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, August 8, 2014

August 4, 2014 Issue

James Wood, in his “Perfuming the Money Issue” (London Review of Books, October 11, 2012), says, “I have always thought Gilbert Osmond the most frightening character in fiction.” In my opinion, the most frightening (and evil) characters in real life are hanging judges – rude, biased tyrants who are allergic to reasonable doubt, run their courtrooms like police states, bully defense lawyers, and mock their submissions on behalf of the accused. One such scourge is Judge Robert Hanophy (“Hang ’em Hanophy”) in Janet Malcolm’s memorable "Iphigenia in Forest Hills" (The New Yorker, May 3, 2010). Another is Judge Michael Bolan in Nicholas Schmidle’s excellent "Crime Fiction," in this week’s issue. Here’s Schmidle’s account of what happened at trial when Tyrone Hood’s lawyer, Jim Mullenix, tried to raise the single most important issue in Hood’s case:

When Mullenix asked Morgan, Sr., about the life-insurance policy – “How much money did you collect from your son’s death?” – Higgins and Rogers, the state’s attorneys, objected. At one point, Judge Bolan told Mullenix, “Perry Mason does this. Perry Mason proves the guy in the back of the court did it.” He criticized Mullenix for failing to establish a “relevant nexus between the Hood case and Morgan, Sr.’s past. Any similarity between the deaths of Morgan, Jr., and Soto were mere “coincidence.” He ridiculed Mullenix’s argument as one more appropriate for the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Our justice system depends on fair-minded judges who constantly apply the fundamental principle of reasonable doubt. Judges like Hanophy and Bolan anger me. I'm sure that if I appeared in front of them, I'd be found in contempt. And that would be appropriate, because it's exactly what I feel for them - utter contempt. 

One way to diminish the impact of hanging judges is to elect trial by judge and jury. Juries can sometimes counterbalance the roughshod rulings of biased judges. I think Tyrone Hood made a serious mistake when he waived his right to a jury trial, placing his fate in Judge Bolan's hands.

Postscript: I see that Richard Brody is still polishing his brilliant “Critic’s Notebook” review of Woody Allen’s great Annie Hall (The New Yorker, June 25, 2012). In this week’s “Goings On About Town,” he changes “a psychoanalytic obsession in baring his sexual desires …” to “a psychoanalytic obsession with baring his sexual desires….” More significantly, he adds a new last line: “Yet it’s a mark of Allen’s artistic intuition and confessional probity that he lets Diane Keaton’s epoch-defining performance run away with the movie and allows her character to run away from him.”

Brody gives Allen more credit for knowing what hes doing than Pauline Kael did. He says that Allen “allows” Annie to run away from him. Kael said that Allen “is bewildered that Annie wearied of Alvy’s obsessions and preferred to move on and maybe have some fun” (“The Prince Who Turned Into A Frog,” The New Yorker, October 27, 1980). I think Brody is right. Annie goes her own way because Woody Allen, her creator, intended her to go her own way. Given the seriousness of Allen’s talent, his art has always to be respected as intentional. 

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