The nonfiction roots of Michael Hastings' posthumous novel

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Michael Hastings. (AP Photo/Blue Rider Press/Penguin)
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Jeremy Barr

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“I want to say this right now: This is fiction, it’s all made up,” the late journalist Michael Hastings wrote in the introduction to his forthcoming novel, The Last Magazine.

The next 330 pages seem to disprove that claim.

Certainly not made up is the atmosphere of the Manhattan media establishment of the mid-aughts; to those who lived it, it won't be hard to see rather clear caricatures of real-life executives, entrepreneurs and editors, like Gawker Media founder Nick Denton and former Newsweek staffers.

Hastings’ widow, Elise Jordan, discovered a manuscript of the book on his computer after his death in an early-morning one-car crash in Los Angeles in June 2013. Last fall, she gave it to his publisher, Blue Rider Press, a division of Penguin Random House, and it is set for release on June 17.

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In life, Hastings was something of a bomb thrower who rose to national prominence after an eye-opening 2010 Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal that led to the officer’s resignation as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The real life Michael Hastings (his protagonist shares the same name) cut his teeth as a war correspondent for Newsweek during the invasion of Iraq.

The book centers on a newsroom power struggle, with two editorial leaders angling to take The Magazine's top job. While telling that story, Hastings follows the trials and tribulations of foreign correspondent A.E. Peoria, who embeds with U.S. troops during the invasion.

The story is disjointed at times — newsroom bureaucracy one chapter, Thai brothels the next — but it's an engaging read, written in the gonzo prose that Hastings came to be known for.

And so, whether the publisher wants to position the book as a roman à clef or not, much of the fun in the book comes in piecing together the real life who’s whos and what’s whats. Take, for example, the titular publication itself, The Magazine, which, as is made clear by the book’s cover art, is Newsweek. Its staff includes a character named Michael Healy, an investigative reporter at Newsweek who is very clearly based on Michael Isikoff.

“Without Healy, the nation might never have known the details of things like cigar vaginal penetration. Then where would we be?” Hastings wrote in reference to Isikoff’s reporting on the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal.

Nishant Patel, The Magazine's international editor, bears a striking resemblance to Fareed Zakaria, who edited Newsweek International at the same time. In the book's first scene, Patel kills a story on genocide in Africa for one about mobile phone usage, and redirects a data-supported piece on a drop in Islamic immigration by simply saying, "My sense is that the Islamic wave is cresting."

Then there’s “Timothy Grove,” a Denton-esque character, and the proprietor of Gawker stand-in Wretched.com, "the most popular media gossip site on the web." Grove is an Englishman who calls Hastings a “dead-tree’er” for working at Newsweek and requests 10 posts a day from him when he does a stint as a guest blogger for the site.

“In all the profiles I’d read about him, the writers mention his unusually tiny head on a skinny six-one frame. Massively tiny, almost like a headshrinker, like the guy sitting next to Beetlejuice in the waiting room to purgatory,” Hastings wrote. “You had to think that a smart guy like Grove has a pretty big brain, and that his brain must be really pressing against his skull, trying to squirt out his ears.”

The reality is somewhat inverse. In a 2010 New Yorker profile, Ben McGrath wrote that Denton "has a famously large head that sits precariously on a thin neck and narrow shoulders, leaving the impression of an evolved brain that is perhaps a little too conscious of its pedestrian context." 

In one passage, Hastings joins several other Wretched.com staffers at a dive bar in the Lower East Side, The Dark Room, a real place. A staffer says of Grove: “He doesn’t like these places — he prefers Balthazar, a place where he can pretend he’s Anna Wintour or Graydon Carter — I think coming here reminds him too much that he’s not really one of them, no matter how hard he tries. He’ll always be more Larry Flynt.”

Denton has been known to frequent Balthazar, the SoHo restaurant that's located a few blocks from Gawker headquarters. (He was even dubbed "Lord Balthazar" in a Gothamist piece.)

Near the end of the book, Hastings apologizes to his colleagues for any hurt feelings he may have engendered. Though it can be read as a critique of the newsweekly format, Hastings expresses gratitude to Newsweek for giving him a start in journalism.

Though Hastings' journalistic star didn't seem to be fading at the time of writing, he suggests that The Last Magazine is something of a professional hedge for him.

“I feel like my skill set is obsolete,” he wrote. “This book is an insurance policy against my dying field: maybe I can write novels, and if that’s not a sign of desperation, a jump from one sinking ship to another, I don’t know what is.”