Last November, my friend Matthew Power and I did a reading together at a crowded, cave-like East Village bar. I opened the proceedings with a couple of passages from my skyjacking book, accompanied by some vintage slides of early 1970s nuttiness—my typical presentation, which the crowd seemed to enjoy alright. Then Matt came up, obviously a bit uncomfortable to be the center of attention, and read a long section from his GQ masterpiece about a psychologically scarred drone pilot. Midway through his performance, it was clear that he had absolutely blown me off the stage—the audience, myself included, was astounded by the emotional depth of the reporting and the beauty of the prose. Over pints afterward, I half-teased Matt about the fact that he had made me look like a chump by comparison. In his typically humble fashion, he refused to accept the jealousy-tinged compliment; he preferred to talk about his upcoming trip to South Sudan, where he would be reporting on the work of Médecins Sans Frontieres.
That night has been much in my thoughts today after learning that Matt died while on assignment in Uganda. He was a giant of contemporary nonfiction, a writer whom I admired and envied to no end for his ingenuity, his artistry, and his all-out commitment to the craft. If you were stuck in a hairy situation abroad—say, held up at a border crossing in Papua New Guinea, or detained by a vigilante patrol in the Philippines—there was no one you’d rather have by your side. But Matt was so amazingly low-key—I imagine he’d be quite embarrassed to hear himself described as anything other than a diligent journalist with a passion for roaming the world.
Matt was also one of the most big-hearted, in-love-with-life blokes I’ve ever had the good fortune to call a friend. The few smiles I’ve had today have come from recalling the Bushmills-fueled conversation we once had about the minutiae of dolphin sex, or the time he turned me into an acrophobe by showing me unpublished photos from his epic urban explorers take. Whenever a meet-up with Matt was in the cards, a good time was guaranteed.
Matt and I had plans to eat Korean food in my Queens ‘hood upon his return from Uganda. Knowing that will never happen makes my heart hurt so much.