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John Sack (Continued)

(24 March 1930 27 March 2004)

James Stewart

Nicholls State University

...With The Man-Eating Machine (1973), a book based on four of his Esquire articles, Sack in 1973 examined not only what he saw as the lunacy of the war in Asia but also its similarity to what was happening in America. In essence the book is a critique of the "System" or, as he defines it in his autobiographical book Fingerprint (1983), American society's insistence on using the "one best way of doing anything."

Calley and Demirgian are two of the figures in The Man-Eating Machine. The remaining two were the subjects of stories on Vietnam veterans as they faced life at home after their tours of military duty. Vantee Thompson, the main character in "Making Contact in Baltimore" (Esquire, June 1969), is a black man who was a founder of the NAACP chapter in his hometown of Dunn, N.C., and had been arrested at seventy-two demonstrations there. He is sent to an Army base in Georgia to receive riot-control training and finally finds himself in Baltimore as soldiers, armed with fixed bayonets, defend a shopping center from rioting blacks. Robert Melvin, the focus of "The Corporate N*gg*r" (Esquire, July 1970), is a 27-year-old black advertising executive who helps his company sell a mouthwash, aspires to be put in charge of promoting a deodorant soap and, by the end of the article, is made responsible for selling a shampoo. As he sacrifices his own identity to advance within the predominately white corporate hierarchy at his Madison Avenue firm, and on the very day of Melvin's promotion, blacks pleading for jobs take to the streets of Newark, N.J., in what Sack describes as the worst riot in two years. The Man-Eating Machine failed to gain wide acceptance among reviewers, and Sack himself said that it is so awkwardly written that he asks friends not to read it.

Sack made a second, and much more successful, attack on the "one best way" with Fingerprint. Sack said, "I was trying to write a book so comprehensive that no one, especially me, would ever have to write another book again. And at the end of the book I thought I had done it." In Fingerprint Sack examines his birth, his childhood, his service in the Army and other important experiences. At each point, Sack describes himself as struggling against a system that, in the name of a misplaced notion of efficiency, tries to impose the "one best way" on him. This mindless quest is sometimes carried to ludicrous extremes, as when Sack describes how his Army boot-camp drill instructor chewed him out for having toothpaste in his footlocker rather than the required tooth powder.

In 1991, at sixty years old, Sack returned to Esquire, this time covering the Persian Gulf War and becoming the only person to cover every American war for the past 50 years...  More



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Books by John Sack