He’s No Angel

Let Me Finish
Roger Angell

You’d think that the reminiscences of an octagenarian WASP would drive me to distraction. Well, in this particular case you’d be dead wrong.

Like anyone, I have my weaknesses. And among them my biggest weakness is for anything that’s terribly New York in a certain, mid-20th century sort of way. Get to Bonfire of the Vanities and the decline and rot are already apparent. The sweet spot for me is a roughly 30-year period between 1936 and 1966–Swing Time, or My Man Godfrey, to Barefoot in the Park.

There are untold reasons for this but mainly it’s because I was born toward the end of that period and so it’s really about my childhood recollections of my hometown. In my memory, New York is a Norman Parkinson photo with buildings built of gray granite, gentlemen in suits and hats, real women in dresses, cigarettes everywhere and everyone drinking cocktails for dear life.

It’s all possibly confabulation, but if so what’s to complain about? I’ll probably break form, though, and scatter in some iconic Parkinson shots to underscore my love for the era.

The period poorly described  above plays a central role in Roger Angell’s memoir. Born in 1920 and still going strong, Angell is the living bridge between then and now. More particularly, as the son of Katherine Whitehe’s also the living link between the founding staff of The New Yorker and the present. Even now an editor with the magazine–and the scribe behind the baseball season recap article that appears late each fall, like hoarfrost–Angell’s had a seat just behind or inside the dugout for the magazine’s entire existence.

Downtown NYC c. 1960 from the FDR Drive, One Chase Plaza rising in the background.. By the great Norman Parkinson

Both sides of Angell’s family go way back in a way that makes elitism a moot point. The whole quasi-aristocracy thing used to irk me a lot more than it does now. As Angell would have it, they were privileged, not superior, and they knew there were as many duds in their crowd as there were luminaries. I often get the sense that in their own, insular way they behaved in a more meritocratic fashion than the industrial system of social sorting we have now does.

Back to Angell, a gracious writer who, it turns out, does more than just baseball. A fiction editor, he obviously knows a thing or two about words on the page and he turns this to his advantage. He is, really, a first-rate storyteller and he knows how to get out of the way and let the characters tell the tale. Yes, it’s a memoir and so he’s sometimes the character, but in a more in-the-moment sort of way.

Many of these pieces appeared piecemeal in The New Yorker and I remember distinctly the one about his 6 weeks in Europe in the early 1950s, scouting material for Holiday, where he was an editor. Baseball is here, of course, not the modern game but the nation’s pastime, played in parks in the afternoon. Like many young fans, Angell had his major league dreams, dreams that passing Colonel Ruppert on the street daily only made seem more possible.

Memoir is not my favorite form for a number of reasons. There is too often more than a hint of narcissism. (There are far too many I’s, me’s and my’s in these posts, for example. Although one struggles to find a way to connect with others without referring to personal experience.) That’s all but missing here. In the introduction Angell nearly apologizes for the title. The manner in which he does so tells you all you need to know about his style, tone and manner:

“The title of this book, I should add, isn’t about wrapping up a life or a time of life but should only evoke a garrulous gent at the end of the table holding up one hand while he tries to remember the great last line of his monologue.”

Midtown New York, looking South with the Chrysler Building on the left and Empire State Building on the right, 1949. By the great Norman Parkinson.

Perhaps it’s merely the power of suggestion but that’s more or less what he managed to achieve in the ensuing pages. In the course of all those great stories you get the full range of human experience. And isn’t our own experience–singular though it may be–not terribly different from others and what  makes us all human?

It’s all here. Divorce, experienced as both a child and an adult. Disappointment. Grand fun. The thrill of getting away with something and the discomfort of getting caught. Proximity to war, relief at escaping combat, deep sadness at the loss of contemporaries. Families built. Families dissolved. Place. Permanence. Transience. Love. Death.

As a youth I revelled in the madcap hijinks of The Marx Brothers, also New Yorkers, so I was irrationally jealous to learn that as a young man Angell was introduced to Groucho by his mother. The great wit, predictably, had the last word. “A son named Angell? There’s a story there no doubt.”

Yes, there is and one well worth reading.

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