Fly Fishing with Darth Vader:
And Other Adventures
With Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and
by Matt Labash
Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $25.99
“Don’t hit on those women,” former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry says, leaning over Matt Labash’s shoulder at a fundraising event as Labash compliments a Barry supporter’s eyelashes. “That’s my job.” The mayor is correct. Labash’s role as a reporter is to facilitate such felicitous moments and then record them in rollicking narrative—and with a spin that owes less to personal political allegiance than to comic voice.
To describe Fly Fishing with Darth Vader, Labash’s new collection of Weekly Standard and Salon columns, with references to Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke doesn’t do justice to the deeply sympathetic twist to his voice. The Weekly Standard senior writer intercuts biting analysis of America’s declining fortunes with juicy, hilarious portraits of its damaged politicians, and somehow manages to humanize even the most inhuman among us—the likes of Barry, former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, Donald Trump, and himself, of course, a favored subordinate character on these journeys through the outskirts of hell. He submerges himself in a World Pornography Conference in California, deconstructs the transformation of physical-education classes, and shadows Ohio Republican congressman James Traficant (who calls him “Kibosh”) in the midst of a corruption scandal—and delivers quick-hit yarns that somehow manage to savage his subjects while simultaneously soothing your soul.
Unlike his first-person-possessed New Journalism forebears, Labash subordinates his own tough-guy persona in favor of the absurdities in his notes. At heart, he’s a highly skilled reporter who prefers a powerful quotation to a self-absorbed reference—realizing, correctly, that a writer can convey a point of view without turning the spotlight on the process but, rather, on its rewards. By targeting his sensibilities on the fringe figures of American politics, Labash performs a valuable public service even as he establishes himself as one of the top writers of his generation.