Although he grew up around some of the most celebrated literary fiction writers of the twentieth century, including his father, Paul Solotaroff found his idiom in literary nonfiction and turned it into his own brand of advocacy journalism. He is nothing if not a pugilistic writer; his work is animated by rage and righteousness. “The stories themselves,” says Solotaroff, “are a form of vengeance.”
This was true in “Dead Boys,” his first big story for the Village Voice in 1988, a jarring investigation into the molestation and prostitution of young crack-addicted boys who hung around the waterfront on the far west end of Manhattan. And it remained true throughout a career that took Solotaroff to GQ in the early nineties and then to Rolling Stone for the next thirty years, with plenty of appearances in Wenner media’s sister publication, the slick and writerly Men’s Journal. We feel his undiminished outrage through the years in his stories about the sickening world of puppy mills; the fentanyl epidemic; the interpreters left behind in Afghanistan; the history of violence within the Chicago Police Department; the sordid case of former NFL star Aaron Hernandez; and Black men wrongfully imprisoned, such as rap star Meek Mill and Tony Wright, who served twenty-five years before he was exonerated of a crime he did not commit.
Solotaroff’s tough, unflinching stories are written in a stripped-down, muscular prose that wastes no time with subtleties. But Solotaroff doesn’t just run on adrenaline; his stories are laced with humor—and he’s done less traumatic stories, too, including traditional magazine profiles of athletes, Dez Bryant, James Harrison, and Hector Camacho. He’s also capable of hitting tender, melancholy notes, such as in the devastating Men’s Journal portrait of Dave Duerson, a former star with the Chicago Bears who killed himself. Nowhere has the mix of outrage and compassion come together with greater success than in Solotaroff’s various stories about the challenges of raising his autistic son, Luke, now a young man in his twenties.
Solotaroff is forever telling stories about people who are marginalized or ignored, forever at the ready for the fight. He’s all heart.
Alex Belth: As the eldest son of a writer and editor in the New York literary world, were you destined to be a writer? Was it the family business?
Paul Solotaroff: If by family business you mean being in lifelong therapy and having a deepening sense of alienation, not just from the profession I was bred into, but also from my nuclear family members, then, yes, I was born into the family business. My father was in the New York literary mix, as an editor. Philip Roth was at the dinner table, Norman Mailer was at the dinner table, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, Bobbie Ann Mason, Sue Miller. My mother translated Tolstoy to make a living, which is to say she did not make a living, although my brother Ivan and I continue to get checks for her apparently definitive translation of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. My mother was very much on the outs. My father was deeply inside. He was as wired as you can be. It was not nearly the red-hot vacuum of his literary imagination, to quote the title of his first book, but it was close.
My brother Ivan and I were outsiders as much as our mother was. We served drinks occasionally at cocktail parties but mostly we stole them for ourselves. My mother and father were fictionalized in Letting Go. Roth was intensely bound up with my father and vice versa. And my mother was very good friends with Roth’s first wife, Maggie.
AB: Did you always imagine that you’d be a writer?
PS: It was hard for me to conceive of myself as a professional writer because my father and I were distant. I saw him two or three times a month, that’s how it was. His second wife, and then third wife, we all lived within three square blocks of each other. He had two more sons after Ivan and me. His obligations were many and sundry and he was a fractured guy, both logistically and emotionally. So my real entry into literary affairs, such as it has been, didn’t really get going until I was at Stonybrook and began to write crude short stories as an undergraduate. I was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to get an MFA and was completely unprepared. You just have no fucking clue, no emotional wherewithal to take advantage of the opportunity, which is why a lot of MFA programs like to wait for people to be in their late twenties, early thirties before they show up on their doorstep. By then, you’ve failed at about five other things and the effect of getting your ass kicked in the real world is concentrating the imagination. I had not yet had that important ass-beating—though you could argue my entire adolescence was a sustained ass-beating. I was a skinny, undersized, and fragile kid growing up. I understood about being physically weak in an era when New York was rough.
AB: How did you find your way to journalism?
PS: By accident. First, I had to eliminate who I wasn’t. After the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I spent four or five years in San Francisco writing short stories and a novel, or a lukewarm attempt at one, just so I could rule out that. I grew up in an environment that practically deified the novel—it was the ultimate form—so I needed to get this out of my system. I had an equally futile experience attempting to write plays at Yale School of Drama in the mid-eighties and concluded, decisively, that I had neither the temperament nor the skillset to do something that did not involve blocks of pungent prose. I could write dialogue, but I couldn’t make a story out of it. As a playwright I was an okay mimic of David Mamet and Sam Shepard, but I had nothing to say.
What journalism gave me was this incredible endowment and that was other people’s suffering. I don’t know how to qualify how rich that is without sounding like a vulture and a vampire. After I left Yale, I was two years into an MSW program at the NYU School of Social Work, I realized I had a subject. I didn’t have a story yet but I had a subject: What it cost other people to get out of bed in the morning. That was my subject. I would learn that it’s also my story. The story, which as Chekov told us, we tell over and over again until we die, is: people are suffering unjustly. Nobody knows about this, or certainly nobody in a position to help knows about it. It’s my job to be the voice for the nameless and the voiceless. It is my job to speak for them in a way that cannot be ignored. I’ve spent the last thirty years writing about indigent people of color who have been fucked over.
AB: What was your first professional writing or editing job?
PS: I got into journalism because the Village Voice promoted my brother Ivan’s editor, Michael Caruso, to executive editor. Ivan had already written three blockbuster pieces for the Voice, they might have all been cover stories. He was very good, he was a natural. So when Caruso—who went on to have an impressive career—moved up, I applied for and got the job as sports editor.
None of us at the Voice, at the least the people I knew, came from the Columbia J school. We didn’t know the rules and we weren’t encumbered by them. We were all faking it until we made it. Which, it turns out, is what journalism is all about. You’re always faking it until you make it because how do you know what the story is? How do you have any authority or expertise in anyone else’s story until they pour it out to you? And to do that you must persuade them that you are the appropriate vehicle to tell this story.
I had just turned thirty-three and my sense of journalism in the late eighties, early nineties was that it needed bodies, fast. It needed talent, point of view, and energy in the worst fucking way. I got there very late. When I got to the party New Journalism looked an awful lot like Old Journalism. I did see that there was a lane for me in narrative journalism, and I’d met Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe as a kid, but I never gave it serious thought until I found myself at the Voice.
AB: So were your first long pieces about sports?
PS: The piece that launched me came a few months after I started as sports editor. I wrote a story called “Dead Boys”—this was 1988—which helped bring down Covenant House. It was a story about homeless boys living—only some were living there, actually—down on the docks of the west side of Manhattan, in the Village. Ten-, twelve-, thirteen-year-old boys having sex in exchange for crack rocks and doing so in a way that unintentionally led me to a monster named Father Bruce Ritter, the founder and executive of Covenant House, who was all but pimping these boys out in broad daylight to a wealthy benefactor. So the article had the effect of pointing out this horrible story.
A journalist has a responsibility to tell stories that are necessary. Not to tell the ones we want to tell but that we need to tell before we get off the planet. They must also feel necessary to those whose stories they are—If I don’t get this story out of me, I will die. That’s how I judge whether a story is worth committing three to six months of my life to. The stakes have to be very high. I do not write stories in which somebody’s vanity, including my own, is being serviced. I write stories that desperately needed telling ten years ago.
AB: Was the T. Rodgers profile the first piece you did for GQ?
PS: No, the first one was a profile of a scumbag NFL super-agent Leigh Steinberg. David Granger, who had already come over to GQ from The National Sports Daily and brought along Peter Richmond and Charlie Pierce, edited the T. Rodgers story, which was also the first story I ever wrote that got optioned.
AB: Like your brother, Ivan, and journalists like Mark Jacobson, you were white, Jewish writers reporting and writing about Black culture for national magazines. These days, those magazines would assign those stories to writers of color, but you were writing in an era in which those opportunities were available for you. Were you aware that you were being tasked with writing about Black culture?
PS: Well, I had this strange entry. I grew up listening to R&B, grew up on hip-hop in the eighties. I played high school basketball in the most democratized culture in America, the broke, dangerous Upper West Side of the sixties and seventies. Of course, there was separation between the white and Black experience, but back then it was also interconnected. You couldn’t play basketball on 76th Street and Riverside Drive without having ten really good Black friends because that’s who was there. That’s who was in my class at IS44, that’s who was in my class at LaGuardia High School.
AB: If you weren’t a big fighter dude, I assume you used humor as a way to survive. That’s one aspect that has always appeared in your pieces, as far back as the Rodgers profile. I wouldn’t call you a humorist, but there’s often humor in your stories.
PS: I’m a wiseass by nature. I can’t help it. That’s the other legacy of being brought up Jewish on the Upper West side in a literary environment. You learn to be funny. My favorite writers use comedy as another way to explore tragedy. It’s the other side of horror. I write about the horror of corruption, the horror of having been essentially made a slave by an institution, and so humor becomes a way to counter the heaviness, even the self-righteousness at times. You want that balance.
AB: In the Rodgers piece you make yourself the butt of a joke that is actually kind of a scary and potentially volatile situation. But you don’t become a more fleshed out presence in the story. Can you talk about that choice?
PS: Well, again, I wasn’t trying to do a Hunter Thompson thing where I became a character. In this case, I said something to one of T.’s associates. I was being a wiseass and said something too casually to the wrong person and it got a gun pointed at my head. T. came over and defused the situation, and I included in the story because it was revealing of him. I didn’t need to enter it. In that scene I’m an avatar for the reader, but after that my experience wasn’t germane to his story.
AB: Did you ever hear from Rodgers after your story came out?
PS: Oh, yeah, of course. I think he wanted to leave the street life behind and enter the world of Hollywood, but to be that guy, the guy he wanted to be, he really would have had to leave the street life behind completely. And I am not sure he ever did that. The Hollywood thing never panned out, at least not from my article.
Two months after the story came out, T. gave me a call. I think we had already negotiated the option for his life rights. Anyhow, it was the first night of the riots in L.A. I was in New York. It was 3 a.m. He was at a Best Buy and he said to me at the top of his voice, because there was shouting and sirens in the background, “Yo, Oops!” That was his name for me, he called me “Oops” because in driving the streets of Baldwin Hills I was always driving the wrong way, and he would say, “Oops, take a left, motherfucker.” I think Motherfucker was my last name.
So he said, “Oops, you want a big screen TV?” Big screen TVs in 1992, these things were huge. I said, “T., just for giggles, how do you propose getting it to me?” He said, “I’ll have my boy drive it to you.” I said, “Interstate commerce laws being what they are, I think I’ll graciously decline, but . . . Aren’t there cops there? Shouldn’t you be making your escape right about now?” And he said, “Motherfucker, we are the cops.” I just thought, that’s an oops.
AB: In your estimation, where does this story fit in your larger body of work?
PS: The criminal justice system has been my main topic for the past thirty years, with forays into hip-hop and the NFL. The stories I tell are about the lives that have been ruined and monetized by the criminal justice system. If you are a newspaper writer or if you are a sportswriter covering a certain team, you are not going to be able to report out a lot of stories because it will cost you access to the people you are covering. It will likely cost you your job. I only write stories that aren’t permissioned, and I can afford to because I’ve mostly written for national magazines. If I ever get a big chest tattoo, I know what it will say: “Came for Justice/Stayed for Vengeance.” That’s what my stories are: justice and vengeance. The stories themselves are a form of vengeance.
"Original Gangster" by Paul Solotaroff is on sale now. Click here to purchase a copy or click here to read an extract.