This Old Man: All in Pieces
by Roger Angell (Doubleday, $26.95, 320 pages)
"Good prose is like a windowpane,” George Orwell memorably commented in his 1946 essay, Why I Write. When he singled out that defining characteristic of fine writing, he could have been describing just about anything produced by Roger Angell, longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker and frequent contributor to the magazine. Like Orwell’s ideal, Angell’s prose is a model of clarity and grace, qualities that shine forth in This Old Man, a miscellany of his work of recent decades he calls, with typical self-deprecation, a “dog’s breakfast.”
If anyone could be said to have New Yorker blood flowing through his veins, it’s Angell. The son of Katherine Angell White, the magazine’s fiction editor for 35 years, and stepson of E.B. White, a prolific contributor, Angell shares affectionate profiles of well-known figures, like founder Harold Ross and Angell’s predecessor as fiction editor, William Maxwell. Sprinkled throughout the collection are incisive tributes to admired contributors, like Vladimir Nabokov, V.S. Pritchett and John Updike, he calls “Past Masters,” who could serve as models for the compact literary biography.
An entry that will be particularly amusing to devotees of New Yorker fiction is a 1985 rejection letter to Ann Beattie, who has published enough stories in the magazine to compose a 550-page collection. “No one here could recognize these people; they don’t seem to have any connection with real life,” he wrote when he returned the story. No doubt that rejection pained him more than most of the 20,000 others he estimated he’s dispensed in his long tenure as fiction editor. Still, he concedes in the revealing essay, “Storyville,” in which he takes a stab at debunking the myth of the “New Yorker story” and singles out some of his favorite writers of short fiction (Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison and Updike among them) that “no one can read fiction for thirty-eight years, or thirty-eight weeks, and go on taking pleasure in saying no.”
Readers who have been clinging to a tattered copy of the February 17 and 24, 2014 New Yorker issue for the collection’s title essay, which won Angell the 2015 award for Essays and Criticism from the American Society of Magazine Editors, will be happy to know they can discard it now that the piece appears between these covers. Angell muses, with keen insight, on how it feels to reach his mid-90s with his body and mind about as intact as anyone could hope for in that decade, without minimizing the infirmities of old age or ignoring the “two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head” that is death.
That essay’s fraternal twin, inspired by the loss of his wife of 48 years in 2012, is “Over the Wall.” In it, he observes, “What the dead don’t know piles up, though we don’t notice it at first,” a sharp and moving assessment of what the passage of time truly means.
For a writer who passed the age of AARP eligibility decades ago, Angell sidesteps with typical aplomb the lure of the curmudgeon’s pose. When he glances backward, in pieces like “Dial Again,” which mourns the abandonment of telephone exchanges for all-digit dialing, or “Life and Letters,” lamenting the demise of letter writing (“Losing the mixed pleasures of just-arrived letters may not mean as much in the end as what we’re missing by not writing them”), he’s wistful, not crotchety.
No assemblage of Angell’s writing would be complete without a generous helping of baseball. On that score, This Old Man does not disappoint. He’s been writing about the game for more than 50 years, an output of sustained excellence that earned him the J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2014. In his gracious acceptance speech, he thanks the game itself for being “so familiar and so startling, so spacious and exacting, so easy-looking and so heartbreakingly difficult that it filled up my notebooks and seasons in a rush.”
Angell, a lifelong fan of New York baseball, starting with his childhood allegiance to the Giants in their days at the Polo Grounds, focuses a good bit of his attention on the latter-day struggles of the Yankees, marked by the retirement of two superstars, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. His tribute to the former features a lovely example of his prose, a description of a “dazzling post-summer afternoon” at Yankee Stadium: “The brilliant, reminding light was relentless; it never let us up, enameling the grass at the outset, then producing late-inning gateways of alternate shadow and sun between the mound and home plate that made each pitch flicker in its flight. No, no, you wanted to say: Not so fast. Not yet.”
Words like genteel, wise and witty spring to mind as the pages of this delightful collection roll by. For his admirers who never will experience the pleasure of a few hours in Angell’s company, This Old Man is a delightful substitute.
Email Harvey Freedenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.