Jon Ronson has a curious mind. More specifically, it’s a mind captivated by extreme people and situations.
Ronson’s 2001 book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, investigated groups from radical Islamic fundamentalists to the Klu Klux Klan, and 2004’s The Men Who Stare at Goats detailed a secret U.S. Army program that studied the potential of the paranormal in military applications. (The book became a 2009 movie starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor.) Last year’s The Psychopath Test took a look at what it means to be criminally insane, and whether many of those same characteristics don’t also translate into success in the corporate world.
Now Riverhead Books has issued Lost at Sea, a collection of Ronson’s best journalism from the past decade. About half the book has been previously collected in two books in the U.K., but for readers on this side of the Atlantic, likely more familiar with Ronson from his work for This American Life than for the BBC and The Guardian, the anthology is a treat.
Ronson is a serious journalist, but that doesn’t mean he takes himself especially seriously. He inserts himself into every story—you know what he’s thinking as he gets himself into ridiculous situations, one after another. There is the conference of UFO abductees that Ronson attends with pop superstar Robbie Williams. There is the luxury cruise during which Ronson tries to suss out if celebrity psychic Sylvia Browne is for real. There are his explorations of the Juggalos (fans of the rapper Insane Clown Posse); the Indigos (special children who ostensibly have divine and/or psychic powers); the Alphas (agnostics who begin to speak in tongues after going through a 10-week Christian education course with a charismatic leader); and the Jesus Christians (a religious cult whose members want to donate their kidneys to complete strangers—for free).
Ronson specializes in investigating the bizarre, but his reporting keeps the stories grounded. In “A Message From God,” the essay about the Alpha Course, Ronson doesn’t just take the course himself but delves into the credentials of the leader, Nicky Gumbel. Is he simply a captivating priest figure? Or is he more sinister—a cult leader, even? What Ronson finds is that sometimes there are no easy answers, especially regarding matters of faith.
But Ronson’s unconventional journalism is at its finest when he examines the financial crisis and its effects on actual real people. In many ways, the centerpiece of Lost at Sea is the story “Who Killed Richard Cullen?”, Ronson’s investigation into why and how a man named Richard Cullen killed himself after racking up hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt. First published in 2005, the piece is an astute look at the malevolent practices of the credit card and loan industry that helped lead to the market crash years after. As part of his research, Ronson creates multiple identities to see what type of people get which offers from lenders. To Ronson’s surprise, his least credit-worthy persona, “Titch,” is the one that gets inundated with offers.
“Dan nods, pleased and unsurprised. He explains that Titch sounds classically, enticingly ‘subprime.’ ‘Subprime is the golden egg,’ Dan says. ‘If, as a direct marketer, you can identify subprime characteristics, you can do very well.’ Dan says the vast majority of all junk mail—be it loans or otherwise—is directed at the subprime market. ... It is slightly chilling to realize there are rational, functional people up there employed to spot, nurture, and exploit those down here among who are irrational and can barely cope,” Ronson elaborates.
He continues with his investigation through the upper layers of banks and credit card companies—Barclays, Capital One, MBNA. It’s a horrifying read that hits home, despite the current credit crunch. All of Cullen’s debts are written off in the end, but he remains dead—and for what?
Ronson looks at the intersection of money and death in two other essays, “Death at the Chateau” and “‘I’ve Thought About Doing Myself in Loads of Times ...’,” and what he discovers is that being broke is all it takes for some lives to completely unravel. It’s a dark realization, and a timely one in this era of recession.
The edge of sanity is where Ronson spends his time, and when it isn’t depressing, it makes for entertaining reading. Ronson is bitingly funny and self-deprecating; I laughed out loud more than once reading this book. That said, a little bit of Ronson’s personality goes a long way. Some pieces would be stronger without as much description of the reporting of the story, like in “Phoning a Friend,” as Ronson describes his disintegrating relationship with the protagonists of the essay, with whom he is trying to get an interview. The story of a man who may or may not have fixed his win on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is fascinating enough on its own—it doesn’t need Ronson.
Still, as a whole, Lost at Sea is a engrossing read. Ronson is an astute observer of the weirdness of American culture, like in “Amber Waves of Green” (published earlier this year in GQ), an interesting take on income inequality (the richest man is surprisingly the angriest), and in “Santa’s Little Conspirators,” in which he visits North Pole, Alaska, to discover why high-schoolers would plot a school shooting while living in outwardly the cheeriest place on earth, a living Christmas village. The book is well worth spending a few dreary winter afternoons with—if it doesn’t manage to brighten up your day, it will certainly enlighten you.