This Old Man by Roger Angell, review by Bruce Jacobs
If you're blessed with a nonagenarian father, grandfather or uncle who's still got all his marbles, has lived among the best in the worlds of sports, literature and art, and has a knack for anecdotal storytelling, light verse, illustration and brief eulogies, consider yourself very, very lucky. If you aren't, long time New Yorker writer and author of countless articles and a dozen books (The Summer Game, A Pitcher's Story) Roger Angell is a perfect stand-in. His new collection, This Old Man, is a potpourri of short pieces which he calls in his introduction a "dog's breakfast": a "mélange, a grab-bag, a plate of hors d'oeuvres, a teenager's closet, a bit of everything." And what a breakfast of champions it is.
Angell's gentle wit and insight permeate these brief vignettes about his family, colleagues, acquaintances, famous political figures and, of course, ballplayers. Among them, he reviews his stepfather E.B. White's One Man's Meat, summing it up as a book that "always had the heft, the light usefulness, of a bushel basket, carrying a raking of daily or seasonal notions." His membership in "the greatest generation" somewhat embarrasses him, with its cavalier acceptance of the firebombing of Japan at the end of the war that annihilated close to a million civilians--and makes him reflect: "Killing more civilians than the other side is what war makes you do, but reaching the decision and then acting on it doesn't make you good or great. It makes you tired and it keeps you awake at night, still crazy after all these years."
With chapter headings like "Farewells" and "Past Masters," he touches on a broad swath of dead literary and sports icons like Donald Barthelme, Vladimir Nabokov, fastballer Bob Feller, slugger Duke Snider, V.S. Pritchett (who taught him that "fiction need not always confirm our knowing, irony-abraded wariness; sometimes we need it to motor along life's outer possibilities, to provide the jolts and swerves that keep us awake"), Carl Yastrzemski ("One of my poignant private regrets when he departed was the same one I felt when Nikita Khrushchev stepped down: I know how to spell their names without looking."), and William Maxwell (whose stories "are the same stories we tell ourselves... in search of happiness but much more often in the hope of finding an unexpected window or bend in the path").
Angell's collection winds down with "This Old Man," a piece from the New Yorker. He's still got some spunk: "I'm ninety-three, and I'm feeling great. Well, pretty great, unless I've forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours... the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already." Let's hope Angell hasn't really had enough already. There can be no better guiding hand to the other side, especially one who appreciates the rarity of an unassisted triple play and laments instant replay reviews because "umps should always be right, even when they aren't."
Bruce's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.