Roger Angell’s This Old Man

This Old ManIn a few short weeks, Roger Angell will turn 96. He no longer works as the fiction editor for the New Yorker, a position he held for the better part of a half-century, but he will forever be associated with that august publication: his mother, Katharine Angell, was the magazine’s first fiction editor, and E.B. White, one of its most distinguished alumni, his step-father. When he describes childhood memories of his mother working her way through towering stacks of submissions, or the pleasures he took in receiving advance copies of the infamous New Yorker cartoons, whose captions the boy Roger would commit to memory, we understand how vital a part the magazine has played in his life, and how much of his life he in turn dedicated to it. This Old Man, his most recent collection, is a “mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything,” assembling poetry and essays, obituaries and letters, sports writing and literary criticism.

One of the benefits of old age is experience, and the accumulated memories that go with it, and Angell delights in recalling the world as he remembers it: the New York of his boyhood, with horses in Central Park and a simplified phone book; the baseball games, broadcast over the radio or played on makeshift fields with friends and family. All of this backward looking is prompted, in no small part, by the uncomfortable truth that with each passing year, fewer and fewer remain, but on the subject of his own mortality Angell keeps his mischievous sense of humor:

Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short nice – they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here – to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed robe just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little ballon over their heads reads, “Holy shit – he’s still vertical!”

He has a talent for comedy, and it’s a good thing, too, for as he puts it, “the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.” This book is filled with eulogies and farewells, fond remembrances and heartfelt condolences, most to friends, others to family: his late wife gets an entire essay; his daughter, who took her own life, a hurried and mysterious mention (a wound no doubt still too raw for the page). In this capacity, he has an almost aphoristic genius for conjuring up and celebrating dead friends: Donald Barthelme, the great experimental writer, “took himself seriously but presented himself quietly.” Of Anna Hamburger, close friend and celebrated humanitarian: “In a community of the gifted, she practiced intimacy as if it were an art form, and became another New York genius.”

There is levity here, too, to balance out the sadness. Essays on baseball, a lifelong passion of Angell’s, captivated me, despite my longstanding prejudice against the sport, and his reflections on such “past masters” as Barthelme, Nabokov, Updike and E.B. White demonstrate his acuity as a reader. Entries from his annual “Greetings, Friends!” Christmas poems for the New Yorker provoke big laughs (“Dear hearts and friends, huzzah, well met, / Regathered from the Internet, / God bless you each wherever reachable, / And keep you hale and unimpeachable”), and the titular essay, despite its sombre subject matter, ends with a cheering affirmation of the values of love and friendship. If we could all face old age with as much courage and good cheer as Angell, taking comfort in good books and good friends, we would truly have nothing to fear.