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, July 27, 2017

July 24, 2017 Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Danielle Allen’s riveting “personal history” piece, “American Inferno,” an account of her fifteen-year-old cousin’s descent into crime, prison, and eventual death, notwithstanding Allen’s considerable efforts to save him. It’s a powerful blend of elegy, argument, analysis, and anger. It’s also beautifully crafted. Consider the opening paragraph:

What sets the course of a life? Three years before my beloved cousin’s murder—before the weeping, before the raging, before the heated self-recriminations and icy reckonings—I awoke with the most glorious sense of anticipation I’ve ever felt. It was June 29, 2006, the day that Michael was going to be freed. Outside my vacation condo in Hollywood, I climbed into the old white BMW I’d bought from my mother and headed to my aunt’s small stucco home, in South Central. On the corner, a fortified drug house stood like a sentry, but her pale cottage seemed serene, aglow in the morning sun. Poverty never looks quite as bad in the City of Angels as it does elsewhere.

All the key ingredients of Allen’s approach are here: inquiry, tragedy, feeling, specificity. This passage immediately drew me in. I entered Allen’s world – a starkly contrasting place, divided between her own successful life as dean of humanities at the University of Chicago and that of her cousin, Michael, struggling to start over after spending eleven years in prison for attempted carjacking. Michael, age fifteen, was sentenced to eleven years in adult prison. That is the central, sorry, horrific fact of this piece. How could that be? Allen writes,

The narrative so far is familiar. A kid from a troubled home, trapped in poverty, without a stable world of adults coördinating care for him, starts pilfering, mostly out of an impatience to have things. In Michael’s first fourteen years, his story includes not a single incidence of violence, aside from the usual wrestling matches with siblings. It could have had any number of possible endings. But events unfold along a single track. As we make decisions, and decisions are made for us, we shed the lives that might have been. In Michael’s fifteenth year, his life accelerated, like a cylinder in one of those pneumatic tubes, whisking off your deposit at a drive-through bank. To understand how that acceleration could happen, though, another story is needed.

That story is the sad, rotten history of California’s Three Strikes and You’re Out Law, which took discretion out of the judges’ hands and replaced it with harsh mandatory sentencing. Allen says,

The legislators who voted to try as adults sixteen-year-olds, and then fourteen-year-olds, were not interested in retribution. They had become deterrence theorists. They were designing sentences not for people but for a thing: the aggregate level of crime. They wanted to reduce that level, regardless of what constituted justice for any individual involved. The target of Michael’s sentence was not a bright fifteen-year-old boy with a mild proclivity for theft but the thousands of carjackings that occurred in Los Angeles. Deterrence dehumanizes. It directs at the individual the full hatred that society understandably has for an aggregate phenomenon. But no individual should bear that kind of responsibility.

So fifteen-year-old Michael spent the next eleven years of life in prison, including the notoriously tough Chino. What was that like? Allen tells us:

The years between the ages of fifteen and twenty-six are punctuated by familiar milestones: high school, driver’s license, college, first love, first job, first serious relationship, perhaps marriage, possibly a child. For those who pass adolescence in prison, some of these rites disappear; the ones that occur take on a distorted shape. And extra milestones get added. First long-term separation from family. First racial melee. First time in solitary, formally known as “administrative segregation.” First time sodomized.

When, on June 29, 2006, Michael is released from California Rehabilitation Center-Norco, his family, including Allen, is there to meet him. With their support, his chances of successfully restarting his life seem promising. Allen writes,

Driving back to South Central, my mood was all melody. I imagined Michael felt the same. Little more than a month out and here he was, with a driver’s license, a bank account, a library card, and a job. He was enrolled in college, with a clean, safe, comfortable place to live. This was a starter set for a life, enabling him to defy the pattern of parolees.

But Michael has changed. While in prison he’d fallen in love with another inmate, a relationship that continued, unbeknownst to Allen, after they were released from prison. The relationship was violent. It ended in Michael’s murder. He was just twenty-nine. But for Allen’s potent memoir of him, he likely would’ve disappeared into oblivion like most of the other thousands of black youths incarcerated under Three Strikes who went on to violent death. Allen’s “American Inferno” preserves his memory. It’s a magnificent piece.

Postscript: This week’s issue brims with great writing. In addition to Danielle Allen’s extraordinary “American Inferno,” there’s Matthew Trammell’s “Night Life: Past Customs” (“buzzy synths swell into prominence like a takeoff, asymmetrical percussion mimics the metallic dance of landing gear unfolding, and talk-box samples evoke the chorus of voices, automated and analog, that echo through terminal halls”), Talia Lavin’s “Bar Tab: Highlands” (“The Catholic Guilt left a taste of anise on the tongue”), Richard Brody’s capsule review of Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (“he sets the characters into mad motion, alone and together—jogging, dancing, fighting, strolling, embracing—and even the static set pieces, in bars and at dinner tables, have the sculptural authority of frozen ballets”), James Wood’s “Handle With Care,” a review of Joshua Cohen’s new novel Moving Kings (“Style is a patent priority: his fiction displays the stretch marks of its originality”), and Alex Ross’s “Tank Music” (“A moment later, the storm broke. Gusts buffeting the exterior created an apocalyptic bass rumble; lashes of rain sounded like a hundred snare drums. The voices bobbed on the welter of noise, sometimes disappearing into it and sometimes riding above”) – all superb!

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