What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January 30, 2012 Issue

World into word – the crafting of description is, for me, the ultimate art. It’s beautifully on display in two pieces in this week’s New Yorker: Nick Paumgarten’s “The Ring and the Bar,” and Dana Goodyear’s “The Missionary.” Paumgarten’s piece is about Fanelli Café bartender, Bob Bozic. Paumgarten describes Bozic as follows:

Bozic, who is sixty-one, is a stocky six feet two, with bearish arms and shoulders and the belly of a man who likes a beer at lunch. He shaves clean what hair there’d still be over his ears; he’s got a melon. His features manage to seem both doughy and sharp = with his arched eyebrows and his piercing eyes, he looks a little like Lenin after a back-alley beating. He speaks in the sinusy muffle of an old prizefighter and has a bulldog laugh, all grunts and snorts. He often taps your arm or shoulder when he’s telling a story, to make sure you’re listening. He tears up easily, thinking about all that he has been through and the people who have put up with him.

That “He speaks in the sinusy muffle of an old prizefighter and has a bulldog laugh, all grunts and snorts” is inspired! It’s exactly the kind of sentence I treasure. It’s full of thisness – to use a term I owe to James Wood (“By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, and detail that centers our attention with its concretion”: How Fiction Works, 2008).

Another aspect of Paumgarten’s article that I enjoyed immensely is its unabashed subjectivity. In the great tradition of Joseph Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, John McPhee, and Ian Frazier, Paumgarten doesn’t hesitate to occasionally step forward as a first-person character in his story – not obtrusively, but as an observant presence. For example, in one of the piece’s best passages, Paumgarten writes:

Bozic at sixty-one, shadowboxing in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror at the Church Street Boxing Gym, in lower Manhattan, on a recent weekday morning. He jabbed at his reflection, exhaling sharply, like an air brake. He had me hold the heavy bag for a while as he pounded it. I pressed my head into the bag, to absorb the blows. “This is when you feel who you are,” he said.

That, to my mind, is just about as perfect a piece of writing as you can get. Thrillingly, Dana Goodyear, in her excellent “The Missionary,” matches it. Her piece is about Baja chef Javier Plascencia. She describes Plascencia at work as follows:

On the last night of the Baja festival, Plascencia invited three Mexican chefs to cook with him at Caesar’s. In the kitchen, he wiped down a counter with a rag, and checked under the lid of a large steel pot cooking on a burner. He disappeared for a moment and returned with a small plate of haricots verts and snap peas, prodding them gently as he walked to the cutting board. A half-eaten bean dangled from his lips like a droopy cigarette.

How I love that “A half-eaten bean dangled from his lips like a droopy cigarette.” Goodyear’s piece brims with such details: “Molina, who wore pink pants and an Argyle sweater with a dribble of red wine down the front,” “He stopped at Manzanilla, an enchanting, unlikely place housed in an old shipyard, with hot-pink glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling on green velvet ropes,” “a sleepy-eyed young man shaped like a bean bag,” a flask decorated with a picture of a slice of cherry pie.” If you find details such as these as satisfying as I do, you’ll enjoy “The Ring and the Bar” and “The Missionary” enormously.

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