Review: Pulitzer winner Weingarten tells story of "One Day"

"One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America," Blue Rider Press, by Gene Weingarten

A college student is found strangled beneath a bridge, a baby is grievously burned in a house fire, New York City Mayor Ed Koch is heckled in a church, Russian emigres gather at an airport to return home and an instant replay review at a Rams-Redskins game stretches on for excruciating minutes.

The incidents are unconnected but for the fact that they all happened on a single day: Sunday, Dec. 28, 1986. "One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America" tells the story of that day, from urgent early morning preparations for a heart transplant in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the Grateful Dead jamming around midnight in Oakland, California.

Why that particular day? The year, month and date were on pieces of paper that were, literally, picked out of a hat. Weingarten admits the book idea is a stunt but professes his love for stunts that tell unexpected truths. Weingarten seeks to capture "the soul" of the day through a series of stories about ordinary people who experienced a brush with fate that day. Think of it as a book of non-fiction short stories.

Weingarten is an extraordinary reporter who mines vivid details from 33 years ago. Readers experience what people said, how they moved, what they thought. He claims to have conducted more than 500 interviews for this book, and it shows.

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for feature writing can turn a phrase, too. Football announcer John Madden "looked as though he had sent his clothes to the rumplers." Incompetent spy Clayton Lonetree is described as "somewhere between a schmendrick and a tool."

In one sense, this is book is like the proverbial box of chocolates. Some stories are better than others. The story of a murderer's heart being transplanted hours after his death is gripping and haunting. The tale of a girl who grew up to be a tell-all blogger is neither.

But the book adds up to something greater than the individual stories. People on that long-ago winter day experienced anger, pain, tension, happiness, doubt, satisfaction and hope. At his best, Weingarten taps into the wonder of what it is to be alive.