How Tina Met Eddie
Fungus Among Us
Sorry, Al

How Tina Met Eddie

Last month, Eddie Dean was just a writer for Washington's City Paper, filing his first story for Tina Brown. Now, he is living the dream of every alternative press writer: he has crossed over into the glossy magazine world, with a feature byline in the first issue of Talk. Brown even told Liz Smith that Dean is one of the new voices she's especially "excited about."

Upon arriving in New York last Friday, Dean had lunch with Brown ("She liked certain ideas and we were clicking," he says), bought $50 worth of books at the Strand, and found a few minutes to call Press Clips before running off to buy a new shirt. Asked if he was looking forward to the Talk party, he said, "Yeah, I'm hoping to get into a brawl with Martin Amis."

It all started a year ago, when Dean attended the Association of Alternative Newspapers convention in D.C., where his editor introduced him to New York Press managing editor Sam Sifton. "We were kindred spirits," says Dean, "rolling around Washington and staying up until four in the morning. We started talking about stories and I said, 'I got to write for you some day."'

As luck would have it, Brown hired Sifton a few months later as one of the young editors who would man her startup. Talk is backed by Miramax and Hearst, but they didn't give Brown the budget she wielded at Condé Nast, so she couldn't afford her usual stable of stars. In typical Brown style, she turned this to advantage, promising that Talk would be a showcase for new talent.

Cut to last spring, when Sifton asked Dean to go live in a trailer park for six weeks. The result is "Paradise, Yeah," a deadpan chronicle of the lives of a bunch of poor people. It's not particularly dramatic, and doesn't have any heroes—just damaged characters like Guido Newbrough, a flagman for a road-paving company whose trailer is "as dark and pungent as an Elizabethan tavern, packing a husky wallop of whatever happens to be cooking and whatever hasn't been washed." Dean, who lived in this trailer park 10 years ago, has a knack for making its residents sympathetic, whether they are singing karaoke versions of Lynyrd Skynyrd or flying bikes into a gravel pit. The story is illustrated with photographs by City Paper's Darrow Montgomery, a longtime collaborator with Dean.

At 34, Dean is a hit in the alternative press world. Salon's Jake Tapper, who used to write for City Paper, says Dean "digs the moonshine and smokes the cigarettes. He drives a beat-up car with crap all over it and his desk is a mess. He's an original. It's not a pose." Another writer friend describes Dean as "a lighter-haired version of Eraserhead" and City Paper's "best writer," adding that he feared Talk would turn Dean's salt-of-the-earth characters into caricatures. But not to fear. Of the finished piece, Dean says, "It's what I wrote really. It's not as long, but the style is the same."

Sifton bristles at the suggestion that working for Talk might be a corrupting influence on Dean. He says most alternative press owners call their shops a "stepping stone to wider circulation, and that's exactly what Eddie's got now—wider circulation." He also praises Brown's outreach to the alternative press, saying it proves "there are, in fact, some lively, fresh, and above all, good journalists" in the world of free weeklies. Who knew?

Dean went to high school in Richmond, Virginia, where, he says, "I didn't read literature at all. I listened to music and read [music critic] Lester Bangs." After majoring in English at the University of Virginia, he drove an ice cream truck, discovered Stephen Crane, and wrote for two newspapers, the Stafford Sun and the Potomac News. "But I wasn't that good at the daily school-board kind of journalism," he says. In 1988, he wrote his first story for City Paper, a feature about a fiddlers' convention.

In 1994, Dean was hired to write for City Paper by then editor Jack Shafer, now deputy editor of Slate. Under Shafer and current editor David Carr, Dean has been free to practice his form of literary journalism, which he describes as "talking to people that no one bothers to talk to...the kind of people who live in D.C., but have never been to the White House in their lives." Shafer describes Dean's writing in the romantic manner used by his fans, saying, "Eddie is as close as a writer can come to our poetic animal roots. Think of Eddie as a savage from the bog."

Occasionally, Dean departs from his lyrical descriptions of common folk, as when he stalked John Hinckley for four days on the grounds of St. Elizabeth's hospital. But to hear Carr tell it, it is Dean's delivery that has earned him a special relationship with his readers. "They trust his voice," Carr says, "because even though he gambles and speculates with narrative, he doesn't cheat. He is not silky. He is archaic in construction. He is like that old-timey mountain music: same themes, same riffs, same eternal conflict."

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