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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

October 12, 2015 Issue

The most absorbing piece in this week’s issue, for me, is Jiayang Fan’s "The Accused." It’s about the prosecution of a Chinatown bank for mortgage fraud. Normally, I shy away from crime writing. I resist its built-in sensationalism. But this piece hooked me with its immigrant focus. Also, it appealed to my sense of injustice. The bank in question, Abacus, appears to have been picked on. Fan writes,

But in some ways Abacus was a surprising target for a high-profile mortgage-fraud case. Of the four thousand three hundred and ninety mortgages that Abacus held in 2009, only sixteen were in trouble, a delinquency rate less than a twentieth of the national average. Chinese immigrants, poor though some of them were, seemed to be far more dependable as borrowers than the rest of America. Of all the institutions that were investigated for mortgage fraud after the financial crisis, the only commercial bank that was brought to trial was a small community bank whose assets had never exceeded two hundred and eighty-two million dollars—around a hundredth of one per cent of the assets of Bank of America.

Abacus’s founder is eighty-year-old Thomas Sung. I relished Fan’s description of his office:

The office of Thomas Sung, the founder of Abacus, is three floors above where the tellers sit at the bank’s headquarters. It is a ramshackle room, determinedly functional and frugally furnished. When I first visited, in February, boxes of files formed a mountain on the floor, law journals were piled on cheap shelving, and a straggly potted palm wilted in a corner. The only color was from the tea sets, a traditional Chinese ceremonial gift, that had been left lying around. To Sung’s customers, the décor would be reassuring; it is the office of someone who knows that money is too important to be spent casually.

Fan provides an immigrant view of the case. She talks about the difficulty immigrants face getting bank credit. She points out, “The fact that such people often work exclusively in a cash economy means that their income is hard to prove.” She observes, “Instead of inflating incomes, as the D.A. alleged, in many cases Abacus had seemingly managed to accurately assess borrowers’ true incomes, rather than the artificially low numbers they divulged to the I.R.S.” I find this perspective refreshing. 

My favorite part of “The Accused” is its conclusion, in which, a few days after the trial, Fan accompanies Sung and three of his daughters to a “no-frills” Cantonese restaurant. She writes,

Switching between Mandarin and Cantonese, Thomas Sung exchanged greetings with the waiter and ordered for us, without a menu. Not everything he ordered was palatable to the sisters. They pushed a clay pot of chicken feet, with claws attached, toward their father.

That “clay pot of chicken feet, with claws attached” is brilliant! Fan is a superb noticer, as anyone whos read her “Bar Tab” columns well knows. To my knowledge, this is her first feature for the magazine. I look forward to many more. 

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