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.

Friday, January 27, 2017

January 23, 2017, Issue

The piece in this week’s issue that most absorbed me is John Seabrook’s “My Father’s Cellar,” a memoir of his “drinking career,” starting with his youthful exposure to his father’s fabulous wine collection and ending just recently with therapy aimed at “untangling alcohol from my life.” What’s really being untangled, it seems to me, is Seabrook’s relationship with his snobbish aristocratic father. It’s an ongoing Seabrook project. Nineteen years ago, Seabrook wrote a piece called “My Father’s Closet” (The New Yorker, March 16, 1998) in which he says, “My Father used his clothes to pass along culture to me. I, in turn, used clothes to resist his efforts.” Now, in “My Father’s Cellar,” Seabrook asks, “Just what was my father up to, in introducing me to alcohol?” His answer: “He was passing along something he loved, and, moreover, something we could do together for the rest of his life (and did).” But Seabrook isn’t content with this answer. He asks another question: “Perhaps he was trying to educate a thirteen-year-old in the gentlemanly art of drinking?” In answer to this, he writes,

Possibly, but I doubt it ever occurred to him that his namesake, John, Jr., might have a weakness for alcohol. Alcohol was not about weakness in our family. It was about strength. I understood early on that what was important was not how much you drank but how well you held it.

Seabrook then writes,

My father didn’t anticipate that when it came to alcohol I was not going to be like him. Our house sat atop a Fort Knox of alcohol, and, at least as far as I could tell, he never had one glass more than he should. But for me alcohol offered an escape from control, his and everyone else’s. A glass of wine gave me a kind of confidence I didn’t otherwise feel—the confidence to be me.

The implication is that Seabrook feels he disappointed his father. He may be right. All I know is that, given his elite upbringing, Seabrook could’ve become another William F. Buckley. Instead, miraculously, he emerged a literary journalist in the John McPhee tradition, writing such classic New Yorker reporting pieces as “The Flash of Genius,” “The Fruit Detective,” and “American Scrap.” Who’s to say? If he’d submissively followed his old man’s teachings on how to drink (and dress), he might not be the brilliant writer he is today.

“My Father’s Cellar” brims with memorable passages. My favorite is Seabrook’s description of his father descending the stairs to the wine cellar:

“You can help me pick the wine for tonight,” he said one Saturday afternoon before a dinner party, when I was seven or eight. Thrilled, I followed him down the steep, curving steps that led to the basement. He was dressed in his casual weekend clothes: wide-wale corduroys the color of straw, a pale-yellow dress shirt, beautiful brown ankle boots with pink socks poking out of the tops. He moved carefully on the stairs, gripping the right-hand railing and lowering his foot slowly onto the next step, then stamping down with his heel to make sure it gripped before putting his weight on it. Years before, while riding alone one Sunday morning, he’d been thrown from his horse and landed on an irrigation pipe, cracking his pelvis. The horse had run back to the farm, and the men had gone out looking for my father, not finding him until several hours later, lying in a ditch. That was one of the few stories he told in which he was ever at a disadvantage. It wasn’t heard often.

Comparing “My Father’s Cellar” with “My Father’s Closet,” I find the earlier piece slightly preferable for one specific reason – the scene in the tailor shop:

Later he took me to A-Man Hing Cheong, his Hong Kong tailor, to be “measured up” for a few “country” suits (a glen plaid and a window pane check) and, presumably, many others in the future. (“Big men can wear bolder plaids and more details without appearing to be fairies,” Dad once advised me.)

“Which side?” the tailor asked; he spoke a bit of English. He was kneeling in front of me, pointing at my crotch and waggling his forefinger back and forth.

“He wants to know which side you wear your pecker on,” my father said.

“Yeh yeh, ha ha ha, yar peck-ah!”

Both pieces are terrific – chronicles of Seabrook's resistance to being molded in the image of his highbrow, bespoke-suited, wine-connoisseur father. As he says in “My Father’s Closet,” “My boyhood’s closet was a riot of misplaced anger exhibited towards innocent garments. Inside the little lord’s scrubbed and Etonian exterior there seemed to be a dirt farmer struggling to get out.

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