This Old Man
All in Pieces
By Roger Angell
Doubleday. 298 pp. $26.96
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Reviewed by Bob Hoover
nolead ends The U.S. Census Bureau says only about two million Americans are 90 or older, so why do I always seem to get behind one when I'm in a hurry? Luckily, I've learned to be more tolerant of these old-timers after reading Roger Angell's 2014 essay "This Old Man," written for the New Yorker when he was 94.
Angell's optimistic, even upbeat, view of his circumstances - "I'm not dead and not yet mindless. . . . Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don't linger there" - is reassuring without a note of self-pity.
He accepts his many losses of family and friends, keeping them alive in his memory, rather than frozen on a page of an old letter or photograph. His younger, still-living friends are eager to help him with meals and companionship.
Angell also married for the third time at 94, proof that Oscar Wilde nailed it with his epigram about remarriage as "the triumph of hope over experience." Reporting on a study of the elderly that "the majority of us people over 75 keep surprising ourselves with happiness," he announces, "Put me on that list."
The essay gained the longtime fiction editor of the New Yorker a bunch of new friends and admirers, prompting this collection of his short pieces written over the last few decades. Though he's written 10 books, most of them about his love of baseball, this assembly ranges around - holiday verses, letters to writers and colleagues, casual observations from his blog and magazine pieces about books, literature, and New Yorker legends Harold Ross, William Steig, John Updike, William Maxwell, and Angell's stepfather, E.B. White.
White married Katherine Angell, Roger's mother and longtime fiction editor at the magazine, where her son joined her in 1956. (The New Yorker is a family-friendly place.) His work with some of the best short-story writers and the also-rans of the last 50 years is revealed in the most interesting essay in the collection, "Storyville," which appeared in the magazine in 1994.
In response to the question, "How do you get a story published in the New Yorker?" Angell replies that it would help if it were written by John O'Hara, Edna O'Brien, Eudora Welty, etc. Acknowledging his flippancy, he uses mostly anecdotes and praise to describe the editing process, and offers vague standards for judging quality. In short, he concludes that he knows a good story when he reads one.
Angell seems unaware of how much the rise in creative-writing programs has changed the short story from a work of inspiration to a product of workshops and imitation. Understandably, he admires Updike, with whom he had a close relationship, but he might have revisited his 1994 essay, included here, in light of Adam Begley's biography of the writer.
The selections are disorganized and unconnected. Angell calls them "a portrait of my brain at 94," a worrisome thought. Some need explanations, especially his letters published without references to what he was responding to. He includes an embarrassing reply to a letter writer who pointed out a mistake by ridiculing him.
(The New Yorker finds corrections irritating, as I've learned, and takes its time in dealing with them. Angell's response confirms that attitude.)
Editor Angell could have used an editor in selecting more interesting "pieces" and fewer awful haikus and dull literary appraisals, including his clunker on Lolita. There are standouts in This Old Man, particularly the title essay, but we are forced to wade through too much ordinary work to get to them.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.