On Gene Weingarten’s “The Peekaboo Paradox” (Washington Post Magazine, January 2006)

by Meagan Flynn

From Washington Post Magazine.

From Washington Post Magazine.

Synopsis: Gene Weingarten sets out to profile the Great Zucchini, Washington, D.C.’s most popular children’s entertainer. But, though he is making over $100 grand a year, Weingarten soon notices that nothing adds up. He attempts to understand what has been going wrong for this childlike grown-up.

This story is a ride for readers: What makes it such a great piece of journalism is the experience that Weingarten creates for readers. This is more of an investigation into this mysterious person than it is a profile. Weingarten effectively inserts himself into the story and has readers tag along for his discoveries from start to finish. Its entire structure is meant to keep our curiosity churning. Hell, we don’t even find out the guy’s real name until over a thousand words into this thing.

Weingarten opens the story with a scene of one of the Great Zucchini’s absurd performances at a tyke’s birthday party. It’s a long scene, including preparations before the show, description of the party hosts’ home, the Great Zucchini’s tight-ship stipulations juxtaposed with his minimalist presentation, children’s reactions to his idiotic humor, etc. Halfway through the scene, we’re all starting to wonder: what the hell?—just as people who are watching Weingarten take notes are wondering:

Trey’s aunt saw me taking notes. “You’re writing a story about him?” Vicki Cox asked, amused. I confirmed that I was. “But . . . why?” she asked. A few feet away, the Great Zucchini was pretending to be afraid of his own hand. “I mean,” Vicki said, “what’s the hook?” Now, the Great Zucchini was eating toilet paper. “I mean, are you that desperate?” she asked.

Now watch him use this to challenge us a few grafs later to find the answer to our What the hell? at the culmination of this long feature:

There are dozens of professional children’s entertainers in the Washington area, but only one is as successful and intriguing, and as completely over-the-top preposterous, as the Great Zucchini. And if you want to know why that is — the hook, Vicki, the hook — it’s going to take some time.

When we finally do learn his name, Eric Knaus, the story shifts. It becomes less about “Washington’s best children’s entertainer!!” and more about understanding Eric Knaus. Slowly, Weingarten reveals background information about Eric—seemingly in the same way any journalist might learn about his or her subject: start with the easy stuff, then eventually ask the tougher questions. At this point, Weingarten has given us no indication (spoiler alert) that Eric has a gambling problem, a troubled past, or terrible financial woes due to irresponsibility. We are discovering the Great Zucchini just as Weingarten did.

Eventually, Weingarten begins to raise the tough questions that he’d been wondering about but had not yet asked: Why were Eric’s props and clothing always so tattered and worn? Why was he always taking cabs? Why couldn’t he ever go to Eric’s apartment? Why did he always need money so urgently? Here we see that this story is building up to something—this is the turning point. After Weingarten raises these speculations, he writes, “Have you ever tried to peel a zucchini? It’s not like a potato. The skin is pretty thick. You don’t get it all with the first swipe.” Brilliant.

In revealing the answers to these speculations, the story becomes even more first-person driven. In Weingarten’s visit to Eric’s pitiful apartment, their trip to Atlantic City to the casinos after Eric admitted to his addiction, and during an interview with his mother wherein he learns of Eric’s troubles in younger years—finding the near root of Eric’s childlike irresponsibility—Weingarten is a key character in his own story. We’re seeing it through his eyes—experiencing it as he does. There’s always question of where to draw the line with first-person writing. Here, with the way it’s written so that we see the investigation unfold from A to Z, Gene Weingarten is necessary because we wouldn’t be able to have the experience that he creates without, well, Gene.

In this way, it’s almost clear that Weingarten didn’t know for sure what this strange Great Zucchini story was all about when he started-—he had to discover it. In an interview with the Nieman Storyboard, Weingarten’s editor for this one, Tom Shroder, explains the value in well-done narrative journalism: “He could have easily have reported a little and written a perfectly nice feature story without ever discovering the gambling addition or the horrible thing that happened to him as a kid with his neighbor being murdered. But because Gene reported this so deeply and was willing to spend the time talking to everyone about this guy and because his presence was so acceptable, he got to the heart of it.”