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Jon Krakauer's Hunt for Truth

The famous journalist's revelations about Greg Mortenson are the latest in his relentless quest to find the truth and expose fraud. Nick Summers on what drives the man.

04.22.11 8:57 PM ET

When Jon Krakauer writes, big things come under his withering gaze. The tallest mountain on Earth ( Into Thin Air); a major American religion ( Under the Banner of Heaven); the United States Army ( Where Men Win Glory).

Because of this, his latest target, in Three Cups of Deceit, seems tiny in comparison: Greg Mortenson, an author, speaker, and builder of schools in Afghanistan, who Krakauer sets out to prove is a fraud. Used to elephant hunting, Krakauer brings the same gun to the smaller task, obliterating Mortenson in the process.

With evidence of crimes both literary and financial, the meticulously researched stomping last week thrilled Krakauer fans, among whom are some of the best in the narrative journalism game. "I found it completely riveting," said Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief. "Human nature is drawn to a train wreck, and this had that quality." (Attempts to reach Mortenson via his charity were unsuccessful.)

Three Cups of Deceit was published as a short e-book ($2.99, byliner.com), another departure for Krakauer, who at this stage of his career can put a big hardcover on the bestseller list with just his name on the cover. But the doggedness with which Krakauer goes after his subject—for maximum impact, he timed its release to a blistering 60 Minutes report on Mortenson, in which Krakauer appeared—reveals the maniacal side of his approach. Whether he is investigating a single man or a high-ranking conspiracy over a soldier's death, once he has a topic in his teeth, Krakauer appears incapable of letting go.

Krakauer declined an interview, but he talked about his approach in the 2005 anthology The New New Journalism. "Essentially, I grab a shovel and start digging hard, for a long time," he said, describing a "feverish hunt for material." As for topic selection, he said, "I'm intrigued by fanatics—people who are seduced by the promise, or the illusion, of the absolute."

That may describe Krakauer himself. Into the Wild was his breakout book, a mix of deep reporting and poignant writing. Krakauer wove a chapter of his own life into the story of Chris McCandless, a young man so drawn to the wilderness that it takes his life; at about the same age, Krakauer had attempted a suicidally risky solo climb of the Devil's Thumb, a peak on the Alaska-Canada border.

“You become totally consumed. That’s the ideal!” said Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down. “I mean, I literally dream about the story that I’m writing.”

More of his sheer relentlessness was on display in Into Thin Air. His 1996 account of a climbing disaster at Mt. Everest that nearly killed him, and did end with the deaths of five others, was a sensational hit for Outside magazine, and clocked in at 18,000 words; even so, Krakauer has said, the story continued to obsess him, not fully told, and when he discovered some factual errors he resolved to write a book. He finished in three months flat, the day before a scheduled expedition to Antarctica.

Inevitably for a writer of such extremes, Krakauer has drawn his share of criticism, notably from those who felt his assessments of blame on Everest were too harsh (even though the author excoriated himself, too) and from Mormons, after Under the Banner of Heaven. Reaction to his Mortenson exposé, though, seems to be running nearly unanimously in his favor. And other masters of literary journalism say they recognize the single-minded pursuit of truth at its core.

"You become totally consumed. That's the ideal!" said Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down. "I mean, I literally dream about the story that I'm writing. If it's a book, it's something you're working on for months, and it becomes an obsession. And then when you're done, it's like, holy shit, what do I think about now?" Luckily for readers, we get to obsess with their work next.

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Nick Summers is a senior writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Previously, he was the media columnist for The New York Observer, founded the blog IvyGate, and was editor in chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator.