When The Accidental Life, published by Knopf, landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago as an early “uncorrected bound proof,” I almost tossed it. I wasn’t up for another Anne Tyler novel. I’d finished her off, in my mind, long ago.
Thank God I took a second look. This wasn’t a sequel to The Accidental Tourist.
Subtitled “An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers,” The Accidental Life is a memoir by Terry McDonell, who is—full disclosure—a friend. That said, I didn’t even know he was writing it, nor that galleys were being sent my way. Some friend.
McDonell, who most famously worked for and remained on cordial terms with Jann Wenner even after the millionaire Rolling Stone owner decided not to honor “the retirement benefits in my contract,” was already a heroic figure in the business of print magazines long before he became a pioneer in digital media at Time Inc. (which also publishes DEPARTURES). McDonell worked on the start-up of Outside and invented Smart magazine; commuted between Livingston, Montana, and New York; served as managing editor at Rolling Stone; and was editor in chief of Us, Esquire, Men’s Journal, Sports Afield, and Sports Illustrated. The book’s an amazing look back on all that, accomplished through effortless writing and pin-sharp recollections from the past 40-odd years. McDonell worked with the best of them—Tom McGuane, George Plimpton, Tim Cahill— played “acid golf ” with Hunter S. Thompson, and even wrote a column for Liz Tilberis at Harper’s Bazaar before the most beloved of all fashion editors died of cancer in 1999. I mention the latter because Terry is seemingly one tough, macho journalist-editor whose tastes run from hand-tooled cowboy boots to The Paris Review (he’s president of its board of directors) to Château Lafite.
The truth is, he’s one of the most generous, sensitive, literary guys out there, who did what he did extremely well and isn’t averse to sharing the details. (For example: “Page views are the new measure, and cute puppies and cheap-trick penis headlines rule the click-bait newsstand.”)
Someone asked me if the book wasn’t a little “inside baseball,” to which I would reply: Maybe, but who doesn’t like baseball?