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Ramped Up 

Hank Stuever arrived at Loyola University in 1986 with a suitcase full of Smiths and Cure albums and the secret desire to be a vampire. Four years later, after spending more time at the student newspaper than in the classroom, he left New Orleans an accomplished writer with a keen eye for the absurd. Twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the former reporter for The Maroon, Loyola's campus paper now writes offbeat features and a weekly column for The Washington Post.

Stuever created his own beat, a place he calls the "American Elsewhere." Lingering at strip malls, discount waterbed stores and self-storage centers, Stuever found humor and pathos where others saw suburban blandness. Off Ramp (Henry Holt) collects some of the stories that Stuever has written since he left the staff of The Maroon. In the book, he charts the tragic demise of K-Mart, the down-on-its-luck discount store that "has lipstick on its teeth and those days where it feels, you know not so fresh?" Pitching a tent at a KOA campground in Albuquerque, N.M., Stuever meets the "Decent People, trusting but wary travelers who don't want no surprises." In the aftermath of 9/11, he rushed to Atlantic City, N.J., to see if the Miss America pageant would go on. Stuever reports that 11 days after the terrorist attacks "blonder heads prevailed" and 51 beauties donned ball gowns and bathing suites to comfort a grieving nation.

Stuever's writing is often compared to David Sedaris because they both share a love of the absurd and a cheeky gay sensibility. Stuever may freely offer his own sarcastic opinions, but at heart he's a journalist more interested in the lives of others than sharing tales from his life. He relishes the humor in the subjects he covers, but the longing and heartbreak he discovers in ordinary moments give depth to his writing. "I think too much and too sadly about the everyday things," he says.

Stuever says that while at Loyola, he learned "the journalistic value of catching some hell." Encouraged by The Maroon's advisor, a Jesuit priest and writer named Ray Schroth, he covered stories that many people at Loyola preferred to ignore. "Some of the fraternities lagged behind terribly when it came to integration and still had some racist bylaws in their charters," Stuever recalls. The Maroon staff, he says, was often harassed on campus for its reporting. "I do think New Orleans -- even a microcosm of the city contained within Loyola, or Uptown -- is a difficult place to truth-tell. Journalism has a way of seeming like especially bad manners in New Orleans culture."

For a kid from Oklahoma City who has built a career chronicling the type of suburban sprawl he knew from his youth, Stuever chose what seems like an unlikely detour in New Orleans. "By being immersed in Uptown and the Garden District for four years, I did unlearn, somewhat, the contours and lifestyles of my tract-house upbringing," Stuever says. "There are about five or six cities in America that transact entirely on an authentic self-image and aesthetics -- New Orleans is one. There is no mistaking where you are, even if you're in a chain store in the Quarter."

Still, Stuever wishes writers who work in New Orleans would resist the temptation of falling into what he calls cliche New Orleans themes; he wishes writers would expose a different side of the city. "I would love to read a Metairie-based novel about a character who eats mainly at Applebee's," he says. "I would love to listen to that interior dialogue. Really, I would."

Even in New Orleans, Stuever was drawn to stories of pop culture gone awry, like a 1987 performance of "Sesame Street Live" at the Kiefer UNO Lakefront Arena. "It was like Lollapalooza for 3-year-olds," Stuever says. "Backstage, the cast members were sort of hyped up and profane, so Cookie Monster takes off his head and starts bitching about missed cues, and so on. Here is a subject college students at Loyola probably had no interest whatsoever in reading, so, naturally, I wrote a couple thousand words about it for The Maroon." Since graduating from Loyola, Stuever has made it back to New Orleans only twice. "That's not enough," he admits. "Do I want to go to Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and eat crawfish? Not really. Would I love to blow off this afternoon in Audubon Park, on a blanket, reading a great book, and then dawdle on my way home up Magazine Street? Absolutely." He stays in touch with the city by listening to Internet broadcasts of WTUL, Tulane's campus station. "Just the sound of WTUL with one of their DJs reading public-service announcements with a head cold, puts me right back in New Orleans," Stuever said. "I once called over to WTUL from the Loyola Maroon office and asked the DJ to please blow her nose before the next break."

click to enlarge Washington Post columnist and Off Ramp author Hank Stuever wishes writers would expose a different side of his former home: "I would love to read a Metairie-based novel about a character who eats mainly at Applebee's. I would love to listen to that interior dialogue. Really, I would."
  • Washington Post columnist and Off Ramp author Hank Stuever wishes writers would expose a different side of his former home: "I would love to read a Metairie-based novel about a character who eats mainly at Applebee's. I would love to listen to that interior dialogue. Really, I would."
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