A Deadly Wandering- The (Distracted) Devil Is In The Details
Preface: This is a blog post about the non-fiction book A Deadly Wandering, by Matt Richtel. It covers the timeline from the collision caused by Reggie Shaw, who was texting and driving. Two men, Keith O’Dell, and James (Jim) Furfaro, were killed in the collision. The different story lines follow Reggie, The Toll (or aftermath of the collision), The Neuroscientists (who study what happens to our brains when we are distracted), Terryl (a victim’s advocate) and Hunt for Justice.
The first time I stopped to think about the extent of Richtel’s research was on page 40 and 41. I took out a red pen and underlined the lines about coach Van Park.
Van Park stood at the podium, shuffling papers, as the fifth-period students began pouring in. (pg. 40)
There were posters warning students about the dangers of drugs and STDs. And there were three framed nature pictures, each one urging excellence with a word: Challenge, Determination, and Success. (pg. 41)
This is where I had to stop. I texted my friend who had snatched the book from my hands before I had gotten a chance to read it, and had completely devoured it.
“Did you notice that part? What the hell? How does he even know? How did he find that out?”
I still don’t completely know how he did it. Part of this type of writing involves some assumptions, but I know those assumptions are based on real observations Richtel made. I can only imagine the amount of note-taking that was done during this process.
More than halfway through the book I forgot how many quotes were in the story. Quotes weaved seamlessly in. We learned about this in film editing class: you don’t notice editing unless it’s done badly. In long-form journalism, those quotes are intrinsic to the story. It was unlike the journalism we had been learning about. It was something I could see myself writing in the future.
On page 56, Leila, Keith’s wife, is being handed Keith’s belongings.
“Where are his glasses?”
This quote stands apart from most of the other text on this page. And I believe this was intentional for impact. It’s a question coming from a place of true love. It’s a direct quote that would not have been as impactful if it had merely been described. If Richtel had written it as an observer “Leila wondered where Keith’s glasses were,” it would have given the reader a barrier between themselves and the story.
This is just one example of how Richtel drops the reader into these events as they are happening, even though he was not present during them.
As a reader, I felt short-changed during certain parts of the book.
The Neuroscientist chapters felt like a forced science lesson at times. But the science of distraction can be fascinating. These chapters did a number on me because I kept getting distracted trying to read them. This didn’t seem intentional on the author’s part. It was difficult to leap from the rich description of the character’s experience to the heavily-detailed scientific testing.
On Page 126 Dr. Strayer frames the issues as such:
“It’s a visual, manual, cognitive problem.”
Bam. Simple. I wanted to hear more clear facts and examples about why this was true. The heavy description of the scientists, their lives, and the studies just wasn’t as captivating at the stories of Reggie and the victim’s families.
The science was a backdrop for the main story of Reggie. It answered the question “why does this matter beyond this one story?”
A few years before reading this book, I saw Werner Herzog’s documentary “From One Second To The Next” presented by AT&T’s It can Wait campaign.
The documentary told stories, including Reggie’s, about how texting and driving has fatal consequences.
It dramatically shifted my thinking on texting and driving. I don’t drive, but I had a fairly ambivalent opinion on texting and driving.
Seeing real people weep on-screen with pain and regret, has haunted me for years.
While print and video are different mediums, I believe this powerful story of consequence and distraction is worth telling in any form possible. As journalism students, we can remember that skimming the surface of a story is not enough. In order to create impact, we must delve deeper than what seems necessary.
Do the work to find the story.