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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

February 6, 2012 Issue

Until I read Ian Frazier's great "Out of the Bronx," in this week's issue, the term "private-equity firm" was, for me, just an empty abstraction, like "hedge fund," "leveraged buyout," and all those other financial gimmicks investors use to line their pockets. Frazier's piece turned the abstract into the pungent and the particular. Now I associate "private equity firm" with the destruction of the "warm, gingerbready smell" of fresh-baked cookies. "Out of the Bronx" is about, among other things, the downfall of the Bronx-based Stella D'oro bakery as a result of being taken over by a greedy, ruthless private-equity firm named Brynwood Partners. The piece is noteworthy because many of the crucial details are noticed not by Frazier's eyes, but by his nose. Consider, for example, this amazing description:

The baking cookie smell entered check-cashing places and barbershops and bodegas, it crossed the razor wire into the M.T.A. yards and maintenance sheds west of Broadway, it occupied the loud channel of the Major Deegan Expressway, just to the east; kids dozing in the back seats of their parents' cars sniffed the air and knew they were almost home. The smell competed with the acridity of hot wax and detergent chemicals at Nice Guys Car Wash, just across the street from the factory, and domesticated the beer fumes and late-night atmosphere at Stack's Tavern, a shamrock-bedecked bar between 234th and 236th Streets, where a bartender told me, "Sure, I remember the smell - fresh-baked cookies. Nuttin' wrong with that!"

That "kids dozing in the back seats of their parents' car sniffed the air and knew they were almost home" is inspired! The whole passage is beautifully rhythmed; it reminds me of Joyce's cadences in his great "snow was general all over Ireland" paragraph at the end of "The Dead." Aromatic details are powerfully evocative, yet so few writers include them in their descriptions. Frazier is an excellent "nose" writer. His description, in Travels In Siberia (2010), of the smell of Russia is unforgettable: "I breathed it deeply. Yes, it was all there - the tea bags, the cucumber peels, the wet cement, the chilly air, the currant jam. About the only point of similarity between this smell and the one I'd just left in Nome was the overtone of diesel exhaust."

A different smell - the smell of freshly baked cookies - permeates "Out of the Bronx." I breathed it deeply. Whenever I see or hear "private-equity firm," I'll remember the cookie smell. I'll remember what Brynwood Partners did to Stella D'oro.

Postscript: Another brilliant piece in this week's issue is Jeremy Denk's "Flight of the Concord." Written in the first-person present, it's a miracle of description - miraculous in the sense that it provides a fascinating glimpse of a pianist's inner thoughts, his inscape, as he proceeds, take after take, through innumerable technical and interpretative problems, to record Charles Ives's "Concord" Sonata. Reading it is rapture.

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