Johns Hopkins Magazine
Johns Hopkins Magazine Current Issue Past Issues Search Get In Touch
  Absolutely Unexpected

David Lipsky didn't want the assignment. But when the Writing Sems grad and Rolling Stone contributing editor was sent to cover a class of cadets at West Point, he tapped into a culture that fascinated him — and inspired him to write a New York Times best-seller.

By Jim Duffy
One weekend last summer, David Lipsky (MA '88) hopped into his car and headed north, bound for the U.S. Military Academy. Its campus at West Point lies 50 miles and a world away from Lipsky's home turf in New York City. The son of a painter and an advertising executive, he grew up in a SoHo loft and makes his living as a Manhattan journalist.

The drive into the Hudson River valley is one Lipsky made countless times while researching Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point, his account of life among a class of cadets, from first harrowing haircut in 1998 through final graduation in 2002. But his journalistic tour of duty was now drawing to a close. Absolutely American was fresh off the presses and on its way to the New York Times best-seller list. This time around, Lipsky was headed to a campus book signing.

"The landscape starts to change when you get close to West Point — definitely a river environment now, all these rolling hills," Lipsky says. "Cadets always talk about how it feels when you're headed back and you notice that change, how it's like you're being sucked back into West Point. I remember looking in the mirror while I was driving, thinking how this was five years of my life. It was one of those moments: 'Wait a minute. How did all this happen again?'"

If Lipsky had gotten his way, it never would have happened at all. The project dates to a day in 1998 when two West Point officers marched in full uniform into the offices of Rolling Stone magazine. They told publisher Jann Wenner how they feared America's youth had lost touch with the notion that military service mattered, that it was a noble calling. Would Rolling Stone be interested in meeting some cadets and telling their stories?

A contributing editor, Lipsky was the magazine's resident expert on college life and youth culture. But when this assignment landed on his desk, he howled in dismay. He had just spent most of six months on the road, researching a story about gay teens. The last thing he wanted to tackle next was another insular subculture. Even today, sipping an Amstel Light over lunch at Manhattan's lush Le Cirque, there's an urgency in Lipsky's voice as he describes his predicament. He's still pleading his case.

"I'd done some really hard stories, back to back," he says. "I just wanted something easy. I thought I deserved that."

But Wenner is famously persuasive, and Lipsky trudged off to West Point. He attended briefings by public affairs specialists, took tours led by public affairs specialists, and interviewed cadets under the watchful eye of public affairs specialists. Then he blew a gasket. He pronounced the story dead if he couldn't have free and unfettered access to everyone, from lowliest cadet to loftiest officer.

Secretly, however, he harbored a less-than-professional ulterior motive. "I was just so desperate not to do this story," Lipsky says. "I didn't think they'd ever give me total access, so this was my way out, you know? I just wanted to go home."

No such luck. When Colonel Joe Adamczyk — destined, as things turned out, to be a key figure in the book — replied to Lipsky's ultimatum, he did so with a grand grammatical flourish: "We have nothing of which we should be ashamed."

Lipsky originally planned to spend a couple of weeks at West Point. He stayed there six months before producing the Rolling Stone article, which he then parlayed into a $450,000 book deal with Houghton Mifflin. He rented a house within bicycling distance of West Point and settled in for the long haul.

A more unlikely chronicler of modern military education would be hard to find. In the waning days of the Vietnam war, Lipsky's father, Joe, came up with a creative way to impress the depth of his antiwar fervor on his two young sons. He threatened to hire someone to break their legs if either of them ever tried to join the military.

The elder Lipsky needn't have worried. David settled at a very young age on becoming a famous writer. At age 11, he churned out a 160-page screenplay parodying the Star Wars movies. "It was awful, just awful," says his father. "But I was awed that he actually finished it. That's one thing about David — he's always been willing to put in the work."

Lipsky's writing got better rather quickly. The novel he finished during his junior year in high school was, in his father's estimation, "not bad." Then, while still an undergraduate at Brown University, Lipsky landed a short story in The New Yorker. Right out of the graduate Writing Seminars at Hopkins, he sold a book of stories, Three Thousand Dollars.

"Dave has a gift," says Keirsey. "He can just point a laser at someone and pick out very quickly what their character is like." "He always wanted to be exactly like John Updike," says Jeff Giles, a friend from Brown who now works as a senior editor at Newsweek. "He knew more about John Updike than he knew about himself. But things haven't turned out anything like he planned." Giles pauses for a beat, then adds with a laugh, "Thank God."

Lipsky chose Hopkins for the opportunity to study under John Barth, another of his novel-writing heroes. But he almost got kicked out, he says, for being such a "surly bad sport" in a class heavy on academic literary theory, a discipline he's always hated. He recalls spending one class session with his boots propped up on a table and a novel — one completely unrelated to the topic at hand — in his lap.

Lipsky had a star quality about him in those days, thanks in no small part to his New Yorker breakthrough. But his uncommon talent and obsessive dedication to the craft of writing were also apparent to anyone paying attention, says Tristan Davies (MA '87), a friend from that period. "He's a hard worker, and he's a naturally gifted writer," Davies says. "He just seemed to have a touch."

Another friend from Lipsky's Hopkins days is John Gregory Brown (MA '88), now the director of the creative writing program at Sweet Briar College. He describes the young Lipsky as "erudite, polished, impressive — a real bad-ass in preppy clothing. It was kind of apparent that David might have the brightest future of anyone."

But Lipsky's strong personality could also be off-putting. "When it comes to David, everyone's story back then was the same," says Davies, now a senior lecturer in the Writing Seminars. "You either liked him a lot or you had an immediate, visceral dislike for him."

Now that he's done his time at West Point, Lipsky relishes one particular anecdote from his Hopkins years. On the night Writing Seminars students went to Barth's house on Maryland's Eastern Shore for a reception, Lipsky approached his host as he always did, with a formal "sir."

"Apparently, Barth had been getting pretty irritated about this," Lipsky recalls. "He turned to me and said, 'Yes, Ensign Lipsky?'"

West Point cadets walk off punishment in the form of "Hours," usually in blocks of five or 10 hours.
Photo by David Lipsky
Absolutely American is gripping, insightful, and evocative. It deserves the many rave reviews it's received, especially for Lipsky's razor-sharp way with the ways of post-adolescent hearts and minds. It's not a cautious work, however. Its message isn't doled out according to any sort of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand pose of journalistic objectivity. Rather, it's imbued with something like the passion of a religious convert. Its characters have flaws, to be sure, and they make their share of mistakes. But in the end, one story after another extols the values, sacrifices, and commitments of West Point cadets and their teachers.

Among Lipsky's old friends are those who cast this aspect of Absolutely American in a political light, confessing now to long-held suspicions that Lipsky has always been a "crypto-right-winger" waiting to happen. Perhaps it's not so surprising after all that this particular New York writer would end up chronicling modern military education?

Jeff Giles disagrees. He thinks such suspicions stem from Lipsky's strong contrarian streak. "He was so turned off at Brown by the sort of unanimous knee-jerk liberalism of the place that he struck a conservative pose now and again, just to be different," he says. "Once he got out in the real world and saw that America is pretty much all Republican anyway, he came back. Trust me. He's a liberal. Always has been."

Lipsky's first published novel, Art Fair, came out in 1996. Set in the New York art world inhabited by his mother, Pat, an abstract painter, it garnered some positive reviews, but sales faltered quickly and no paperback appeared. A follow-up novel stalled somewhere between unfinished and unpublished.

"After graduate school, it seemed really important to David that he not make a living," Giles recalls. "He wanted to be a fiction writer, and that meant he should not be tainted by freelance journalism. It was OK by him if I did freelance writing, though, so long as I made enough money to give him loans."

In the early '90s, Giles worked as an editor at Rolling Stone. He's the one who got Lipsky in the door with a research assignment. Lipsky, growing weary of the isolated grind of fiction writing, decided to take a break. "I thought being assigned things again would be a fun thing to do for a year or so," he says.

One year stretched into two, then three. "What surprised me," his father says, "was how long he kept doing it. At one point I asked him, 'Dave, can you be happy if in 10 years you're still a magazine writer?' He told me he knew what he was doing. It turns out he did."

Dan Dubelman (MA '88) went to Hopkins with Lipsky. Now a novelist and guitarist with the alt-country band Betty Dylan, he closely followed Lipsky's articles in Rolling Stone. "I'd never have guessed David would go into nonfiction," he says. "But looking back now, he was always really good at asking questions. There's an art to getting stories out of people. He's really good at it."

Up in West Point, well out of his Manhattan comfort zone, Lipsky opted at first to lay low. He attended classes and events but talked only to a few lowly first-year "plebes." He changed his hair style and bought some new clothes. "You can't dress the way you and I dress up there," he says. "That's not who they are. I felt like I was parading my being an urban media guy in front of them."

There were days when Lipsky wondered whether he'd ever get the real story of the place. On the eve of an Army-Navy football game, he watched Lieutenant Colonel Hank Keirsey address the cadets. Keirsey is the barrel-chested, thick-necked embodiment of gung-ho "huah," the all-purpose West Point word for extreme commitment to the Army way of doing things.

"You could just feel the hold he had on the cadets," Lipsky recalls. "I'd never seen anything like that. It was totally alien to me."

Lipsky's first breakthrough came two months in, when one of the most admired of West Point's upperclassmen, Donald "Whitey" Herzog, took the writer under his wing. "He told me later that he liked that I wasn't trying to jump into their lives right away," Lipsky says. "They could tell I was putting the time in, that I wasn't going to cheat, that I was going to spend these four years seriously."

As far as his friends back in the real world were concerned, Lipsky had dropped completely out of sight. On the rare occasions when he did resurface, he would be shocked to learn that friends had done things in his absence like get married and have children.

"He was a really terrible friend while he was there," Giles says. "I'm glad he got a best-seller out if it, but he still owes me."

Brian Hart (left) congratulates Reid "Huck" Finn for winning Sandhurst — a grueling contest of soldiering skills — for his regiment.
Photo by David Lipsky
The all-consuming focus Lipsky devoted to West Point is characteristic of the way he works. "He's such an obsessive. He's nuts, really," Giles says. "He dives into stuff and he just doesn't come up for air."

John Gregory Brown never would have guessed back in the 1980s that Lipsky would ever turn his attention to a place like West Point. "But in a way this project fits David," he says, "in that it required an immense amount of devotion and diligence."

Over the course of three years, talking once every two weeks with Eamon Dolan, his editor at Houghton Mifflin, Lipsky eventually narrowed his focus to a single West Point company — G-4, aka the "Fighting Guppies." Mostly from their ranks, Absolutely American weaves its way between half a dozen coming-of-age stories. There's the golden boy whose brush with tragedy leaves him questioning his childhood dreams of military service. There's the unpopular social misfit who time and again discovers untapped reserves of will power and eventually wins the grudging admiration of his classmates. There's the daughter of Haitian immigrants who had always been critical of interracial dating and then finds herself romantically involved with a white cadet. There's the football-obsessed jock who makes a mentor-inspired transformation into a first-rate military leader.

That last cadet is Reid "Huck" Finn, now a second lieutenant in the Army who was scheduled to head to Afghanistan in October. "Dave is the best listener of any human being I've ever seen," Finn says. "That's why the book is so good, because when it came right down to it, he knew us. He really knew us."

Ironically, Absolutely American's ultimate hero is Hank Keirsey, the officer whom Lipsky had at first found so frightening. The key episode in Keirsey's story unfolds after one of his subordinates hooks his laptop into the West Point computer system. Someone used the opportunity to rummage through his files and pull out a personal document — a slide presentation that featured a homophobic joke. The joke was soon circulated to just about every computer on campus by cadets who thought it funny.

Though in no way required to do so, Keirsey stepped forward to take responsibility for the incident. He is eventually forced out of his beloved Army, but saves his subordinate's career. "When I tell civilian friends Keirsey's story, I have to go over it twice because they keep asking, 'Wait, didn't the other guy make the slide?'" Lipsky writes in Absolutely American. "A leader takes care of his soldiers. He puts their concerns ahead of his own."

Over the telephone, Keirsey complains that Lipsky used a few too many "heroic colors" to paint his portrait in the book. But he thinks Lipsky got the big picture of West Point precisely right and that he managed the trick mainly by earning the trust of cadets.

"Dave has a gift," Keirsey says. "He can just point a laser at someone and pick out very quickly and very accurately what's going on with them, what their character is like."

Regimental Commander Ryan Southerland collects the traditional $1,000 bonus to give to "the Goat" — the cadet graduating last in the class.
Photo by David Lipsky
The Fighting Guppies graduated in June 2002. That left a scant nine months before Absolutely American was slated to go into production in order to make a July 4 publication deadline. Dolan, Lipsky's editor, says he's never worked on a more daunting deadline. Lipsky needed to wade through 700 hours of taped interviews and countless notebooks recounting days and nights spent marching, studying, and socializing with cadets.

"Trying to give the book some shape, that was the hard part," Dolan says. "Once we got into the writing, though, David is such a great stylist that at that point it was just a matter of trying to help his voice come through."

Dolan also says he's never worked with a nonfiction author this passionate about his topic. At West Point, Lipsky found a community focused on leadership, character, and service to country in a way that's downright countercultural in comparison with his own secularist upbringing.

"Look, people at West Point make fun of money," Lipsky says. "It's a place where the ethos really is about how money is bullshit. What matters is how you do your duty."

Lipsky relishes every chance he gets to talk about what sets West Point apart. In doing so, he contrasts the experiences of cadets with his own experiences at Brown and Hopkins, and with his reportorial work covering other campuses for Rolling Stone.

"Leadership is about sacrifice, right?" he says. "Well, when you go to Harvard or Dartmouth or Hopkins, you're not sacrificing — you're getting a leg up. You're not giving anything up. It's actually a much better deal than you had when you were at home. You have TV, your computer, your music. You have more freedom. Plus, you're living in a country club, with all these athletic facilities and everything.

"But if you decide to go to West Point, you're sacrificing a huge amount. You give up almost all the things that an 18-year-old takes for granted. And then there are actual courses on honor and character. I don't remember taking any courses like that. Basically, what you're told in college now is that you shouldn't be sexist and you shouldn't be racist — as indeed you shouldn't be. But there's no discussion of what kind of person you should be, what your character should be."

During the first couple of years he spent at West Point, Lipsky would test his newfound thesis by making impassioned speeches like these to skeptical friends from the outside world. In response, he heard his share of jokes about the Stockholm syndrome. Eventually, though, his old friends got a chance to meet his West Point friends and see for themselves that, as Lipsky puts it, "these kids are very much like us except for the fact that they made this amazing choice to go to West Point and serve their country."

Still, Lipsky's old friends remained skeptical. They wondered whether the decision to attend West Point mattered in a world where the United States ranked as an invulnerable superpower. "We don't need them anymore," Lipsky's friends would say. "We're never going to have to fight those old kinds of wars."

Then the Twin Towers came down and the Pentagon was attacked. "After September 11, my friends from New York all stopped asking me why I liked these people so much," Lipsky says. "That day was a much better explanation of why what they're doing at West Point matters than I was ever able to come up with."

In the wake of Absolutely American's success, Lipsky has come full circle as a writer. The book has attracted interest from the CBS television network, meaning that for the first time since his preadolescent days, Lipsky is working on a screenplay. This time, it's for a pilot for a proposed weekly drama based on his book.

His father's old threat notwithstanding, Lipsky now wishes that he had chosen to serve in the military. He even considered enlisting in the Reserves after finishing the book, but then he found out that at 37, he's a couple of years too old to get in.

Today, Lipsky counts several former cadets among his short list of best friends. "My West Point buddies always joke, 'It's OK, Dave, you're serving now,'" Lipsky says. "Between writing the book and now the script, they all say it's like I'm the last one of us still there. They've all moved on, but I'm still one of the Fighting Guppies."

This is freelancer Jim Duffy's first article for Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Return to November 2003 Table of Contents

  The Johns Hopkins Magazine | The Johns Hopkins University | 3003 North Charles Street |
Suite 100 | Baltimore, Maryland 21218 | Phone 410.516.7645 | Fax 410.516.5251