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A storied view

Reporting Writings From The New Yorker David Remnick Alfred A. Knopf: 484 pp. $27.95

April 30, 2006|Nicholas Goldberg | Nicholas Goldberg is editor of the op-ed page and the Current section of The Times.

IN his office at the New Yorker, David Remnick keeps a photo of A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, two of the magazine's iconic writers from a previous era. The "two great Joes," as he calls them, walked the city's streets together in the 1930s and '40s, wrote about its characters, ate at its dives and drank at such plebian watering holes as Bleeck's and Costello's. They are Remnick's journalistic heroes -- partly because, as he explained to an interviewer last year, there was nothing decorous, airy or twee about their writing.

Neither Liebling nor Mitchell focused on the doings of the elite or the grand politics of their time. Both were former newspapermen: Mitchell, a well-mannered North Carolinian, mostly turned out spare, elegant portraits of New York's eccentrics; Liebling covered soldiers, rogues and lowlifes, the press and the New York boxing scene. They wrote about the "unfamous," Remnick says, but their "human, emotional material often ran as deep as the best fiction."

But much as he loves them, Remnick has a more ambitious plan than Liebling or Mitchell did. As the fifth editor of the New Yorker -- following co-founder Harold Ross, beloved but quirky Mr. Shawn, the ephemeral Robert Gottlieb and "It girl" Tina Brown -- Remnick is credited with shepherding the country's smartest, most readable magazine toward profitability in his day job. And in his spare time, Remnick writes -- something his predecessors rarely did. Not delicate little Talk of the Town vignettes either, but big 10,000-word pieces about weighty themes and important, powerful people.

In "Reporting," his latest collection, there's Vaclav Havel marveling, during his last working week as president of the Czech Republic, at the absurdity of his ascendancy from a series of communist prison cells to a black-tie gala at Prague Castle. There's Al Gore in the wilderness after losing the 2000 presidential election, alternately talking in his "Mr. Goofy" and "Herr Professor" voices. There's the "blandly agreeable" bureaucrat Vladimir Putin, with his "flat, even dead" gaze. There's Philip Roth tooling through the WASPy clapboard neighborhoods of northwestern Connecticut, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, with long Tolstoyan beard and Asiatic eyes, living far from home behind a chain-link fence in Cavendish, Vt.

Baseball, boxing, books, Jews, Russia and power are Remnick's recurrent themes. His characters are generally powerful or famous or both, but they also tend to be misfits in some way: exiles, losers, betrayers, failed comeback artists. Men, for the most part (Remnick's former boss at the Washington Post, Katharine Graham, is the exception), who have battled some kind of adversity but have risen to the top of whatever it is they do.

The essays are a pleasure to read. They're intelligent and serious, but they're also perceptive and funny. Remnick mixes literature, politics and history and then tries to bring them all together into a meaningful whole. Subjects are mined for their complication and moral ambiguity. Boxing is compared to epic poetry; a profile of Mike Tyson includes references to Machiavelli, Voltaire, Dumas and Norman Mailer, among others.

For me, the more satisfying pieces were not about the greats who "alter history," as Remnick puts it, but about the people who record and interpret it.

The Roth profile is the archetype. Remnick describes the author of "Portnoy's Complaint" at his 1790 Connecticut farmhouse, standing at his writing desk to preserve his bad back, surrounded by pictures of his father, mother and brother and the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. The house has room after room of books alphabetized by category. Roth appears at the door dressed like "a graduate student of the late fifties," in corduroys and tweed. The depiction is spot-on, one senses, but not what Remnick has come for. What he really wants to describe is Roth's attention to nuance, his blunt honesty in the face of an often disapproving public, his ability to look at America and "see behind things," as Roth himself puts it.

When Remnick drove up to see Roth, it was shortly after the publication of "The Human Stain" and not long after the traumatic summer of Monica Lewinsky. "Many of Roth's most persistent themes were coming into play," Remnick writes. "Betrayal, false piety, a flawed man's struggle with the repellent and the libidinous."

Roth is like many of Remnick's characters -- a bit of an oddball, a bit out of place in his chosen home, a bit maligned by those he cares about, but relentless in his determination to understand the world around him. Like many others in the book, he shuts himself away and works a crushing schedule seven days a week; he takes long walks "to figure out connections and solve problems in the novel that's possessing him."

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