John Falk's Hello to All That, reviewed favorably in the New York Times on Friday, is an unusual form of memoir that combines tales of war reporting with a personal struggle against depression.  --  "Dressed in body armor and helmet, [John Falk] carried a single duffel bag packed with the bare necessities: a few clothes, some recording equipment, a 35-millimeter camera and, most important, a year's supply of Zoloft stuffed into a tube sock." ...


Books of the Times: Hello to All That

By William Grimes

New York Times
January 14, 2005

[Review of John Falk, Hello to All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace (Henry Holt, 2005). 304 pp. $25.00]

John Falk hit the ground running when he landed in Sarajevo in August 1993. Dressed in body armor and helmet, he carried a single duffel bag packed with the bare necessities: a few clothes, some recording equipment, a 35-millimeter camera and, most important, a year's supply of Zoloft stuffed into a tube sock. Mr. Falk had no qualifications whatever as a journalist, but in a way he was the right man in the right place. Who better to report from the most depressing city on earth than one of the most depressed human beings in the Western world?

Mr. Falk had been struggling with crippling depression for more than a decade. It descended suddenly when he was 12, a seemingly happy child in a happy middle-class family on Long Island. One morning, he woke up and the world no longer looked the same. Life seemed meaningless. His thoughts raced in endless, pointless circles. He felt isolated and emotionally disconnected. In time, he learned how to go through the motions of living. He graduated from college. But one evening, living in the attic of his parents' house, he found himself fondling a shotgun and feeling a deep sense of peace, knowing that he had a way out. At 23, he was just about ready to give up.

Zoloft and Sarajevo saved him. In his darkest hours, Mr. Falk had fixated on the idea that foreign travel, preferably to a danger zone, would lead to self-knowledge. Buoyed by his new medication, he settled on Sarajevo as a form of therapy. "I decided that maybe with Zoloft I could do something," he writes. "I could have an adventure that would bring me back to life and return me to the world." That's pretty much what happened, as Mr. Falk tells it in alternating chapters that describe his life-or-death struggle with depression and his harrowing experiences in Sarajevo.

Mr. Falk may have been the most unlikely war correspondent since John Boot, the hapless hero of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. Although Mr. Falk entered Sarajevo as an accredited radio journalist, he had never reported, written or recorded a news story in his life. He had no place to stay and no news outlet to report to. Worst of all, the war seemed to be eluding him. "All day there were sounds of shooting and explosions, just never around where I was," he writes. "When I hiked over to where the action seemed to be, it inevitably seemed to move back to where I had just been. It was frustrating. I was a war reporter in the middle of a war, and for the life of me I couldn't find it."

Mr. Falk is hopeless. A kindly Bosnian landlady gently suggests that he might want to check out the daily United Nations news conferences attended by every journalist in Sarajevo. Mr. Falk did not even know they existed. A kindly family, the Nonoviches, accept him as a tenant despite warnings from the local militia that he might be a spy. They decide that this is probably not true after Mr. Falk sets his pants on fire while sitting in their living room.

Gradually Mr. Falk finds his footing. Radio stations all over the world hunger for dispatches with a sign-off from Sarajevo, so he learns how to condense the day's news into a 30-second spot. Before long, he's a real foreign correspondent, selling his reports far and wide. "At one point," he writes, "I even became the Balkan correspondent for a country I had never heard of before, Bophuthatswana."

Thanks to the Nonoviches, Mr. Falk lands a really big story. He is fascinated by rumors of Bosnian countersnipers who take up positions at night and pick off the Serbian snipers who have turned Sarajevo's streets into killing fields. Nino Nonovich knows one, and leads Mr. Falk to him. His name is Vlado. He is 38, a former businessman with a wife and child who once drove a BMW and wore Pierre Cardin suits. Now he picks up a rifle every night and hunts human prey, some of them his former neighbors. Mr. Falk is fascinated, and not just for the obvious reasons. "In the darkness of his existence he had found a reason to keep on going," Mr. Falk writes. "Life had not lost its meaning to him, and I wanted to know how it was he kept going."

Mr. Falk takes a risk in putting his own problems side by side with Sarajevo's. Who suffers more, a depressed Westerner, prosperous and blessed with a stable home and community, or the formerly happy, well-adjusted Vlado, whose world has been annihilated? It's impossible to say. The different forms of human misery cannot be converted, like currency. But it's easy to lose patience with Mr. Falk, and to see his grand adventure as an extended exercise in narcissism. Still, he redeems himself.

The hero of this book just might be Mr. Falk's mother, who makes him promise, before he leaves, to perform just one selfless act to help another person while he's in Sarajevo. Mr. Falk agrees, without understanding why. And then he makes good on his pledge.

In a wild sequence of events that put his formidable skills at bluffing and finagling to their sternest test, he manages to get three members of the Nonovich family out of Sarajevo and into the United States. After years of unspeakable suffering, they get their shot at happiness, and so does Mr. Falk. He's earned it.