The Best American
Magazine Writing

There are eighteen writings here, mostly from those old warhorses: The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, New York, Harpers. A couple are too dated (Frank Rich on Romney, Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama) to be of much use. A few are baffling (Charles Graeber on Kim Dotcom, Robert Worth on torture in Libya).

Several are superb, vaut le voyage: Charles C. Mann on the "State of the Species," Michael Wolff on his dying mother, and Pamela Colloff on a Texas man who was wrongly convicted of killing his wife --- and spent twenty-five years in the pen until they found him innocent. One, by Roger Angell, tells of the dying of his wife. It's spare, dauntingly good ... an exquisite balance of purity that lies between grief, love and restraint.

And there's Stephen King's short fiction piece on a man disappearing in the fog of Alzheimer's. It reminds us that beneath the deepest tragedy there has to be an element of the risible. "There is an old joke about Alzheimer's," King writes. "The good news is that you meet new people every day." (My doctor actually said this to me when I was complaining --- several years ago, at age seventy-five --- of my memory being so remiss.)

The scenario is Dad and Sanderson at their regular Sunday noon time restaurant routine. The waiter says,

    "Green beans or coleslaw?"

    Pop snorts: "You kidding? All those beans were dead. You couldn't sell costume jewelry that year, let alone the real stuff."

    "He'll have the slaw," Sanderson says. "And I'll have --- "

    "All those beans were dead!" Pop says again, and gives the waiter an emphatic look.

The waiter merely nods and says, "They were dead," before turning to Sanderson. "For you, sir?"

The ending of this short short --- it runs less than a dozen pages --- reminds us of what we've known all along about King: he's at his best when he's in a hurry. "'I remember Dougie,' Pop says, 'but he died.' [Sanderson's name is Doug; he's sitting there, right in front of his dad.]

'No, Pop, huh-uh. Reggie died. He ...' Sanderson trails off, waiting to see if Pop will finish. Pop doesn't. 'He had a car accident.'"

    "Drunk, was he?" Pop asks. This hurts even after all the years. That's the bad news about what his father has --- he is capable of random cruelties that, while unmeant, can still sting like hell.

Sanderson thinks on the boy who killed his brother, and "walked away with nothing but a couple of scratches."

    That kid is in his fifties now, probably going silver at the temples. Sanderson hopes this grown version has prostate cancer and it hurts, he hopes the guy had a kid who died of SIDS, hopes he got mumps and went both blind and sterile, but he's probably just fine. Why not? He was sixteen. All water over the dam.

§   §   §

When we read anything (The Wall Street Journal, Penthouse, the Poultry Press, Diaper Bondage) we want to be entertained, instructed, enlightened ... and touched (if possible). Daphne Merkin gives us all of these in three essays from Elle. In one she gives us the facts: "single living" applies to fifty percent of Manhattan residents, "28 percent of U. S. households." She confesses, "I have never made my peace with it."

She recalls Philip Larkin's lament on coming home to an empty apartment; you open the door, and there's "the instantaneous grief of being alone." She compares it to solitary confinement, "an advanced course in living within the boundaries of the unaccompanied, unechoed self."

    Not to mention something more important that is rarely alluded to in the new paeans to the single life --- the lack of physical connection with another person, be it as basic as the touch of someone else's skin next to yours or the heightening of the senses that comes with good sex.

Merkin quotes an interview with a woman named Helen in Eric Klinenberg's Going Solo. She "doesn't chirp about loving her domestic autonomy or remaking society."

    Many people --- and I'm one of them --- absolutely live with loneliness all the time. It's like an illness.

Merkin is a writer who can, in a few pages, crystallize something the rest of us have been brooding about for years. Like panic.

Seventy years ago Anaïs Nin wrote, You were not kidnapped for white slavery. You were not in the clipper which sank twenty passengers into the sea. She calls it angoisse, and she captures it exactly, in her diary, May, 1943:

    Every other illness or pain is understood, pitied, shared with all human beings. Not this one. It is mysterious and solitary; it is as ineffectual and unmoving to others as the attempted crying out of a mute person.

"This diary has been le livre des angoisses," she writes. "The rarest pages in it are those of peace, contentment. So rare. Angoisse is the woman of a nightmare, screaming without a voice.

À la Recherche
des Jeux Perdus.

§   §   §

There are a couple of things misplaced in The Best American Magazine Writing. One is the date. It says 2013. But the credits page tells us that all of these stories and articles appeared in 2012. And knowing the vagaries of the printed page --- sixteen of the eighteen appeared in that wheezy old ancient fall-apart form called "the printed word" --- many were probably written months or years before they were published.

The second problem has to do with following through on what you say you are going to do. One of the most doubtful items here is not even from 2013. It was produced almost a half-century ago, You can feel the editors twitching in their attempt to figure out how to squeeze it in. They think it's hot. It's an old interview that lay buried, never published. And as I read through it, I'm wondering why it feels so klutzy.

It's 1967. Maggie Paley is in interview with Terry Southern for the Paris Review.

The questions and answers are so ho-hum as to make the reader want to pass on, or out. It is time with Terry Southern, but Paley never lets him run free. It takes us a while to figure it out what's really going on. Southern leaves all the clues we could ask for (he's a dramatist; in real life, too; this is dramatic proof). And from this vantage point, we can also figure out why it was never published anywhere.

It certainly wasn't the content, at least what most people would think of as essential content. (Writers interviewed in the Paris Review were and are given carte blanche to amend and change their remarks, not unlike U. S. Senators who can "revise and extend" their speeches in the Congressional Record.)

Towards the end of the interview we find Southern suddenly taking off on a very funny riff. It's about what he would've done if he weren't stuck with his current career choice:

    If I were not a writer I would prefer being a psychiatrist-gynecologist. I'm not sure this exists --- like eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist --- but I personally think it is a winning combo and would like to give it a whirl.

Southern then sets off on a mischievous ramble about George Plimpton, the editor of the Paris Review. Southern says that he wants to get a "Blowing Machine" [sic] that would be parked in front of a third-floor apartment on East Seventy-second Street, New York. It would be "loaded up with one ton of dog hair" and "would poise itself outside of George Plimpton's house like a great dragon."

After it had sent "a terrific blast of dog hair into the room --- a quarter ton per room," Southern would drop in --- casually --- "just sort of complaining in a vague way, occasionally brushing at my sleeve, et cetra, speaking with a kind of petulance." He would ask the maid ("Katherine the Char")

    Really, Katherine, I do think you might be more ... uh, well, I mean to say ..." voice trailing away, attention caught by something else, a picture on the wall: "I say, that is an amusing print --- is it new?" fixing her with a deeply searching look, so there could be no doubt at all as to my interest in the print. If this didn't snap her mind I would give her several hundred thousand dollars --- all in pennies. "Mr. Plimpton asked me to give you this, Katherine --- each coin represents the dark seed of his desire for you."

In their introduction to this interview, the editors claim to be puzzled as to why this never appeared in print, but one doesn't have to be terribly bright to figure it out.

Like most good writers, Southern was not interested in this noodling about with writers, how they write what they write ... dissecting them whole on the printed page. Like Faulkner, Larkin and Nabokov he wasn't interested in interviews that were supposed to figure out how their creative machines worked.

But Southern was a southerner (he was born in Alvarado, Texas) and he was polite. And canny. When the Paris Review came along and said they wanted an interview, he was thinking, "Hell, no," but being a gentleman, he thought it better not to say it just like that. He thought ... how can I go through with this and be damn sure it's never going to get printed? So Paley puts in her appearance with her recording machine ... and Southern pretends to be interviewed, speaking quite dully about his craft and sullen art.

We should never forget --- she and Plimpton should never have forgotten --- that it was Terry Southern who did the script for Dr. Strangelove. He knew there had to be a bomb in there somewhere. One that would not set itself off until later. Much, much later, there near the end.

George Plimpton didn't really like having to deal with this personal stuff either. So Terry thought to himself: let's stick a bomb in my interview. A Plimpton fantasy-bomb, one that goes off there his apartment on East Seventy-second Street. A very personal fantasy of lust.

Yes: that's it. In our interview, let's build an editor's dream. A dream crawling with pennies. And a ton of dog hair. And passion.

Lots and lots of all-too-personal Plimpton passion. For a poor maid.

--- Pamela Wylie
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