Thursday, December 14, 2006

It's a helluva town.

I'm in New York this week for work, so my reading is on the subway instead of the L. Some New York notes:

1) I started my trip, on the plane, with the least New York book I had handy, Wendell Berry's new novella, Andy Catlett (2006). Berry is a man of the country and the farm, unimpressed by cities, though he has lived in them at times, and Andy Catlett is in part a lament of everything that I can hear right now through my hotel window, the sounds of post-War America--fueled by petroleum, always on the go, mind always split between here and there, now and the future. It's an elegiac book, despite being written about a nine-year-old boy, and in picking it to bring, I guessed right: its slow cadences put me in the right mood for entering the city.

2) But once I got to my hotel, the Hudson, I had no choice but to leap with both feet into the future that to Berry is of such uncertain value, for the Hudson resembles nothing so much as a vision of tomorrow dreamed up by Wong Kar Wei and Haruki Murakami, with the addition of at least a dollop of Eurotrash. So back to Murakami I went, this time to Norwegian Wood (1987, translated into English in 2000).

And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Norwegian Wood is haunted by a similar sense of loss to that which pervades Andy Catlett. A thirty-seven-year-old man looks back, from 1987, on a love of his 1960s youth:
Each time [that memory] appears, it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. "Wake up," it says. "I'm still here. Wake up and think about it. Think about why I'm still here." The kicking never hurts me. There's no pain at all. Just a hollow sound that echoes with each kick. . . . Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens to be the way I'm made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.
For all that Murakami's books get discussed as weird pageants of contemporary life, icons of postmodernism, the ones I've read have all featured narrators driven by loss, alienated from their past or from the world by people they can't have back, decisions they can't unmake, times they can't recapture. There is a similarity in tone between Murakami and Berry, or Murakami and Anthony Powell, or Proust, that I never expected when I first opened his novels.

3) For weeks, I've been trying to remember the name of a contemporary British author, whose multi-volume family saga has been reviewed favorably, and whose prose style seemed like one I would appreciate. Take this exchange, for example:
"Imagine wanting to talk to someone on the phone," said Eleanor. "I dread it."

"Youth," said Nicholas tolerantly.

"I dreaded it even more in my youth, if that's possible."
Wanting to read this unknown author's collected novels, and knowing what its spine looked like, I'd even gone so far as to quickly look over all the fiction shelves at 57th Street Books in an attempt to circumvent my faulty memory, but to no avail. Then last night, while waiting to meet some friends, I wandered into Three Lives and Company on 10th Street and there it was, stacked high on the front table of staff favorites: Edward St. Aubyn's Some Hope (2003).

When fate gives you such clear instructions to buy a book, you are required to do so, fidelity to your local bookstore and lack of space in your luggage be damned.

4) As a longtime Joseph Mitchell fan, I talked the aforementioned friends into visiting McSorley's Old Ale House last night, and I was pleased that it was all I could have hoped for, abjuring modernity while somehow avoiding the deadly taints of kitsch or irony. The urinals alone--deep, tall, and majestic--made me feel young and insignificant, part of a lesser, fallen generation. We can't even pee like they used to pee.

Then we proceeded to irk our waiter with our frequent indecision in the face of his queries. It was hard to fault him: after all, one's only choices are light or dark, have another round or don't. And again I felt a failure. Joseph Mitchell would have had no trouble deciding. William Maxwell would have had no trouble deciding. Hell, had they allowed women back then, Dorothy Parker would have had no trouble deciding.

A couple of times, our waiter simply decided for us, always in the affirmative, always for the dark, and he was right, of course. We drank what was put in front of us and talked, of, among other topics, baseball, on which subject we were not the only patrons dwelling on this mid-December night. Imagining people talking of Ruth and DiMaggio in their day, just as we talked of Pettite and Giambi, made me feel a bit better about our efforts as patrons.

But my confidence received its largest boost when, as we made our thanks and headed for the door, the waiter chucked me on the elbow and said, "That's a nice suit."

Had I had my proper hat, I would have tipped it to Joseph Mitchell as I left.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I'm sure there were plenty of patrons at McSorley's talking about Ruth or DiMaggio back in the day.

    However, I'm also sure that none of those people were staying at a hotel that boasted of its "chartreuse-lit escalators."