The Last Magazine is a well-meaning, sometimes well-written book about the culture and industry of magazine feature news writing as it existed in the early ’00s. Its author, Michael Hastings, had a brilliant career in journalism that was cut short by a tragic car accident last year, and his novel follows two reporters through a year on staff at a print-news mag called (what else?) The Magazine. One reporter is on on his way up, and the other is on his way down. As the two cross paths, they draw a map of their industry, even as it’s on the brink of upheaval.
The title of the book would suggest that this is a story about the death of print, or what went on behind the scenes at the “last magazine” before the Internet juggernaut claimed the future of journalism forever. And it is—sort of. The editors in charge of The Magazine are adorably naïve, believing even in 2005 that the Internet will eventually go away, and several very recognizable new-media personalities lurk in the background of the main action.
But The Last Magazine is really more about the last magazine journalist, and what his downfall represents to how our culture consumes news. A.E. Peoria is a pill-popping, sex-addicted investigative reporter climbing the ranks at The Magazine, despite having something called Compulsive Disclosure Disorder—an affliction that makes him unable to stop speaking whatever is running through his head. In the course of a typical conversation with Peoria, he might compliment your shoes one moment, and the next recount in detail how he gave his girlfriend six orgasms the night before. For a reporter, the compulsion to disclose is not necessarily a detriment, and while his personality tends to repel everyone he meets, it also makes him a great journalist.
But Peoria goes against the grain of The Magazine’s polished, media elite culture. They see him as “one of those writers,” certainly not editor material, and not where the future of the publication could ever be vested. Peoria further establishes his reputation as an embedded reporter in Iraq, writing a well-regarded story on an incursion by nationalists, where he and one other soldier are the only survivors.
As gormless and hopeless as Peoria is, his unfiltered take on the world represents a journalistic tradition that has been lost in the swirl of careerism and politics at The Magazine. He’s a mess, because he is the unwilling conduit for a messy world.
The book’s other main character, also named “Michael Hastings,” is cast as foil to Peoria’s journalistic bellwether. Like most young reporters, Hastings would do pretty much anything to get ahead. Watching him learn the ropes at The Magazine is less like watching an angel fall than a devil-in-training. Hastings doesn’t compromise his ethics so much as acknowledge the very idea of them as an outdated concept from the start. Not that his amorality is remarkable; it’s most disheartening for being totally commonplace.
After Peoria’s potentially star-making Iraq story, he goes on a drug- and sex-fueled bender in Thailand, trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Meanwhile, Hastings gets promoted from intern to full-time researcher, but not without the requisite bowing and scraping. The author makes a point of showing the hypocrisy of Hastings’ position in how he lends editorial support for the stories of two editors—who couldn’t be more different in worldview—with the same set of facts.
Peoria returns from his travels worse for the wear yet ready to work. But the machine Hastings has been helping to oil finds his unfiltered brand of straight reportage obsolete. The way the end of Peoria’s tenure at The Magazine unfolds, which involves the soldier he had saved in Iraq, is both surprising and apt.
The book includes several “interludes” to break up the action, where Hastings (the character) addresses the reader directly in meta-narrative asides. These interludes offer context that is especially helpful, because the author doesn’t show his hand much thematically. Though they can be helpful, the interludes are also one of the worst stylistic choices for this novel. At best, they’re distracting and obvious; at worst, they explicate themes the author couldn’t effectively write into the meat of the story. One of the final interludes contains the following sentence: “Most of the top media folks are a bunch of clueless assholes, egotistical, vainglorious, pompous, insecure, corrupt—you get the picture, right?” Right.
Media nerds wanting a look at the inner workings of how a news magazine functioned in the mid-’00s will enjoy The Last Magazine. And in certain passages, Hastings creates beautiful turns of phrase. But despite these stylistic flourishes, like a lot of posthumously published books, this one feels unfinished. The story often meanders into thematically opaque territory. Too many passages go too far afield of the author’s best intentions. It’s very probable that Hastings would have worked out the kinks if he had been allowed to, but as it is, The Last Magazine stands as a testament to the tragedy of the author’s death, rather than a triumph of his powers as a novelist.