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.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Roueché's Rhythm

Pikonganna stood on watch at the bow in a shiny translucent raincoat made of walrus intestines. If you find simple, sturdy, gloriously specific sentences like this as delightful as I do, you’ll likely enjoy the work of long-time New Yorker writer, Berton Roueché. He was a master of plain-style writing. William Shawn described his technique as follows: “Certainly his is the art that conceals art. His words are so plain, his sentences so chaste, his rhythms so natural that one can overlook the presence of the writer and see straight through to the matter at hand” (quoted in Whitney Balliett’s obituary of Roueché, The New Yorker, May 16, 1994).

The “matter at hand” was often an intriguing medical case. As Balliett points out in his tribute, “Roueché’s medical pieces became doubly famous: lay readers found them scary and exciting while doctors, impressed by their learning and clarity, used them as medical texts.” By the time of his death in 1994, Roueché had written fifty-eight “Annals of Medicine” stories for The New Yorker. A number of them are collected in his The Medical Detectives (1980).

Roueché also wrote about a wide variety of other matters for the magazine, e.g., a towboat trip down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers (“The River World,” February 26, 1972), a visit to the Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor on Long Island (“The Steeple,” March 5, 1949), a canoe trip down the Meramec River (“Countryside,” October 27, 1975), garlic (“A Friend in Disguise,” October 28, 1974), a trip by barge from Lyon to Dijon (“Janine,” October 22, 1984), apples (“One Hundred Thousand Varieties,” August 11, 1975), Appalachian coal miners (“Forty Flights of Steps,” July 16, 1973).

Roueché loved train travel. “I have a fondness for trains,” he says in “Trans Europ Nuit” (The New Yorker, December 28, 1981). In “On the Terrace,” he writes, “A train moved through a different world. It was a world of change and surprise. It was a world of back doors, back roads, back country. It had a backstage intimacy” (The New Yorker, September 15, 1980). In addition to “Trans Europ Nuit” and “On the Terrace,” he wrote three other train pieces – all of them marvelous: “The Best Medicine on the Market” (The New Yorker, January 20, 1962), “Rapido” (The New Yorker, December 29, 1980), and “En Vitesse to Rome” (The New Yorker, February 21, 1983).

My favorite Roueché piece is “First Boat to King Island” (The New Yorker, October 22, 1966), a memorable account of a Bering Sea trip he and two companions made with a group of Inuit in a heavily loaded open boat “made of walrus hide stretched over a wooden frame.” I think it may have been one of Roueché’s favorites, too; he included it in two of his collections: The River World (1978) and Sea To Shining Sea (1985).

Here’s a passage from “First Boat to King Island” that exemplifies the “rhythms so natural” that Shawn mentioned in his description of
Roueché’s style:

The boat edged into the passage. The water was thick with chips and chunks of floating ice. We moved carefully between the embankment of anchored ice and the moving floe on one throttled-down motor. Norbert kept the boat inching along just off the lip of the floe, away from the height and bulk of the ice embankment, but every time I looked, the ice seemed higher and closer. I could already feel the cold of its breath. Kunnuk reached out with an ice lance and jabbed at the edge of the floe. He jabbed again, hard, and a slab of ice came loose and slid slowly into the water. The boy at the stern with Norbert poked it safely past the boat with an oar. It was rotten ice. The whole rim of the floe was rotten ice.

Ten deft, simple, fluid lines – the equivalent of ten short brushstrokes by a master artist (Cézanne, say) – and a dynamic, vivid scene springs to life. Note the economy of his line, the use of compact, tactile words (“thick,” “chips,” “chunks,” “bulk,” “hard,” “slab”), and the brilliant use of repetition (“jabbed at the edge of the floe” / “jabbed again”; “It was rotten ice” / “The whole rim of the floe was rotten ice”). This is quintessential Roueché - plain, simple, direct, evocative. With a moderate number of words, he evokes a world. Don’t let his simplicity fool you. There’s an art to it – selection, shaping, plus that intangible “something” – call it inspiration. Roueché had it. It’s there in his sensual apprehension of the dangerous ice ("I could already feel the cold of its breath").

Credit: The above photo of Berton Roueché is by Nancy Crampton.   

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