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.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

November 10, 2014 Issue

There are four dandy “Talk” stories in this week’s issue: Tad Friend’s "Rembrandt Lighting," Ian Parker’s "Oldies But Goodies," Ian Frazier’s "Tracks," and Mark Singer’s "Showrunning." Friend’s piece is about a visit with the movie director Dan Gilroy, at the Steven Kasher Gallery, in Chelsea, as he sifts through a box of Weegee photographs from the forties. Gilroy uses the collection “to explain how Weegee – connoisseur of the blood-spattered corpse – had inspired his new film, Nightcrawler, about a feral loner who roams Los Angeles, filming scenes of mayhem for the local news.” Friend says Gilroy is “as thin and pale as dental floss, with a sepulchral face and milky-blue eyes.” The story brims with pungent details. At one point, Gilroy looks at the circular stamp (“Credit Photo by Weegee”) on one of the photos and says, “He used a Speed Graphic camera, had a ten-foot focus, and shot with flash to create what he called Rembrandt lighting.” I delight in the way this piece combines so many seemingly incongruous elements – “a human coyote who comes down from the hills to feed,” “a wild-eyed woman resisting being frog-marched by a man in a trenchcoat,” “Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and Lady Decies, imperious in white furs,” the Metropolitan Opera, a horrific car accident, Marilyn Monroe – in such a concentrated frame. It’s like a surreal, noir prose poem.

Ian Parker’s “Oldies But Goodies” wonderfully describes an encounter with the ninety-three-year-old painter Wayne Thiebaud in an inspired setting – a table at Lady M, “on East Seventy-eighth Street, a minimally decorated boutique-y place selling ‘confectionary delights.’ ’’ The setting is inspired because Thiebaud is famous for his “confections” paintings. Although Parker doesn’t say so, Thiebaud also happens to be the creator of some of the New Yorker’s yummiest “Food Issue” covers. A couple of lines in the piece made me smile: “As Thiebaud put it, there are still days that start with the thought: This morning, I’d like to paint a pie”; “I was interested in the Americanism of gumball machines.” And there’s this arresting sentence, incorporating a Thiebaud quotation: “He also painted crudités, fanned out on a plate, such as ‘you see over and over at everything you go to, that same stuff, in a circle – a Kenneth Noland abstraction.’ ” For me, the best part of “Oldies But Goodies” is the ending, when Parker attentively picks up on a nearby conversation: “At the counter, a woman used the tone of someone choosing between careers to ask for help deciding between a strawberry cake and a banana cake. ‘It depends on whether you like strawberries or bananas,’ the sales assistant replied.” I like this ending because it shows a virtuoso Talk writer artfully using a seemingly stray bit of reality to help make his story.

Ian Frazier's “Tracks” tells about a plan to convert a three-and-a-half-mile section of abandoned railroad tracks in central Queens into a linear park called the QueensWay. It takes the reader on a tour of the site in the company of three proponents of the project (Andrea Crawford, Marc Matsil, and Andy Stone) and a “visitor” (stand-in for Frazier, who in accordance with Talk tradition, refrains from using “I”). One of the hallmarks of Frazier’s style is his superb urban nature description, and in this piece he notes a place “where now the trunk of a large tree grew over a rusted rail like a potbelly over a belt.” Another distinctive feature of Frazier’s writing is the list. In “Tracks” he lists the names of businesses near or under the elevated section of railway at the QueensWay’s southern end: “RC Forklift Co., R & H Industrial Fabricators, Punjabi Brothers Auto Repair, Arco Electrical Contractors, United Propane, Hart Truck Refrigeration, 3 Kings Collision.” There’s poetry in those names! My favorite part of “Tracks” is when, late in the afternoon, after Crawford, Matsil and Stone leave the site, Frazier “found himself walking there alone.” This, to me, is such a Frazierian thing to do – to go back, explore the tracks again by himself, see what impressions he might gather. Sure enough, his contemplation of  “the vaulted spaces beneath the elevated tracks” yields this beautiful detail: “Slabs of rusted corrugated iron wall off the spaces, coils of barbed wire discourage burglars, and curbside ailanthus trees shoot upward until they meet the track overhang, which causes them to curl out over the street.”

Like Frazier, Mark Singer has been writing Talk stories since 1974. He, too, is a master of the form. His Mr. Personality (1989), one of the most beautiful collections of New Yorker writing ever published, contains twenty-five Talk pieces, including such classics as “Yabba-Yabba, Doodle-Doodle” (in which Mr. Blatford memorably says, “You get your change from a change machine, put your dog in the Doggie Washer, do your yabba-yabba, doodle-doodle – you know, whatever you do while you’re waiting in a Laundromat – and then go home with a clean dog”) and “Pigeon Mumblers” (“Some Greenpoint pigeon mumblers who are familiar with Killer’s irascible moods say that if he really put his mind to it, he could probably hatch a baseball”). Singer’s “Showrunning,” in this week’s issue, is about Garry Trudeau, the cartoonist and executive director of the TV series Alpha House. Trudeau, sitting at a table in the “imprecisely named Excellent Dumpling House,” on Lafayette Street, after a day of jury duty, discusses “the difference between spending days alone drawing and being an executive producer responsible for a cast and crew of a hundred and twenty people and one bloodhound (Gil John Bigg’s look-alike best friend).” He tells about a theatre group he formed when he was seven years old:

I just rounded up all the neighborhood kids, and we put on these productions in our basement. I think even then I understood that I really didn’t have the performance gene. But I did have the impresario gene. I wrote the plays, I wrote the music, I did the scenery, I made the tickets, I directed, I manned the light board. For one of my birthdays, I asked for a curtain. My mother got red curtains that divided the basement in half. We packed the basement. There were some bunk beds down there. We turned those into balconies.

That last bit about turning the bunk beds into balconies made me smile.

So there you have it – four great Talk pieces by four great Talk writers. Proof, if proof is needed, that the Talk of the Town story, invented eighty-nine years ago by Harold Ross, is still vibrant.

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