2 Books That Capture New York

Dear readers,

I don’t make any special claims for New York except that it’s the city I know best. Well, that and the fact that people really do talk a lot about real estate, a subject that somehow manages to be tedious and thrilling, crass and impersonal all at once.

The other day, I cried on the subway. This in itself wasn’t a big deal; if you live here long enough, the law of averages dictates that at some point you’re going to sob on an uptown 2 train while people studiously avoid your eyes or, occasionally, glare at you with faint irritation. It has always felt to me like a safe place to cry — a sort of international waters.

Of course, on this occasion, I ran into someone I’d known slightly since kindergarten. We ignored the fact that I was weeping and talked vaguely about real estate and our plans to skip an upcoming reunion. I got off two stops early for both our sakes, bought a large pineapple juice and thought about E.B. White.


“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” begins this essay. White grew up in Mount Vernon and is probably as associated with New England as any place, but no one has ever captured the city the way he does. I feel silly recommending it, but if one person picks it up who hasn’t before, then it’ll have been worthwhile. “Here Is New York” has nothing to do with glamour; it’s the opposite of glamour. “It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

It’s not just that White is one of the best American prose stylists (although he is) or that his work is steeped in unfussy humanity. What makes his love-hate letter to New York so lasting is its matter-of-factness — and his acknowledgment that luck is a young person’s game. For a while, I used to give a copy of the book to any friend who was moving away. Once, I even gave one to a family of French tourists in Central Park; I wonder what they thought about that.

Read if you like: “One Man’s Meat,” “Little Fugitive,” Dawn Powell
Available from: Bookstores, libraries or Central Park proselytizers, or online via Yale University’s CampusPress

Crying on the subway? That’s just a Tuesday. But laughing — now, that’s an event. One of the only books that’s ever made me laugh out loud, by myself, while commuting, is “After Claude,” Iris Owens’s sublimely bitchy tale of a woman, Harriet, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a breakup, a bunch of downtown sofas, a few spiritual awakenings, an unrelenting barrage of insults and a rainbow of caftans. Is our deluded heroine being unceremoniously evicted by a sleazy Frenchman who has no interest in being with her? Depends who you ask. And frankly, Harriet doesn’t care what you think. “If there’s one thing on this earth that irritates me, it’s when a dumpy, frigid, former nymphomaniac assumes that my tongue is hanging out, thirsting for marital bliss.”

Read if you like: “The Goodbye Girl,” “The Sullivanians,” Renata Adler
Available from: New York Review Classics, Internet Archive

  • Hide your demons? Not long ago, a kind friend who knows me very well went to the Edward Gorey house in Yarmouth, Mass., and brought me back a souvenir: a model of the creature who stars in Gorey’s macabre and bizarre (redundant when discussing Gorey) “Black Doll: The Silent Screenplay.” This object — featureless, armless, sort of anthropomorphic — is terrifying. I’ve hidden it in my closet and I swear it’s giving me nightmares.

  • Let fate decide? A rather less unsettling gift is a massive 1978 compendium called “The Quotable Woman,” which a friend found at a book barn. It’s a rather arbitrary collection of quotes; I like to open it at random when I wake up. And this morning? “To-day it is spring!” —Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949). (It was!)

  • Be perverse? I know that this newsletter is landing in your inbox on 4/20, but I don’t care. Reading about someone’s gonzo stoner experience is kind of like being a designated driver: Nothing is nearly as funny as you think. By all means, try to change my mind — but it won’t be easy. (Sorry; I’ve been spending a lot of time with “After Claude.”)

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