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The Last Magazine

By Michael Hastings

Blue Rider Press

336 pages, $26.95

By Margaret Sullivan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

When the journalist Michael Hastings died in a single-car crash last year at age 33, not even his wife realized at first that he had left behind this flawed but impressive novel – the first, and last, that he ever wrote.

“The Last Magazine” is, among other things, the blackest of comedies, telling in entirely believable detail just how the liberal mainstream media helped push America into the ill-fated war with Iraq in 2003.

The craven careerism, the outsize personalities, the destructively magical thinking – all are on display as Hastings takes us inside life at a national magazine just after the turn of the millennium.

He also points a spotlight on the fading world of print journalism, especially tough at once-great newsweeklies; those journalists, he writes, were dead men walking.

The magazine in question is Newsweek, made clear in all but name, since the disguises here are so thin they’re positively anorexic. And the narrator – flashing in and out of an amusing meta-commentary that addresses the reader directly in occasional gray-toned pages – is a young news clerk named Michael Hastings. This is clearly an alter-ego of the author, who interned there in his early 20s.

But another alter-ego is A.E. Peoria, a brash foreign correspondent who is career-obsessed, wildly insecure and prone to unbalanced decision-making in faraway places. (Peoria, writes Hastings, “likes to think of himself as Icarus, probably because that’s the only Greek myth he can remember accurately without the help of a search engine.”)

The reporter’s gonzo experiences also mirror the real-life ones of Hastings, who wrote about America at war for Newsweek, Buzzfeed and Rolling Stone.

It was for Rolling Stone that Hastings wrote the award-winning article he is best known for, “The Runaway General,” whose eyes-wide-open depiction of Gen. Stanley McChrystal ultimately caused his resignation as commander in Afghanistan. Why?

Because the general and his staff – in what they clearly thought was off-the-record conversation and behavior – had mocked their civilian superiors, including Vice President Biden, and otherwise behaved badly.

Hastings, not following the unwritten rules that many journalists follow with their big-league sources, never put his notebook away. He wrote it all down, and published it, letting the chips fall.

And in fictional form, that’s exactly what he does again in “The Last Magazine.” He proves himself the kind of person who is never going to win any popularity awards with the establishment – which is also the kind of journalist who is very much needed in the world, and certainly in an America that keeps going to war, or tiptoeing to the brink of it.

So, through his clear if cynical gaze, we see the way the media helped prod a nation into a doomed war in Iraq; we see two men putting their scruples aside as they spar for the top editor’s job; we see the way a young intern is treated like chattel; and most of all, we see the way news can stray pretty far from the truth as marketing concerns, egos-run-amok and deadline chaos get in the way.

Both very dark and very funny, “The Last Magazine” is also a valuable addition to the literature about the disastrous war, the fallout of which the United States is still grappling with today.

As it careens from manic scene to manic scene, Bangkok to Baghdad to Manhattan, it can seem frothy or superficial. But what it’s recording is as serious as it gets. (Fair warning: “The Last Magazine” is full of raunchy sex scenes; you may not want to offer it to your favorite high school sophomore without parental consent.)

As a novel, it is unpolished, though almost always likable. And as social and political commentary, and as a record of a low point in American media history, it achieves a harsh brilliance.

Its publication is a reminder to those who admired Michael Hastings’ adversarial, take-no-prisoners style of just how much was lost in that car crash. There aren’t too many radical truth-tellers in our world; polite society doesn’t encourage such things. Michael Hastings, who lived and worked ferociously and sometimes recklessly, was one of the few. His only novel is a worthy testament to just that.

Margaret Sullivan is the former editor of The Buffalo News and the current public editor of the New York Times.