Robert Isenberg

Robert Isenberg
December 31
Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer, playwright, photographer and stage performer. He is a past recipient of the Brickenridge Fellowship, McDowell Scholarship, Trespass Residency, and two Golden Quill Awards. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, where he served as Whitford Fellow, the program’s highest honor. Originally from Vermont, he lives in Pittsburgh. His book, The Archipelago, about backpacking the postwar Balkans, was released by Autumn House Press in January 2011. See more at

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JANUARY 2, 2013 11:07AM

Books by People I Know: "Fringe-ology"

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A few years ago, I spotted a UFO.

         It was nighttime. I was standing on the bank of the Ohio River. A green triangle emerged above Mt. Washington. The object lit up brightly, then flashed across the sky and vanished. I shrieked with excitement and shock. Nobody else saw it.

         Since then, I love telling people about my “UFO experience,” because the event is now a harmless anecdote. When I tell the story, I always finish with the same joke: Oh, God, I thought. Now I’m going to be one of THOSE PEOPLE!

         Friends laugh, because they know who “those people” are: crackpots, pseudo-scientists, parapsychologists, Ufologists, and nut-jobs who attend conferences and gush about their respective anal-probings.

         And yet I admit that I am one of “those people.” If someone invited me on a major talk show, I would gladly tell my story to the cameras. I am proud of my little adventure. I’m confident that I saw something, even if my emotional investment is blunt. In a life free of ghosts, telepathy, bent spoons and even a decent fortune teller, this one measly UFO is my only umbilical tie to the paranormal. But what a tie.


So I was astonished when Steve Volk published his Fringe-ology—not just because Steve is an old colleague and friend, but because Fringe-ology is literally about this kind of encounter. What’s more, Fringe-ology is a very smart, very clear-headed book, and it perfectly mirrors my own feelings about the “supernatural.” Or, for that matter, religion, perception, and all of human existence.

         Steve frames the book with his story about a “family ghost,” an event too wonderful and strange to spoil here. He also incorporates some personal loss, stuff I knew nothing about. Fringe-ology is both a therapeutic journey as well as an argument about faith and science (why can’t they get along?). He doesn’t side with paranormal experts or scientists, but rather implores them to cooperate. Arrogance, he insists, is the poison that kills progress.


Steve was (briefly) my editor at InPittsburgh Weekly, the best newspaper I have ever worked for, and still the finest alt-weekly I’ve ever read. I wrote for InPittsburgh for only two years, so I missed the infamous politics that plagued its office (others remember that infighting more clearly). Most writers and editors at InPittsburgh looked like grown-up slackers. They were painfully smart and eccentric. Fashion-wise, they could all have fronted a prog-rock band. Even their cluttered offices often felt like a rehearsal space.

         Steve Volk was different. He was tough looking, fast-talking, streamlined, sarcastic. He chased scoops with a singular verve. I have never, in my entire career, done serious investigative journalism; Steve would uncover major scandals for breakfast. In my memory, he is a larger-than-life reporter, the kind of aggressive, hard-nosed guy who laughs in the face of danger.

         When InPittsburgh folded, Steve moved to Philly and wrote for Philadelphia Weekly, our sister-paper. I tried to meet up with him one weekend, but he was occupied. I really wish I could, man, he said on the phone, but I have to meet a guy on the docks.

         I can’t quote this dialogue, because I don’t remember if this is exactly what Steve said. But Steve struck me as precisely the type of writer who would meet mysterious people on a shadowy gangplank. Unlike many journalists, I don’t care about “breaking” stories, but Steve broke stories all the time. He wanted to put the first boots on the ground. And he was outrageously good at it—not only as a fearless researcher, but as a dynamic writer. A mutual friend once told me that Steve “writes a first draft, and then he reads through it and replaces every single verb with a better verb.”

         Many people have offered compliments about my work, but Steve has offered two of the most powerful and long-lasting: When I wrote a first-person feature about skydiving, he said he admired that I would “jump out of a plane” for a story, something he would never dream of doing. Later, my then-girlfriend told me that Steve said: Sometimes I wish [Robert] didn’t work for the paper, because I’d love to write a profile about him.

         Hearsay, of course, but the best hearsay I’ve ever heard said.


I haven’t seen Steve Volk in person for 12 years. I’m not even sure where he is, exactly. Any paragraph of his book revealed more about Steve’s life and personality than all of our shared experience—which basically amounted to a few dozen emails, phone calls, and in-person conversations. At this point, I have a more personal relationship with my mail carrier than I do Steve Volk. But I still consider him a friend, because we worked together during my very formative years (I was 22 when InPittsburgh folded). For years, every time I visited Philly, I’d pluck up a copy of Philadelphia Weekly and read his latest masterpiece. I took great pride in knowing that, long ago, we sometimes put ink on the same 82,000 sheets of paper.

         Fringe-ology is not the book I expected of him, and I enjoy that fact. I imagined Steve’s magnum opus as a story of police corruption, or a serial killer’s profile, or a glimpse at immigrant sweatshops. Instead, Steve wrote about a strange subculture of mediums and ghost-hunters, people who honestly believe they can talk with the dead. The writing in Fringe-ology is brash and muscular, but it’s also a plea for modesty. Scientists don’t know everything, he says, over and over. The stories are sometimes sentimental, even melancholic, in ways I never anticipated. Steve never picks a side, because he believes that picking sides is pointless. If you can’t explain it, you can’t explain it, but you shouldn’t discount a well-meaning person because they—for example—spotted a green triangle in the sky.

         As I finished Fringe-ology, I also finished Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries. I love Jon Ronson’s writing and style, partly because he empathizes with his subject. If a guy says he saw a poltergeist, then Ronson’s first question is usually, Where did you see the poltergeist? He doesn’t raise an eyebrow or put everything in air-quotes. He uses the subject’s terminology and reference points. But I always suspect that Ronson is silently laughing at them. His mockery is sub-textual, but I think it often thrums beneath the words.

         Steve doesn’t even hint at mockery. All Steve knows is that he’s never seen a little green man, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If Fox Mulder wrote an even-tempered manifesto, it might look a bit like Fringe-ology. As ever, Steve took the shadowy road, the path that others fear to tread. He jumped out of his proverbial airplane. And what he found is definitely worth a gander.

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Thanks for sharing this great review! :)
I dislike describing any group in terms "those people". It immediately slams shut the door on any kind of greater understanding. A closed mind is a closed mind, whether that person insists the earth is flat, that the Holocaust was a hoax or that there is no such thing as UFOs, God or life after death, and a closed mind is a dangerous thing.

I've had some experiences of my own that I keep to myself (not with UFOs).

Just reserved this book along with the Jon Ronson book you mentioned. Will be reading yours as well. Loved this review and also your writing.
Thanks for reading, you guys! It's been a fun series to put together. Wish I could keep up with all the books my friends and colleagues have written. Hope your 2013s are kicking off nicely!
Thanks for reading, you guys! It's been a fun series to put together. Wish I could keep up with all the books my friends and colleagues have written. Hope your 2013s are kicking off nicely!
Thanks for reading, you guys! It's been a fun series to put together. Wish I could keep up with all the books my friends and colleagues have written. Hope your 2013s are kicking off nicely!
Thanks for reading, you guys! It's been a fun series to put together. Wish I could keep up with all the books my friends and colleagues have written. Hope your 2013s are kicking off nicely!
I found my way here via Margaret Feike's chilling post about her paranormal experience, and I'm glad I came. Your friend should be proud of this review and your portrait of him. I am heading for Amazon to find the book. R
Revelatory this (if I may use a shop-worn descriptor) gonzoesque evidence of courage. As I listen to Ted Burke's Blues Shuffle for a Happy Holiday. Critique so often is over-looked as aesthetic form,
Mr. Robert Isenberg, and I guessed Fringe.Ology had something to do with Marcuse. And not para-normality. So much of a good work is title contingent, as far as making more than walking around money. Mailer's Big Empty comes to mind, and I wonder if the synonymous movie title has anything to do with the book. Further, curricula attempts to discipline discipline Letters & Science, so it remains astonishing, this Twenty/\Thirteen ... cars ain't flyin' ... children are dyin'.
My efforts at critique ended with Apocalypse Now or was it Space Odyssey 2001 (where was I here?) Isenberg and Ology are yellow highlighted above on this claustrophobic elbow-aching screen.
My compliments on this post.
Im determined to watch for Isenberg, Ronson and Volk.