Matt Labash is the kind of profile journalist who’s magnetically drawn to colorful men and chaotic situations; he thrives at the center of the storm. He’s also a die-hard libertarian conservative, which shouldn’t make a difference: color journalism is still color journalism. But Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures With Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, And Jewish Cowboys—an anthology of Labash’s journalism, almost entirely from the pages of The Weekly Standard—is full of color and polemics, a problematic mix Labash can’t always make work.
It doesn’t help that the anthology seems indiscriminately assembled, uniting cranky ephemera with pieces that have aged well. A dull, instantly dated anti-Facebook rant isn’t helped by a passing comment about how Slate’s writers are “destroying America.” Worse is “Welcome To Canada, The Great White Waste Of Time,” a dull anti-Canadian diatribe in which every American who’s moved to Canada is decried as naïve, incoherent, and possibly unpatriotic, even as the country itself becomes one long, irritating punchline. Trend pieces in general aren’t Labash’s strength: He wastes time bashing the risible spectacle of a DailyKos convention, and his jokes about New Agey PE teachers hating dodgeball seem to belong to a generation long gone.
Labash does better when he turns straight to people he sympathizes with: His rogues’ gallery is depicted with equal affection, regardless of the politics involved. Some of the profiles won’t offer new insights to anyone familiar with the subjects—the Donald Trump piece is anecdotally amusing but unsurprising, while a report from the Iraqi border at the start of the war devolves into a long hymn of praise for Christopher Hitchens—but Labash can dig deeper. Trailing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the closing hours of his successful election as California’s governor, Labash resurrects the mostly-forgotten timeline of daily scandals in an appropriately opaque portrait of Schwarzenegger’s campaign. Elsewhere, he handily assembles many of the best lines of colorful Louisiana governor/racketeer Edwin Edwards in one place.
Best are Labash’s profiles of less-known figures, like evangelical wrestler George South—who proselytizes at halftime between matches —or those in decline, like late-period Marion Barry, who gets about as fair and balanced a portrait as possible. Labash is instinctively amused by “colorful” people, which ironically can make his work feel rote, as he kills time between prefab anecdotes of profanely outsize masculinity. When he calms down and doesn’t worry so hard about amusing or preaching, though, he can offer rounded portraits of people who’d otherwise remain caricatures.