A Deadly Wandering, by New York Times reporter Matt Richtel, is the multi-layered story of Reggie Shaw, a 19-year-old man who killed two rocket scientists, Keith O’Dell and Jim Furfaro, after swerving into traffic while texting on a rainy Utah highway. As the investigation into the incident continues, it becomes clear Shaw’s distracted driving caused the crash, not the slick roads he claimed did.
While much of the book emphasizes the emotional impacts the accident had on Reggie and the families of the men he killed, it also intertwines his legal case while illuminating the universal realities of distracted driving. Much of the story’s success, in my opinion, comes from Richtel’s ability to incorporate scientific research and statistics into the narrative. For instance, the limitations of our attention spans, and how technology further impedes it, is backed up by Richtel’s interviews with experts in the field. For examples, Dr. Adam Gazzley refers to the limitations of human attentions spans as the “Cocktail Party Effect.” Gazzley says “technology companies are trying to get more of our brains per unit time … the more engaged you are in what they create, the more successful they are” (Richtel 109). While this is only example of the studies offered in the chapters titled “The Neuroscientists,” had Richtel only relied on this information to discuss technology, attention and distracted driving, A Deadly Wandering wouldn’t have the same emotional impact.
Like all journalism, the human element is what makes Richtel’s writing so compelling. Colourful quotes aside, the lengths Richtel went to craft a well-rounded story is evident through range of characters used. Aside from Shaw, the inclusion of the scientists’ widows and children, the prosecutors, neuroscientists and Shaw’s advocate offer a generally objective view of the repercussions of the accident. Although I enjoyed this, Richtel’s choice to tailor each chapter around each character – “Reggie,” “The Neuroscientists,” “Terryl,” “Hunt for Justice,” etc – somewhat slowed down the pace of his writing and, ironically, distracted me.
Despite my initial reservations of Reggie and inclination he was hiding something, by the end of the book I began sympathizing with him and viewed the story’s arching theme to be of redemption. I also commend Richtel on his journalistic ability to illustrate Reggie’s emotional journey while also placing a strong focus on the grief the two scientists’ families experienced. Perhaps my favourite instances of Richtel’s ability to focus on the detail is when Jackie drives passed the site of Jim’s death in chapter 17. Richtel writes: “As Jackie drove that morning on their Christmas journey, the girls watching Disney, she tried to lose herself in the radio. She thought: If I get teary, my vision gets blurry and then it’ll be hard to drive and then I’ll have to explain to the kids why I’m stopping” (148). Similarly, I think Richtel’s choice to end the book with Reggie returning to the scene of the accident and gravesite of Keith O’Dell with his girlfriend, Britney, was made deliberately and tied the story together nicely. On page 363 he writes: “It was around ten a.m., the sun still coming up, the skies clear, not like the morning it happened. When they got there, Reggie, for the first time, walked through what he remembered had happened, and told Britney the details he remembered, showered her where his car wound up. He was crying, and she was not. ‘She was strong for me,’ he said. After a while, they drove to the cemetery where Keith O’Dell was buried. Reggie and Britney sat down near the headstone and didn’t talk.”
Overall, Richtel’s effort to craft such vivid imagery allowed the story to move from the personal to the universal and why we often choose being technologically connected at the expense of safety.