When the power was in the writing, not the PC
New York Stories
Landmark Writing From Four Decades of New York Magazine
Edited by Steve Fishman,
John Homans and Adam Moss
Random House: 570 pp.,
Reporting in the Radical First Person From Harper’s Magazine
Edited by Bill Wasik
The New Press: 322 pp., $26.95
AS PRINT journalism supposedly recedes into the mists of history, and we continue to laud the Internet as the future of just about everything, it’s important to note that there is still a lot of great work being done by the denizens of the old wave. “ New York Stories” and “Submersion Journalism” give the lie to the notion that old-fashioned reportage in the service of that creaky, leaky vessel called print media is obsolete.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of New York magazine, and we now have a long-overdue anthology of pieces written for the weekly. The timing is bittersweet, as New York’s founder (and editor until 1977), Clay Felker, passed away only two months ago. The encomiums that poured in from the many who once wrote for Felker (including Tom Wolfe, whose tribute is included here) are a fitting testament to one of the greatest magazine editors of the postwar era.
This book as a whole, however, is an even better tribute. Just scan the table of contents and numerous seminal pieces can be found. “Radical Chic,” Wolfe’s 1970 evisceration of Upper East Siders throwing a Black Panther benefit; Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” from 1976, which was the basis for “Saturday Night Fever”; Wolfe’s “The ‘Me’ Decade,” a 1976 story about the spiritual narcissism of the white moneyed class, whose headline became a catchphrase for an entire generation.
When Felker co-founded the magazine from the detritus of the folded New York Herald Tribune in 1967, he positioned it as a smart and insidery cultural Baedeker. He hired a bunch of upstarts who turned out to be cracker jacks -- Gail Sheehy (whom he would later marry), Mark Jacobson, Julia Baumgold, Gloria Steinem -- and set them loose on the teeming caldron that was New York City. The result was an entirely new voice in American journalism -- brash, knowing, acutely class-conscious and occasionally cynical -- that would become the default mode for subsequent feature writers.
There was, indeed, lots to write about. It seems like a no-brainer now, but when New York magazine turned its gaze to, say, the life of cabbies in the city, it was entirely new. Former taxi driver Jacobson’s “Night-Shifting for the Hip Fleet” from 1975, which became the basis for the sitcom “Taxi,” is richly observed and empathetic: “The day liners trickle in, hand over their crumpled dollars, and talk about the great U-turns they made on 57th Street. There are about fifty people waiting to go out. Everyone is hoping for good car karma.”
Class -- its benefits and discontents -- has always been a leitmotif for “New York’s” writers, and it’s the subject of much of the best work in this anthology. While writers such as Pete Hamill, Debbie Nathan and Jimmy Breslin give the working class a voice, New York made its name by blowing raspberries at the silly rituals of New Yorkers with too much money and lots of time to spend it.
In Nora Ephron’s sly 1968 piece “Critics in the World of the Rising Souffle (Or Is It the Rising Meringue?),” she describes a genus that would come to be known as “foodie”: “He has been known to debate for hours such subjects as whether nectarines are peaches or plums, and whether the vegetables that Michael Field, Julia Child and James Beard had one night at La Caravelle and said were canned were in fact canned.”
Jay McInerney’s 2006 piece “The Death of (the Idea of) the Upper East Side” tracks the “new luxury aesthetic” of downtown Manhattan, while John Taylor’s 1988 story “Hard to Be Rich” gleefully skewers Wall Street macher John Gutfreund and his young wife, Susan, who orders “green apples of spun sugar” for Henry Kissinger’s 60th birthday party, made “using a technique [the chef] learned from the glassblowers of Murano.”
This is all great fun to read, even when the pieces are dead serious, making “ New York Stories” a great field guide to the passing parade of American culture over the last four decades.
“Submersion Journalism,” a collection of long nonfiction pieces from Harper’s, contains some brilliant work, but it’s a lot more sober. The tone is established in Roger D. Hodge’s introduction, in which the magazine’s editor claims that America in the “Naughts” has suffered from a “kind of auto-immune disorder,” in which “the social and political systems normally responsible for maintaining the healthy functioning of the body politic instead turned against it with particular savagery.” Whether you agree with that assessment will determine whether you will enjoy this book.
The objective for many of the best pieces here is to have the reporter penetrate some subculture or quietly nefarious organization and get the goods. In his acerbic and funny piece “Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote,” Wells Tower -- a man for whom the mere mention of our president elicits mild nausea -- embeds himself with some Bush boosters in Florida during the 2004 campaign in order to know thine enemy. At a John Kerry rally, Tower joins some GOP saboteurs, but he can’t summon the proper ire. “I hold my sign in front of my face and do an abashed little wagging move with it, a kind of sign-waver’s equivalent of sullenly lip-synching one’s way through the national anthem.”
The book’s targets are predictable -- guns, religion, the Right. Steve Featherstone’s “The Line Is Hot” from 2005 lays bare American arms culture with a visit to a machine gun convention in Kentucky, while Jeff Sharlet’s “Jesus Plus Nothing” from 2003 is an expose of the Family, a secret society of Christians with close ties to Washington politicians. “The regimen,” Sharlet writes of the Family’s prescribed daily routine, “was so precise it was relaxing: no swearing, no drinking, no sex, no self. Watch out for magazines and don’t waste time on newspapers and never watch T.V. Eat meat, study the Gospels, play basketball: God loves a man who can sink a three-pointer.”
Charles Bowden’s stunning “Teachings of Don Fernando” from 2002, perhaps the best of the pieces, is a tribute to Bowden’s friend Fernando Terrazas, a Mexican go-between for narco-terrorists. It’s a touching and brutal tale of how innocents so easily become entwined with the Latin American drug economy, and it reads like John Le Carre lost in the Sierra Madre.
The Web is clearly where the media is headed. But long, well-informed literary journalism like the stories found in these books is still the province of print. If readers forsake this stuff, well, shame on all of us.
Marc Weingarten is the author of “The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote and the New Journalism Revolution.”
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