Another Novelist Who Should Stick To Fiction

So how is Portfolio magazine doing with its newly topical covers? The concept illustration, a golden gas nozzle, leaking more gold, is attention-grabbing. And the cover story (teased with a Boom!) is tantalizing: business is thriving, oil deals are flowing, McMansions are rising... in Iraq. We're not the most generous judges of Joanne Lipman's Portfolio, and the dissection of the lavishly funded Conde Nast title is a monthly ritual. Even if we were fair, we'd have to say: author Denis Johnson's feature, like Iraq itself, promises much and doesn't deliver. Why not?

Like another contributor in the current issue, Jay McInerney, Johnson is a novelist: he won the National Book Award for his novel Tree of Smoke. Like McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City (who covers Art Basel in Miami as if the art show were merely an extension of his sodden New York nights), Johnson is out of place in a business magazine, or in fact-based journalism, for that matter.

The Tree of Smoke author's mission was to "touch" the oil pipeline and, presumably, convey the majesty as only a novelist can. He barely made it out of the Sheraton hotel's breakfast room in Erbil, staying within the safe confines of American-friendly Kurdistan. Our informant tells Gawker that Portfolio's Bill Tonelli, a favorite of editor Joanne Lipman and the commissioning editor on the piece, kept the draft to himself for two weeks while he himself phoned Iraq to work some facts into the story.

Johnson was impressed by the economic vitality of Kurdistan. Why hasn't it been recognized by journalists from the New York Times and CNN, he wonders. "Here's a guess, just one possibility: because journalists are pimps for war, my friends, in burgundy velvet suits. And that's the news from here." Here's another guess, just one possibility: because real reporters do, occasionally, leave the five-star hotels that so impressed Portfolio's coddled author.

So, has Joanne Lipman's vain effort, to turn novelists into business journalists, finally run its course? Don't bank on it. Portfolio's brittle editor, famously ignorant of journalistic precedent, has the ambition to nurture writers in the way that GQ and Talk once managed, and a long wish list to work through. Top of her list: best-selling creator of Alex Cross, the African-American forensic psychologist, James Patterson.

Addendum: Where is Howell Raines, Portfolio's media critic? When the former New York Times editor was appointed, the magazine did say that his first column would be in March, on coverage of the election. So we're not ringing the alarm just yet. But he did, say our spies, submit an earlier column on Katie Couric, which would have been for the current issue. Pretty dated, and thin, we hear. "No one bothered checking to see if he could actually write a column and no one asked him for ideas before announcing his signing. He apparently didn't take too well to being edited."