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.

Monday, September 16, 2013

September 9, 2013 Issue

Alec Wilkinson is a superb noticer. He seems particularly sharp-eyed when he’s in a commercial fishing environment. His early masterpiece, “The Blessing of the Fleet” (The New Yorker, June 9, 1986), is an accretion of innumerable fine details, e.g., the description of a priest (“He held a plate with both hands in front of his chest. It made a circle of white against his black suit, and he tapped his fingers on the bottom of it”), fish cullers (“The fish cullers stand up to go, and often slip on the fish scales while they are crossing to the door. The stairs leading to the office are steep and shallow and slick as grease”), windows (“The windows of the living room face the street but are high above it, so that a person sitting on the couch does not see it, only hears it. In many of the windows on the first and second floors, there are statues of fishermen”). His excellent “The Lobsterman” (The New Yorker, July 31, 2006), a profile of lobsterman and historical ecologist Ted Ames, contains several vivid descriptions of lobster fishing. For example:

When I went out with him one day last fall, it took us about ten minutes to reach the first of his traps. Traps are attached to a line of rope held to the surface by a buoy; the arrangement is called a string. When Ames drops a string, he enters its location on a computer. The traps and the route among them show up on the screen in a curving purple line like a kite tail. “You can see how powerful the technology is,” he said. “You don’t need a plan anymore. You just need to be able to play a computer game.” He collected the string with a gaff. Then he wrapped it around the rim of a turning wheel the size of a hubcap which was mounted on the cabin wall. The wheel was attached to a winch. Most lobstermen raise the trap quickly, which leaves rope piled at their feet. Ames has learned that if he raises the trap slowly, the line comes off the wheel in a neat circle.

Wilkinson’s depictions of lobster fishing are marvelously fine, but they pale in comparison to his kinetic descriptions of white-shark fishing in his terrific “Cape Fear,” in this week’s issue. Consider this passage:

On the third pass, McBride, barefoot and in his jeans and a T-shirt, jumped into the water and climbed onto the submerged platform. Pulling hard on the cable, he steered the shark to the cradle. As she arrived, he leaped over a railing like a rodeo clown. When she passed him, he jumped back in and grabbed her tail and turned her slowly on her side so that her glistening white belly appeared again. It was milky white, the color of the moon, with the water rippling off it. McBride yelled for the cradle to be raised. When it was out of the water, someone threw him a towel, and he placed it over the shark’s eyes. She grew still. Others jumped on the cradle with the hoses. Someone lifted her snout, and McBride removed the hook, which was lodged in her jaw, while the hoses were put in her mouth. Water began pouring from her gills. Twice, her tail flipped up ponderously in an arc, and McBride stepped back.

That “It was milky white, the color of the moon, with the water rippling off it” is inspired! And so is this description of taking samples of the shark’s blood: “On the shark’s side, Skomal had left a handprint, in her blood, while stitching the incision. The wind began to dry her skin.” “Cape Fear,” particularly its final two sections, is exhilarating. I enjoyed it immensely. 

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