When I started reviewing books in the mid-1990s, I made no distinction between hardbound and paperback crime/mystery novels.
In fact, I found the general critical consensus on ignoring paperbacks to be elitist and rather offensive. Before I was a critic, I was a reader and, like most fans, I bought paperbacks. Most of the hardbacks I read were ones I took out of the library.
So it made sense, if I was going to do anything of use to readers, to write about the books they might actually buy.
Over time, I found myself gravitating more toward hardcover works, perhaps because many books of interest are first released in that format. My choices of what to review, though, are still determined by subject matter rather than format.
Nonetheless, I find my latest deluge of paperbacks rather problematic.
Here are some quotes from their back covers, the place so many readers go for plot information before they make a purchase:
• “As Garden View Cemetery’s new community relations manager, Pepper is feeling overwhelmed with planning the annual party to attract new sponsors. Luckily, some of the cemetery’s permanent residents have volunteered to give Pepper a helping hand.”
• “Darcy Merriweather is Salem, Massachusetts’ newest resident Wishcrafter -- a witch who can grant wishes for others.”
• “Sarah Dearly is adjusting to life as a fledging vampire, satisfying her cravings at vampire-friendly blood banks.”
• “Practical psychologist Liz Cooper and occult professor Nick Garfield may make something of an odd couple, but things get even more odd when they attempt to solve a mystery while sidetracking a hex from a Santeria witch.”
• “Before Kath can begin to clear [her late grandmother’s] name, she encounters a looming presence in the form of a gloomy ghost.”
• “Meanwhile, Skye is convinced that her house is haunted and is afraid that her fiancé, police chief Wally Boyd, won’t move in until the ghost moves out.”
Do you see a pattern here?
These days it seems a traditional plucky heroine must dabble, to a greater or lesser degree, in the occult.
I understand that paranormal is in these days. I find myself hoping that, as with other fads, if I sit back quietly and bide my time, its day will pass.
I have no problem with the plucky amateur heroine subgenre per se: A young woman is thrust into circumstances beyond her control, and she must solve a murder. These books have sometimes offered a welcome change from the crusty old private-eye stories, in which the protagonist kept a bottle, or three, in his desk, and women were secretaries and/or sex objects.
Of course, even this subgenre has its clichés. Many of the P.I.s of yore were old, but at least as many of the plucky heroines are young.
There are other conventions in these stories as well. Even if they don’t include ghosts, vampires or whatnot, they often require the plucky heroine to move to a smaller town or city, perhaps her hometown of Nowheresville, or sometimes to the hometown of a relative, often an aunt, whose business needs help.
And an awful lot of those businesses are food-related. These women are caterers, bakers, restaurant owners or food critics. Now, I’m as hungry as the next person, but I’d sure like to see some of these women get out of the kitchen. Maybe the next plucky amateur’s aunt could have a hardware store or something ...
The other cliché set-up for so many paperback mysteries these days involves what I would call pets, though some authors see them simply as detectives under veterinary care. For example, one of my new arrivals described its plot this way: “My two cats, Rupert and Isabella, and I have better things to do than tail a reptile from Nob Hill to Fisherman’s Wharf.”
And really, I have better things to do than read about anthropomorphized animals.
Leaving books to descendents upon one’s death is no big deal. But as The Wall Street Journal points out, it’s a trickier legal matter -- at least for the time being -- to hand down e-books:
Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.
And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”
Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files -- but they don’t actually own them.
“The financial connection,” explains the Los Angeles Times, “was between Romney's great-grandfather Miles P. Romney and Freeman’s great-grandfather William Jordan Flake,” both of whom were Mormon polygamists, living in northern Arizona in the 1880s. After Arizona marshals arrested the two men for their plural marriages, Flake -- the better respected and more prosperous of the pair -- “posted bail for both of them: $1,000 each.” But afterwards, Freeman says, Romney “skipped out on his bail, fleeing across the border into Mexico with his three wives,” and leaving his debt to Flake unpaid.
Freeeman “calculates that the $1,000 would translate to about $25,000 in 2012 dollars.”
The Mars Curiosity landing site will now be called Bradbury Landing in honor of science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, NASA announced Wednesday.
The naming was part of a NASA briefing about the Curiosity Rover’s progress. Curiosity’s Twitter feed shared the news with a photo, saying: “In tribute, I dedicate my landing spot on Mars to you, Ray Bradbury. Greetings from Bradbury Landing!”
Although Curiosity successfully landed on Mars on Aug. 6, NASA officials waited to announce the name of the site. That’s because Aug. 22 would have been Bradbury’s 92nd birthday. During Wednesday’s briefing, Michael Meyer, NASA’s lead scientists for the Mars Exploration Program said, “In his honor, we declared the place that Curiosity touched down to be forever known as Bradbury Landing,” the Washington Post reports.
One of Bradbury’s most famous works was his collection of linked stories, “The Martian Chronicles.” An imaginative visionary, Bradbury had worked as a consultant with NASA (and also with Disney).
(Editor’s note: This is the second and concluding installment of Matthew Fleagle’s remembrance of author and New Yorker magazine writer Joseph Mitchell. Part I can be found here.)
Joseph Mitchell and his elder daughter, Nora, in the 1940s. (Photograph by Therese Jacobsen Mitchell, used courtesy of Elizabeth Mitchell and Nora Mitchell Sanborn.)
Joseph Mitchell’s writing evolved over the course of his career at The New Yorker, which is presented in Up in the Old Hotel pretty much as it unfolded. More than half of that anthology is taken up by the book McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, which is his most famous book, though few scholars would call it his best. In McSorley’s Mitchell wrote mostly about oddballs or unusual places or events for their own sake. You don’t get the sense in these early stories, as you do later on in Old Mr. Flood and The Bottom of the Harbor, that Mitchell was picking his subjects for what they represented about disappearing traditions or forgotten lore. Or at least, if there was something of what Noel Perrin calls an “elegiac” aspect about his early subjects, Mitchell wasn’t emphasizing it. You do get a strong sense that he had a genuine regard for people who in the face of an apathetic world, or a hostile world, or even a world changing around them, grabbed hold of life with both hands and squeezed everything they could out of it. He let them speak for themselves and he didn’t judge them.
The most famous of those people (famous after Mitchell wrote about him, that is, since Mitchell had no interest in celebrities), and one who spoke volubly for himself, was Joseph Ferdinand Gould (1889-1957).
Joe Gould was a Harvard drop-out, a homeless, seldom-washed Bohemian who claimed to be able to speak the language of sea gulls and trawled the streets of Greenwich Village looking for friends to hit up for “contributions” toward the finishing of his opus, a closely guarded manuscript he claimed was already nine million words long, “eleven times as long as the Bible,” a book he called An Oral History of Our Time. The opposite of “formal” histories of generals and politicians and kings, which Gould considered “largely false,” the Oral History would be what he termed “the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude.” It contained things that everyday people said to each other. In Mitchell’s words, it was “a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle, and malarkey.” Gould believed that what regular people said every day was a truer history, and it has been pointed out by many observers that this is a belief that might have been voiced by Mitchell himself, that in fact Mitchell’s writing was that very credo put into practice. If Gould had not been verifiably real (an essay and a poem or two by Gould were actually published, Malcolm Cowley and William Saroyan admired him, and E.E. Cummings was Gould’s close friend and wrote a poem about him that began, “little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn't know where to find them”), you might be tempted to think Mitchell made him up because he was such a good idea, such a great vehicle for Mitchell’s own themes. Mitchell first profiled Gould in 1942 in a New Yorker story called “Professor Sea Gull.”
Gould is also the subject of Mitchell’s last published piece, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” which appeared as a two-part profile in The New Yorker in 1964 and as a book of that same name the next year. In this second profile of Gould, which he waited to write until after his subject had passed away in 1957, Mitchell reveals what he himself only learned some years after profiling Gould the first time: that despite all of Gould’s talk about the Oral History--how he kept parts of it stashed in friends’ apartments all over town, for example--not a single word of it had ever been written down. This was a shock to Mitchell, who felt betrayed and, from a journalistic standpoint, guilty of being an accessory to a big lie. But he didn’t have the heart to expose the already humble Gould while the man lived, and he wrestled with his conscience as to whether to disclose the secret at all.
(Left) Joe Gould, aka “Professor Sea Gull,” in a photo from a 1947 edition of Collier’s magazine.
The story line of Joe Gould’s Secret follows Mitchell’s growing suspicion over the years that Gould has never written down a word of his now famous Oral History, a confrontation between author and subject in which Mitchell accuses Gould of deception and laziness, the subsequent fall-out in the relationship between the two men, and a comparison of Gould’s unwritten masterpiece with a semi-autobiographical novel that Mitchell himself had carried around in his own head for decades and never committed to paper. That novel, whose storyline Mitchell unfurls in startling depth, is about a southerner who comes to New York City, has a crisis of faith and finds a kind of redemption, or more accurately a release, in the words of a black Harlem preacher. The synopsis is so thorough, interrupting the story of Gould for more than two full pages, that it becomes instantly clear that Mitchell is divesting himself of the option to ever write the story down in full. It’s a moment in Joe Gould’s Secret that reaches out of the book into real life, like a bomb in a painting exploding and destroying the room it hangs in. Given that this was the last new article Mitchell ever published, the implications of this passage are enormous. We become unable, as Mitchell did, to see a difference between the drunkard Gould and “normal” or “decent” people. The thought that any of us is just a change of clothes and a missed bath away from being Joe Gould is a horror that Mitchell’s “narrator-I” (if not his “author-I”) must confront.
The fact that the book has such a thunderous dramatic pulse was unprecedented in Mitchell’s work for The New Yorker to that point, and it makes for a different kind of story. Gould’s portrait is painted more fully here, for one thing; he comes across as much less charming than he appeared in Mitchell’s initial, 1942 article about him, even taking on a disgusting cast. For another, Mitchell actually struggles visibly as a character in the piece. And for a third, it’s uncomfortable; Gould’s antics and posturing amounts to daring the civilized world to look at his reactionary, exuberantly indecorous existence, and when Mitchell does so, he falls into Gould’s life and can’t get out, discovering that it is his own.
The opening of Joe Gould’s Secret, in which Mitchell (played by Stanley Tucci) meets the eccentric Mr. Gould (Ian Holm).
I’ve been surprised to learn that many Mitchell scholars regard Joe Gould’s Secret to be a step down from The Bottom of the Harbor and even from Old Mr. Flood. I know what they mean in terms of the craft--it seems less controlled, more emotional, not as subtle or nimble--but I would argue that Joe Gould’s Secret is the logical outcome of what Mitchell was doing all along. He wrote about other people and used their stories to express his own appetites and sorrows and enthusiasms, however discreetly. Joe Gould was the subject that turned on Mitchell, a tar baby that he couldn’t escape because, as he said, “Gould became me.” Joe Gould’s Secret is brilliant in a kind of accidental way, as though the author of a book got trapped inside it. As a story, it is hugely compelling and unlike anything else. It was compelling enough that the actor and director Stanley Tucci made a movie out of it in 2000 starring Ian Holm as Gould and himself as the southern-born writer.
The Bottom of the Harbor is generally regarded as Mitchell’s masterwork. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” and “The Rivermen” are two stories from that collection often cited as examples of how Mitchell somehow removed “the marks of writing from the page,” as Calvin Trillin put it. These stories feel effortless, as though all Mitchell did was type them up. He often appears to be merely serving as a conduit for the monologues of other people in these pieces, although the details of both the monologues and the narrative suggest worlds beyond the bare facts and events. The filtration process is often invisible on the first read-through, but in the subsequent readings in which Mitchell fans often indulge, you can begin to see another, subtler narrative in his choices of what to include. A pages-long quote by 87-year-old George H. Hunter about the black families who founded his little Staten Island community, one of the longest monologues in Mitchell’s oeuvre, is interrupted only by two short sentences in which the old man swats and kills a fly that has been hanging around. Then he continues talking where he left off. This is the Mitchell graveyard humor in spades, and you can imagine him chuckling about it as he writes. The fly reminds us of the death and decay that we can’t escape. But you can still make comedy of it, and in Mitchell’s worldview, you must.
Dan Frank, who was an editor of non-fiction at publisher Pantheon in 1992 and is now its editor in chief--and for whom the publication of Up in the Old Hotel “remains certainly one of the highlights of my publishing life”--told me during a recent phone call that Mitchell took 400 pages of handwritten notes for “Mr. Hunter’s Grave.” ”Those notes represented maybe 50 trips out there [to Staten Island]. He had enough notes for a book-length story.” The fact that Mitchell presents the story as having occurred over just two days doesn’t bother Frank any more than does the reconstruction and splicing-together of quotes that Mitchell must obviously have done in an age before handheld recording devices. “What you’re sure of,” I was glad to hear Frank say, “is that they said these things.”
Mitchell said he’d always been pretty pleased with “Mr. Hunter’s Grave.” “I just stumbled on that story,” he told an interviewer with The New York Times in 1992. “When someone’s willing to talk, you can let it lead wherever.” “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is my own favorite Mitchell story, and The Bottom of the Harbor is my favorite collection of this author’s works. It contains the stories “Up in the Old Hotel” and “The Bottom of the Harbor,” two pieces that are ostensibly about an old building and the Hudson’s riverbed, respectively, but are really about the things that lie unremembered in dark places and the fact that nothing lasts. Death haunts all of the stories in The Bottom of the Harbor. In the first paragraph of “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” are these lines:
When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there. … Invariably, for some reason I don’t know and don’t want to know, after I have spent an hour or so in one of these cemeteries, looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite cheerful, and then I go for a long walk.
* * *
It’s been suggested that editor Harold Ross hoped to capitalize on Mitchell’s prodigious output when The New Yorker imported him from the dailies, but if that’s true then he was soon to be disappointed. Mitchell immediately slowed down and started taking his time. (It might be worth noting that Mitchell did not include in McSorley’s any of the stories he wrote for The New Yorker before joining the magazine as a staff writer.) And the interval between his published pieces began to grow from weeks to months and then from months to years. The six stories collected in The Bottom of the Harbor were spread out over 15 years, from 1944 to 1959, during which period Mitchell published only four other stories.
After “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, he published nothing new at all. He continued to go to work at the magazine every day when he was in New York (he spent a lot of time in Fairmont, especially after his parents died and he became holder of the deed of title to the family farm), and he clacked away on the typewriter in his little office located off what came to be called Sleepy Hollow--a quiet hallway in The New Yorker’s offices away from the main bustle--and once someone reported that he had a manuscript laid out all over the room. But the years went by and the work never emerged. None of his fellow writers asked him what he was doing. The culture at The New Yorker respected the sanctity of each writer’s process and even envied those who suffered longest over their work.
Every article you read about Mitchell will give you a different reason for his years-long silence. He was bereft at the loss of his friend A.J. Liebling in 1963 and his mother around the time of the second Gould piece. The business with Gould wounded him and wore him out. He was suddenly worried that his next piece would not live up to the reputation of his earlier work. He was unwilling to use people for his own gain anymore. The city changed on him. Most of these things he acknowledged himself, and there is much to ponder in this passage from “Joe Gould’s Secret”:
Suppose he had written the Oral History, I reflected; it probably wouldn’t have been the great book he had gone up and down the highways and byways prophesying it would be at all--great books, even halfway great books, even good books, even halfway good books, being so exceedingly rare. It probably would have been, at best, only a curiosity. A few years after it came out, copies of it would have choked the “Curiosa” shelves in every second-hand bookstore in the country. Anyway, I decided, if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was books. When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagaras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at that moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn’t written it. One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstores to homes to second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes to still other second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes ad infinitum.
Nevertheless, Mitchell was writing right up until the end of his life, and for me it is enough to imagine that this perfectionist, who had been in a sense spoiled by the total absence of deadlines since before the Second World War, was just taking his own sweet time, and he took it all the way.
Mitchell said in a 1989 interview that “I have continued working on a book, and one of these days if I am not terminally interrupted, I hope to finish it.” Among the interruptions were the numerous organizations and associations he became involved in during his last few decades. Mitchell was appointed by Mayor Ed Koch to the New York Landmarks Commission, a post he held for five years. He helped charter the South Street Seaport Museum. He served as vice president and secretary of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was vestryman for Grace Church in Manhattan, and according to Raymond J. Rundus’ thoroughly researched bibliography, Joseph Mitchell: A Reader’s and Writer’s Guide (2003), the Society of Architectural Historians and the Society of Industrial Archaeology and the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture and the British Gypsy-Lore Society and the Century Club of New York City all claimed portions of Mitchell’s time.
Even though he spent his whole adult life discovering New York City, Mitchell remained attached to the people and the land of Robeson County, North Carolina. Here he hoses down some local produce. (Photograph by Therese Jacobsen Mitchell, used courtesy of Elizabeth Mitchell and Nora Mitchell Sanborn.)
Nora Sanborn told me she’d recently gone to an event called “Joseph Mitchell’s Harbor,” a celebration of her father’s contributions, literary and otherwise, to the South Street Seaport, which was the location of Fulton Fish Market that Mitchell was so attached to. The panel was headed by the architect James Sanders and included the writers Luc Santé, Mark Kurlansky, Nathan Ward and Robert Sullivan. Sanborn said that when the panel was discussing what they thought Mitchell would have said about how access to Manhattan’s riverfront is gradually becoming a commodity for the new gentry--the upper classes can jog and ride bikes from the Battery to Fort Washington--while the poor and working classes can’t get near it, Sanborn raised her hand and said, “Well, I’m Joseph Mitchell’s daughter and I’ll tell you exactly what he would have said about it. He would have said ‘the g-- d-- sons of bitches.’” Sanborn told me that that was one of her father’s favorite phrases, and that it was his wonted response to pretension.
When she mentioned Sullivan’s name, I got excited. In my mind Sullivan, a Brooklyn-born New York writer and historian (he penned the acclaimed bestseller Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants and has a new book, My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78, coming out in September), is one of Mitchell’s literary heirs. The fact that he was on that panel supported my suspicion that he was a Mitchell fan.
I managed to get Sullivan on the phone and he corroborated Sanborn’s story. The appearance of Mitchell’s daughter among the seated attendees startled him; it was only the second time he’s spoken publicly about Joseph Mitchell and it’s the second time he’s had one of the author’s descendants turn up in the audience (last time it was a grandchild, which makes him worry that “you know, if you do the math, the next time Mitchell himself might appear”). Sullivan’s father had a printer’s shop down by Fulton Fish Market and knew the kind of people Mitchell wrote about (his father ate at Sloppy Louie’s, the setting for the story “Up in the Old Hotel”) and he was only too happy to talk with me about Mitchell. He spoke at length about how fascinated he was to discover Mitchell’s writing with its connection to his own father’s life, and we digressed happily into a conversation about how the printing trade and the shipping industry have always gone hand in hand (something that hadn’t occurred to me). But the thing he said that stuck out most for me was a remark tying Mitchell’s literary legacy with the work he did for all these groups later in his life.
“What you see in preservation movements these days,” said Sullivan, “is that the goal is not just restoring the structure--the physical building--but also the use of the building. And you can’t restore the use of a building if you don’t know how it was used. One of the things Joseph Mitchell did in his writing that is so important is that he showed us, in a very practical way, what the uses of these places were that he wrote about. You hear the word ‘folkways’ a lot now, and you could apply it here. We have used our harbor, we have used the river and this geography in certain ways, and Mitchell has captured those folkways for us, he’s preserved that knowledge of our use of places.”
* * *
Mitchell died in Manhattan on May 24, 1996, just long enough after the publication of his omnibus to see that it had done very well. He chose to be buried in a family plot back in Fairmont. Fortunately for all lovers of good writing and the folkways of New York and the Hudson River, Up in the Old Hotel is still in print in the Vintage paperback edition, and Vintage UK--a Random House sibling--released a British paperback version on July 5 of this year.
By the way, the anthology almost didn’t happen.
Mitchell had not allowed reprints of any of his books and he was reluctant even when the project was underway, according to Pantheon editor Frank. I’d called Frank to find out if he could tell me anything about why Mitchell had not wanted his books reprinted, and why he finally changed his mind, and how it all worked out.
“The anthology was very much his idea,” said Frank, “but it wasn’t a priority. During the time his wife was ill his life became more about taking care of her and so he wasn’t really thinking much about his past work. And there was a shyness about Joe. He didn’t want to be the focus of attention. It was Sheila McGrath, his companion during his last years, who convinced him to go ahead. I wasn’t privy to those conversations, but I understand that she told him, ‘Look, there are new generations of people who don’t know your work. Your writing needs to be available for them.’
“One of the reasons he was reluctant to have his work reprinted,” Frank added, “was that he felt people would ask the question, ‘What have you been working on since those early works?’ And that was a very uncomfortable question for him. In his mind he had never stopped writing, but he wasn’t satisfied with the work he was doing. Also, he felt there was a continuity to his work. Publishers had approached him over the years about doing just one of his books, and he wasn’t interested in that. He was close friends with another writer there at The New Yorker named Joseph Liebling [A.J. Liebling], who died in 1963. And he saw what happened, how various publishers would come out with one of Liebling’s books and it would be available in hardback for a short time and then in paperback, and then it would be out of print. That didn’t seem very satisfactory to him. He didn’t want that.”
I asked Frank whether Mitchell, or he himself, had worried that no one would remember Mitchell, and whether he recalled marketing Up in the Old Hotel in any particular way. “Publishing a book of previous work by an author who has fallen into some obscurity is a dicey proposition,” Frank admitted. “What we tried to suggest to people was that if you like reading John McPhee or Calvin Trillin, here’s the man who came before them.” (With regard to the self-proclaimed New Journalists, McPhee is reported to have said that Joseph Mitchell was creating artistic material through factual writing “when Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote were still in knee pants.”)
Frank told me that Pantheon did a first run of 8,000 to 9,000 copies of Up in the Old Hotel in hardback and sold 4,000 to 5,000 of them to bookshops right away. He said they did six or seven printings and eventually sold 35,000 hardcover copies. The book was released the second week of August, 1992, and reached the New York Times Best Sellers List on September 20 at spot number 12, which pretty much put “paid” to any doubts about whether Joseph Mitchell still had a place in the hearts of readers.
I asked whether Mitchell was pleased, and I imagined I could hear Frank’s smile suddenly widen.
(Editor’s note: This is the opening installment of a two-part feature looking back at the career of Joseph Mitchell, a renowned staff writer for The New Yorker, two decades after the release of his last collection of essays. The author of this piece is Matthew Fleagle, a technical writer at a small software company in Seattle, Washington. In a previous life, Fleagle contributed frequently to newspapers and magazines, but he explains that “This is the first article I’ve written specifically for publication in a dozen years.”)
Journalist-author Joseph Mitchell in 1959
Scott’s Bookstore was an independent shop that occupied 5,000 square feet of an old mill and granary built in 1907 in Mount Vernon, Washington, about an hour and a half north of Seattle. Before we had children, my wife and I used to drive up there on lazy Sundays and have brunch at the Calico Cupboard, a restaurant that occupied the rest of the building, and then we’d spend a long while browsing the books in Scott’s, which always seemed to be more interesting than those in the big chain stores. I hear Scott’s is gone now, but I haven’t been up there to look. The thought makes me too sad.
In addition to the fond memories I hold of less-hectic days with my wife, there is another reason why Scott’s Bookstore will always occupy a place of honor in my mind and heart.
It was there on one of those trips north that I came across the writing of Joseph Mitchell for the first time. His book was on a table near the entrance with other books the staff had written recommendations for by hand on vanilla-colored card stock. Whoever chose that book for the table, I’ll thank them forever. Thumbing through it I found this passage from a story called “Hit on the Head With a Cow,” in which Charles Eugene Cassell, “a relentless and indiscriminate collector” who runs Captain Charley’s Private Museum for Intelligent People in a Harlem tenement basement, speaks to Mitchell while looking for something he’s mislaid:
“Look at this lunch bucket,” he said. “Use to belong to Al Smith when he was in Fulton Fish Market. Never used such a common thing myself. Always had money, never broke; had the chicken pox, had the sleeping sickness, had the dropsy, had the yellow johnnies, had the walking, talking pneumonia. Didn’t miss a thing in the medical line. My old man was a big man with shoulders like a mule, born on a farm in Nova Scotia, lived most of his life in Boston. He was born in a barn. When he went in a place he always left the door wide open. People would yell at him, ‘Shut the door! Were you born in a barn?’ and he’d say, ‘That’s right. How’d you guess it?’ He was biggity as sin. What you call a beachcomber. He did odd jobs on the fish docks, and he fed us on fish until the bones stuck out of our ears. Comb my hair in the morning, I’d comb out a handful of bones. It got so my stomach rose and fell with the tide. Fish, fish! I was almost grown before I found out people ate anything else.”
I had never heard of Joseph Mitchell before, although I should have. Mitchell left the rural swampland of North Carolina’s coastal plains in 1929 and came to the most urbanized spot in the world, documented the last remnants of 19th-century New York City in a new kind of reportage that astounded readers, continued to astound readers during a long and celebrated career as a staff writer at the world’s most pre-eminent city magazine, then stopped publishing at the peak of his craft and vanished from the public consciousness, never to publish another article. His silence became legendary. For decades Mitchell refused to allow the five books in which he had collected his stories to be reprinted, and people who wanted to read them had to root around for them in used book stores. His paper trail virtually disappeared.
Many readers of The New Yorker who had eagerly awaited each new Mitchell piece assumed after many years of his silence that he was dead, even though Mitchell continued to show up at his office for 30 years after the publication of his last article and was known to be working continually and determinedly on something big. Some of his younger colleagues at the magazine knew little of the older gentleman who always wore the Brooks Brothers suit and a fedora and kept a tidy office, until someone would hand them a hard-won copy of one of Mitchell’s out-of-print books and say “read the master.”
It was therefore a startlement to many of Mitchell’s old fans and an eye-opening discovery for new ones when in 1992--20 years ago this month--four of Mitchell’s books were reprinted in an omnibus edition called Up in the Old Hotel. The four books are McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943), Old Mr. Flood (1948), The Bottom of the Harbor (1960) and Joe Gould’s Secret (1965). (A 1938 collection of features from his early days as a newspaper reporter, My Ears Are Bent, was excluded.) All of the stories in the four books represented in Up in the Old Hotel were originally published in The New Yorker.
Up in the Old Hotel is an anthology of profiles and other articles Mitchell wrote for the magazine from 1938 to 1964 and it’s the last book he published before he died in 1996. Within its 700-plus pages are 37 stories about, among other things, street preachers, fishermen, clammers, restaurateurs, bums and lunatics, bartenders, a bearded lady and the Mohawk Indians who worked untethered at the tops of skyscrapers being constructed in Manhattan. The stories paint a picture--a pathetic one in the truest sense of the word--of the city’s human heart, or one corner of it anyway. Mitchell sought out people and places that few other writers were paying any attention to. Not only were his subjects unusual for journalistic reportage at that time--everyone but the rich, famous and powerful--but he wrote about them in a style that foreshadowed the New Journalists by decades and that was never successfully appropriated by them.
Mitchell was known for his Olympian powers of observation and attention to detail, and for the dark sense of humor that drew him to the subjects he wrote about. “In going over these stories,” Mitchell explained in the introduction to Up in the Old Hotel, “I was surprised and pleased to see how often a kind of humor that I can only call graveyard humor turned up in them. In some of them it is what the story is all about. In some of them it lurks around in the background or in between the lines. It turns up often in the conversations between me and the people I interviewed, or in the parts of the conversations that I chose to quote. I was pleased to discover this because graveyard humor is an exemplification of the way I look at the world. It typifies my cast of mind.”
* * *
Joseph Quincy Mitchell was born on his grandparents’ farm at a place called Iona, North Carolina, in 1908 and grew up in nearby Fairmont, a tobacco market town. Mitchell’s ancestors on both sides, he said in the same introduction, had been farmers in that region since before the Revolutionary War. His father grew and traded tobacco, and when he wasn’t tagging along with his aunts Annie and Mary on trips to the Iona Cemetery (where he was tutored in their graveyard humor), Mitchell spent hours and hours at the tobacco market listening to his father and other men conduct business. Although the energy of the market thrilled him, he chose not to follow his father into the business, instead traveling to New York with the hope of becoming a political writer. He’d attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and written for the Chapel Hill Weekly and the Daily Tar Heel, and on the strength of a single article about the tobacco industry in Robeson County, which he sent unsolicited to the New York Herald Tribune and which that paper published in the summer of 1929, an editor there invited him to Manhattan and helped him find a job at the then-fading New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s old paper.
Mitchell later wrote that he spent “eight long sorrowful years as a reporter” for newspapers in New York City, first phoning in to a rewrite man the details of a “murder, or stick-up, or wreck, or brawl, or fire, or whatever,” and eventually composing feature stories. His adventures on the daily broadsheets are the stuff of his first book, My Ears Are Bent. Mitchell wrote his first signed piece for The New Yorker in 1933, “They Got Married in Elkton,” a piece about two reverends in a New Jersey town who competed in a booming marriage industry. He came on staff in 1938, hired along with Abbott Joseph (“A.J.”) Liebling by St. Clair McKelway, who had been charged by the magazine’s creator, Harold Ross, with the task of building a stable of feature writers with reporters’ chops.
(Left) Mitchell debuted in the November 11, 1933, edition of The New Yorker.
Liebling and Mitchell, the two Joe’s, became close, lifelong friends. They often went out for lunch together at a place called the Red Devil near The New Yorker’s offices and ate seafood. They had much in common, but could not have been more different as writers. Mitchell was reserved and quiet, never showing his work before it was finished and never seeking to draw attention to himself or his writing. He wrote simple sentences that were complex in shade but not in grammar. Liebling was a big-bellied, happy gourmand who wrote Baroque sentences and enjoyed his own turns of phrase so much that after setting himself a-chuckle with something he’d just typed, he would yank it unfinished from the typewriter, run down the hall to Mitchell’s office and make his friend listen to it.
By this time, Mitchell had discovered Fulton Fish Market, a bustling trading center that opened in The Bronx in 1822, more than 100 years before Mitchell arrived in the city. It reminded him of the tobacco market back home and became a touchstone for him in a city that too often trampled people and history in its mad rush toward the future. The market was a crossroads of real people doing real work--venerable, honest work--as well as real sounds and smells. Mitchell begins the story “Up in the Old Hotel” (the anthology’s title track, as it were) this way:
Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me.
Mitchell settled into life in the city. He married a photographer, Therese Dagny Jacobsen, and with her raised two daughters in the city, Nora and Elizabeth. But he never stopped returning to Fairmont (he held the title to the family farm until he died), and he never stopped feeling that he didn’t really quite fit in in either place. His father, Averette Nance Mitchell, never thought much of Mitchell’s journalism career, at one time asking him, “Son, is that the best you can do, sticking your nose in other people’s business?”
Mitchell just couldn’t stay away from graveyards. Here he takes notes from headstones--possibly those of his ancestors--in a cemetery in Iona, near Fairmont, North Carolina. (Photograph by Therese Jacobsen Mitchell, used courtesy of Elizabeth Mitchell and Nora Mitchell Sanborn.)
Mitchell’s father came up in conversation when I finally got ahold of the writer’s daughter Nora, whose last name is now Sanborn, on the phone. “He was a hard man,“ she said of her grandfather. “You couldn’t live up to what he expected.”
I had tracked down Sanborn, a retired probation officer, now 72 years old, to see if she’d talk with me. Even if just briefly. I knew she’d had an art gallery some years ago in Keyport, New Jersey, where she still lives, and that one of her first exhibits was a collection of images taken by her photographer mother accompanied by passages from her father’s writings.
After a number of e-mail exchanges Sanborn agreed to speak with me on the phone, and she eventually sent me some snapshots of her father, also taken by her mother. Sanborn told me that Mitchell was “undone” by his wife’s demise in 1980 after a long illness.
“He never got over my mother’s death,” she says. “They had a wonderful, long marriage and he was lost without her.”
Mitchell never married again, but a woman named Sheila McGrath, who worked at The New Yorker and whom he had known for years, became a friend and companion, and ultimately the executor of the author’s estate. McGrath never responded to a letter I wrote her in February of this year, asking her for help in writing this article, and Sanborn says she has also not responded to requests from Nora and her eight-years-younger sister, Elizabeth, who lives in Atlanta, to be granted access to their father’s papers, of which Sanborn says there are “oceans” in storage.
(Right) A.J. Liebling
“He had reams of notes about all kinds of things,” Sanborn says. “In his breast pocket he kept a sheet of the yellowish paper that all the New Yorker reporters used. It was unlined. He had a sheet of it folded once vertically and then once horizontally, so it formed a rectangle, and he took one of those wherever he went, for note-taking. He didn’t have a typewriter at home. He would take his notes to the office and type them up so they were neat.”
Sanborn says her father was “pretty canonical. He left for the office at nine and was home at six. That’s why church bells are so sad to me. We lived on Tenth Street between Fifth and Sixth. The Church of the Ascension was on the corner. I would hear his keys in the door and that was the same time the church bells rang on the corner. Whenever I hear church bells I miss him and they make me sad. I can’t stand hearing them.”
* * *
Joseph Mitchell’s reputation as one of the best chroniclers of life along the Hudson River in the first half of the 20th century--if not one of America’s greatest journalists ever--is so uniform among his colleagues, his reviewers and literary historians that after a while it becomes a little disorienting to read about him.
Consider the superlatives: as early as 1943 Malcolm Cowley said that “in his own somewhat narrow field, which is that of depicting curious characters, Joseph Mitchell is the best reporter in the country”; in 1965, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman called him “the paragon of reporters”; the scholar Noel Perrin considered two of the stories in Mitchell’s collection The Bottom of the Harbor “the best reporting I have ever read”; to his colleagues at The New Yorker Brendan Gill, Calvin Trillin and Alec Wilkinson, respectively, Mitchell was “the finest writer on The New Yorker,” “the New Yorker reporter who set the standard” and “the great artist/reporter of our century”; the author and critic William Zinsser saidthat The Bottom of the Harbor was “perfect--one of the best of all American nonfiction books.”
All that while he yet breathed. After his death another New Yorker staff writer, Lillian Ross, referred matter-of-factly to Mitchell as having been “the greatest living reporter”; John Keenan reckoned he was “the finest staff writer in the history of the magazine, and one of the greatest journalists America has produced”; and in describing his influence at the magazine where Mitchell was a staff writer for nearly six decades, colleague and writer Charles McGrath, who’s now at The New York Times, said, “his reportage became the measure for those who followed him there.” McGrath (no relation to Sheila McGrath) also said, “if Joseph Mitchell wasn’t the single best writer who ever appeared in The New Yorker, then it was a tie between him and E.B. White.”
Now consider this: I live in a big city full of alert, well-read people, yet aside from booksellers and longtime subscribers to The New Yorker I have never met a single person who has ever heard of Joseph Mitchell.
Could it be that an author most people have never even heard of is truly worthy of so many bests and finests and greatests and standards and measures? Well, some might say, the majority of the people quoted above are or were, like Mitchell, writers for The New Yorker and the sort of people who would pick someone obscure to make their hero. But few reviewers I’ve ever read take the slightest issue with any of these encomia*, a fact that might seem strange to someone who had only encountered the accolades and never the writer’s work. And Mitchell wasn’t always obscure. Old-time readers of The New Yorker eagerly awaited each new piece to roll off of the platen of his typewriter, and before he joined The New Yorker staff his stories in the daily newspapers where he cut his reporter’s teeth were so popular that ads touting the latest Mitchell feature adorned the sides of the papers’ delivery vans. People knew who Joseph Mitchell was throughout the second third of the last century.
All of this might make the uninitiated suspect that Mitchell’s writing casts some kind of a whammy over people’s critical faculties when they are lucky enough or foolish enough to dust off his work and peer into it. Well, don’t look at me for a dissenting opinion about the man, or even a balanced one.
I am fully under the Joseph Mitchell spell.
* * *
Up in the Old Hotel found me the way a rescued puppy finds a new owner in an animal shelter. It caught my attention and when I regarded it, it beckoned to me in a deep and irresistible way. What drew me first was the cover, which depicted part of the façade of an old brick building, each of its eight visible windows occupying a unique state of dilapidation, each crooked and flaking sash catching sunlight and shadow in its own way, some with graying half-pulled shades behind them, some with three lights, some with eight lights, and some with 12. I instantly wanted to know what secrets this doughty Vintage paperback housed, so I picked it up and flipped it over and flipped through it. I’m a slow reader, and I feared I would never finish a book with so many words in it. But I knew it had to come home with me.
I read the book steadily over many months. I read or tried to read a few other things, but I kept finding myself back in the pages of Mitchell’s anthology, not only entertained by the characters and nurtured by the sense I got that the author valued things that I valued--old people with stories to tell, old buildings and things made to last, the details of how things used to be done and how things got to be the way they are--but also rocked into a kind of attentive stillness by the writing itself, the very sentences, the way they were put together. Mitchell took his time, utterly confident that I would abide, that I would follow the long lists of items and names as patiently as he had listened to someone else enumerate them. And I was surprised that he was right about me in this regard. He wasn’t writing to every reader, it seemed, certainly not to those who loved flamboyant prose. He was writing to his readers. He was writing to me, even though it took me a while to be able to hear his voice. At first I was distracted by the repetition, the fact that he didn’t take the obvious syntactic shortcuts that would have made his writing ... well ... more efficient. His sentences are like trains of fact, and yet at the same time they are somehow deeply resonant. Listen to this passage from a story in The Bottom of the Harbor called “The Rivermen”:
At least once a day, usually when the tide is at or around dead ebb, flocks of harbor gulls suddenly appear and light on the wrecks and scavenge the refuse that has collected on them during the rise and fall of the tide, and for a little while they crawl with gulls, they become white and ghostly with gulls, and then the gulls leave as suddenly as they came. The hulks of three ferryboats are out in the flats--the Shadyside, the George Washington, and the old Fort Lee. Nothing is left of the Shadyside but a few of her ribs and parts of her keel. There are old tugboats out there, and old dump scows, and old derrick lighters, and old car floats. There are sand-and-gravel barges, and brick barges, and stone barges, and coal barges, and slaughterhouse barges. There are five ice barges out there, the last of a fleet that used to bring natural ice down to New York City from the old icehouse section along the west shore of the river, between Saugerties and Coxsackie. They have been in the flats since 1910, they are waterlogged, and they sit like hippopotamuses in the silt.
It was the kind of writing I had been looking for and just hadn’t known it. I had been a journalist in my early days and had gradually moved into marketing writing and then technical writing, and while I missed the creativity in newspaper and magazine writing, I had grown tired of the cynical and even jaded style that seemed to me to be more and more entrenched in the business--from the pun in every headline and the same tired old lead paragraphs and the same precious, postmodern wit right through to the same non-committal, shrug-shouldered last lines.
Reading Mitchell, I felt as though I had discovered reading, and journalism, all over again. I felt I had found my narrative home.
Three books have been announced as the finalists for the 2012 Thurber Prize for American Humor. They are: Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America, by Leslie Knope (really, Nate Di Meo), based on the NBC-TV sitcom Parks and Recreation; Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: 40 Years of Funny Stuff, by Calvin Trillin of course; and Starting from Happy, by Patricia Marx. This year’s prize will be presented on October 1 in Columbus, Ohio, the boyhood home of its namesake, author and cartoonist James Thurber.
When you surf along with the author’s engaged and engaging voice, it becomes very obvious that his topic is not rocket science. That is, it’s a new and evolving field, one that he’s championing and one that has been powerful in his own work.
What Long does is create an environment where his models and robots can evolve. Which is not nearly as odd as it sounds. The robots compete against each other for food and other basic survival needs and their responses provide important clues to the evolution of extinct species.
Long shares his disappointments as well as his triumphs and he does so in a lucid and sometimes even humorous way. We come away from Darwin’s Devices with the idea that, whatever work Long is doing here, it’s deeply interesting and even important stuff. I suspect that this will not be the final work on this topic, but Long lays the groundwork for a future filled with discovery and adventure. ◊
Jones Atwater is a contributing editor to January Magazine.
It will surprise no one who knows this backstory at all that CS Richardson’s second novel, The Emperor of Paris (Doubleday Canada) is an exceedingly beautiful book. This, of course, before you even open it. Richardson is an award-winning book designer and the active creative director at Random House Canada. While he didn’t, of course, design his own book, it’s a good bet that those who did design it moved carefully through the process. It would be a careless designer, indeed, who moved incautiously over the physical manifestation of the words of their boss.
It turns out that The Emperor of Paris is a beautiful book in other ways, as well. You get the idea that Richardson the writer is as concerned with detail as is Richardson the designer.
An illiterate Parisian baker is the master of the baguette, despite the fact that he cannot read. Not at all far away, in the basement of the Louvre, hidden from the world and completely engrossed in literature and art is a woman who our baker would be unlikely to ever meet. That these two should could together at all is extraordinary, but Richardson manages the connection with fate, coincidence and mystery.
Like Richardson’s 2007 debut novel, The End of the Alphabet, The Emperor of Paris is a rare gem of a book. The prose is considered, yet light and engaging. The plot is careful, ephemeral and tightly wound. The book picks you up, then spins you along. Sharply, sweetly unforgettable. ◊
Though the deal would be uncharacteristic of the way the innovative California-based computer company does business, according to The Telegraph, the people who brought us the Mac, the iPhone and the iPad are considering taking over the sponsorship of The Orange Prize for Fiction. The Prize, which awards distinction in fiction written by women, lost their sponsorship earlier this year when mobile phone operator Orange merged with T-Mobile. From The Telegraph:
At the time, literary circles joked that Apple or BlackBerry could step into the breach to preserve the fruity theme, and quipped that they wanted to be able to "compare Apples with Oranges". Now, in evidence that life is, if not stranger, then at least as strange as fiction, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal that Apple has had talks with the award organisers.
The shortlist for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction is here.
The formidable and unforgettable Helen Gurley Brown died earlier today in New York. She was 90 years old.
Gurley Brown was best known as the author of Sex and the Single Girl, published in 1962 when she was 40.
In 1965 she became editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, a position she held until 1997 when she was replaced by Bonnie Fuller. Gurley Brown remained with Hearst as international editor of all 59 editions of Cosmo and visited the 57th Street offices of Hearst daily until her death.
In a statement issued earlier today, Frank A. Bennack, Jr., CEO of the Hearst Corporation, remembered Gurley Brown gracefully. “Helen Gurley Brown was an icon,” Bennack said. “Her formula for honest and straightforward advice about relationships, career and beauty revolutionized the magazine industry. She lived every day of her life to the fullest and will always be remembered as the quintessential ‘Cosmo girl.’ She will be greatly missed.”
We recently brought word of a survey by the History News Network (HNN) Web site, which asked readers to choose what they thought was “the least credible [U.S.] history book in print.” The winner? The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (2012), by Texas Republican activist David Barton.
Now, this surely can’t be credited to HNN’s poll, but it’s being reported that Barton’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, is “ceasing [the book’s] publication and distribution due to Barton's inaccuracies.”
Let’s hope this scandal leads to a great deal more fact-checking of future Thomas Nelson titles.
The Australian-born art critic, historian and TV documentary maker died on Monday at age 74. The New York Timesoffers a lengthy obit of Hughes, whose books included The Shock of the New, The Fatal Shore and last year’s Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History. Meanwhile, The New Yorker Web site carries Adam Gopnik’s ode to one of the “few critics whose work can be read for style alone.”
Charlotte Rogan is a superb writer invested in spellbinding fiction, ethics and the natural world.
January Magazine contributing editor MaryAnne Kolton recently spent some time with Rogan: both with her work and with the woman herself. Kolton reports that it was, on both counts, a rewarding experience.
The Lifeboat kept me awake at night,” Kolton writes. “The first night to read straight through to the end. It was unthinkable to drift off to sleep not knowing how the story played out. The second night to read it again, focusing on the philosophical and ethical conundrums. The harrowing tale of Grace and her fellow travelers called to me again and again.”
So much for the prognosticative abilities of science-fiction novelists. As Sarah Robinson of the Web site AlterNet explains,
Back in 1987, L. Ron Hubbard created a time capsule of sorts. He challenged his fellow science-fiction writers, along with a smattering of famous scientists, to write letters to the people of 2012 offering their visions of what the world might look like in another 25 years. (Yes, that Hubbard--the Scientology guy. But he was a well-known SF writer before he started the church, and it was in that guise that he threw down this challenge.)
So here we are, in the high summer of 2012, and it’s time to go back and see just how much they got right--and wrong.
Check out Robinson’s assessment of the results here.
When Vidal wrote his mysteries, he did so -- as he quite often observed in later years -- to survive. He had managed to offend the New York Times -- which, for a young writer, was not a good thing to do -- and found himself writing a series of mysteries as a way of putting food on the table. I reviewed the first of them, Death in the Fifth Position, on this blog last year. They might be described as medium boiled, but they are also influenced by the traditional mystery -- in his own words, he “worked very hard at being a mystery writer, somewhat heavily reliant upon Agatha Christie.” Each of the three books, he said, was written in eight days at the rate of ten thousand words a day, and, he says, he lived on them for the next dozen years.
Because they were quite slender works, I remember spending far fewer days with each of those novels -- Death Before Bedtime (1953), Death in the Fifth Position (1952), and Death Likes It Hot (1954) -- than Vidal had allegedly taken to prepare them for publication.
However, my interest in the author’s work had been ignited, and I went on over the years to read most of his oeuvre, including 1876 (1976), Duluth (1983), Empire (1987), Hollywood (1990), and The Smithsonian Institution (1998). Two of my favorite novels of all time, in fact, were works bearing Vidal’s byline: Burr (1973), about the fascinating and quite scandalous life of Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the United States; and Lincoln (1984), which examined the political and personal challenges faced by President Abraham Lincoln. I later included Lincoln in a January Magazine feature about the most memorable books of the 20th century. And the only time I ever met Vidal, after an onstage interview he gave in Seattle, following the publication of his non-fiction work Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (2003), we talked briefly about Lincoln. Actually, he did most of the talking, while I barely managed to stammer a couple of questions in his direction, intimidated by this sudden opportunity to converse with someone whose work I had so long admired.
Mr. Vidal was, at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed, and he was probably right. Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent. He published some 25 novels, two memoirs and several volumes of stylish, magisterial essays. He also wrote plays, television dramas and screenplays. For a while he was even a contract writer at MGM. And he could always be counted on for a spur-of-the-moment aphorism, putdown or sharply worded critique of American foreign policy.
Perhaps more than any other American writer except Norman Mailer or Truman Capote, Mr. Vidal took great pleasure in being a public figure. He twice ran for office -- in 1960, when he was the Democratic Congressional candidate for the 29th District in upstate New York, and in 1982, when he campaigned in California for a seat in the Senate -- and though he lost both times, he often conducted himself as a sort of unelected shadow president. He once said, “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
Where are the readers, Mr. Vidal? I suspect that there will be many people who, realizing today that they’ve never taken the time to enjoy your work, or have at least read too little of it, will pick up a copy of Lincoln or Burr, or maybe one of your earlier novels -- The City and the Pillar (1948), say, or Myra Breckinridge (1968) -- and discover what they’ve been missing. It is not the best thing for a writer to realize, that death can earn him new fans, but in the long run, that’s not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.
Pot hunting, the age-old business of digging up Native American pottery to collect or sell, is at the center of Skeleton Picnic (Poisoned Pen Press), the second book in Michael Norman’s series featuring J.D. Books, a law-enforcement ranger with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) working in the Southwest.
Books, whose life has left him with some pain and sadness, is a character worth getting to know, a man trying to do a tough job in an area where the federal government is frequently reviled.
His current case involves the odd disappearance of well-liked Utah residents Rolly and Abigail Rogers, who do a lot of pot hunting. The Rogerses’ house has also been ransacked, suggesting a serious criminal plan.
Without sounding didactic, Norman explains a good deal in these pages about pot hunting, introducing a quasi-official group of Native Americans with their own ax to grind. The subject is very controversial in that region of the United States, as many residents feel entitled to dig up pots because their grandparents did the same.
As Books investigates, more people are drawn into the story, from the young deputy the local sheriff assigns to this investigation to the local attorney (who’s also Books’ girlfriend) and Books’ own cash-strapped brother-in-law. Adding to the plot complications, Books’ father, from whom he was once estranged, has become seriously ill. So there’s no shortage of emotional strife here in addition to the slowly revealed details of Norman’s tale. It means we get a puzzle to unravel as well as a portrait of complex human relationships, both intriguing.
BLM agents are not thick on the ground in mystery fiction, so it’s interesting for readers to learn about another area of law enforcement.
I have a problem, though, with this novel’s editing. I hesitate to bring it up, because Phoenix-based Poisoned Pen Press usually does a good job. But really, if you are going to feature a family named Rogers, somebody -- the writer? the copy editor? -- ought to understand that the plural is Rogerses, and that the plural possessive is Rogerses’. It’s not just names ending in “s” that are a problem here, either. We’re offered a sentence such as “The Gentrys appeared to be living high and well,” which is fine. But then we get “no sign of the Gentry’s black Cadillac,” which most definitely isn’t.
These sorts of avoidable errors can easily distract readers from the pleasures to be had from otherwise thoughtful books. It’s like going to a nice restaurant, only to note that your server has dirty fingernails. After that, it will be hard to enjoy your dinner quite as much. ◊
Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.