By the time Michael Hastings died, at just 33, in a car accident last June, he’d already published three excellent books of nonfiction—among them The Operators, whose basis was the Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General,” which brought General Stanley McChrystal to his knees—and was generally considered one of the finest journalists working. He’s been back in the news lately for another searing piece of journalism he wrote in Rolling Stone, this time in 2012, when he profiled America’s last prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl. Hastings’ hallmark was unflinching truth, even when that truth was ugly or troubling.
It’s no surprise, then, that Hastings’ posthumous novel, The Last Magazine, takes a no-prisoners approach to the roman à clef, the tip of his spear this time the failing days of another empire: news magazines. Specifically, Hastings is writing (in slightly veiled terms … the narrator’s name is Michael Hastings) about his time at Newsweek in the early 2000s, the country at war, the magazine embroiled in an editorial battle for leadership between Nishant Patel and Sanders Berman (Fareed Zakaria and Jon Meacham, it seems) and young Hastings trying to find his place in the world. If the book were just that, it would be a compelling peek at what it looked like from the inside of a dying animal, constantly clawing at its own skin, looking to ease the pain, inexplicably blind to the real threats. “The Web is a black hole,” Patel tells Hastings. “There’s not a future on the Internet.”
But The Last Magazine is also about the culture of war reporting, Hastings creating a secondary narrator named A.E. Peoria, an embedded journalist who finds life abroad among the ex-pat and NGO class hard to navigate, and even more so the vicious warriors of the literary class back home, they being more apt to stab you to death than any insurgent. How much of Hastings is in Peoria? If you judge from his own nonfiction, a fair amount, but this is fiction and Peoria is a beautiful loser, the kind of man you’d want to share a drink with, but not the cab home, and you root for him even as he cruises toward destruction.
The Last Magazine is not a perfect novel—one gets the sense that the ending would have been more acutely rewritten if Hastings had the chance—but that’s just a quibble: It’s entertaining as hell, and leaves the reader with a kind of abiding sadness for things completely off the page, namely that such a vibrant, fearless talent was taken too soon.