped. Football is a strange sport, Lewis observes, in that none of the players ever sees more than a narrow slice of action. In football, as in other pursuits, what you can’t see can truly hurt you. Few of us ever get a wide-angle view of circumstances, and only someone like Lewis can connect the dots to create a bunch of fascinating social observations.
In addition to an aerial view of the evolution of football tactics,
Lewis also provides an up close look at the improbable life of a 350
pound black teenager named Michael Oher. His mom was a crack addict
and he was homeless and illiterate, until his wayward path collided
with that of a wealthy Memphis businessman named Sean Tuohy. Long
before it was discovered that Oher possessed the rare qualities needed
to protect an NFL quarterback’s blind side, the Tuohys had essentially
adopted him into their family. An all out college recruiting war
ensued but, in the end, Oher decided to attend Ole Miss (where Sean
Tuohy had been a standout basketball player). Getting Michael Oher
into college was a miraculous achievement. But it also turned out to
be a problem, as Lewis reveals:
“If the Tuohys were
Ole Miss boosters—and they most certainly were—they had violated every
letter of every NCAA rule ever written. They’d given Michael more than
food, clothing and shelter. They’d given him a life.”
so the NCAA was called upon to investigate. In contrast to the book’s
fast-paced opening, chapter eight begins with monotonous formality:
is Joyce Thompson, assistant director or Enforcement at the NCAA.
There are other individuals in the room at this time and I would like
them to state their names for the record.”
only ‘other individuals’ present were Sean Tuohy and Michael Oher. Yet
Lewis was able to provide an amazingly detailed account of the NCAA
woman’s interrogation, filled with the same tension created when Jack
Nicholson was cross-examined in A Few Good Men. How did he do it?
The day after I read that passage I was having dinner with my friend
Constance, and our conversation turned (as it invariably does when we
are together) to the subject of great writing. I described the
interrogation scene and explained that I was baffled by how Lewis could
have made a rote NCAA investigation seem so exciting. Naturally, we
both agreed, he had taken poetic license (“art is the lie that helps us
realize the truth” and all). But a vexing question remained: How much
license does someone like Lewis feel entitled to take? I told
Constance that I’d love to have the chance to ask him that question.
The next day Becky told me that the Tennessee Williams Festival
was being advertised in the local paper. My unenthusiastic reaction
prompted her to also mention that Michael Lewis would be at the
festival. I immediately went online and authorized the festival
promoters to deduct $32 from my bank account. On the appointed day I
rode my scooter along Magazine street, then up Decatur, until I came
upon a little maroon car that was creeping slowly as though the lone
occupant was taking some kind of meticulous inventory. I then spotted
the bumper sticker that read: “I brake for historical markers.”
Ah, New Orleans. So many small things to keep me smirking.
I applied my own brakes a few minutes later, parking on a sidewalk
along Toulouse Street (great things, those scooters!). I made my way
to the hotel headquarters and along the way bumped into Rachel,
who was also going to hear Lewis. In the hotel lobby I came upon a
registration desk for the “Electrical Apparatus Service Association.”
I smirked my way over to the other registration desk, where I
was issued a ticket and directed to The Historic New Orleans Collection
on Royal Street. That’s where Michael Lewis was to be interviewed by a
fellow named Michael Sartisky. Rachel and I found each other and took
seats in the fourth row.
The hour passed quickly. Lewis was charming, engaging, and witty as
he explained why he was repeatedly drawn to the subject of societal
disruption. First, he said, it’s easier to analyze culture from the
vantage point of pronounced change, just as it’s easier to discuss
paintings in comparison to other paintings. He downplayed his great
talent by suggesting that he was motivated by laziness and indifference
as much as by curiosity. He said when he was young his father would
make him recite the family credo: “do as little as possible, and that
unwillingly. For it is better to suffer a slight reprimand than to
perform an arduous task.”
Asked if he planned to write a book about New Orleans and the
Katrina debacle, he confessed to being intrigued by the possibility.
But he was unable to offer any notion as to what he might say, because
the story he would be best suited to tell—if there was one—might elude
A Katrina based study of New Orleans would certainly allow him to
highlight the strange virtues of a city that many outsiders seem to
misunderstand. But, as much as I admire Lewis’ magical abilities, it’s
obvious that a story about our city’s overlooked value is not at all
like a story about the Oakland Athletics or Michael Oher. The
Athletics’ value can be measured in the indisputable metric of ‘games
won.’ Michael Oher’s exact value will be determined at some point in
the future, but still has a calculable present value (some sports
agents estimate he will earn $50 million dollars during his NFL
career). New Orleans has value, but certainly not the kind that can be
confirmed mathematically. How does one explain the value of New Orleans
to a righteous person living in, say, Kansas City? For starters, you’d
have somehow distract their attention from the well-publicized rants of
Mayor Ray Nagin, or Bill Jefferson’s cash-filled freezer.
When the question-and-answer time came, I had to face the fact that
mine was too unwieldy for the setting. Rachel, however, had a nice
compact question: she asked whether the prospect of writing a book
about New Orleans might bring him back to live here again. He said
yes. Obviously Lewis loves this place and wants to help free it from
the metaphorical wheel rut it’s been in for several decades. He
downplayed one questioner’s insistence that New Orleans is hampered
primarily by political corruption. The real villain, he said, is
Katrina provided us with a unique opportunity, but we didn’t have
the right leadership in place when tragedy struck. And, thanks to
post-diluvian voter ignorance, the inept are still on the job. So are
some crooks, but they too are mostly inept. A devilish grin appeared
as Lewis suggested Edwin Edwards would have been up to dealing with
Katrina, even though he would have “stolen a good deal of money.” I
was sure I’d hear a guffaw from at least one genteel audience member,
but no one disagreed. In fact, someone gleefully recalled the popular
bumper sticker that surfaced when Edwards faced a runoff with neo-Nazi
David Duke: Vote for the Crook: it’s important.
Indeed. If only Edwards had been able to sense the oncoming federal
investigation that ultimately landed him in jail our current prospects
might be better. (Joe Theismann, Louisiana feels your pain).
When the interview was over Rachel and I made our way through the
courtyard and down the street. We agreed that it’d be wonderful if
Lewis returned to New Orleans. Could he offset the PR disaster created
by Nagin and Jefferson? Perhaps not, but it’d be nice to have him
around for moral support. Rachel walked away and I hopped aboard my
scooter and strapped on my helmet. I put the key in ignition and then
realized I needed to listen to my voicemail messages. As I pressed the
cell phone to my ear, I spotted a lone figure making his way up the
Michael Lewis was approaching. And so, it seemed, was an awkward
last-chance opportunity to present my question. As he reached me I
became starkly aware that I looked more like a paranoid kook
than a harmless bookworm. But my unquenchable curiosity was greater
than my fear of embarrassment and so I went ahead and engaged him.
Amazingly, he was quite willing to speak. (A unique opportunity I
suppose, to finally meet the Great Gazoo).
I told him that that I enjoyed his talk and offered a brief
reminiscence about Isidore Newman –the prominent school from which he
had graduated in 1979 and from which I’d been sternly asked to leave
after barely making it through Fourth Grade.
At this point I faced a dilemma. If I began to remove my ungainly headgear
he would naturally worry that a slight exchange of pleasantries would
become the arduous task his father had warned him about. And, yet, the
only reason I had embarrassed myself up to this point was to learn the
elusive secret of literary license. I told him I had one quick
question that I had wanted to ask, and he politely remained in place.
I referenced the confrontation scene and then proceeded to state the
obvious assumptions. “I know you didn’t interview the NCAA
investigator, and I know that neither Michael Oher nor Sean Tuohy could
have provided you with the detail you provided us in the book.
So…how’d you do it?”
I braced myself to receive The Secret Method Of A Great Writer. He smiled quickly and said “I was there when the interview happened,” conveying utter amazement. “I sat through the whole thing, and she had absolutely no idea who I was.”
I stood there, completely astonished by an obvious answer that I wasn’t
at all expecting to hear. And so, with a burning mystery now safely
behind me, I thanked him for his time and we parted ways. I’d been
blindsided, but not seriously injured.
Although I did have a rather large smirk on my face.