True New Yorker


About two years ago, when rats came down from a lowquat tree and began scratching around and scuttling around in the crawl space beneath our Venice home, I made my wife laugh (and wince) by reading to her from Joseph Mitchell’s classic 1944 New Yorker piece “The Rats on the Waterfront”:

“They steal along as quietly as spooks in the shadows close to the building line, or in the gutters, peering this way and that, sniffing, quivering, conscious every moment of all that is going on around them,” Mitchell wrote, making the rat sound like some kind of satanically sensitive genius. “Anyone who has been confronted by a rat in the bleakness of a Manhattan dawn and has seen it whirl and slink away, its claws rasping against the pavement, thereafter understands fully why this beast has been for centuries a symbol of the Judas and the stool pigeon, of soullessness in general. Veteran exterminators say that even they are unable to be calm around rats.”

Mitchell, maybe the finest nonfiction writer ever to grace the pages of the New Yorker (that’s a proposition that, even if not accepted, and lots of people do accept it, means that he was some writer), was born in 1908 and grew up in a small farming town in North Carolina. He went to New York in 1929, at the beginning of the Depression, and became a newspaperman, learning his trade with the New York World, the Herald-Tribune and the World-Telegram. He lived in rooming houses all over the city, sometimes working as many as four stories a day, interviewing drunks, strippers, pickpockets, cops, Jesus freaks, nuns and, occasionally, stars of stage and screen.


He was proud to call himself a reporter, and by the time Harold Ross invited him to join the New Yorker in 1938, he was already intimate with his best subject: not celebrities, who bored Mitchell, but the hidden corners of New York and the people who lived there, in the cracks and margins and on the byways and waterways.

“Joseph Mitchell trained at newspapers that are now extinct in a city that is forever lost,” writes David Remnick in his introduction to a centennial edition of “Up in the Old Hotel” (Vintage: 736 pp., $16.95), the book that first collected, gloriously, all of Mitchell’s New Yorker pieces, back in 1993 . Many of these pieces are also included in another collection to celebrate his birth: “The Bottom of the Harbor” (Pantheon: 320 pp., $23).

Remnick, of course, is the New Yorker’s current editor, and he’s right to observe that much of the physical world that Mitchell evoked -- the downtown saloons, the piers, the dredgers, the restaurants, the markets -- has simply vanished. But Mitchell captured, too, a perennial urban type, the scrambling survivor, the character who hangs on day-to-day, or even hour-by-hour, the person who is, in a way, like a human rat: fearful, ingenious, burrowing away, potentially dangerous when confronted. Such people are always around, and Mitchell gave them a voice and found wonder in them, especially in his masterpiece, the book-length articles entitled “Joe Gould’s Secret.”

“Joe Gould was an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years,” Mitchell noted in 1964, though he had first written about Gould in “Professor Seagull,” a 1942 piece in which the loquacious and crafty Gould expatiated endlessly about a huge and mysterious book he was writing entitled “An Oral History of Our Time,” a work “already eleven times as long as the Bible” and recorded in hundreds of composition books that were lodged and stored in various safe spots around the city.

Once the first profile appeared, Gould was destined to be a part of Mitchell’s life forever, and in time he divined all of Gould’s secrets, including the biggest one of all, namely that the “Oral History” didn’t exist. For years, though, Gould hoodwinked and conned scores of people, Mitchell and the editorial machinery of the New Yorker included. Mitchell wrestled with his anger over this discovery before concluding that it was OK that Gould didn’t write the book; indeed, the nonwriting of it, Mitchell decided, was Gould’s crowning achievement. Gould comes to represent, not so much the futility of human aspiration, but the glory of improbable human survival.

The two Gould pieces were duly issued together as an acclaimed book that ultimately became the basis for an excellent movie made by Stanley Tucci, starring Ian Holm as Gould and Tucci as Joe Mitchell, who for the rest of his working life (31 years and six months, as Remnick records), went into the New Yorker offices almost every day -- and never published another word. This extraordinary turn of events remains unexplained. The New York that Mitchell had written about was vanishing and, through the 1970s, becoming violent and drug-ridden, and there was the question of what stories to pick. Mitchell said that he couldn’t seem to get things finished. His career until 1964 had been a steady progression, in which the increased reach of his ambition had been matched by ever more perfect and discriminating execution. He’d gone on writing longer, and getting better, until he produced a masterpiece that he maybe suspected he could not surpass. It’s tempting, too, to consider the possibility that Mitchell felt guilty about Gould, and in some Borgesian, Auster-like way, a part of him became his subject, assuming Gould’s inability to finish whatever had been started. Gould was, if you like, Mitchell’s demon, his nagging double.

The mystery has only added to Mitchell’s legend. In retrospect the 30-plus years of silence seem like the inevitable end to a career of writing that was filled with the exuberant, festive, crazy, ruminative voices of other people while always being shaded by Mitchell’s inner restraint, his quietness, his sense of sadness and doom. Mitchell was never a look-at-me writer and, even while cranking out features daily, he’d never been a hack. Some of his early newspaper work appears in “My Ears Are Bent” (Vintage: 320 pp., $13.95), a book that Pantheon put out in a lovely revised edition in 2001 and has also reissued as part of the Mitchell centennial package. “It was a different kind of writing,” Mitchell said later, though as a young reporter he was already armed with an acute eye, an uncanny ear and a shyness he used to good effect. The 1920s and 1930s were the belle époque of American newspapering, and Los Angeles had its share of wonderful reporter-writers -- Matt Weinstock and Gene Coughlin of the Daily News come to mind -- but there was no platform onto which they could move with their wider literary ambitions, if indeed they had such.


Mitchell did, and here, in an early New Yorker effort, he describes the cats in McSorley’s Saloon, doted on by Bill, the “big and thick-shouldered” proprietor: “He fed them on bull livers put through a sausage grinder and they become enormous. When it came time to feed them, he would leave the bar, no matter how brisk business was, and bang on the bottom of a tin can; the fat cats would come loping up, like leopards from all corners of the saloon.”

The image is indelible, and Mitchell’s work features such miraculous moments on almost every page. Nothing ever seems strained or forced. The effects are invisible until they make you laugh or gasp. For most of us, this sort of writing is just about impossible to do. Pages of Mitchell’s prose -- look, for instance, at the extended paean to the Hudson River that opens his 1959 piece “The Rivermen” -- are often compared to James Joyce, a writer Mitchell revered. But Mitchell went on looking outward, not inward like Joyce, and he had a more tender heart. The New Yorker gave him time and space, gifts that would ultimately prove dangerous -- but by then Mitchell had already transformed his sympathies and reportorial instincts into something precious:

“The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fish-mongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so,” he wrote about his early morning visits to the Fulton Fish Market. He was great, and he still elates us.

Richard Rayner is the author of many books, including “The Associates” and “The Devil’s Wind: A Novel.” His Paperback Writers column appears monthly at


“Violence” by Slavoj Zizek (Picador)

“Love without cruelty is powerless,” writes Slovenian sociology professor Zizek in this combative and sparky study, in which he travels from “the rejection of false violence to the endorsement of emancipatory violence.” To chastise the obvious outward manifestations of violence -- murders, terrorism, revolution -- is an ideological operation par excellence, Zizek argues, unless you examine the systemic violence that provokes them. Zizek looks at movies and books, not just politics and regimes; he’s formidably brilliant, writing as nimbly about “The Village” as he does about Lacan or Walter Benjamin. It’s as if Naomi Wolf had clambered into bed with Norman Klein -- a nifty partnership, when you think about it. Zizek’s study smartly launches a promising new Picador series, entitled “BIG IDEAS/small books.”

“In Hazard” by Richard Hughes (New York Review Books)

Hughes’ second novel, written after “A High Wind in Jamaica” and first published in 1938, tells how a ship, the Archimedes, equipped with the best modern technology, is smitten by a hurricane that behaves with unexpected and almost demonic malevolence. The ship comes close to capsizing but in the end survives. Most of the book, and the best writing, describes what happens during the crisis: the funnel is blown off, the furnaces are blown out and oil floods the vessel as it escapes the eye of the hurricane and drifts back again. There’s little dialogue, and no hero, but Hughes’ themes -- fear, and coming disaster, and man’s unexpected ability to survive fate’s worst cataclysms -- are handled with almost poetic concentration. The story, which begins slowly, builds to a majestic intensity.

“The Groom to Have Been” by Saher Alam (Spiegel & Grau)

An epochal disaster, the coming of World War II, overshadows Hughes’ “In Hazard” (above); another, Sept. 11, 2001, provides the hinge in Alam’s first novel, “The Groom To Have Been.” Alam’s hero Nasr, a young Muslim, is about to enter into an arranged marriage when two things happen: There’s “the terrible event,” as Alam describes it, and this combines with Nasr’s sexual noticing of his lifelong friend, the Westernized Jameela. The result is a novel, mostly set in and around New York in the summer and fall of 2001, that recalls the who’s-he/she-going-to-marry plots of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton rather than the post-modern Muslim jazz of Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith. That’s no bad thing. Alam’s voice feels very much her own, and she writes with grace and light-handed wit. Nasr’s sister is described as “a notoriously dedicated sleeper,” while the crux of Nasr’s wavering is neatly put: “What did he want? What did he want?” Alam crafts a delicate novel about big issues of belonging and desire.

“Selected Poems” by Christina Rossetti (Penguin)

Rossetti -- whose brother Dante was a leading Pre-Raphaelite painter -- never married, held a strong religious faith and published poetry throughout her life before dying in 1894. In a poem like “A Daughter of Eve” she writes achingly of lost love and lost hope, though this new collection proves her a much tougher and more sinewy writer than most people remember. The long poem “Goblin Market” (the story of cackling, crowing goblin men who sell fruit that excites more than merely the taste buds) burns and drives with suppressed Victorian sexuality and stands as a startling precursor to feminism: “She clung about her sister / Kissed and kissed and kissed her: / Tears once again / Refreshed her sunken eyes, / Dropping like rain / After long sultry drouth; / Shaking with aguish fear, and pain, / She kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth.”

“May Day: Poems” by Phillis Levin (Penguin)

“I’ve decided to waste my life again, / Like I used to: get drunk on / The light in leaves, find a wall / Against which something can happen,” writes Levin in the title poem of her new collection. The tone seems ruminative and musing, and many of Levin’s poems are like that, although a fierce immediacy is often combined with the cooler mood, striking notes that may be political, or even violent. In “The Chariot,” a meditation on the rage of Achilles, she allows a chance encounter with an image from Iraq to influence and conclude the poem: “Distance dissolved, desire and anger / Dissolved, revulsion rising in the face of what a piece of clay can become.”

“Erotomania” by Francis Levy (Two Dollar Radio)

“Neither of us bothered with the niceties,” says James Moran, Levy’s first-person sex-addict narrator in this first novel. “I’d pull her blouse over her head. She’d unzip my fly. . . . It was always after we were through that the trouble began. I always found myself wandering in the street, not remembering her face or how it had started.” Moran wanders the streets, exhausted, unable even to remember the name of the woman with whom he’s having a wild affair. The turning point of the story is when sex turns into love, and Levy handles this dilemma well enough; he’s excellent too, like Miller and Bukowski, on the mechanics and energy and animal filth of rumpy-pumpy, bringing to his sex scenes all the humor they need. There’s a hilarious sequence in which the lovers use art criticism as a sex aid. Readers will never think of Robert Hughes or the abstract Expressionists in quite the same way. Sex is familiar, but it’s perennial, and Levy makes it fresh.

“The Death of Jim Loney,” “Winter in the Blood” both by James Welch (Penguin)

Welch died in 2003, at only 63, having grown up part Blackfeet and Gros Ventre, and part Irish on the plains of Montana, whose harsh beauty his work unsparingly evokes. Here, re-issued with new introductions by novelists Jim Harrison and Louise Erdrich, are two of his finest works. “Loney” is terse to the point of existentialism, recalling “The Stranger” by Camus. “Winter” is more internal and, while often despairing, offers more hope. “James Welch knew that small gestures between people tell big stories,” writes Erdrich, and the quality of Welch’s writing is such that, not only Indian life, not only Montana life, but the essence of what it might mean to be a disenfranchised human being nonetheless living day-by-day is evoked in every telling paragraph -- with poetry, with detail and sometimes with surprising wit. These are haunting, sad, lovely novels.

“Out Backward” by Ross Raisin (Harper Perennial)

“I was up early. The sun had just started to show himself when I stepped into the yard, a ball of orange half-hid behind the Moors,” says narrator Sam Marsdyke, suggesting that his creator, first-time novelist Raisin, is artfully familiar with classics of the English demotic novel such as Joyce Cary’s “The Horse’s Mouth” and Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange.” The story tells how teenage outsider Sam becomes involved with a girl from London, who moves into the Yorkshire countryside where he lives. The two of them go on the run, on the trek across the moor, and violence intercedes. The plot is familiar, but not the way Raisin deftly uses Yorkshire dialect to create speed and a fictional space that feels new. In the reader’s notes at the back, Raisin brings up the subject, not only of Bradford, the failed industrial city he obviously knows end-to-end, but the history of that city’s less-than-illustrious football (OK, soccer) team. Here’s a writer who uses obscurity to cunning advantage.

“The Underdogs” by Mariano Azuela (Penguin)

Azuela’s 1915 novel, newly translated by Sergio Waisman, tells the story of Demetrio Macias, a humble Indian who rises to become a general in Pancho Villa’s army. Once the battles are won, and the federales defeated, Macias becomes disillusioned; he watches his colleagues fighting among themselves for the prize of post-revolutionary leadership. Azuela, a doctor in one of Villa’s armies, saw these ironies arise at firsthand, but he marries a natural gift for fiction to his eyewitness analysis. Events come quickly, and the dialogue -- expertly and sometimes thrillingly rendered by translator Waisman -- whips us along. Introduced by Carlos Fuentes.