Sunday, December 17, 2017
Books

Review: 'This Old Man': from writers to Garbo, Roger Angell's way with words

At the age of 95, New Yorker writer and editor Roger Angell has seen an awful lot of changes in New York City. Horses have vanished from the city streets, unless you count the weary carriage horses transporting tourists around Central Park. Gotham's old phone exchanges (BUtterfield 8, BRyant 9) long ago gave way to colorless seven-digit numbers and, more recently, to more unwieldy 11-digit ones. Old Yankee Stadium is gone, and gone, too, is its "Voice of God," Bob Sheppard; and an "original sweetie-pie," Don Zimmer, whose "bald cannonball head and stumpy bod and jack-o'-lantern grin" and "wisdom accrued from tens of thousands of innings" made fans feel connected to baseball's storied and swiftly receding past.

Angell is old enough to have seen the Red Sox go from perennial losers to winners of three world championships in 10 years; old enough to have seen Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play, and young enough to have watched Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter retire.

Certainly Angell is best known for his magical writings on baseball — books (The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Season Ticket) that effortlessly combine a fan's unaccommodated passion for the game with a seasoned scout's unsparing eye.

But as his 2006 memoir, Let Me Finish, attests, he can write with similar ease and charm about anything he turns his attention to. Which, in the case of This Old Man, means profiles, letters, essays, poems about his fox terrier Andy, and reminiscences about family members and New Yorker colleagues — who are often one and the same, given his parentage (his mother, Katharine S. White, was the magazine's longtime fiction editor; his stepfather, the renowned essayist and children's book author E.B. White) and his own six-decade tenure at the magazine.

Angell seems to have channeled the advice White dispensed in his revised edition of The Elements of Style: "Be clear" and "write in a way that comes naturally." His prose is bright and conversational and almost infinitely elastic. He's adept at turning moose sightings on the way to Maine or Garbo encounters in Central Park into anecdotes that read like classic New Yorker casuals, and he's adept at the art of the profile and conveying a sense of his subjects' gifts — be they literary, artistic or athletic.

The title piece of this collection is a spry but elegiac mediation on age and loss and the pileup of memories, and this entire volume has a faintly valedictory air to it, as Angell notes the "bulging directory" of dead relatives, neighbors, classmates and office sidekicks that "elders" like himself accumulate.

There are portraits here of some of Angell's departed heroes, including Donald Barthelme (his sentences "were sky blue — clear and fresh, and free of all previous weathers of writing"); V.S. Pritchett ("his characters tend toward the eccentric; they are all elbows and attitude, and puffed with hysterical self-regard"); and William Steig ("an artist of sunlight," in contrast to Maurice Sendak, "an artist of night").

There are also thoughtful riffs about rereading. With Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Angell says he finds "less sunshine in it each time around," and with Lolita, he wonders how changing times and today's confessional talk shows might have affected the way we regard the book's once shocking story line.

Angell mourns the demise of the printed edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, remembering the delight his 12-year-old self took in perusing his favorite entry, "Ship" (which, he recalls, was an astounding 63 pages long, with 95 photographs), in Volume XXIV ("Sainte-Clair Deville to Shuttle") of the popular and critically acclaimed 11th Edition.

As for how email has changed literary correspondence, he notes that John Updike "was the last New Yorker writer to use the mails" — although he wrote his stories and novels and reviews on a word processor, "he reserved a typewriter for his letters and private postcards."

As a fiction editor at the New Yorker, Angell could be brusque. Rejecting an Ann Beattie story, he wrote: "No one here could recognize these people; they don't seem to have any connection with real life." He was also exacting and attentive — an ardent believer in revision and the art of perfecting. He recalls speaking "voluminously by telephone" with Updike, carefully going over words and sentences: The novelist "wanted to see each galley, each tiny change, right down to the late-closing page proofs, which he often managed to return by overnight mail an hour or so before closing, with new sentences or passages, handwritten in the margins in a soft pencil, that were fresher and more inventive and revealing than what had been there before."

Many of the qualities Angell reveres in the writers he worked with seem to have rubbed off on himself — or, perhaps, he helped nurture those qualities in them. Like V.S. Pritchett, his own "bottomless reading" seems never to have dulled "the eagerness of his mind," or the bounce and velocity of his prose, which, like Updike's, possesses a gravity-defying "lift and lightness and intelligence." Perhaps most of all, Angell — like Updike and White — is a "prime noticer": a sharp-eyed collector of details, gathered over the course of nearly 10 decades and dispensed here, with artistry and elan, in these jottings from a long and writerly life.

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