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BOOK REVIEWS

When the power was in the writing, not the PC

September 08, 2008|Marc Weingarten | Special to The Times

New York Stories

Landmark Writing From Four Decades of New York Magazine

Edited by Steve Fishman,

John Homans and Adam Moss

Random House: 570 pp.,

$17 paper

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Submersion Journalism

Reporting in the Radical First Person From Harper's Magazine

Edited by Bill Wasik

The New Press: 322 pp., $26.95

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AS PRINT journalism supposedly recedes into the mists of history, and we continue to laud the Internet as the future of just about everything, it's important to note that there is still a lot of great work being done by the denizens of the old wave. " New York Stories" and "Submersion Journalism" give the lie to the notion that old-fashioned reportage in the service of that creaky, leaky vessel called print media is obsolete.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of New York magazine, and we now have a long-overdue anthology of pieces written for the weekly. The timing is bittersweet, as New York's founder (and editor until 1977), Clay Felker, passed away only two months ago. The encomiums that poured in from the many who once wrote for Felker (including Tom Wolfe, whose tribute is included here) are a fitting testament to one of the greatest magazine editors of the postwar era.

This book as a whole, however, is an even better tribute. Just scan the table of contents and numerous seminal pieces can be found. "Radical Chic," Wolfe's 1970 evisceration of Upper East Siders throwing a Black Panther benefit; Nik Cohn's "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" from 1976, which was the basis for "Saturday Night Fever"; Wolfe's "The 'Me' Decade," a 1976 story about the spiritual narcissism of the white moneyed class, whose headline became a catchphrase for an entire generation.

When Felker co-founded the magazine from the detritus of the folded New York Herald Tribune in 1967, he positioned it as a smart and insidery cultural Baedeker. He hired a bunch of upstarts who turned out to be cracker jacks -- Gail Sheehy (whom he would later marry), Mark Jacobson, Julia Baumgold, Gloria Steinem -- and set them loose on the teeming caldron that was New York City. The result was an entirely new voice in American journalism -- brash, knowing, acutely class-conscious and occasionally cynical -- that would become the default mode for subsequent feature writers.

There was, indeed, lots to write about. It seems like a no-brainer now, but when New York magazine turned its gaze to, say, the life of cabbies in the city, it was entirely new. Former taxi driver Jacobson's "Night-Shifting for the Hip Fleet" from 1975, which became the basis for the sitcom "Taxi," is richly observed and empathetic: "The day liners trickle in, hand over their crumpled dollars, and talk about the great U-turns they made on 57th Street. There are about fifty people waiting to go out. Everyone is hoping for good car karma."

Class -- its benefits and discontents -- has always been a leitmotif for "New York's" writers, and it's the subject of much of the best work in this anthology. While writers such as Pete Hamill, Debbie Nathan and Jimmy Breslin give the working class a voice, New York made its name by blowing raspberries at the silly rituals of New Yorkers with too much money and lots of time to spend it.

In Nora Ephron's sly 1968 piece "Critics in the World of the Rising Souffle (Or Is It the Rising Meringue?)," she describes a genus that would come to be known as "foodie": "He has been known to debate for hours such subjects as whether nectarines are peaches or plums, and whether the vegetables that Michael Field, Julia Child and James Beard had one night at La Caravelle and said were canned were in fact canned."

Jay McInerney's 2006 piece "The Death of (the Idea of) the Upper East Side" tracks the "new luxury aesthetic" of downtown Manhattan, while John Taylor's 1988 story "Hard to Be Rich" gleefully skewers Wall Street macher John Gutfreund and his young wife, Susan, who orders "green apples of spun sugar" for Henry Kissinger's 60th birthday party, made "using a technique [the chef] learned from the glassblowers of Murano."

This is all great fun to read, even when the pieces are dead serious, making " New York Stories" a great field guide to the passing parade of American culture over the last four decades.

"Submersion Journalism," a collection of long nonfiction pieces from Harper's, contains some brilliant work, but it's a lot more sober. The tone is established in Roger D. Hodge's introduction, in which the magazine's editor claims that America in the "Naughts" has suffered from a "kind of auto-immune disorder," in which "the social and political systems normally responsible for maintaining the healthy functioning of the body politic instead turned against it with particular savagery." Whether you agree with that assessment will determine whether you will enjoy this book.

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