“This Old Man: All in Pieces” (Doubleday), by Roger Angell
You don’t make it to age 95 without seeing a lot of stuff. Or in the case of Roger Angell, writing it.
Having delivered his memoir nearly a decade ago (“Let Me Finish,” published in 2006), Angell combed through six decades’ worth of work to put together this collection: “This Old Man: All in Pieces.”
Much of it is reprinted from the pages of The New Yorker. Angell’s a true craftsman, carefully picking each word and phrase and, like any good editor, cutting out the fluff. The best entries are about baseball, which he began covering for The New Yorker in 1962. There are obits for Bob Feller, Earl Weaver and Don Zimmer, tributes to Jackie Robinson, Derek Jeter and Bob Gibson, and game recaps from recent World Series victories by the Red Sox and Giants.
As Angell writes in the introduction, “Readers are invited to … skip about, make a grab, turn back.”
So first read the title piece nestled near the end if you haven’t already. Angell wrote “This Old Man” last year and it deserves every accolade it’s received. Deeply personal and yet universal in its sentiment, it’s a marvel of the essay form.
Interspersed throughout the book are non-traditional writings like haikus about one of his beloved fox terriers and The New Yorker’s annual Christmas letter (“Greetings, Friends!”), as well as correspondence between Angell and the fiction writers he collaborated with for the magazine — Ann Beattie, Robert Creamer and Tracy Daughtery, just to name a few. To Beattie, now one of the country’s most celebrated short story writers, he wrote in 1985: “I’m sorry — extremely sorry — to say that we’re sending back ‘Another Day.’ No one here could recognize these people; they don’t seem to have any connection with real life.”
The “Past Masters” is another highlight. Angell offers literary criticism of “Lolita” as he remembers Vladimir Nabokov, pays tribute to the eternal writerly advice of his stepfather, E.B. White, in “The Elements of Style” (“Revise and rewrite,” ”Do not explain too much” and “Be clear”), and heaps praise on the illustrations of William Steig, whose cartoons distinguished The New Yorker from other magazines.
What stitches together the collection is a sense of gratitude. Angell knows he’s lived a full life enriched by family, friends and colleagues. He doesn’t know when his life will end, but came to terms with that long ago. (From “This Old Man”: “There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity.”) It feels like he assembled this collection in great part to say thank you. But it’s his readers who should be saying it. For as long as we have him and as long as he’s still contributing to The Sporting Scene and other fixtures of The New Yorker, we should appreciate his talent.