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, December 12, 2014

December 8, 2014 Issue

The pieces in this week’s issue that I enjoyed most are Burkhard Bilger’s “The Ride of Their Lives,” James Wood’s “Fly Away,” and Dan Chiasson’s “You and Me Both.” In his “Reporter at Large” piece, Bilger visits the Camp of Champions in Sayre, Oklahoma, “a combination rodeo school and revival meeting,” where kids bounce around on sheep and calves in preparation for “the most dangerous organized sport in the world” – bull-riding. He also journeys to the D&H Company cattle ranch on the Washita River in south-central Oklahoma where rodeo bulls are bred (“Tawny, black, mottled, white—rodeo bulls are almost always mutts—they grazed under spreading pecans, in thirteen pastures separated by tall steel fences”). And he attends the Youth Bull Riders World Finals in Abilene, Texas (“Then the gate flew open and the calf charged out, leaping and flexing across the arena like a steel spring shot from an old tractor. He twisted one way and the other, jackknifed in the air and rolled his belly, but could not get the rider off”).

I like Bilger’s feel for Oklahoma. He says, “In the right light, there’s a kind of grandeur to its vast featureless sweep, where every truck stop and water tower can take on totemic power.” But a weird undercurrent runs through the piece. It’s there in the vests that read “Cowkids for Christ” that some of the calf riders wear. It’s there in the parents’ willingness to expose their children to catastrophic injuries (“ ‘I worry about it. I do,’ his father told me. ‘We discuss it all the time. If something serious happens in the arena and God calls his number—if a fatality happens to my son bull riding—it’ll be a struggle. I’m not going to lie to you. But I’ll know that my son will be at peace. That he died happy and enjoying what he was doing’ ”). The story’s clinching quotation is Tuff Hedeman’s comment. Hedeman is a four-time world champion bull-rider. Near the end of the piece, he says, “For me, ninety per cent of it was good. I never had a life-threatening injury. But the last thing I would ever want my son to do is ride bulls. It’s insane.” “The Ride of Their Lives” concludes beautifully. Bilger cuts back to the Camp of Champions, to a cattle trough baptism in a tent. Eight-year-old Jet Erickson, one of the cowkids we’ve been following in the story, volunteers for the ceremony:

Jet, stripped to his swim trunks, climbed in willingly enough but then seemed to change his mind. He pushed his feet up against the end of the trough and gripped the rim tight with his hands. For just a moment, he hung there like a spider perched above a water glass. Then one of the church elders cradled his head and slowly, quiveringly, Jet let himself go under.

It’s a memorable scene, perhaps a metaphor for the crazy culture of religion and rodeo in which these kids are immersed.
New Yorker readers are lucky to have regular access to the work of two of the best literary critics in the world – James Wood and Dan Chiasson. Both are in this week’s issue. Wood, in his piece called “Fly Away,” reviews Samantha Harvey’s new novel Dear Thief. Chiasson, in his “You and Me Both,” considers Olena Kalytiak Davis’s recent The Poems She Didn’t Write and Other Poems. “Literature teaches us to notice,” Wood says in his How Fiction Works (2008). He admires perceptive writing immensely. In “Fly Away,” he says of Davis’s novel:

Within a paragraph or two, the reader senses an attentive purity in the narrator’s prose. She seems alert to everything: the “feathered breaths” of her grandmother, how her “exhales were smooth and liquid, which seems to me now the surest sign of a life’s exit—when the act of giving away air is easier than that of accepting it”; the way the dying woman’s skin has “flattened a tone—and I mean it this way, like a piece of music gone off-key.”

That “she seems alert to everything” is perhaps Wood’s ultimate literary compliment. “Attentive purity” could be his watchword.

Chiasson’s descriptive analysis is extraordinary. For example, in “You and Me Both,” he says of Davis’s “Robert Lowell,” “The poem drifts from its altitudes down into the scuffed actual life it briefly sought to transcend.” That “scuffed actual life” is inspired!

I don’t always agree with everything Wood and Chiasson say. For instance, in his piece on Davis, Chiasson claims, “The medium of poetry isn’t language, really; it’s human loneliness, a loneliness that poets, having received it themselves from earlier poets, transfer to their readers.” Is that true of every poet? I think of Seamus Heaney “toasting friendship” in his great poem “Oysters.” Love, vitality, friendship – these are as much the medium of poetry as loneliness. Chiasson’s statement seems too sweeping. Nevertheless, it’s got me thinking. He may not always be right, but he’s unfailingly stimulating.

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