Sunday, February 17, 2013
February 11 & 18, 2013 Issue
I’m drawn to writers who celebrate everyday life and “give the mundane its beautiful due” (Updike's great credo). This week's issue features three of the best: Joseph Mitchell, Ian Frazier, and Susan Orlean. Mitchell, in his wonderful “Street Life,” celebrates “the common, ordinary city.” Describing the pleasure of aimlessly riding city buses, gazing out the window at “the flowing backdrop of buildings,” he says,
There is no better vantage point from which to look at the common, ordinary city – not the lofty, noble, silvery vertical city, but the vast, spread-out, sooty-gray and sooty-brown and sooty-red and sooty-pink horizontal city, the snarled-up and smoldering city, the old, polluted, betrayed, and sure-to-be-torn-down-any-time-now city.
Mitchell’s piece is remarkable for its long sentences. I don’t associate him with long-line writing. But “Street Life” contains at least three sentences exceeding 140 words. One of them is a gorgeous assemblage that begins, “At any hour of the day or night, I can shut my eyes and visualize in a swarm of detail what is happening on scores of streets …,” and runs for 348 words.
Another writer who seeks his material at street level is Ian Frazier. In his sad, brilliant “The Toll,” he drives and walks the “crumple zone” of Staten Island, noting the debris left by Hurricane Sandy:
A chain-link fence that ran along Bobby Thomson Field nearby had caught the flood’s smaller pieces of debris. Mostly they were grass stems and vine tendrils, combined with plastic shreds, zip ties, coffee stirrers, cup lids, swizzlesticks, plastic cutlery, and plastic drinking straws. In the fence, they glitter like minnows in a net.
Frazier’s eye for bags in trees is as sharp as ever (recall his great “Bags in Trees” series, included in his 2005 collection Gone To New York). In “The Toll,” he writes,
Deep gouges in the banks undercut fences and asphalt biking trails, and the scrubby trees far above the usual high-tide line hunkered down as if some massive creature had slept on them. Shreds of plastic bags hung among the branches everywhere, while the ocean, distant and calm at low tide, offered its quiet wavelets and asked, “Who, me?”
Bags in trees are also an ingredient in “The Toll”’s most inspired sentence:
Standing in a soggy no man’s forest near a beach, with invasive Japanese honeysuckle and bittersweet and greenbrier vines dragging down the trees, and shreds of plastic bags in the branches, and a dirty snow of Styrofoam crumbs on the ground, and heaps of hurricane detritus strewn promiscuously, and fierce phragmites reeds springing up all over, I saw the landscape of the new hot world to come.
That “dirty snow of Styrofoam crumbs” is very fine. Of course, Frazier isn’t celebrating storm debris. But he’s an acute noticer of it. His descriptions of it are sublime. See also his description of the waterfront junk pile in Nome (Travels In Siberia, 2010), the trash on the ground around Yellow Bird’s gas and convenience store (On the Rez, 2000), and the contents of abandoned prairie farmhouses (Great Plains, 1989).
Susan Orlean’s marvelous “Walart” profiles artist Brendan O’Connell, who sees art in “eight feet of Cheetos.” O’Connell paints “Walmart paintings” and perceives Walmart stores as the ideal place to study “the practice of everyday life.” Regarding O’Connell’s work, Orlean says, “The paintings are soft and luscious, built out of small brushstrokes, as if Pierre Bonnard had ventured into Supercenter Store No. 5154 with an easel.” “Walart” has a terrific opening line: “Some years back, Brendan O’Connell had a revelation in a Winn-Dixie.” I read that and smiled. It reminded me of another supermarket piece by Orlean – her splendid “All Mixed Up” (The New Yorker, June 22, 1992; included in her My Kind of Place, 2004), about Sunshine Market in Jackson Heights. O’Connell isn’t the only one who makes art out of supermarkets; Orlean turned the trick twenty-one years ago.