Grievances [Buy Now]
By Mark Ethridge
It is a truism in this business that inside every newspaper reporter is a novel struggling to be born. The vast majority of those novels are miscarried — never begun or never finished, or they die in a dusty bottom drawer, after waiting years in vain for an agent or a publisher.
Not so, Mark Ethridge's Grievances (NewSouth Books), a veteran newspaperman's gritty story of the newspaper business.
Like Matt Harper, the young reporter and protagonist of his novel, Ethridge is a third-generation newspaperman who put in his years at The Charlotte Observer. As managing editor there, he oversaw two Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, one on the health dangers associated with the textile industry, the other on the fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their PTL empire.
Matt Harper, Ethridge's alter-ego, works for the fictitious Charlotte Times, which, like the Observer, is caught in the downdraft of an industry that is being consolidated by giant corporations and run by MBAs and bean counters who don't give a damn about journalism or the Fourth Estate. Harper is already on the shortlist for the next newsroom downsizing when someone walks in with a story that will send him on a quest that saves his career, wins him a Pulitzer, and launches Ethridge's fine first novel.
"I got into journalism because I wanted to be a writer," Ethridge said in a recent telephone conversation from his home in Charlotte. "Newspapers were a way into that."
Ethridge said he tried to write a novel some 20 years ago. "I thought I was pretty good," but that first effort miscarried. He has learned a lot since then, about writing and about himself. "Novels are less about what happens in terms of action, but about people, the changes they go through, the things they feel," he said.
Ethridge left the Observer in 1989 to become publisher of the Charlotte Business Journal. Today, he is the president of Parenting Magazine, which publishes in three cities in North Carolina, and he spends two days a week as editorial consultant to NASCAR Scene, a racing fan magazine. The rest of his busy week he spends working on fiction.
"I wanted to do three things when I sat down to write this book," he said. "I wanted to write an interesting book, a real page turner. And I wanted to create interesting characters and I wanted to teach people about the newspaper business."
Indeed, Grievances is an insider's look at the nuts and bolts of the newsroom, how editorial decisions are made, how circulation and advertising influence content and vice versa.
A big admirer of Ethridge's book is Dr. Jack Bass, a historian and instructor of communications at the College of Charleston. Bass actually puts in a cameo appearance in Grievances with the mention of his book The Orangeburg Massacre. But that's not the reason Bass will make Grievances required reading in his Intro-
duction to News Writing class.
"I think this book can give someone in a reporting class a real feel for what it's like to be a reporter," Bass said. "I found it a very readable book and would recommend it. It's a good description of how a complex journalistic story is put together ... In terms of capturing the feel of the times and the place on which fictional characters are based, he captures it well."
What Ethridge captures is the fictional town of Hirtsboro, S.C., circa 1988. Hirtsboro is a sleepy Lowcountry burg near the Savannah River, where a 13-year-old black boy was murdered two decades earlier, and, as Matt Harper writes, "Almost 20 years later, the murder remains uninvestigated, unsolved, and unpunished."
Harper strikes out to crack the case with fellow reporter Ronnie Bullock, a canny veteran redneck who packs a small arsenal, dresses in khakis, and has no regard for Harper's college degree and journalistic pedigree. But his investigative instincts are impeccable, and together the two newspapermen break the silence and unravel the mystery surrounding the death of young Wallace Sampson. In the process, Harper comes to terms with his dying father, reunites with his ex-fiancée, redeems himself in the newsroom, and earns a bit of journalistic immortality with a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
It's all nicely tied up in 280 pages. For narrative flow, Ethridge takes some liberties with South Carolina's judicial and prosecutorial bureaucracy. One suspects his errors of history, geology, and geography are the result of carelessness. But that's a small criticism of a book that reads so well and teaches so much.
For Ethridge, writing is a labor of love. "You take the most interesting aspects of your life and of other lives and you combine them," he said. "Then you crank up the angst and see where it takes you."
Now Ethridge, 56, is almost through writing his second novel. Let's hope it is as good a ride as Grievances.