Oney says the profiles in "A Man's World" reflect the essential attributes through which men experience the world.
"Fighting, creating, acting, embracing danger - these are the things I had to teach myself. The profiles in "A Man's World" amount to a record of how I did it," he says in his afterword.
He says a basic part of men's personalities is that they must fight each day, not with fists, but in challenging themselves and others. They also create, and develop public personas to mask doubt and fear. The last attribute is an openness to experience, no matter how threatening.
The book, published by Mercer University Press in May, gathers a feast of magazine profiles dating from Oney's first days writing for the lamented Atlanta Journal-Constitution Magazine to his years writing for Los Angeles and California magazines and national publications Playboy, GQ, Esquire, Premiere, Time and the New York Times magazine.'
A native of Atlanta and alum of the University of Georgia, Oney started working for The AJC's Sunday magazine at age 22, writing a range of pieces but specializing in writers. Alas, the magazine was scrapped many years ago by a Cox executive who thought Parade magazine better Sunday morning fare for his readers.
After five years at the AJC, Oney left for Los Angeles in 1982 to write for New West, later changed to California magazine. He moved on to Los Angeles magazine, and writing for national journals. He's the author of "And The Dead Shall Rise," the definitive and monumental account of the Leo Frank case.
In his introduction, Oney says that in handling the world "men must be adept at fighting. Second, they must create. Third, the presentation of a public presence - call it acting - is all important. Finally, men must be willing to explore their inner darkness."
Oney states his writer's philosophy, which drives his pieces. "But just as actors must bring themselves to the characters they portray to make those characters come alive on-screen, writers must bring themselves to the persons they write about to make those persons come alive on the page. If, by so doing, the writer learns something about himself, the payoff is twofold: A work animated by a life and a life animated and deepened by the work."
Applying this credo, Oney excels at portraying his subjects' personalities and the environments in which they live. He is especially strong at capturing their way of talking and conveying identifying gestures. Each piece is written in a limited third person technique, with the writer hidden, but the reader senses his constantly observing presence.
The strongest piece in the book isn't of a famous actor or writer. "The Casualty of War," published in Los Angeles magazine in 2007, tells the story of Chris Leon, a Marine killed in Iraq and the devastation of his death to his family and friends. The piece, a classic of American magazine writing, has a rich gallery of characters, men and women, and gives a heart-rending portrait of a confused young man and the California suburban culture in which he grew up.
Oney cites another piece that was unusually wrenching to him as he wrote it, a profile of Bo Belinsky, the Los Angeles Angels pitcher-playboy who was once a notorious example of '60s excess. Belinksy, a severe alcoholic and drug addict, died as a born-again Christian. Oney's examination of Belinsky's rise and fall is harrowing.
One of the strongest pieces is one of Oney's earliest, a profile of novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren and his wife, Eleanor Clark, also a noted writer. The piece, published in the AJC magazine in 1979, captures Warren's exuberance for life. The AJC magazine also yields the concluding piece in the book, a profile of the Southern writer Harry Crews, who provided the defining concept of "getting naked," or facing life's extreme moments.
Other profiles shine. Herschel Walker is shown in his post NFL days pursuing a career in mixed martial arts. Oney gives one of the best examinations of Walker's multiple personality condition.
Other vivid portraits include Hubie Brown, when he was coaching the Hawks before his ESPN days; Atlanta architect John Portman; musician Herb Alpert; actors Harrison Ford, Dennis Franz, Harry Dean Stanton, Bryan Brown and Nick Nolte; and Greg Allman, shown in 1984 when he was battling to overcome addiction and before the later success of the Allman Brothers band, an era now sadly over.
"A Man's World" gives us Oney's world, and that is a very illuminating place.