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.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

December 14, 2015 Issue

This week’s Pick of the Issue (maybe even Pick of the Year) is Ben McGrath’s excellent "The Wayfarer." It’s about a sixty-three-year-old riverine nomad named Dick Conant, who spent his days paddling his Coleman canoe (“packed as if for the apocalypse, with tarps and trash bags and Army-surplus duffels”), voyaging America’s waterways. McGrath first met Conant on September 1, 2014, on the bank of the Hudson River, at Piedmont, New York. He interviewed him at his campsite and wrote a Talk story about him, called "Southbound," that appeared in the September 22, 2014 New Yorker. Three months later, Conant went missing. His canoe was found upside down near the mouth of Big Flatty Creek, on Albemarle Sound, North Carolina. McGrath endeavors to reconstruct Conant’s last trip – from Plattsburg, N.Y. to Big Flatty Creek, N.C. He talks to a state trooper named Edwin Scollon. Scollon provides a remarkable description of his brief encounter with Conant at Willsboro Point, on the shore of Lake Champlain. Here’s a short excerpt from Scollon’s report:

I found Mr. Conant in a bed that he had made upon a pebbled shoreline and under a canopy of cedars. He hadn’t heard me come around the house and I took a moment to size him up. He looked quite comfortable; he had a book propped up on his midsection and all that was left of his dinner was the can that had once contained it. It was readily apparent to me, from all that he had in and about his canoe, that Mr. Conant was making a long trip. If I hadn’t had a job to do, I would have left him alone. He had made this little piece of shoreline his own for the night and even though he was outdoors, I did feel that I was about to disturb his privacy.

McGrath also talked to a harbor pilot named Dougy Walsh. He, too, had a vivid memory of meeting Conant: “ ‘I was blown away by this guy,’ Walsh recalled. ‘He didn’t have any nautical charts! He was using a road atlas!’ ” McGrath talked to a resident of Trenton, N.Y., named Kevin Jolley. Conant was taking a break from an arduous portage through Trenton, when Jolley encountered him and used his iPhone to video-record a conversation with him. Here’s McGrath’s superb rendering of that conversation:

Scene: Conant, sitting on a street corner, leaning back against a green duffel, boots crossed, maps in his lap, hands knotted over his midsection. He has a Camaro Z28 cap on his head, and a toothbrush and a pen poking out of his breast pockets. The canoe is off to his right, parallel to the curb. A white brick building advertising “Plumbing & Heating Materials” squats in the background. Strewn backpacks and bags, a crate, a blue bucket, a Gatorade bottle: a landlubber’s boating picnic. A man in a motorized wheelchair cruises west, not on the sidewalk but in the street, against the flow of traffic, and doesn’t so much as turn his head to acknowledge the strange voyager.

“Where you headed?” a voice offscreen asks.

“I’m headed down to Florida,” Conant says, laughing.

“What made you stop through Trenton?” another voice asks. “Just the map?”

“Well, no,” Conant says. “I want to get on the Delaware, so I can head down to—there’s a Chesapeake-Delaware Canal that I can take into Chesapeake Bay. Now, Chesapeake Bay’s a large body of water, and I’ll be exposed. But it’s not as large as the Atlantic Ocean.”

The first offscreen voice asks, “Yeah, man, what’s your whole purpose, though?”

Before Conant can finish answering, a black S.U.V. pulls up alongside the curb, looming over the canoeist, and the camera turns away. A woman leans out the window. “Excuse me,” she says. “I’m looking for River View Plaza?”

You can tell from that passage – the Camaro Z28 cap, the toothbrush and pen poking out of Conant’s pockets, the canoe, the backpacks and bags, crate, blue bucket, Gatorade bottle – that McGrath relishes Conant’s details. I do, too. Reading the piece, I thought of James Wood’s observation: “To notice is to rescue, to redeem; to save life from itself” (The Nearest Thing to Life). That’s what McGrath has done in “The Wayfarer”; he’s brilliantly noticed this solitary, authentic, tragic, wanderer and thereby saved him from extinction. To redeem is one of art’s main functions. McGrath has fulfilled it magnificently in this great piece.

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