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Here Be Dragons

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It's almost entirely reasonable to assume that Mike Sager is making it all up. Everything the Esquire writer-at-large puts to paper -- or at least everything that graces the pages of that magazine, or GQ, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post or any of the other publications his work has gotten into — reads like fiction.

That's because first, it channels the adage about the relative strangeness of truth. And second, it seems unlikely, or just impossible, that Sager can capture such details as "a trio of indigenous rabbits nibbles at the foliage bordering the lawn, leaving behind turds the size of Milk Duds," or "In his mind, he saw a picture of a hospital burn ward. And then he thought about the Glock. It was loaded. One in the chamber, like always. It was on the bedside table, next to the money."

The first quote comes from a story about a 17-year-old who may or may not have found the meaning of life. The second is from a story about the deadliest forest fire in California's history. Both come from the second collection of his stories to emerge unscathed from a 30-year career, "Revenge of the Donut Boys: True Stories of Lust, Fame, Survival and Multiple Personality." The stories have to be true; the title's too long for fiction.

Sager, 51, practices what he calls an "anthropological style of journalism," immersing himself in the culture of the savages next door, whether they be swingers or drug dealers or the pre-teen, car-stealing Donut Boys. Or 39 other Mike Sagers. "The boringest fucking place in the world can be fascinating," he says. So he does what any good explorer does: He goes to the unknown parts of the map, where the dragons be. "I never know what the story is," he says. "I'm gonna go live with a crack gang, I'm gonna live with a fat guy."

Nowadays he lives (mostly) with his wife, Rebekah, and son, Miles, in La Jolla, Calif. His byline shows up unpredictably on Esquire stories, the "prose poems to Hilary Swank and Christina Ricci," lyrical celebrity stuff that is much less dark than the 1989 Rolling Stone story on porn star John Holmes that went on to inspire "Boogie Nights" and "Wonderland." He likes to be able to come home to his family on weekends. But the rest of the time he's living in those dragon stories. He just got back from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he was working on a piece about wounded soldiers. It's a long way from where he lives, but not too far from where he started.

Sager was born in Charlottesville, grew up in Baltimore and went to college at Emory. None of this Southern-ness registers in his voice and manner, which has the kind of late-afternoon mellow that must have come from his years in California. And none of his manner seems to point to a fascination with chasing down what Hunter S. Thompson called "the darkest possible side of wretched humanity." Matter of fact, there's an innocence to his writing, a genuine affection for his subjects that caused Maury Povich to accuse him of actually liking this pimp Sager was following around.

"People are afraid of what they don't know and they defend themselves against it," Sager says. But even his wife says he could probably find something to like about Hitler. Which is saying a lot, because Sager's Jewish. But "to be a good journalist you have to be a good human being," he says.

So here's Sager, three weeks into his law degree at Emory, considering life as a writer, walking down the steps of his frat house when he realizes, "I just want to see how far I can go." Then he's in the uncharted territory of the Washington Post's bowels as a copyboy, then a staff reporter, roving around the rural areas of Front Royal and Culpeper, where his family hails from, and that's when he begins to see the culture next door as one worth considering. "I became well-known for doing stories about nothing," he says.

And that's 30 years. That's a tour of duty of the major American houses of journalism, two collections (the other one, whose title, "Scary Monsters and Super Freaks: Stories of Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll and Murder," is also too long to be fiction) and, next year, one novel, "Deviant Behavior" (short title, fictional tale, 10 years in the making). Which is pretty good for a guy who at 20 thought there wouldn't be "writing" by the time he was 51.

But all of it stinks of truth: It's revelatory, often unpleasant, and you're left feeling there's no going back. There's no way, for instance, to un-know that Roseanne Barr has multiple personality disorder, or that Brooke Burke, while beautiful, is really kind of silly. And these are things that forever change our perspectives of the loved ones on television. Or next door.

"People are basically insecure, and all hatred is just fear and all fear is insecurity," he says. Sager called Roseanne one day and she told him that, he says. "And I stole that shit and put it in my novel." S



Mike Sager reads from "Revenge of the Donut Boys" at the Fountain Bookstore Saturday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m. Call 788-1594 or visit www.fountainbookstore.com.



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