Mike Rowe seems a character from another era. A time of schmaltz. A time of goofballery. A better time? Okay, boomer, sure. Rowe’s nonfiction collection and mini-memoir The Way I Heard It is pretty cornball—and erudite and not a little bit hopeful. This is not so easy to pull off in publishing’s quarter-century of putting out self-aggrandizing, unhinged, cringe-inducing celebrity screed. Rowe adroitly avoids this trap by making the main subject of his memoir someone other than himself. A lot of someones.
Rowe, who is best known for hosting the Discovery Channel reality show Dirty Jobs, is also the writer and co-creator of the hit podcast The Way I Heard It. If you are of a certain age and didn’t grow up an urban hick in some coastal ghetto of the mind, you may remember radio broadcaster Paul Harvey. Harvey, whose voice sounded something like a duet between a banjo and a chorus of ten-year-olds scraping their fingernails across a wet chalkboard, came on twice a day for about five or ten minutes on a broadcast format known at the time as “the radio.” Harvey’s first show of the day was news with mildly patriotic political commentary. Ah, but the day’s second installment. As Paul Harvey might say, that . . . that . . . that . . . that was “The Rest of the Story.”
Even my paternal grandfather, a man who barely cracked a smile in all the years I knew him, a man who busied himself from dawn till dusk with a perpetual to-do list, as if the world would vanish if he stopped working, did take a couple of daily breaks. When he did, Granddaddy would pause to wolf down a baloney sandwich (one slice on two pieces of Sunbeam bread, no condiments), chug some of my grandmother’s treacly tea, and listen to Harvey on WHMA out of Anniston, Alabama. He and I shared this enthusiasm, and we would sometimes listen together.
In like manner, I was an early subscriber to Rowe’s podcast, The Way I Heard It. It took listening to only one episode for me to realize what Rowe was up to. He had channeled Harvey’s The Rest of the Story to create the form of his podcast—well, basically copied it wholesale—but found a way to put a modern spin on it with a smidgen of irony and a touch of bawdiness.
Rowe’s podcast is pure entertainment, and it soon developed a large subscriber base. The success of the podcast led to Rowe’s book, The Way I Heard It, based on the pod, with a bit of Rowe’s memoir interspersed between the chapters.
The Mystery of the Vanishing Woman
Each mini-essay in The Way I Heard It presents a vignette of a historical figure, usually, but not always, a hero of business, the culture, or government service. Rowe throws in a villain, an anthropomorphized nonhuman, or a hapless, famous failure every now and again for spice. The twist is that we don’t find out who the figure is until the last paragraph, sometimes the last sentence.
Rowe uses all sorts of devices to obfuscate the identity of his subjects, but mostly he employs the tried and true method of calling them by a childhood nickname, their real name rather than a well-known pseudonym or stage name, or by referring to them in misleading allegorical terms, such as “the pop star,” when talking about a certain classical music great of the early nineteenth century, or “the young officer,” when referring to a certain American traitor we have commemorated with the statue of a bodiless boot draped over a cannon up Saratoga way.
Part of the fun is in trying to guess who Rowe is talking about before he gets to the end and reveals all. More often than not, he’s done a good job of hiding the identity, and provides us with a pleasant “aha” moment. Well, it’s usually more underwhelming than that. Call it a “Huh. How about that?” moment.
Rowe skips through time and presents history in bite-size chunks. He has no overriding narrative, no agenda other than a certain taste for subjects who display an aspect of showmanship, which Rowe, a consummate showman himself, identifies with.
He mercifully doesn’t try to put things in a larger context. These are people you already know or have heard about, and Rowe trusts readers to supply the big picture. What Rowe excels at is imparting some tidbit of backstory that most people won’t know, or if they did once know, will have mostly forgotten.
The best of the vignettes for my money is his chapter titled, “The Mystery of the Vanishing Woman.” Here Rowe explores a wonderfully macabre and mostly obscure chapter in a famous woman’s life. One day the wife of a well-known British barrister and former military man vanished. It was thought she’d thrown herself into a pond to drown, but no body was discovered. The story took the British papers by storm. Her husband was suspected of foul play.
Arthur Conan Doyle even hired a medium to see if he could contact her in the afterlife and get the scoop on her murder. But it turned out that she was very much alive and staying at a hotel in North Yorkshire. The thing was, she had no idea who she was. She’d checked in under the name of her husband’s mistress, Nancy Neele, and said she was visiting from South Africa.
This Miss Neele had no ID, no memory of how she had gotten to the hotel, and no idea of why she had identified herself as Miss Neele. But even though this Miss Neele didn’t know who she was, the detectives assuredly did. She was the woman on the front page of every paper in Great Britain. She was the elusive subject of what had been the largest manhunt in English history.
“For twenty-four hours,” the woman said, “I wandered in a dream, and then found myself in Harrowgate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come from South Africa.”
Who was she? Hint: she’s later became famous—but not for being the object of an investigation, as she was here. This is probably my favorite of Rowe’s misdirection, because I had no idea of this bit of the subject’s background, and that story, in itself, is a complete little tale that doesn’t even need the revelation of the subject’s name to maintain interest.
Rowe’s mini-biographies are a bit uneven, but none are complete duds. Rowe deploys a variety of deceptions to hide the subject’s identity, but his go-to is the allegorical fakeout. When we think he’s speaking literal truth, it turns out he’s tacitly comparing the person, the person’s job, or the person’s life, to another situation entirely, but one that conforms to it by extended analogy. His take on Ed, the famous actor, is one of these.
Before the election, the brothers had bickered over the economy, immigration, taxes, race relations, and, of course, the border. Like many in the entertainment business, Ed’s little brother saw the election’s outcome as a fait accompli. He not only believed that the Democrat would win—he believed it would happen in a landslide. All his friends said so. All the pundits said so. Besides, the Republican alternative was a buffoon. A dangerous, unpredictable buffoon.
Rowe is, of course, not talking about current politics. And it is refreshing when, at the end of the chapter, Rowe refuses to speak, or, in this case, to write down, Ed’s awful brother’s name, trusting that we know it is not worth repeating.
Amusing and Polished
Rowe cut his comedic teeth not on his show Dirty Jobs, which came later in his career, but at the QVC home shopping channel, where he got his big break as a nighttime host. There, he was fired twice, and eventually left on his own accord, mostly because he could never seem to deliver his pitches straight. There are some hilarious YouTube videos of Rowe hawking cherubic porcelain figures on a seesaw, the “Katsak,” a bag lined with crinkly plastic meant to provide pleasure for your pet, and a somewhat creepy collectible doll all available for the low, low price of $29.95 (plus shipping and handling).
Yet while Rowe’s lack of seriousness doomed him at QVC, it creates a buffer for the heartfelt, but often sappy, sentiment of The Way I Heard It. Rowe is an old-fashioned celebrity who counts it as a point of pride that he always remains in character in public. He paints paeans to his parents and his Baltimore upbringing. He tells a ghost story about a haunted San Francisco area mansion where he lived rent-free during his stint at QVC.
Rowe’s list of horrible reality shows that he has either hosted or narrated is impressive—and a reminder of the gloriously stupid days of bad cable. Yet he makes it clear that he learned his chops on these shows, and was steadily becoming better and better at what he did as a result. Like most actors who make a living at their craft, Rowe developed early on the ability to put up with show biz nonsense and rejection while keeping his eye on the long game.
In a similar manner, a great deal of the fun of The Way I Heard It is the juxtaposition of the horrible pun or the moment of absurdity with the appeal to sentiment and middle-brow erudition. Reading Mike Rowe is a bit like encountering a master salesman at a boat show in your local civic center.
The book is a pitch for a certain amused, easy way of looking at life, and a tale told by a smart, polished communicator who has figured out how to tug at your heartstrings and whack your funny bone without trying to stick a knife in your back in the process. The twists are gentle, informative, diverting—and designed to leave no permanent scars.
At least that’s the way I read it.