At last, a memoir for grown-ups
New Yorker grandee Roger Angell gracefully narrates his own life story.
Even before "A Million Little Pieces," the word "memoir" had acquired a sordid undertone in America. The genre's bestsellers have come to seem a gruesome game of one-upmanship, where authors trot out ever more horrifying revelations of the abuse they either survived or inflicted on themselves or others.
Here to remind readers that life is more than damage endured is Roger Angell, a prominent baseball writer and longtime editor at The New Yorker. His new memoir, Let Me Finish, is a collection of personal reminiscences of his childhood, service in World War II, and work at the magazine - along with his love of sailing, movies, and long car trips.
What makes the book stand out is not the grace and ease of the writing, although both are abundant, nor the form, although the freedom from a chronological timeline is a blessing more memoirists should employ. Nor is it necessarily the topics chosen: Anybody picking up the book already knows that Americans love to drive, that baseball is the national pastime for a reason, that movies were a psychological mainstay during the Great Depression, and that boys love snakes.
What's so lovely is the utter lack of bitterness and self-pity with which Angell discusses even the tough events of his life, such as his dad's infidelities, his parents' divorce, and the custody arrangement that separated the 9-year-old from his mother.
He lived with his father, Edward, except on weekends and for a few weeks during summers. The affairs, he writes, were "what had done them in, but my mother could never bring herself to say that she had left us kids behind, along with the marriage, in order to join [E.B.] White. Her tale stopped at that point, for all her life. Family memoirists, caught somewhere between feelings of disloyalty and the chic contemporary mode that demands that we tell all and affix damages, don't take this stuff lightly. Neither could the principals."
Katherine Sergeant Angell was a highly respected fiction editor at The New Yorker (Angell eventually inherited both her job and her office), and she remarried humorist and children's writer E.B. White, known as Andy to family and friends. Angell's dad was a successful lawyer, so his childhood was filled with material privilege and some amazing opportunities for name-dropping. (Über foreign correspondent Emily Hahn brought Angell a macaque for a pet when he was 12, just for starters.)
Yet somehow, Angell avoids Vanity Fair-style puffery when reminiscing about literary luminaries, another testament to his civility and all-around good manners. (Although for those of us who view bumping into our son's preschool teacher at the grocery store as an event, the French vacation when S.J. Perelman took Angell to meet W. Somerset Maugham a few days after dining with Tennessee Williams might qualify as at least an embarrassment of riches.)
Some of the book's chapters originally appeared in The New Yorker. The best tend to be about his parents and famous stepfather, or about the magazine he calls "the family firm."
While Angell's overarching theme is memory and how impossible it is to recapture a loved one when all you have to go on is anecdote and shards of remembered details, what's striking for the reader is how powerful many of those details are. In "Hard Lines," Angell has a recurring dream about when he wasn't feeling well as a small boy and his mother carried him to the bathroom. A psychiatrist asks him, "And how often did your mother hold you in her arms back then?" The reader feels punched in the gut on behalf of a small boy who never got his fair share of cuddling. Angell, however, is matter of fact: "No one in our family was much of a hugger, to tell the truth, Mother least of all."
Also outstanding are "King of the Forest" - his paean to a dad who had no idea what he was doing as a parent, but never gave up - and "Andy." "Lately I have been missing my stepfather, Andy White, who keeps excusing himself while he steps out of the room to get something from his study or heads out the back kitchen door, on his way to the barn again. He'll be right back.... By 'missing' I don't mean yearning for him so much as not being able to keep hold of him for a bit of conversation or even a tone of voice."
Angell indulges in paragraph-long lists of names, which can be mildly annoying. In "The Comic Weekly," however, when he catalogs the list of famous writers he worked with that he will probably never write about - James Thurber, William Steig, Ogden Nash - readers are more likely to feel dismayed than irked.
While the title of this memoir is meant to "evoke a garrulous gent at the end of the table holding up one hand while he tries to remember the great last line of his monologue," most of us can only hope that Angell has not yet quite finished.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.