'Conversations With a Killer' too coy to convince

MAGAZINES

April 17, 1994|By Bruce McCabe | Bruce McCabe,Boston Globe

"John Wayne Gacy is obsessively fond of defending his innocence, which is imaginary."

Alec Wilkinson's "Conversations With a Killer" in this week's New Yorker is a look at the murderer of 33 boys -- as such Gacy is America's most notorious killer -- and its lead is provocative. But the piece doesn't build and ends up demonstrating why it's not easy or simple to go slumming or dabbling in lurid journalism.

Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," which originated as New Yorker journalism, is the model. It defined the genre of literary tabloidism. But Mr. Wilkinson isn't Capote, a successful novelist who used his incomparable novelistic techniques to get inside his subjects, the thrill-killers of an all-American family.

Unfortunately, Mr. Wilkinson can't get inside Gacy. Both writer and subject are too coy for their own good. Mr. Wilkinson can't or won't say what draws him (and therefore what should draw us) to Gacy. Gacy seems opaque.

More intriguing are Gacy's victims and, more intriguing still, are their seeming disposability to a throwaway society, to the law and to the rest of us. That disposability seems to be what killed his victims, what led them to Gacy, who is scheduled to be disposed of himself at his execution May 10.

Mr. Wilkinson might have gotten at what he wanted in another draft, but this is a first draft with too many questions unasked and unanswered.

*

Ironically, Mr. Wilkinson's true subject may be better addressed in Mim Udovitch's interview with John Waters in the May Details. Waters is the Baltimore-based director ("Serial Mom") regarded by some as a rank(ing) connoisseur of bad taste.

Mr. Waters says the good thing about bad taste is its current "accessibility" and "acceptability" but that the bad thing about it is its disposition to look down on people.

"I respect people who have truly bad taste who don't feel any irony about it. And I hate, say, a yuppie who collects black folk art. That's offensive to me," Mr. Waters says.

Asked about today's "white trash crime explosion," he says: "Now there's a term that in about one year you'll not be allowed to say. I'm used to it because in Baltimore there's a very large population of . . . underprivileged whites. And they've been committing really interesting crimes for a very long time. When I see Tonya Harding, I just see an East Baltimore girl."

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