Many Portlanders will remember the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles Tom Hallman, Jr. published in The Oregonian a couple years back about Sam Lightner, the boy born with a huge and debilitating growth on his face. Now, Hallman has released a book about Sam composed of the original story, as well as additional reporting on a post-surgery brain trauma that almost took Sam's life. At almost 250 pages, Hallman's chronicle of Sam's adventures remains as riveting as ever, though the added length also hammers home the disturbing fact that award committees can be swayed by topic as much as they can talent. Hallman is not a great writer, or even a very good writer. His prose is the literary equivalent of the Patch Adams soundtrack. It doesn't allow for a natural emotional response, but induces it, shooting melodrama directly into the veins. On every page, one can sense Hallman crouched over his laptop, chortling with glee at the flair with which he is presenting his groundbreaking story. His favorite trick is the old "emphasis-via-paragraph-break." An example:
She thought about his future, about all sorts of things: Would he have a girlfriend? Would people be afraid of him? Would he be accepted?
And then Debbie Lightner wept.
Or: The news devastated Sam. He had maintained some hope that a surgeon would be able to help him. Now he was trapped, destined to live the rest of his life with this deformation.
He would make the best of it.
It's a manipulative habit, and in this case entirely unnecessary. The pulpy, sensationalistic style not only cheapens a story that would be moving without any pretty packaging, but it makes the reader feel cheap as well. It's easy to care about Sam, but it's hard not to feel like a voyeur when his saga is filtered through a trashy, movie-of-the-week format.
Of course, being voyeuristic is what being a reporter is all about, and the best ones grapple with the dilemma of exploitation on a nearly constant basis. Hallman's greatest sin is not that he doesn't grapple with the dilemma, but that he doesn't even recognize its existence. JUSTIN SANDERS
Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask Tom Hallman, Jr. Reading at Borders 708 SW 3rd Thurs Oct 24, 7 pm