I’ll get right to it. In 2006, 19-year-old Reggie Shaw killed two rocket scientists (James Furfaro and Keith O’Dell) on a Utah highway because he was texting and driving. Author Matt Richtel did his homework and made every effort to tell the complete, compelling story in his book, A Deadly Wandering.
He leaves no stone unturned as he leads the reader through the in-depth, mysterious case of Shaw’s death-causing act and explains the impact/implications of distracted driving. Richtel also gives the reader a thorough, educational understanding of the ongoing research on the human brain, and how technology affects our minds, especially in the way we think, pay attention, attempt to multitask, and make decisions.
Richtel is tremendously descriptive in his writing. When he introduces characters or describes the setting, it’s easy to picture it as a reader. Every sentence is active and he includes the smallest details about every moment of the story in his book.
I like the example of Richtel’s descriptive writing style on page 31 when he introduces us to Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist. Richtel makes sure we know exactly what this guy looks like and what his interests are, in specific (and honestly odd) detail.
“Dr. Gazzaley himself might pass for a hipster musician,” writes Richtel. “He’s a youthful-looking forty-five, with short-cropped silver hair—not gray but silver—that looks like it’s been dyed to get attention, even though it’s been the same color since it prematurely aged in his early thirties. He wears a serpentine ring on his right index finger. He tends to sport black jeans that are on the tight side, and a silk shirt. His car…”
It’s an exhaustive paragraph that keeps going on and on. It immerses the reader in details that are entertaining but not entirely necessary.
As someone who appreciates and likes to read detailed and descriptive books, I thought Richtel’s writing was impressively engaging considering how densely informational he needed to be. However, I think it could also annoy readers and distract from the spine of the story’s narrative.
His attention to detail is a testament to the amount of time he spent interviewing every character in this tragic story. He interweaves Shaw and the scientists’ families’ lives, the research and impact of distracted driving on the mind, and the court proceedings all in a cohesive way: splitting each chapter into a subject heading, which makes it easier for the reader to categorize what’s going on.
Richtel dissects every snippet of Shaw’s case. To explain every moment even more so, he injects the story with quotes, having each person explain themselves and their thoughts on the matter at that point in the story.
It must’ve taken him many months (or years) to piece together the story the way he wanted it to unfold on paper.
As for Richtel’s objectivity (apart from ‘The Neuroscientists” chapters), he approaches and frames the story’s narrative in a heavily emotional way. Because of the amount of time he spent with the families involved, he connected with them in a way that allowed their emotions to course through his book.
On page 59, Richtel retells Jackie (Jim Furfaro’s wife) wanting to see her deceased husband’s body, which reveals a lot about how she is trying to cope.
“Dried blood trickled from Jim’s ear,” writes Richtel. “His right eye was missing. She touched his chest and head and hair. He was cold. She thought: He looks pretty good, given what they told me about the accident. She whispered: ‘Good-bye.'”
Richtel tells the emotional side of the story very well throughout his book and then delivers the medical and scientific studies in an interesting way. He continues to write with extreme detail but also uses analogies and metaphors to get the point and information across as simply as possible.
In chapter 27, Richtel uses the analogy of food and how its industrialization has made it too accessible in our society. If we’re not careful, it can be detrimental to our health. We might eat too much fast food or take too many snacks from the work/school vending machines.
On page 215, Richtel uses an effective illustration to show how easy it is for technology to distract us:
“There are few impulses as basic and inescapable as the one that urges you to turn around if someone taps on your shoulder,” writes Richtel. “You must discover if the person is an opportunity or a threat.”
Our phone acts as the proverbial tap on our shoulder. We hear a notification and immediately we want to find out who is messaging. We need to, writes Richtel. It’s a compelling social response we’ve become accustomed to.
After the illustrations that grab the reader’s understanding, Richtel transitions smoothly into research to explain the topic in more detail.
Near the latter stages of the book, Richtel takes the reader through Shaw’s court proceedings. He manages to carry the reader decently well through the case’s courtroom dialogue. The amount of legal jargon we have to sift through is sometimes nauseating, but I like the way he presented certain moments.
For example, on page 273, Richtel writes, “The defense attorney turned back to the academic. “When talking about driving, I remember that old song: ‘Keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road ahead…'” Dr. Strayer interjected. “What we’ve found even more on then those two is your mind on the road,’ he explained. “Something that takes your mind off the road, or hands off the wheel, creates risk. But [the bigger risks come from]… mind off the road than hands off the wheel.” It was a powerful point, made in an offhand way, but it hit Reggie hard.”
Richtel brings the reader into every moment. This is something journalists can learn from him. Describe everything. Paint the entire scene.
Overall, I learned a lot about multitasking and how our brains are trying to keep up with the technology available to us. It concerns me that checking my phone has become a habit no matter where I am, and this book is a constant reminder that life can change in an instant. I need to pay attention when I’m essentially driving a ‘speeding bullet’ down the highway.
On a wider social level, I believe it’ll take years to change the attitudes and actions of people who use their phones while they drive. Technology is now entirely fused and engrained in everything we do, as we feel the need to be connected 24/7 to our social networks and social circles.
But this book is a great reminder of how important it is to focus while driving. Technology possesses a grave, insidious danger that could have dire consequences if we’re trying to multitask during an important activity that needs our undivided attention.
All-in-all, I thought A Deadly Wandering was a thought-provoking, educational, powerful and entertaining read.