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.

Friday, February 14, 2014

February 10, 2014 Issue

I’m not a fan of third-person journalism. I find it flat, impersonal, artificial. I much prefer firsthand accounts – reality translated into subjective experience by an author who was there. But occasionally a third-person piece appears that bowls me over. Nicholas Schmidle’s “Getting Bin Laden” (The New Yorker, August 8, 2011) is one such article. And so is Tad Friend’s riveting “Thicker Than Water,” in this week’s issue. It’s about five young men sport-fishing in the Opening (“the most ticklish fishing spot in Nantucket’s capricious waters”), when their boat is overturned by a huge wave:

The wave caught them from behind and lifted them until they were surfing its face. They hung there for five seconds – their port gunwale tilting overhead, the Yamaha outboard whirring in the air – as if time were taking a breath. Jason still believed that they’d shoot the barrel and make it out. Then the starboard gunwale hit sand, and with fantastic power the wave lifted the boat and hurled it onto the sandbar up-side down.

That “as if time were taking a breath” is very fine. Friend is perhaps best known as a celebrity-profiler (my least favorite form of journalism), but he’s also a terrific action writer. See, for example, his car-chase descriptions in “The Pursuit of Happiness” (The New Yorker, January 23, 2006) and the horse-riding scenes in his superb “Lost in Mongolia” (in Lost in Mongolia, 2001).

But there’s something disconcerting going on in “Thicker Than Water,” too. It has to do with its third-person perspective. Friend reports what his subjects were thinking. For example: “ ‘Boats flip, but never our boats,’ he [Tom Mleczko] told himself.” This must be based on what Tom Mleczko later told Friend, but Friend doesn’t say so, leaving us free to speculate that it might be based on hearsay. Friend follows this quote with “The waters around Nantucket were life-giving and familiar, almost amniotic.” Who owns these words? They appear to be a form of indirect speech – Friend bending his own thought around Tom’s words. But does Friend have license, in a fact piece, to inflect a subject’s words in this way? It’s an important question because the observations, both the quoted ones and the free-indirect ones, are incredibly naïve, evincing a disconnect with harsh ocean reality.  

“Thicker Than Water” seems slanted against Tom. Tom’s preoccupation with Jabb’s salvage, requiring Jason to jump back into the water and anchor the overturned boat is callous. And his refusal to help Jason climb back on board Purple Water after he’d attached a line to Jabb is wretched. It’s an unforgettable moment, in a piece brimming with vivid scenes:

When the task was done, Jason swam to Purple Water’s bow, but couldn’t pull himself onto it. Tom looked over, askance, and Jason said, “Cap, I’ve been in the water for four hours – I’m at about ten per cent.” He finally crabbed himself aboard.

And yet … if it hadn’t been for Tom’s determined search, and his astonishing alertness (“Then he saw a tiny flicker out of the corner of his right eye – a movement that was subtly out of cadence with the waves. He swiveled and stared, not daring to blink: nothing. Then he saw it it again – an infinitesimal nod in the water. There they are! he thought, powering into a right-hand turn”), five men would've died.

“Thicker Than Water” is, I think, destined for classic status – a story of the peril that befalls those who flirt with ocean disaster, and a damning indictment of dumb father-son machismo. However, I hope Friend doesn’t interpret such praise as encouragement to write more third-person pieces. His strength lies in his inimitable “I” perspective. 

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