On Mike Sager’s “Revenge of the Doughnut Boys” (Rolling Stone, October 1992)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: In a time period in Newark, N.J., during which the new kid hobby was hijacking cars and squealing their wheels in circles and ramming police cars, Mike Sager gives us an inside look into the boys behind the highest car theft per capita rate in the nation. Click here for the Q&A with Sager, covering how he approached this story, which is also the title piece of his second book, a Los Angeles Times Best Seller.

The strongest element in this piece is the genuine nature of the reporting. Observation tells this story. This isn’t a reporter covering the Newark hijackings from his desk on the phone with the police department. This is a reporter going into the heart of the neighborhood, watching kids drive by in stolen cars, and listening to what they have to say about it in their own territory, among their peers. The key to this one is choosing the right scenes to represent the bigger picture.

He weaves that bigger picture—the national-high teenage hijackings and the police’s failure to prevent them—around one hijacker’s story, named Raheed.

The most striking scenes that Sager chooses to highlight in this story are from his time spent with Raheed, who glorifies hijacking but also indirectly leads Sager to the root of the problem, and this is why Sager’s decision to primarily highlight this 17-year-old is important. This may be the story’s defining edge, a quote Sager selected from Raheed:

“When you down in the hood and shit, straight up, preachin’ high, we down here trapped off among ourselves. It’s like little kids in the hood throw rocks. Then they be stealing cars. Whereas in Short Hills, they might be playing golf. But this is the hood. These are the things that we do for activities. That calms ourselves. It’s a recreation‑type thing. Like, they got the playground open now. Tomorrow, boom, it’s Saturday. It ain’t gonna be open. What we gonna do then? You know what I’m sayin’? Fuck it. Let’s go get a car. It’s like ‑”

Notice that his language is not dressed up or corrected for better understanding. Sager’s best work is in presenting reality like it is—in all stories. He presents dialogue between the characters in the same way, and this is where the art of listening comes in. Conversations between the characters aren’t prompted or guided by Sager. But through simple observation, he finds the common theme. To let the theme speak for itself, literally, Sager records Raheed’s conversation with his teacher in full form from the time she approaches Raheed and his friend and asks, “What’s up?”—an entire section dividing Raheed and his friend’s response— until the conversation ends with a discussion about Raheed’s future plans:

“I never did want no job.”
Ms. Perkins puts a hand on her hip, gives Raheed a look, part patience and humor, part disgust. “What are you, about seventeen now, boyfriend?” Raheed nods. “Okay. Now I know what seventeen is like, so I ain’t gonna press the issue on that. But look. You got maybe sixty more years to live. What you gonna do with that time?”
“I wanna rap,” says Raheed.
“You wanna rap,” repeats Ms. Per­kins.
“You wanna die!” pipes Rico. He giggles. So do the kids.

In the short time that Sager introduces us to Ms. Perkins, she becomes a representation of all the moms who have struggled raising their kids against the neighborhood and the authority figures who don’t know what to do with them: the strength of carefully-selected scenes here again. (Important to note this isn’t to be mistaken with taking a scene out of context, of course.) And so Sager’s decision to close with Ms. Perkins carries a lot of value—and I won’t spoil that ending for you.

Don’t forget to check out our chat about longform and this story here.  The next three posts will be on stories from some of the best emerging writers in Sager’s latest collection, Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary JournalistsBe sure to check back for one of them next week.