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|February 26-March 4, 2009
The from-to man
Local writer Dan Baum has places to go
by Dale Bridges
Dan Baum recently walked into the Boulder bus station wearing a pair of pea-soup-green slacks, a pink dress shirt and a jaunty straw fedora. He strode briskly across the room, set his bags down on the floor and folded his lean, lawn-chair body into the seat next to mine. “Are you the reporter?” he asked. I admitted that I was, indeed, the reporter. He smiled and pointed at the red, digital numerals displayed on the clock across the room. “In that case, I am at your disposal for the next 20 minutes,” he said. “After that, someone else is disposing of me.”
These days, Baum is a man on the go. If he’s not waiting in line to check his baggage at the airport, he’s rumbling down the highway in the belly of a Greyhound bus or pedaling madly through the streets on a bicycle. He has what my Uncle Jim used to call from-to disease: always coming from someplace and headed to another. (Of course, whenever Uncle Jim used that phrase, Aunt Linda insisted that he suffered from the opposite affliction, an ailment she labeled couch-butt syndrome.)
On the day of our interview, Baum had just returned from New Orleans, where he’d attended a release party for his new book, Nine Lives, and he politely explained that he could only talk to me for the next 19 minutes because he had to catch the 204 home in order to chat with a reporter from another newspaper. After that, he was off to a book-signing engagement, or to a writing assignment for a national magazine, or to a cockfight in Rio, or some such thing. Honestly, just listening to his schedule was exhausting, and after he explained his itinerary for the next five days, I began to feel slightly jetlagged sitting there in his presence.
However, Baum did not seem agitated in the least by his constipated calendar. In fact, if the eager glint in his eye was any indication, I would say that he is the type of organism that needs to be constantly in motion in order to survive, like a shark or a New York City cab driver. His energy is contagious. Talking to him is like drinking a double shot of espresso on a drizzly morning. He wakes you up. He gets you moving.
If you read the book (and you should), you will understand why Baum is a busy man. Nine Lives is one of those shockingly ambitious literary projects that requires countless hours of research, interviews, transcription and fact checking. And when that was over, all he had to do was write the damn thing. It chronicles the lives of nine New Orleans residents, starting with the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and ending with Hurricane Katrina four decades later. As I said: ambitious. If the early bird catches the worm, then Dan Baum is the rooster that wakes up the early bird. (I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, but let’s just pretend it makes sense, OK?)
Baum has already achieved more than most writers would dare hope for in one lifetime. He has traveled the world over as a freelancer. He has peddled his byline at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Rolling Stone and Wired. He has held the coveted title of staff writer for The New Yorker. And he has already published two books, one about the War on Drugs and one about the Coors family.
Strangely, despite all his talent and success, Baum has never quite been able to break into the upper echelons of the publishing industry — those ammonia-scented halls of grandeur where Truman Capote sips Chardonnay while Gay Talese beats the pinstriped pants off of Tom Wolfe at badminton. Of course, that club is too often reserved for East Coast intellectuals who attend the right parties and dine at the right restaurants. As a Colorado resident, it’s difficult for Baum to blow kisses at The Russian Tea Room every Friday night.
But if he harbors any bitterness about not being allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table, Baum doesn’t show it. After all, the recognition is nice, but it’s the work that he really lives for. At the moment, whether the literary luminaries notice it or not, Dan Baum is writing some of the best narrative nonfiction in the country. Perhaps Nine Lives will be the breakout book that gets adapted into a Hollywood movie starring Denzel Washington and Cate Blanchett. Perhaps not. Either way, Baum doesn’t have time to give the issue much thought. After all, he has a bus to catch.
On the Bill:
Dan Baum will discuss Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4, at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.
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