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A story with legs

Let Me Finish Roger Angell Harcourt: 304 pp., $25

May 21, 2006|Richard Eder | Richard Eder, former book critic of The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

THERE was a time, mostly past, when the New Yorker short story was admired or criticized as its own genre: civilized, subtle, its point hidden like a stiletto in a linen napkin, and no cussing.

Less noted but at least as distinctive was a school of stoic, antically grave and fine-etched expository writing. E.B. White was the star, but William Maxwell, Joseph Mitchell and Roger Angell were among his schoolmates and disciples.

Angell, now in his 80s, is the survivor: a dubious tribute to the preservative effect of the notorious Fenway frank in a man best known as the Thucydides of baseball, Red Sox vulnerabilities included. Best known, but not for his best, it seems -- as evidence, this collection of memories, some of them published over the years as New Yorker "casuals."

Read together, Angell's casuals are painstaking craft, one that stops time and (that stoic touch) relinquishes it. He uses memory not as a statement but as a hypothesis. The title, "Let Me Finish," suggests an old man sure of what he remembers but unsure it will endure. Meanwhile, he may at any moment be interrupted or out-talked.

Angell writes of his lawyer father, a "sad formidable man," and his stepfather, Andy (E.B.) White, a quicksilver sprite. He writes of childhood car trips, small-boat sailing, imagined lost loves, and martinis. He writes of New England's dual upper-caste marks: eccentricity and summers along the Maine coast.

The portrait of the father painfully evokes the heaviness that oppressed the paternal efforts to provide happiness to Roger and his sister. They lived with him in an East Side townhouse staffed with servants; there were strenuous outings and vacations and all manner of cultural excursions. He introduced young Roger to baseball, which he played himself, and to New York's glory days with Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. But it was an enjoined happiness. ("He who bends to himself a Joy / Doth the winged life destroy," William Blake wrote.) Anger underlay it.

After a tastefully ordered Christmas featuring a tree with old-fashioned candles, the two children would taxi downtown for a rowdy, colored-lights affair with their mother, Katharine Angell, and Andy White, who had fallen in love and married while working at the New Yorker. Roger's father never forgave her. Each morning the boy heard him loudly reciting his grievances as he shaved.

Of such divided Christmases, as much an American tradition by now as the yearly viewing of "It's a Wonderful Life," Angell writes: "I swore to myself that such a thing would never be done to my own kids, when they came along. Only it was." (He married twice.)

Not surprisingly, Angell re-creates his boyhood baseball-going. It meant "going," in fact; it didn't come to you. There was no television and, in the 1930s, only an occasional radio broadcast. At various points he insists on the importance of legs and the difference that using them made. He recalls his father, heavy or not, playing baseball whenever he had the chance. "[M]ost of American life, including baseball, no longer feels feasible," he writes. "We know everything about the game now ... and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it."

The most evocative portrait is of E.B. White. "Lately I have been missing my stepfather, Andy White, who keeps excusing himself while he steps out of the room to get something from his study or heads out the back kitchen door, on his way to the barn again. He'll be right back." Those are sentences White himself might have written.

His stepfather's lightness of spirit captured this son of heaviness. When White's shoes were stolen as he was ice skating on the Boston Common, instead of making a fuss he simply tottered back to Beacon Hill in his skates. His style was not to impose on things but let them impose on him, and then write about it. He avoided public gatherings and ceremonies whenever he could. "If Andy White could be with us today he would not be with us today," Angell said, speaking at White's memorial.

The most haunting and in a way the most terrible passage in this collection tells of a grandchild visiting White at the Maine farm where he lived and worked -- at farming as well as writing. White's "Charlotte's Web" was her gospel, so when she learned that her grandfather planned to have a pig butchered, she left him a note with the two words his famous spider wove to rescue Wilbur: "Some pig!"

Life is not stories, but what a hard way for a child to learn it. The author of the luminous fable went for the bacon and ham. The reprieve that saved Charlotte's Wilbur didn't save their creator's pig. Perhaps shockingly and perhaps not (don't readers know better, or is it better that they don't?), E.B. White relinquishes the illusion he has created -- or does he betray its reality? -- and is on the way to the barn again. He'll be right back. *

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