In 2004, at age 28, Benoit Denizet-Lewis became the youngest contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, having firmly staked his turf at the intersection of youth and sex. His first anthology, American Voyeur: Dispatches From The Far Reaches Of Modern Life, is split between those two labels, capturing flashpoints from two of the decade’s big obsessions. As a time capsule, the collection should age well; right now, it’s a little undernourished.
Denizet-Lewis is better at gaining his subjects’ trust and getting colorful quotes than writing fully immersive profiles. Particularly when restricted by word count, he flits over tiny fragments rather than piecing together a larger picture. The teen-culture pieces are sketchy, bringing together scattered anecdotes punctuated with conflicting quotes from experts on opposing sides of whatever issue’s at hand. “Whatever Happened To Teen Romance?” is a 2004 dispatch about the then-buzz topic of “hooking up” that doesn’t seem particularly better-informed than, say, Tom Wolfe wondering exactly what’s up with the kids these days. “God Is Rad” gawks at the new breed of young Christians rather than trying to understand them; “Brother’s Keeper” reports the suicides of two brothers a year apart without doing anything more than reporting the conflicting statements of the bereaved and related.
Denizet-Lewis does better describing the fragmentation of the gay community, which is less—as one of his interviewees calls it—an imaginary “single unitary gay identity” than it is a group perceived as a monolithic front by hostile/uncomprehending outsiders, but impossible to convene as a whole. Observing from inside a culture he already can self-identify with, reporting on the soberer new front of frat life, or from the multiple splintering gay/lesbian communities—self-described “lipstick lesbians” and “regular guys,” among others—he offers opinions and historical perspectives that don’t seem to emerge entirely from secondhand quotes.
Rarely is Denizet-Lewis presented with a spectacle so strange and compelling that he can just observe it without coming out bland: “Abercrombie Nation,” a deer-in-headlights view of Abercrombie & Fitch’s youth-fixated, input-oblivious CEO and designer, is a rare exception. Otherwise, he’s on the outside, standing just inside enough to deliver quotes he isn’t ready to place in any kind of framework. It isn’t the lack of moral judgment that irks, just the lack of any kind of ballast. Half of the collection is a real primer; the rest is just a glorified Dateline NBC report, only less hysterical.