Roger Angell jokes that his friends and family are perplexed by his longevity—“the little balloon over their heads reads, ‘Holy shit—he’s still vertical!’”—but since his 90th birthday in 2010, he’s emerged as an energetic blogger and won a National Magazine Award for a buoyant essay about growing old.
His new book is another triumph for the venerable pro.
This Old Man: All in Pieces is a winning collection of miscellany from his later years at The New Yorker, which hired him in 1956 and continues to publish his work (he’s lately done some excellent quick-turnaround writing on baseball, the subject of most of his previous books). One of the first entries recalls his 1936 high-school newspaper interview with Fiorello La Guardia, then in his first term as the mayor of New York City; one of the last is his prize-winning reflection on life in his “tenth decade,” and the deaths of his wife and oldest daughter.
Between these career-bracketing pieces, Angell comments with characteristic verve on some of the great prose stylists of the 20th century (several of whom he cultivated as The New Yorker’s fiction editor); the magazine where he spent his professional life (and where his mother, Katharine White, and stepfather, E.B. White, spent theirs); and the city where he’s lived forever (“a quick refresher rundown of my own sidewalks sightings yields up Walter Cronkite, Babe Ruth, Vladimir Horowitz, Greta Garbo, Eleanor Roosevelt (gray chiffon wing bars), Fay Wray (Fay Wray!), Harry Truman, Uma Thurman…”).
He describes This Old Man as a “mélange, a grab-bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything.” Though most of the book’s content appeared in the print edition of The New Yorker, or on the magazine’s website, there are also some previously hidden gems. Several of these are letters Angell wrote to literary biographers who sought his counsel, or wanted to check a few decades-old facts.
In a 2006 note to Tracy Daugherty, who was writing a book about frequent New Yorker contributor Donald Barthelme, Angell explained that William Shawn, the magazine’s editor for 35 years, championed Barthelme’s inventive fiction in the face of internal dissent: “Many people on the magazine did not share this deep admiration…and there were always complaints and puzzled murmurings as we began to publish him pretty steadily.”
A few years later, Angell recreated a slice of Manhattan in a letter to Thomas Beller, who was working on a book about J.D. Salinger. “I’m pretty sure that Jerry Salinger would have walked toward Madison, not Lex, in search of that pack of cigarettes,” Angell writes, describing the Upper East Side shortly after World War II. “He could have tried at the little Schmidt’s Drugstore two doors north of 91st Street on the NE corner of Park.”
One of this book’s best features is that it reveals Angell as an uncommonly observant reader, a quality that’s palpable as he considers a handful of his favorite writers. Take his essay on William Maxwell, another longtime staffer at The New Yorker, which was originally published in 1998. Maxwell’s ruminations on his youth in North Carolina are so evocative, Angell says, that they can seem just as personal as his own memories, “with the same questions asked, and with answers or the chance for amends still elusive—but now illuminated with the courage and persistence of a great companion. This is perhaps the very first purpose of fiction and, most assuredly, one of the rewards of art.”
For many years Angell was The New Yorker’s fiction editor (a job his mother held before him), and when John Updike died in 2009, he responded with a remembrance of the man who was one of the magazine’s most prolific contributors. His appreciation of Updike’s prose is inspired—he calls the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner “a fabulous noticer and expander; he’s invented HD”—but the piece is most fascinating in the attention it pays to Updike’s competitiveness.
Every so often, Angell writes, “I would tell him that there was a sharp new story coming up in the next issue—something different, by a young man or woman we’d been following for some time now. ‘Rea-lly!’ he would cry, his voice rising…A couple of weeks would go by and then—not every time, but sometimes—my little pile of morning mail would include a tan manuscript envelope with his name stamped in blue up in the corner; a new story by John Updike.”
As for This Old Man, the 2014 essay that provides the collection with its title, it’s hard to imagine a more elegant piece of writing about senior-citizenship. Published when he was 93, Angell starts by discussing his vision, joint, nerve and back problems, and says that he still misses his dog Harry, who’s been dead for three years. This proves to be just a prologue, though, as Angell soon turns his attention to two other losses: the deaths of his daughter Callie—her suicide, in 2010, was an event of “oceanic force and mystery,” he writes—and his wife, Carol.
After Carol died in 2012, he recalls, “I would wake up from another late-afternoon mini-nap in the same living-room chair, and, in the instants before clarity, would sense her sitting in her own chair, just opposite. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. Then it stopped.”
The piece ranges widely—at one point, in an audacious tonal shift, Angell starts reciting his favorite jokes about death—and toward the end, he thinks about his recent working life: “Shouldn’t I have something more scholarly or complex than this put away by now—late paragraphs of accomplishments, good works, some weightier op cits?”
This Old Man might not fit Angell’s definition of a weighty professional accomplishment, but it’s nonetheless a charming addition to an estimable—and time-tested—career.