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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

August 29, 2016 Issue

This week’s issue contains pieces by two of the magazine’s best writers – Nick Paumgarten and Dana Goodyear. Paumgarten’s “The Country Restaurant” probes the “myths” surrounding Damon Baehrel, a gourmet restaurant in Earlton, New York, that Bloomberg News calls the “most exclusive restaurant in the U.S.” The restaurant is named after its “presiding wizard and host, who serves as forager, farmer, butcher, chef, sous-chef, sommelier, waiter, busboy, dishwasher, and mopper.” One of the “myths” is that the restaurant is booked through 2025. Another is that all the ingredients of the dishes it serves are derived from the “twelve acres of yard, garden, forest, and swamp” on which it’s located. The skeptical nature of the piece is expressed in its tagline: “You can’t get in. It’s booked through 2025. Or is it?”

Reading “The Country Restaurant,” I found myself cheering for Baehrel. I didn’t want him to be unmasked as a fraud. “Betrayal” journalism, in which the writer secures the subject’s trust and then proceeds to write an ugly portrait of him, gives me the creeps. Paumgarten comes close to writing such a piece, but, in the end, after noting all the “bogusness,” seems to side with Baehrel and his “sublime” cooking. He writes,

Later, back outside, as Baehrel led us [Paumgarten and a photographer] around the property and identified plants, my attention wandered, and I thought about my first visit, months before, and a particular dish, the sixth course, which had so engaged my attention that the only surreptitious photo I got of it was of a plate licked clean. It consisted of a small layered cube of wild daylily tuber and wild honey mushrooms—a phyllo of the soil. He’d sliced the tubers thin and soaked the mushrooms in fresh maple sap, then stacked them in more than a dozen fine alternating layers. He then roasted it on a slab of oak wood, dribbled it with grapeseed oil and wild-fennel-frond powder, and added a drizzle of dried milkweed pods cooked in fresh birch sap, which he’d mashed in a stone bowl with some rutabaga starch, and a second drizzle that he called burnt-corn sauce, made from liquefied kernels that he’d scraped off the cob onto a stone, dried, then thinned out with sycamore sap. Somehow I got all this down in the notebook. Beneath it, I’d written, “Sublime.”

Now, down by the road, near the gate, Baehrel guided us alongside his garden beds. In one of them, a single sprig of asparagus rose from the earth. He snapped it off and handed it to me. It tasted like—asparagus.

It’s a great ending. I confess I’ve read that last bit about the asparagus numerous times. What does it mean? It could mean that Paumgarten was relieved to find at least one thing at Damon Baehrel that was what it appeared to be. Or, it could signify that Paumgarten had decided to put aside all his doubts about Damon Baehrel’s authenticity and go with the evidence of his senses. It’s a fittingly ambiguous conclusion to an arresting, delicious piece. I devoured every word.

The authenticity of Dana Goodyear’s subject – seventy-one-year-old earth sculptor Michael Heizer – is never in doubt. What a wild, crazy, brilliant guy! Here, in Goodyear’s terrific “The Earth Mover,” is our first view of him:

At a crosswalk, Heizer—ravaged, needy, fierce, suspicious, witty, loyal, sly, and pure—leaned against a lamppost to rest, thin on thin. He wore a felt rancher hat whose band was adorned with the tips of elk antlers, and a jackknife in a holster at his waist. In the eighties, Andy Warhol photographed him wearing plaid flannel, his hands raised like claws and a vague, suggestive smile on his lips: Am I scaring you, honey? Now, with his hat casting an elliptical shadow on the pavement, he looked ready for another portrait.

That “thin on thin” is pure Goodyear; she’s a superb describer. And here, in one of the most memorable scenes of the piece, is Heizer painting in his New York City loft:

He picked up a can of paint that a studio assistant had mixed—imperial Venetian bronze blended with carbon black and dark brown to create a tone he called “volcanic”—and poured it through a net into a tin tray. Painting with a roller is physical work. With effort, he covered the roller with paint and stepped up to a canvas whose bottom-heavy angularity resembled an origami swan, banded with green tape. He climbed a ladder to the third rung from the top and started painting from the upper left in long, smooth strokes. Within a few seconds, something had gone wrong. “Arrrgh! Not good!” He got down from the ladder and inspected the painting for impurities. There was a fleck of white, which he picked out with the tip of his knife. On his knees, he went at the lower portion of the canvas, bending double with each stroke and pulling himself up again with the ladder.

“Fu-u-u-u-uck, I can’t breathe anymore,” he said after a few minutes of intense application. His tongue was hanging out, and his mouth was open like that of a parched man receiving rain. Los Lobos’s sax came through the wall. “Here it is! Yo! Ha, ha, ha, yo!” he laughed, suddenly revived. With saxophone, the painting looked better to him: twenty bucks’ worth of paint from Ace Hardware transformed into a cosmic offering. He bent over, hands on knees, panting, and looked up with a giddy smile. “That’s somethin’, huh?” he laughed. “Cuidado.”

My god, I love that passage – so many piquant details! And that drawn out “Fu-u-u-u-uck” is inspired.

Heizer’s art tool of choice isn’t a paintbrush or a paint roller – it’s a bulldozer. In “The Earth Mover” ’s final section, there’s a scene in which Goodyear rides with Heizer in a 996K Caterpillar loader, “perching on the armrest of the driver’s seat,” as he moves earth (“a specially formulated dirt that looked like turbinado sugar”) and packs it around an eighty-foot-long steel box to form a sculpture called “Compression Line.” Goodyear writes,

A wooden wall with I-beams anchored in concrete was making it hard to back up; there was nowhere to turn around. Heizer smashed his bucket deliberately into an offending beam. Rales stood under a shade tent, watching. “She’s all wired up, thinks I’m going to knock her building over,” he said, and wiggled his fingers at her—“Don’t worry”—then signalled for her to snap a picture. To me, he said, “Wanna see the loader work?” and went at the beam again. He took his hands off the controls like a bronco rider, swaying, and put his fists up—whoop, whoop. I hadn’t seen him happier. Three workers in orange vests looked away.

It’s a great scene – one of many in this excellent piece. And it’s Goodyear’s presence in the cab with Heizer that, for me, makes it extra vivid.

“The Country Restaurant” and “The Earth Mover” are wonderful pieces. I enjoyed them immensely.

Postscript: Other aspects of this week’s issue that I enjoyed: Andrea K. Scott’s description of Agnes Martin’s paintings – “whisper-pale shimmering grids” – in “Art: Fall Preview”; Matthew Trammell’s “Night Life: Fall Preview” (“with electric odes to evening chills and a timbre that clears storm clouds”); Richard Brody’s capsule review of Hell or High Water (“Only Bridges emerges whole; with his typical brilliance, he leaps from the laconic to the rhetorical, making even the shady brim of his hat speak volumes”); the cocktails in Talia Lavin’s “Bar Tab: Pouring Ribbons” [“Complex cocktails arrive in ornate teapots or nestled in tiny chafing dishes: the Painted Veil (Scottish-toffee-pu-ehr-tea-infused Beefeater gin, Hong Kong Baijiu) is a frosted chalice of smoky caramel, while the Snake in the Grass (Tanqueray gin, coconut water, makrut-lime leaf) offers a compelling argument for pairing alcohol with Greek yogurt”]; Christaan Felber’s light-filled “Hao Noodles and Tea by Madame Zhu's Kitchen” photo illustration; Tad Friend’s description of Ben Foster – “his body a grenade, his face the pin” (“Out of Character”); Vinson Cunningham’s “A Darker Presence,” on the National Museum of African American History and Culture (“no one will leave without scores of wide-eyed did-you-know’s to share”); Julie Bruck’s beautiful “Blue Heron, Walking” (“these outsized / apprehenders of grasses and stone, snatchers of mouse and vole, / these mindless magnificents that any time now will trail / their risen bird like useless bits of leather”); and Curtis Sittenfeld’s wickedly good short story, “Gender Studies” (“Their eyes meet—she’s perhaps three per cent less hammered than she was down in the lobby, though still hammered enough not to worry about her drunkenness wearing off anytime soon—and at first he says nothing. Then, so seriously that his words almost incite in her a genuine emotion, he says, 'You’re pretty'"). 

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