1109 Stories in the voice of New York
New Yorkers: A City and its People in Our Time
by Craig Taylor
Toronto: Penguin Random House (Doubleday Canada), 2021
$39.95 / 9780385681636
Reviewed by Brian Harvey
My one visit to New York was on August 11, 1977 and it lasted two hours. I remember suffocating heat, a sense of vertigo from all those buildings, and the placards on the sidewalk, so many there could be no mistaking that today was special. “Son of Sam Caught!” they said. “Serial Killer Apprehended!” Or just, “Finally!” and a mugshot of a doughy young man with disturbingly sensual lips and the slightest of smirks. David Berkowitz had kept New Yorkers on edge for a year, shooting his victims, leaving notes, taunting the cops. New York already had the reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities on earth. “Don’t make eye contact,” people had told me.
I stumbled around Times Square, craning my neck and trying to avoid going under in a river of unusually happy New Yorkers, then caught the next train back to Basking Ridge, New Jersey. After that, New York stayed where I was comfortable with it, in films and on the pages of books. I got to know Tokyo and London, Sao Paulo and Bangkok, Paris and Rome – but the Big Apple stayed on the tree. The only actual New Yorker I came to know at all well was brassy and brilliant and unreservedly voluble; as a proxy for New York, she would have to do.
My ignorance lasted until 2021, when Craig Taylor followed his best-selling book on London with New Yorkers: A City and its People in Our Time, and I was asked to review it. I knew about New Yorkers from the capsule review I’d seen in the New Yorker, a magazine that’s as close as I ever get to New York. From that tiny writeup I learned two things. First, even the famously fact-checking New Yorker could screw up, because Taylor was described as a British author (he actually lives in Nanaimo). Second, and much more important, most of the words in New Yorkers weren’t Taylor’s. New Yorkers was a work of oral history.
Oral history is a slippery literary beast. It’s hard to define and it breaks many of the rules of non-fiction writing. Oral history can charm you or send you running for the shelter of an author whose sources never make it onto the page raw and unfiltered. Because most authors don’t work the way oral historians do: they take notes compulsively, on anything and anyone, then incorporate the good stuff into their stories, changing names and writing everything in their own voice. But in oral history, people’s stories are recorded, given a modest cleanup or edit, curated and presented to the reader. The closest I’d come to the process of creating oral history was some years ago, when my friend David Greer started asking his friends and acquaintances to relate experiences that had been uncomplicated, inexpensive and memorably wonderful. I came up with lying on at outrigger while chugging across the Sulu Sea in the Philippines. Lots of people contributed; David’s efforts resulted in a book called Simple Pleasures. It did well. The approach works.
But David had rewritten our stories. They were oral history, but history expertly retold. Craig Taylor’s New Yorkers is different, because the seventy-five stories that make up most of the book, while they are surely edited, remain firmly in the voice of their owners. That’s seventy-five different voices (well, a few less, because several of the people appear more than once, a powerful technique I’ll say more about later). That onslaught of so many voices put me on a kind of literary alert – especially after I’d read Taylor’s first chapter and realized how beautifully he himself writes. In that introduction he paid homage to the great E.B. White, whose early columns for the New Yorker magazine every writer reveres. He described taking a private elevator and stepping into the “scented apartment” of a “well-moisturized man” and I thought, I could use more of this. But when that eloquent introduction ended after only thirteen pages and the New Yorkers started to make themselves heard, my guard went up.
I started to look for reasons to be critical, because a book like New Yorkers calls into question many of the rules that writers think they have to live by. An unconventional book calls for an unconventional review and, as a writer, I found it a bracing exercise to work through such a long list of nits to pick.
For the first thirty or so stories, I was thrown off by all those different voices. Every writer has his or her unique voice. “Find your own voice” is one of the cardinal teachings of the revered William Zinsser, whose On Writing Well is now in its 30th edition. He also says, “use simple language” and “tell a story.” When I began New Yorkers the book seemed cheerfully to violate all three commandments, most obviously in the lack of a consistent voice. Taylor wrote so well, and I liked his voice – why did he have to take a back seat to seventy-something other voices? Granted, lots of them were memorable, but did I really want to listen to the rapper Cook Monsta Da Illest verbatim? Switching from one voice to another was like cutting your way safely through a mass of pedestrians: not fun, although probably very New York.
As I progressed from story to story, I couldn’t repress other technical quibbles. How did Taylor choose his subjects? He tells us he talked to 180 people in all, so that many obviously didn’t make the cut, but how were they selected? Was there a bias toward people who were available and happy to ramble on, a sort of reality TV on paper? And if a book needs to tell a story, as Zinsser says, what’s the story in New Yorkers? Sure, many incidents are related, and they’re all pretty interesting, but where’s the “arc”, that inexorable process of change that characters are supposed to travel along, the string that ties the book together and pulls the reader right to the last page? I would finish a story and think, well, where did that take us?
On I went, looking for faults like a home inspector sticking his flashlight in his mouth and poking his head in the attic. Did I really care about two bankers arguing in a restaurant about the point of owning a $200 Ferragamo necktie? I decided I didn’t. And what about this guy Dan Bauso, a personal injury lawyer who drove around in a beat-up Nissan Quest and nattered on about the Big Apple Pothole Company that maps every crack in every New York sidewalk so that lawyers like him can sue if a client trips on one of them? At least Craig Taylor surfaced in that story, italicized but in the flesh; even his mother was along for the ride in the Nissan. But wait –suddenly there was a narrative, something I’d been sorely missing. Bauso was pretty funny, so was Taylor’s mom.
Here, finally, was interaction. I decided New Yorkers might be okay after all. When I read the next story, by Tom Moore – another lawyer – I realized Taylor was way ahead of me. He was doing something subtle and smart. Tom Moore had been richly described by Dan Bauso, and now here he was, in his own words. Taylor was constructing an arc after all. Ten stories later, I ran into Bauso again, battling through the floods of Hurricane Sandy with his teenage daughter. Next story, here’s the daughter’s recollection. Another dozen stories and Bauso is close to death from COVID, a whirlwind of a chapter where a born entertainer finds himself using his gift of the gab to literally talk and dance and sing himself away from death’s door.
When I finished that section (it’s called Pandemic City) I realized I’d been reading for two hours. It was evening. I don’t usually read review books in the evening. Reviewing is work. But I was still reading New Yorkers.
After that, I stopped worrying about structure. I took my inspector’s flashlight out of my mouth, closed the hatch to the attic and settled into the most comfortable chair in the house. Taylor appeared often enough to keep me happy, once in the only story that’s structured as an actual interview, and three times in the first-person “Interludes” that tell the moving tale of Taylor’s complicated relationship with a homeless man. Once I’d accepted that the New Yorkers were going to speak for themselves I started to enjoy their language and cadences. A nanny referred to her clients as having “a violent amount of wealth.” The “Voice of the Brooklyn Nets” rattled off all the different ways to describe the way a basketball hits the rim, and it could have been a master class for writers in the use of “active language.” A recycler described fatigue at the end of his day: “My feet are somebody else’s.” I began to see why Taylor let his subjects talk directly, and the lack of an overall narrative that had nagged me at the start gave way to the realization that, instead, the book had a leitmotif as strong as any extended story: Life happens. This is how New Yorkers deal with it. Listen up, you might learn something.
And so the New Yorkers themselves – garrulous, insistent and the opposite of the reticent Londoners Taylor had dealt with in his previous book – finally had their say. My own silly prejudice against people who talk a lot (“the more they talk, the less they have to say”) had to be qualified with “except New Yorkers.” I even started to create images for some of the more vivid characters (none are described physically), using films about New York as my source. Dan Bauso, the personal injury lawyer who keeps popping up? Gotta be John Belushi. The assistant to a ridiculously wealthy family who has to go to surreal lengths to source the best paper plates for a party? Read the piece and try not to see Bill Murray.
By the time I was nearly through the book I began to hear their voices too. They were insistent, in what I was beginning to think of as a New York kind of way. “Hey!” I would hear from the coffee table when I got up to make lunch. “We boring you?” I imagined them crammed together, fighting to get out. I couldn’t escape. When I went for a walk on the beach I suddenly had a vivid image of New Yorkers cartwheeling after me over the intertidal gravel, its brilliant subway-line cover flashing in the sun, pages flapping and a ragged chorus of tiny, annoyed voices yelling, “We’re not done here!”
I finished New Yorkers in the kind of pell-mell dash that only the best of books make you run. And then, because seventy-five stories can leave a lot of loose ends, I went back and started again. The difference between a New York pizza and a Neapolitan, was it just the crust? The crumb structure maybe? That pizza guide fellow on page 219, he’d set me straight.
Brian Harvey grew up on the West Coast of Canada and trained as a marine biologist. He began writing newspaper columns and science-travel articles for magazines in 1997. His first book for a general audience, The End of the River, was a Globe and Mail “Best 100” book for 2008 and was followed by two works of fiction, Beethoven’s Tenth and Tokyo Girl. His latest book, Sea Trial: Sailing After My Father, reviewed here by Theo Dombrowski, was a 2019 Governor General’s Award finalist for nonfiction and an Independent Publishers Book Awards medalist in the memoir category. Editor’s note: Brian Harvey has also reviewed books by Trevor Carolan, Robert Amos, Sam McKinney, and Alex Zimmerman for The Ormsby Review. He lives in Nanaimo.
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“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster