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.

Friday, April 18, 2014

April 14, 2014 Issue

Last year’s New Yorker produced so many wonderful pieces that when this year began, I figured there was no way the magazine could match it. Then along came David Remnick’s "Going the Distance," Tad Friend’s "Thicker Than Water," Raffi Khatchadourian’s "A Star in a Bottle," Nick Paumgarten’s "Berlin Nights," and all of a sudden 2014 has the potential to be the best year yet. Now, Ian Frazier’s extraordinary "Blue Bloods," in this week’s issue, adds to the momentum. It’s about the decline of one of the earth’s oldest living creatures – the horseshoe crab. “Horseshoe crabs saw the aeons come and go,” Frazier says. But now the Asiatic species are in severe decline and Atlantic numbers are dropping, too. One reason is that people eat them. Another is habitat loss. One of the strongest images in “Blue Blood” is the sight of “throngs of stranded horseshoe crabs” on the riprap wall near the Dover Air Force Base fuel dock on Delaware Bay. Frazier reports,

The carnage stretched into the distance and had a major-battlefield air, reminiscent of the Mathew Brady photograph of the dead at the Sunken Road at Sharpsburg. Some of the horseshoe crabs seemed to be moving feebly. The ones on the road had evidently managed to make it past the rocks.

“Blue Bloods” comprehends horseshoe-crab places (Fire Island, Plumb Beach, Mispillion Harbor, Little Creek, Delaware Bay, Big Egg Marsh), horseshoe-crab people (Diane SanRomán, John Rowden, John Tanacredi, Matthew Sclafani, Glenn Gauvry),  and tons of horseshoe-crab facts (“ ‘Never pick up a horseshoe crab by the telson,’ she cautioned”; “The earliest known horseshoe-crab fossils are four hundred and eight-five million years old”; horseshoe crabs survived “at least a dozen extinctions”; “Horseshoe crabs have been around at least two hundred times as long as human beings”; “Horseshoe-crab blood is blue”; “Horseshoe-crab blood is said to be worth fifteen thousand dollars a quart”; “In 2012, the [biomedical] industry bled about half a million horseshoe crabs”).

It also includes such felicitous, Frazierian details as the smell of Russian fishermen’s beach fires (“They had lit fires of damp straw to keep the bugs away; the sharp-smelling smoke coiled around”); the sound of birders’ cellphones (“When the other bird-watchers called back, the ring tones were birdcalls”; and a beautiful description of Guyanese fishing nets (“Their seine nets, blue and white and orange, flared against the bridge’s tan concrete like sudden spills of paint when they cast them”).

Also, if you appreciate, as I do, Frazier’s marvelous authenticating lists (the one that springs instantly to mind is his amazing inventory of the contents of the Angler’s Roost, in his classic “An Angler at Heart,” The New Yorker, April 19, 1982), you’ll relish this dandy in “Blue Bloods”:

Wandering along trails in the shoreline reeds, I found horseshoe-crab fragments by the thousands, among paint buckets, tires, condom wrappers, bricks, Clorox bottles, bushel baskets, six-pack yokes, Sierra Mist cans, tampon dispensers, tail-light fragments, shot-gun shell casings, butterfly-shaped Mylar balloons, and two-by-fours. Next to the carapace of a large horseshoe crab someone had set a battered yellow hard hat, perhaps as visual commentary.

“Blue Bloods” is a great piece – where greatness means absorbing, various, precise, vivid, lyrical. I enjoyed it immensely. 

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