- Franco Vogt
Journalist Guy Lawson writes about men you don't want to meet: gunrunners, Wall Street scammers, Mafia cops, drug-dealing wrestlers, Hezbollah suicide bombers. Unless the screenwriters have invented new characters, the forthcoming film of his latest book, Arms and the Dudes, starring Jonah Hill and Miles Teller and directed by Hangover auteur Todd Phillips, is sure to flunk the vaunted Bechdel Test (must have at least two women in it, who talk to each other about something besides a man).
Author and commentator Sarah Vowell, a friend, once told Lawson, "You're the most ridiculously male-oriented writer in the world." Even his name is hypermasculine: guy, law, son.
So who is this Guy? Anyone expecting a Central Casting testosterone cowboy is in for a pleasant surprise.
The lanky, bespectacled man poring over a stack of newspapers at Rhinebeck's Bread Alone is a Cambridge graduate with an affable smile and a forthright, intelligent gaze. He dotes on his wife, Indian food entrepreneur Maya Kaimal, and twin daughters. His sport of choice is walking, which he calls "a meditation." He doesn't drink coffee. Even his name defies expectations: "Guy" is pronounced in the French style—rhyming with bee, not buy—as his leftist parents' homage to Trudeau-era Canadian multiculturalism.
Though Lawson acknowledges that his "specialty is groups of men doing fucked-up things," he's also stalking the story behind the story. His foreground subjects wheel and deal, trying to hustle a buck, and wind up as pawns in a much larger game, exposing deep strata of institutional corruption.
Arms and the Dudes (Simon and Schuster, 2015) is a case in point. Its subtitle, "How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History," promises an outrageous, stranger-than-fiction romp, and the book doesn't disappoint. Expanded from Lawson's 2011 National Magazine Award-nominated Rolling Stone feature, Arms and the Dudes follows the jaw-dropping misadventures of three "wake and bake" stoners, former yeshiva boys barely out of their teens, who won a $300 million dollar Defense Department contract to supply guns and ammunition to the Afghan military.
"The dudes are the personification of the adolescence of American foreign policy: young, naive, and in way over their heads," Lawson says.
He first encountered them in a front-page New York Times article on March 28, 2008. C. J. Chivers reported the Pentagon's bust of Efraim Diveroli, David Packouz, and Alex Podrizki for fulfilling their defense contract with illegally repackaged Chinese ammunition that had been stored for decades in Albanian mountain caves. It was a great story: These cocky young guys had tried to game the system, and they'd been caught. But Lawson wondered why they'd been hired in the first place. As he researched, he realized that the dudes and other small-timers were middlemen and eventual fall guys for a shadowy linkage between the Pentagon and illegal arms dealers. The Times story, in essence, had mistaken the puppets for puppeteers.
- Franco Vogt
Could this be the reason the newspaper of record has not yet reviewed Arms and the Dudes, although it ran reviews of Lawson's first two books, The Brotherhoods: The True Story of Two Cops Who Murdered for the Mafia (Scribner, 2006; with William Oldham) and Octopus: Sam Israel, the Secret Market, and Wall Street's Wildest Con (Crown, 2012), not to mention that Octopus made the Times' bestseller list and an A-list movie of Arms and the Dudes will open in March 2016?
"Call and ask them," says Lawson. "I'd love to hear what they say."
The Times has not blackballed him; Lawson is currently writing a feature for the Sunday Magazine. But the omission is striking, especially to a journalist whose stock in trade is skepticism about the official version of anything. In sequential books, he's examined corruption and greed in the NYPD, Wall Street, and the Pentagon, limning "a 21st-century collapse of American institutions."
Lawson was born in Canada to expatriate parents from Australia and New Zealand. "My father was deeply anti-American,' he recalls. "I grew up drinking soda in cups that said 'Nixon Drinks Canada Dry.'"
After his partents divorced, Lawson lived with his mother until she remarried; as a teenager, he moved to Australia to rejoin his father, a one-time journalist and political speechwriter who wrote topical songs in the Tom Lehrer vein. "My father didn't succeed," Lawson says bluntly. "A lot of my animation and ambition comes from that realization."
He graduated from the University of Western Australia, then studied law at Cambridge. Moving to New York, he passed the bar exam on the first try and went to work for a big Wall Street firm. "I was a great law student and a terrible lawyer," he says now. "I was working on things called 'derivatives' that destroyed Wall Street 15 years later." He recalls sitting in on a billion-dollar deal at age 24, looking at a big pile of microfiche and thinking, "This could all be a fraud."
Years later, this legal training and insider knowledge would be invaluable in interviewing rogue trader Sam Israel for Octopus. But long before he started writing nonfiction, Lawson quit his six-figure job at the law firm to write his first novel, Pilgrim's Plummet, which he now calls "terrible—a Bright Lights, Big City kind of thing, your classic failing writer writing about a failing writer."
- Franco Vogt
He moved back to Montreal, living in a neighborhood so lousy he was burgled three times in six months ("They stole my dirty laundry," he says, still incredulous). Canadian author Merrily Weisbord, a family friend, introduced him to the producers of TV Ontario's literary talk show "Imprint," which wanted to replace its departing host with a complete unknown. "I fit the bill," quips Lawson.
He hosted the show a year. "I was the Charlie Rose of Canada," he says. "I experienced worldwide fame in a 16-block stretch of downtown Toronto." Though he got to hang out with writers like Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis, he didn't enjoy being a celebrity interviewer. He wanted to write.
Lawson's first journalism gig was covering the Quebec referendum for a Toronto alternative weekly. As luck would have it, he was staying down the hall from legendary Australian journalist Murray Sayle, who was covering the same story for the New Yorker. "Murray loved to talk, loved to share stories. And he had great stories—he'd found Che Guevara's campsite in the Bolivian jungle, broke the Bloody Sunday story. By anyone's lights he was one of the bravest Vietnam war correspondents, this long-legged, amazing guy," Lawson says of his mentor. "The biggest compliment I've ever received from anybody is when he said I had promise."
Lawson's cell phone rings, and he glances at it. "This is actually my movie agent." He answers, "Hey man, is it something quick? I'm doing an interview." He agrees to call back and hangs up, saying, "I didn't stage that." He's smiling. Who wouldn't?
After that first gig, the young reporter landed—and nearly blew—a commission from Harper's. "I was trying to play with the form, to be artful," Lawson recalls. A shrewd editor gave him a second shot, and Lawson went to the library, "trying to give myself an MA in journalism in a weekend."
He discovered a penchant for fly-on-the-wall observation. "I found out I could vanish: it didn't have to be about me," he says. "If I became a conduit—the glass instead of the water—the piece would work much better."
His breakthrough story for Harper's, an in-depth feature about the hardscrabble lives of small-town Canadian hockey players, led to jobs at GQ and Rolling Stone.
Lawson met Kaimal, then a photo editor at Saveur magazine, at a party in New York. They married in 2001. Shortly after their honeymoon, she lost her job. Lawson encouraged her to start a business making Indian sauces and condiments. Maya Kaimal Foods was launched in their Clinton Hill apartment, with a manufacturer in Saugerties. In 2004, the couple had twin daughters and moved upstate.
They've lived in Rhinebeck for six years now. Lawson starts his workday answering e-mails at home, then heads to an office in the village to write. He works best in spurts. "If you can get four hours of productivity out of it, that's a good writing day."
Clearly he's been having a lot of good writing days. Four of his books and magazine features have been optioned for film, with a possible fifth in the wings (hence that call from his agent): Octopus will be adapted for HBO by "Breaking Bad" scribe Peter Gould; The Brotherhoods was optioned by Warner Brothers; and New Line just optioned his recent Rolling Stone article "The Dukes of Oxy," with teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort attached.
The action has been as nonstop as a Guy Lawson story. But the author finds himself now with an odd slice of freedom. "For years I've been kind of a hard-charging guy. After banging your head on the wall for 15 years, it feels odd to stop." He's thought about making a documentary, possibly based on the story he's writing for the New York Times Magazine about a gruesome triple homicide. "My wife says, 'Would you just write about something happy?'"
Is there anything like that on his horizon? Maybe, says Lawson. "There's a wonderful cooking school in South Africa which I hope to do next." He pauses a beat. "There's a murder in it."
- Franco Vogt