That Crazy Kid!

By Jim McGrath

Yeah, I read "First Job: A Memoir of Growing Up at Work" (PublicAffairs), Rinker Buck's account of his time at a small newspaper in western Massachusetts 30 years ago. I did because I'm a sucker for newspaper books. Not quite a "Book Turd," a college nickname that Buck delights in to this day. But a sucker nonetheless.

You? You needn't bother. Spare yourself Buck's 396-page orgy of self-importance and sexual reassurance. I might have, too, if it had been titled, say, "Getting Laid: A Memoir of When the Girls Fell for My Act."

Oh, Rinker did very, very well for himself, or so he says, fresh out of college and into the newsroom at a time when even the sports desk clerk he smugly recalls bedding was reading Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying," albeit a year after Buck and his sophisticated crowd.

The highlight of "Getting Laid" would have to be the night Rinker scored with the sports clerk and two other women in a deceitful and disturbing trip through the Berkshire Mountains.

As for "First Job," Buck is way too distracted with his season or two as a stud horse to bother telling us what might have been an endearing and instructive story. The newspaper was the Berkshire Eagle, in Pittsfield, Mass., in those days a famously regarded example of how journalism could and should be done in the hinterlands. Buck stumbled into it in 1973. Even he professes to know how insanely lucky he was. What he clearly doesn't understand is the sleazy undercurrent to his own tale of fortune.

The book starts with Buck passing through town and seeing a Time magazine clip about the local paper having just won a Pulitzer Prize, for Roger Linscott's editorials against the Vietnam War. (Buck omits that last part. It's a glaring example of a neglected chance to show just how the Eagle stood apart from other papers.) So the boy from Bowdoin College wants in. He applies for a job, with a revealing shamelessness, brazen sycophancy and fabricated credentials. The portfolio of photographs he submits to the Eagle were taken, Buck says, from a high school friend's work at Pratt Institute. (In a recent interview, with the Eagle no less, he laughs that off with a that's-how-it's-done arrogance.)

Our boy is aboard as a rookie reporter, a bit insecure then but so darn proud of his work there now. He manages, in a cheap and nasty tone, to settle a score or two with the rather uptight editor who was his immediate boss. Even now, after 30 years at newspapers and magazines, he doesn't seem to get it that any kid's first city editor isn't supposed to trust him very far. As for the kind of journalism that brought the Eagle its national reputation and the people responsible for it, it's there--if you look hard enough through Buck's repetitive "look at me" story.

Even the great old newspapermen Buck plainly does revere, Linscott and publisher Lawrence "Pete" Miller, are presented mostly as props in the macho adventures of the kid reporter. Linscott and Miller, and girls, girls, girls. The self-described repressed Irish-Catholic kid smothers himself in the attention of Jewish girls and WASPy girls. Later, leaving the Berkshires for the "urban backwater of Albany," Buck is in love with, by his decree, the world's most beautiful Irish girl. And she with him, no doubt. What's not to love? Right, Rinker?

Of course, he grows up--into a middle-aged version of his self-regarding self. "By then I'd met and married an exquisite Danish-American beauty, Amelia de Neergaard .…" And, "It still seems amazing that this old Berkshire County hell on wheels has practiced fidelity for twenty-four years."

He's content, instead, with his rapport with Linscott for out-of-the-house fulfillment. (The friendship seems to matter quite a bit less to Linscott, judging from his own recent comments to the Eagle. Smart fellow, though. He skipped the unending sex scenes in his admirer's book.) "First Job" ends:

"Don't ever give up on friendship like this. Seek it, find it, embrace it, immerse yourself in this baptismal font. Get that weekend dose of soul-mate love. Without it, life is but a pale facsimile of existence, and though you may climb high some day and reach that purple-black rim, you'll never see and feel and pulse with all the colors, or know yourself fully suffused with sky."

Heavens.

It's interesting to note Buck's recollections of another Eagle writer, Richard Happel. He had taught, or tried to teach, young Buck something about subtlety and irony. The minister who was having an affair would be, when Happel wrote about him, "very moral." The "frightful bore" of a college professor in real life would be "brilliant" in print.

Happel would no doubt find "First Job" an "important, even essential, book."

Don't squander your money. Don't waste your time.

Jim McGrath is an editorial writer for the Albany, N.Y., Times Union.