Bestselling author Michael Paterniti thinks about death at lot. He keeps a file on “suicide bridges,” as well as one about places that are especially popular among people who commit suicide. He had been looking for a narrative through which to explore the subject for some time when he happened upon the Chinese-language blog of a man who stood guard at a popular suicide spot in Nanjing, China, saving people trying to leap to to their deaths from an enormous bridge. Even via the jumbled Google translation, Mr. Chen’s account of his life was riveting. It was the kind of story Paterniti’s savors: at once exotic and familiar. “If you dig deep enough into the past, every family has its suicide,” he writes.
Born in Darien, Connecticut, with a BA from Middlebury, Paterniti originally intended to become an advertising account executive. As part of his training he worked in the media department counting magazine ad pages. But instead of merely counting he spent much of his time reading long articles. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I want to do that for a living.” After working for some small, New England newspapers, and earning a creative writing degree from Michigan, he began spending time in Thailand, Burma and Vietnam, writing features for Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and GQ.
It was on his way back from Cambodia, where he was writing a story about the country’s murderous history for GQ, that he detoured to Nanjing went to meet Mr. Chen. In an odd way, he Chen would provide some perspective on his other assignment. “Writing about a genocide, in which millions have died, is almost incomprehensible to me. But I thought that going to a bridge where an individual had killed himself seemed like something I could wrap my head around,” he says.
Paterniti was awed by the enormity of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. Made with half a million tons of cement and one million tons of steel, it is four miles long, with four lanes of traffic on the upper deck and two railroad tracks below. “It seemed more like a figment of the imagination, a ghostly ironwork extrusion vanishing in the monsoon murk, stretching to some otherworld,” he writes.
In a country with 200,000 reported suicides a year, the bridge had roughly one “successful” jumper a week. Mr. Chen’s routine was simple. He would patrol the bridge on weekends and holidays, walking up and down the sections over the water. He claimed to have saved 174 jumpers. Paterniti was fascinated by the existential implications of the situation. Given the length of the bridge, and the vast number of people who traversed it every day, Mr. Chen’s “mission seemed the ultimate act of absurdity.” And even if he saved someone, how did he know that person wouldn’t succeed in a later suicide attempt?
While most people are flattered when a big-time magazine writer shows up to chronicle their lives, Mr. Chen couldn’t have cared less. He all but ignored Paterniti at first, and refused even to talk to him while he was “at work” on the bridge. “It was the perfect provocation for a journalist. Once he shunned me I was determined to stay here until this guy broke down and talked to me,” he says. Standing on the grimy bridge on a rainy day, Paterniti watched passersby, and began to see the bridge through Mr. Chen’s eyes. Which lingering pedestrian or lone bicyclist, he wondered, might be a potential suicide?
Paterniti had warned his GQ editor not to expect a story with any action. After all, what were the chances that someone would jump during the week he planned to spend reporting in Nanjing? But it wasn’t long after he returned from lunch with Mr. Chen—who relented, gruffly, in the face of the writer’s resolve—that he noticed something unusual. A man in a green jacket rushed by them, and ran to the point where the bridge first struck out over the Yangtze. He began clambering awkwardly over the side. Paterniti sprang into action. “Reaching him, I reflexively planted a foot against the concrete base of the railing, latched an arm up and over, then wrenched his body as hard as I could,” he writes.
After subduing the would-be jumper, Paterniti was shaken. On a spiritual level, he now knew what it felt like to save another human being. On a journalistic level, he was grateful. “I thought, ‘For all those weeks and days I’ve stood around waiting for something to happen, the gods have decided that they are going to give me one,'” he says. Mr. Chen was less impressed. For him it was just another moment in his six years on the bridge. “You're only given a half point for that one," he told Paterniti.
By Robert S. Boynton, Director of Literary Reportage Concentration at New York University, and author of The New New Journalism. Michael Paterniti's The Suicide Catcher is one of Boynton's selections for The New New Journalism, circa 2011.