When renowned journalist Michael Hastings died in a high-speed car accident in 2013, he left behind a secret manuscript hidden in his desk drawer. One year later, almost to the day, the manuscript has been published as The Last Magazine, Hastings’s first (and last) novel.
But what a novel it is! Tenacity and perseverance were the qualities that helped Hastings become a star reporter for GQ and Rolling Stone, and they inform the novel’s narrative, creating a story as engrossing as it is believable. While the characters are not always likable, they are unfailingly engaging. And the breakneck pace of the narrative is so unrelenting, it makes you wonder if Hastings lived as he wrote.
As the title implies, The Last Magazine delves into the decline of print journalism through the eyes of an intern and a foreign correspondent at one of the last great weekly print magazines—a magazine, it should be noted, that bears a strong resemblance to Newsweek, where Hastings was an unpaid intern in 2002.
Anyone who has worked at a print publication in the past decade can relate to Hastings’s description of a once-great news outlet floundering as it attempts to adapt to the Internet. The perks offered during grander days—Friday-night catered dinners, unlimited black-car tabs, first-class airfare—vanish as a blind disdain for the Web and petty infighting among magazine bigwigs begin to erode a once-venerable institution. “The Web is a black hole,” says the editor of the international edition of The Magazine. “There’s not a future on the Internet.”
For some, the most intriguing part of Hastings’s roman à clef will be identifying the real-life people who inspired the pompous characters in The Last Magazine. A little snooping around on the Internet (that black hole) reveals that Hastings’s foreign correspondent character, the one who screws his way through Thailand and catches a nasty little STD, was probably based on Adam Piore, a former Newsweek correspondent. The editor of The Magazine’s international edition who makes the case for invading Iraq? Think Fareed Zakaria, the former editor of Newsweek International. And Hastings doubtlessly based Sanders Berman, the duplicitous managing editor who gets caught up in the Don Imus “nappy-headed hos” controversy, on Jon Meacham, former editor of Newsweek.
In Hastings’s world, set against the backdrop of 9/11 and the Iraq War, reporting the truth no longer matters. The only thing of importance is personal ambition. Who will keep his job through the layoffs? Who will have the cover story? Who will log more TV appearances? But the truth matters to Hastings, as evidenced by his occasional asides. “By turning the page,” he writes in his introduction, “you’re 1 percent closer to the truth.”
After finishing The Last Magazine, the reader is closer to the truth in one sense and further from it in another. Hastings’s tale reveals a media industry in the throes of cataclysmic change, but looming behind the plot is the legacy of the author himself. For all the insights The Last Magazine offers about the magazine industry from 2002 to 2005, it raises more questions about Hastings, the war correspondent and best-selling author (The Operators, I Lost My Love in Baghdad) who drove his Mercedes into a palm tree in a quiet neighborhood road in Los Angeles.
Theories abound about why Hastings died. He was paranoid and fleeing the CIA. Someone hacked into his car’s electrical system. He was having a manic episode. It is nearly impossible to read The Last Magazine without searching for clues about his death, but it’s a dead end. It is tempting to read Hastings’s description of his foreign correspondent’s descent into mental illness (“Mental illness can give everything perceived the same exaggerated value, worth and worthless indistinguishable”) and see it as a key to the author’s self-destruction, but that would be missing the point. The victim here is not Hastings but print journalism.
The Last Magazine, by Michael Hastings, Blue Rider Press, June 17