Happily for his readers, Roger Angell ignored the advice of his stepfather, E.B. White, who once remarked that a writer had a better chance of producing something great if he spent the first 40 years of his life doing something else.
Instead, Angell followed White to The New Yorker in 1956. Now 95, Angell continues to write for the magazine. Over the years his contributions have included reported stories, profiles, commentary, humor, book and movie reviews, and, increasingly, encomia for departed friends.
His latest book, “This Old Man,’’ gathers nearly 90 of his more recent pieces, most of them originally published in The New Yorker. He calls these renderings, organized in “a rough chronology,’’ “a dog’s breakfast.”
A dog’s breakfast these days consists of “Alpo or some canned meat with a vitaminized kibble.” Back in another era, his era, he notes, it was “left-over lima beans or spinach, a fresh but limp carrot, a splash of milk, and a half-bitten doughnut.” It is what this collection is all about — in Angell’s inimitable phrasing, a “mélange, a grab bag, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a teenager’s closet, a bit of everything.”
So what does it include?
The subject matter is wide-ranging but throughout Angell treats the readers to his kindly sense of irony, prose loaded with vivid textures, colors, and smells, and an emphasis on time’s transience and the importance of love.
Take this 2007 casual piece, “horse talk,’’ and how one large equine inspires reminiscences of “cloppier times”:
“Horses once abounded in New York, with a hundred and twenty thousand of them still in residence in 1908, when a reporter called them . . . ‘a terrible tax upon human life’ . . . [t]heir numbers declined precipitously thereafter . . . I walk my dog, Harry, on the [Park bridle] path every day . . . The smell of the great animal — nothing else is like it — arrived and then went by. I don’t always know what my dog is thinking but this time I did: Holy [crap]!”
The transience of time is recalled in a piece called “Huckleberry Finn” when Angell writes:
“In my boyhood summers, we lived in a Dutch-fieldstone house a dozen yards from the western shore of the Hudson, and the river’s damp sounds and smells, its wide white expanse of glassy or wind-mottled water, its brackish tides, its ceaseless movement, and its night lappings impinged on my young consciousness unawares.”
Doesn’t this reflection make you think how big the world was when you were a kid, and how little you knew, closeted away in a small house?
Angell understands the importance of expressing love with a gentle humor, too.
He’s portrayed it in the profiles of people he loved, like his mother, Katherine. She spent one Christmas Day in the Harkness Pavilion of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, when he parodied Clement Moore thusly:
“T’was the night after Christmas in the Pavilion called Harkness/ The patients were lying in pain and in darkness/ The interns were nestled all snug in their beds/ While visions of catheters danced in their heads.”
The dumb jingle was just what she needed. “But they told me to avoid any laughing,” Katherine protested.
Finally, one can’t do better than the beginning of the title piece, “This Old Man,’’ to acknowledge the ravages of age but appreciate the importance of just being alive:
“Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. . . . To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you at the left knee. Arthritis.”
Angell nails the reader every time with his casual, dead-on observations about life. It’s OK to laugh, even if his shot hits you in the knee.
THIS OLD MAN: All in Pieces
By Roger Angell
Doubleday, 298 pp., illustrated, $26.95
Michael D. Langan has written for the BBC, The Dublin Review of Books, and various US newspapers.