This Old Man – All in Pieces
By Roger Angell
298 pages, $26.95
Reporting Always: Writings from the New Yorker
By Lillian Ross, foreward by David Remnick
352 pages, $27.
By Jeff Simon
“Check me out” writes the author. “The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the KGB. No,no it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.
“Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry, encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face and head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.
“I’m ninety-three and I’m feeling great. Well, pretty great, unless I’ve forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours, in which case I’ve begun to feel some jagged little pains shooting down my left forearm and into the base of my thumb. Shingles in 1996, with resultant nerve damage.”
Before his catalogue of the current status of that greatest of all human comedies – the human body in old age – is over, we’ve learned about the “couple of arterial stents that keep my heart chunking,” “the pink beta blocker and a white statin” he takes at breakfast, the left knee that is “thicker but shakier than my right. I messed it up playing football eons ago,” the cane he uses (“‘Stop brandishing’ I hear Carol admonishing”), the “country road twists” of “the lower-middle section of my spine” which have “cost me two or three inches of height” and, well, much more.
It is a classic essay from one of the remaining classic New Yorker writers, Roger Angell. It was published in “slightly different form” in the New Yorker in 2014.
Well, of course, it was.
The New Yorker is still a citadel of great American writing and journalism.
It not only functions but flourishes – still – with remarkably little variation on how it first did, considering the riotous tumult of the magazine’s own history and the ongoing digital apocalypse taking place around us all.
Daily patrols are sent out from the Citadel into the Internet through emails to acquaint us with the magazine’s newest writing. Some will appear in its printed magazine, some will merely exist online. Some of it is excellent. The reassurance of that for lovers of American prose and practitioners and surviving consumers of journalism is very large.
And then, at welcome intervals, there are book-form dispatches from the Citadel to let us know that the guardians are still at their posts, at all ages, even those in their 10th decade.
Should we give thanks? I hope so.
It is especially heartening when the two newest book-length dispatches from the Citadel are from family. Yes, honest-to-Pete family.
Roger Angell is the son of onetime New Yorker fiction editor Katharine White and the stepson of E. B. White, one of the New Yorker’s founding writers. (“Andy White was a born farmer,” writes his stepson. “Not so much an agriculturalist as a handyman. He relished the work and he was good at it … but he is no gentleman farmer.” When Angell says “there is more of Andy White left out of his writings than was ever put in” no one alive is better equipped to make such a judgment.)
Angell’s history at the New Yorker is as miscellaneous as one man’s personal history could be, everything from fiction editor (famously, he helped to give American literature at large, Donald Barthelme) to fill-in movie critic, and, most famously of all, one of the most idiosyncratic baseball writers ever – which is a fearfully difficult thing to be considering that idiosyncrasy is the stock-in-trade of baseball writers.
“This Old Man” is rather wonderful. But it is, far and away, one of the most miscellaneous miscellanies I’ve ever seen. It’s a book of letters, literary essays, forewords and introductions, light verse, anecdotes for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” reviews, farewells to ball players and other New Yorker writers (Bob Feller, Duke Snider among the ballplayers, Edith Oliver among the writers) and just about anything else Roger Angell wrote about in the most personal way.
So that means a lot of small, gemlike improvisations on some past giant figures inside the Citadel – the magazine’s inventor Harold Ross, writers Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike and his fellow staff editor William Maxwell.
“A melange” he calls it. “A grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything. A dog’s breakfast.”
The most trivial stuff in it is still delightful. And the great stuff in it – the title piece for instance – is classic.
“Reporting Always” is a superb book from another, vastly more complicated part of the family inside the Citadel. It’s a career omnibus of work by Lillian Ross, the ultimate New Yorker long-form reporter (along with John Hersey) most famous for her book “Picture” about John Huston and the making of his film version of “The Red Badge of Courage.”
It has only been in our century that we became aware that along with being one of the New Yorker’s signature reporters, Lillian Ross was, in life, “the other wife” of the magazine’s longtime editor, William Shawn, a man whose domestic arrangement was obviously as wildly eccentric as everything else about him.
The foreword to the book was written by David Remnick, the current commandant inside the Citadel (and a man who has proved to be surprisingly gifted at bringing the New Yorker into the 21st century). He merely mentions Ross’ “long relationship with William Shawn” without mentioning how socially unconventional it was.
But what else would one have expected from the “hell of a reporter” who produced the classic work from the New Yorker found here – pieces about Ernest Hemingway and the day “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released, about Robin Williams, Al Pacino, Maggie Smith and Gayle King, about Edward Albee and Willie Mays, Harry Winston, John McEnroe, Ralph Kiner, Coco Chanel, Federico Fellini and yes, 41 pages from “Picture” from 1952, an era when John Huston could still seem to Ross “a mysterious, shadowy figure.”
Leave it to Lillian Ross to report, in her introduction, new things about her friend J. D. Salinger we’d not known before. And to end that introduction with a long list of New Yorker writers she is “haunted by” today.
The Citadel is solid. And on guard.
For the moment, its readers are still very safe. And thankful.
Jeff Simon is The News’ arts and books editor.