Graeme Wood

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Pus in Boots

Originally appeared in The Smart Set.

In No Laughing Matter, the novelist Joseph Heller outed his friend Mel Brooks as a world-class hypochondriac. “He is the only person I’m acquainted with who subscribes to The Lancet,” Heller wrote. “Principles of Internal Medicine and Dorland’s Medical Dictionary are Mother Goose to him.”

I grew up in a two-doctor home strewn with medical curiosities. Among my childhood toys were plastic models of inner ears, femurs, and gastrointestinal tracts. Every day, our postman delivered a stack of medical journals dense with text broken up by gruesome clinical photographs. Every morning while eating my Cheerios, I used the magazines as placemats, read the articles absentmindedly, and stole glances at repulsive skin conditions. Read the rest of this entry »

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Plimped Out

Originally appeared in The Smart Set.

He was the patron saint of the amateur. By pretending to be George Plimpton in Mozambique, could I become him?

Is the world a stale and weary place, now that George Plimpton (1927-2003) is no longer in it? Hardly. But if it still seems fresh with possibility, Plimpton deserves his share of credit for making it so. His legacy is the magazine he edited — The Paris Review — but he is known best for his larks: quarterbacking the Detroit Lions, playing the triangle in Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic, boxing against Sugar Ray Robinson, tending goal for the Bruins, playing piano at an Apollo talent show. (He won second prize, narrowly edging out a guy who played a watering can.) He appeared in so many films that they called him “the Prince of Cameos.” In a way, the denial phase in grieving Plimpton’s death is prolonged by the suspicion that he’s secretly just on temporary assignment in the afterlife, having secured unprecedented permission to harvest souls for a few years as an understudy to the Grim Reaper. But even assuming that his passing is permanent, his example is sweet consolation, for it suggests that the universe — being merciful — has a place for incorrigible dilettantes.

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Gray Areas

Originally appeared in The Smart Set.

Mohammed had a squirrelly look in his eyes, which together with his green-flecked teeth made me wonder whether to trust him. We had met that morning in Jijiga, Ethiopia, and he volunteered to show me — and then devour with me — the bleak town’s one real attraction: qat bushes. Here, near the Somali border, Mohammed cultivated qat and then shipped it all over the world for Horn-of-Africa expatriates who, like him, were utterly addicted to the numbing buzz you get when you chew its leaves for a few hours. They tasted about as bitter as you’d expect a shrub to taste. We were well into our fifth hour of chewing, and the bits of leaf gave his pearlies an emerald cast — the qat equivalent of the grotesque orange teeth one gets after scarfing a whole bag of Cheetos.
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Tour of Duty

The Smart Set

I tried getting into Iraq the easy way first, by applying for a tourist visa. The first Iraqi I ever met, a diplomat in Bangladesh, clapped me on the shoulders when I rang the embassy’s buzzer and asked for a visa in early 2001. “Let me tell you about my country,” he said, shifting in his sandals and flicking a cigarette butt into a puddle. No one gets in as a tourist, he explained, except by joining an expensive group tour. He looked me over — my dirty hat, scuffed boots, goofy grin — and said I could never afford it.
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Mengele in Paraguay

The Smart Set

On the jungle trail of the Nazi doctor.

Eugene, a Belgian computer programmer, has retired to a cottage in southern Paraguay, and the pride of his golden years is his view. From his stone patio, he sees forested hills, the fringes of yerba mate plantations, and, in the distance, the crumbling ruins of a Jesuit settlement two centuries old. “Like a picture,” he says, and I nod to agree, even though my mind is not on the beautiful vista, but on the dark figure who once shared it.

The Nazi doctor Josef Mengele cheated justice for decades by hiding out in South America, sometimes in these very hills. Had he stayed in Germany he would almost certainly have died by the noose. Jews and Gypsies at Auschwitz called him “the Angel of Death”: He killed men and women for the dubious medical value of dissecting them, and for pleasure. He injected dyes into children’s eyes to see if he could change their color. When he ran out of Jews, he sent memos asking for more, and he got them. Read the rest of this entry »

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Greetings from Abkhazia

The Smart Set

The forlorn seaside resort where Soviet rulers once frolicked.

The Republic of Abkhazia is one of the few countries, if you can call it that, where every tourist who shows up gets a handshake and a friendly chat with the deputy foreign minister. Or rather, it would be such a country, if it were a country at all. A wee seaside strip in the Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia hasn’t yet persuaded anyone to recognize its independence, even though it boasts many of the trappings of nationhood — a president, a parliament, and an army that guards the border in case the government in Tbilisi wants to invade again. Read the rest of this entry »

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