When Anthony, the Coptic saint, wandered alone into the Egyptian desert, his mind became a theater of phantasmagorical visions — demons, centaurs, and satyrs. In 1999, when 24-year-old Jake Silverstein drove into the desolate terrain of far West Texas, he found himself roaming the borderlands straddling not just the United States and Mexico but also fact and fancy, sanity and madness. “In the unshaded sun, thoughts twist like timbers, turning from memory to fantasy to silence,” he writes. Silverstein is struck by the eerie majesty of the Texas lunar landscape, noting: “But the beauty is pitiless and unusual, and the hard dark mountains furnish no refuge, and the effect of prolonged exposure is often to leave you wondering what is real.” His new book should be shelved along the unfenced boundary between fiction and nonfiction.
A journalistic wunderkind, Silverstein was only 34 when he took over the editorship of Texas Monthly two years ago. Nothing Happened and Then It Did recounts an earlier, scrawnier stage in his career, when the future poobah of Texas publishing was a cub reporter for the weekly Big Bend Sentinel, covering not only school-board and town-council meetings but also the high-school basketball coach, Valentine’s Day at the post office, and a local paraplegic who painted with his toes. These are not the sorts of assignments likely to attract the attention of a Pulitzer committee, but Silverstein embraces obscurity — as a way to make his mark.
After quitting his job in Marfa, he decides to move to Mexico and chooses an old mining town, Zacatecas, because of its few distractions or attractions. “I had the notion that it would be good, both financially and journalistically, to live somewhere where there was nothing happening,” he explains. “That way, when something did happen, there would be no one but me to write about it.” Silverstein gets a scoop on the opening of a McDonald’s in Zacatecas, which he claims was the last territory in the United States, Mexico, and Canada outside of the Arctic Nunavut that lacked a golden arch. He garnishes his journalistic nuggets with dollops of imagination. He makes no mention of the fact that it was a Fulbright scholarship, not the challenge of writing about nothing, that led him to a rental in uneventful Zacatecas.
A marriage of gonzo journalism and magical realism, Nothing Happened meanders from plausible reportage to fanciful extrapolation. The chance reading of a faded newspaper leads Silverstein on a preposterous escapade to find the body of Ambrose Bierce, the old gringo who disappeared into the Mexican Revolution. He also helps track down treasure buried in a bayou by the pirate Jean Lafitte. The book is a series of interlocking shaggy-dog stories, some with bite, others infested with fleas. An account of Silverstein’s trip to Reno — lured to a literary contest by scam artists calling themselves the Famous Poets Society — probes the universal hunger for recognition. A cantankerous phonographer from Houston who aims to transcribe every memory in shorthand teaches a lesson in transience. But tagging along on a chaotic road rally from Tuxtla Gutiérrez — capital of Chiapas — to Nuevo Laredo soon proves tedious.
“The journalist is a cipher,” writes Silverstein. “He is a ghost trying to see through a fog from which he is often indistinguishable, and to be successful he must spend his life going from one fog to another, unknown to everyone.” Down and out in Texas, Mexico, California, and Louisiana, the author is a likable cipher who gains the reader’s sympathy, if not trust, through self-deprecation. Like Geoff Dyer and Susan Orlean, he presents himself as a bumbler, repeatedly bungling bids to haul in a big story. When a writer for The New Yorker scoops him on the West Texas drought, he is ready to take up another trade. “Maybe I lacked the necessary professional ferocity,” he wonders. Nevertheless, the would-be journalist travels to Fresno to profile an immigrant tycoon who was elected mayor of the Mexican town he left 30 years ago, only to discover that the tale has already been told, in The New Yorker. Though oblivious to wars, elections, and the crisis in his own profession, Silverstein’s first book is an enchanting account of the apprentice’s sorcery. •