By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 21, 2006
LET ME FINISH
By Roger Angell
Harcourt. 302 pp. $25
Now in his mid-eighties, Roger Angell has had what he calls "a life sheltered by privilege and engrossing work, and shot through with good luck." His father was Ernest Angell, a distinguished Manhattan lawyer who "put in great amounts of time with the American Civil Liberties Union," and his mother was Katharine White, an equally distinguished editor at the New Yorker and author of a widely venerated book about gardening, Onward and Upward in the Garden . After his parents' marriage dissolved, he acquired as stepfather E.B. White, one of the greatest essayists this country has known and the author of two universally beloved books for children, Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web .
That was only for starters. He attended Harvard, from which he graduated in 1942, and almost immediately went into the Air Force, for which he labored throughout the war in assignments far from harm's way. He got married in the fall of 1942 to Evelyn Baker, whom he had known for four years; eventually that marriage ended, but it produced two daughters to whom Angell is devoted. After the war he worked for Holiday magazine, which gave him and his bride the opportunity to travel widely, and eventually he found his way to the New Yorker, where he has been for half a century, editing other people's fiction and writing reportage and commentary about baseball that has been collected in several books -- most notably The Summer Game (1972) -- and is widely regarded as the best baseball writing anyone has done, period.
A long life, then, and a successful one, and certainly it seems to have been on the whole a happy one, though punctuated by enough "rotten news" to teach Angell what any sentient adult surely must understand: "Life is tough and brimming with loss, and the most we can do about it is to glimpse ourselves clear now and then, and find out what we feel about familiar scenes and recurring faces this time around." That is what Angell has attempted in this unusual and affecting book. Let Me Finish is not precisely a memoir but closer to scenes from a life. It began as one brief piece for the New Yorker, then another, and eventually, like Topsy, it just grew.
Certain aspects of Angell's life are passed over lightly or ignored. There is much about World War II but little -- mercifully -- about Harvard. Angell lovingly recalls his boyhood romance with baseball -- he can remember seeing Babe Ruth and the young Joe DiMaggio and Lefty Gomez -- but his rise as a writer about baseball, and the éclat this brought to him, goes without discussion. He barely mentions the fiction and occasional nonfiction that he published when he was young. He describes his first marriage with fondness but does not mention the reasons for his divorce and only hints at the apparent happiness of his second marriage.
All of which is fine by me. In a time when people barely old enough to vote are writing their life stories in books filled with highly detailed (and often highly fictionalized if not outright mendacious) accounts of self-abuse and other misdeeds, it is a relief to come upon someone who understands -- so at least I interpret it -- that not everything about oneself is fit for public consumption, that reticence is often the better part of autobiography, that discrimination and artful selection are the best ways to tell one's story, rather than merely letting it all hang out. Yes, we readers do want the juicy details, but we should also respect the discretion of someone who writes the book he wants to write rather than the one we think we want to read.
"Memory is fiction," Angell writes, "an anecdotal version of some scene or past event we need to store away for present or future use." There is no such thing as a "true" memoir, much though former presidents and other scalawags would have us believe. As any police investigator will tell you, human memory is so fallible that no two witnesses to the same event will have identical accounts of it even moments after it has occurred. One of the reasons for the current infatuation with memoirs is that readers think they are getting "truth" as opposed to the "fiction" that novels offer, but writing one's own story is every bit as much a creative act as writing a "made-up" story, and often involves every bit as much fictionalizing.
So Angell presents himself not as memoirist but as possessor of a random assortment of imperfect memories. Some of these obviously are important -- above all, I'd venture, his parents' divorce -- and are recalled with some clarity, while others are only slivers of what must have been actual truth. Angell has an almost encyclopedic memory for the movies he saw as a boy and a young man -- he was one of those who came upon the movies in "the great cresting tide of late-thirties and early-forties Hollywood," and "we were the lucky ones, we first citizens of film" -- and for the baseball players whom he watched, mainly in Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. But he readily admits that he can't recall essential moments with treasured friends or other aspects of his life about which other, less modest memoirists would have us believe they recall everything.
The three most important people in his youth were his mother, his father and "Andy" White. He loved them all, but with a wry understanding of their shortcomings. When his parents divorced, his father fought for and won custody of Roger and his sister, Nancy, a job for which he had virtually no preparation and no apparent talent, yet "for all his destructiveness and ferocity and self-doubt, [he] turned out to be an exceptional father, with heroic energies," who "plunged right ahead with fatherhood, striding up its trail at full charge." Roger loved his mother no less, but she is a more elusive figure here. He quotes, approvingly, a piece someone else wrote about Katharine White: "It's funny; as an editor she was maternal but as a mother she was editorial." This made Angell "laugh, not cry," because he recognized the essential truth of it and accepts, without lament, that "nobody in our family was much of a hugger, to tell the truth, Mother least of all."
As to Andy White, he provides the exclamation point on Angell's insistence that divorce, notwithstanding all the pain it causes, brings people into one's life whom one otherwise never would have known and thus enlarges one's world. Angell was still a small boy when his mother and White married, but he immediately saw through his new stepfather's "shy and self-conscious" exterior to the person inside: "He was a grownup, but there was a readiness for play in him that lasted all his life. Luckily, I didn't need another father and that freed us up." He "brought to his undertakings" a "sense of ease and play." Angell writes:
"Though subject to nerves, he possessed something like that invisible extra beat of time that great athletes show on the field. Dogs and children were easy for him because he approached them as a participant instead of a winner. . . . When Andy, without his trying and almost without my noticing it, taught me how to sail or how to row or how to lure a flounder with a bit of periwinkle as bait and -- in some part -- how to write, ease seemed to be the whole trick. He let things emerge, like the time he unexpectedly put his nearly empty bottle of Pabst or Schlitz down on the carpet in front of his big dachshund, Fred, who sniffed about and soon found that by laying one paw on the neck he could tip the last of the beer toward the top of the bottle and lap it out. Then he ate the label."
Angell tells the story of his growing up in bits and pieces. "Getting there, becoming my adult self, was not a steady goal in my scattered youth, and changes in me, when they came, took me by surprise," so he makes no attempt to impose a pattern on them where none, obviously, existed. Fortunately, though, the larger part of Let Me Finish is focused on his younger self because this seems, in truth, to be the most interesting part of his life. He does devote a number of pages to his life at the New Yorker, but there is almost none of the cozy, self-congratulatory air that marked Brendan Gill's undeservedly popular Here at the New Yorker . Angell does write about the mysterious and semi-legendary William Shawn, the magazine's second editor, but without idolatry; indeed, he confesses that "I have joined those who have no wish to linger within the great William Shawn National Forest after its recent-strip-minings." Shawn "was amazingly generous and friendly with me," but he was not God and the magazine he edited was not "Western civilization itself."
So: a lovely book and an honest one. What Angell writes may or may not be "true," but it contains truths: about loyalty and love, about work and play, about getting on with the cards that life deals you. It's also a genuinely grown-up book, a rare gem indeed in our pubescent age. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.