John McNulty is not as well known as his colleague at the 1940s' New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell. Both explored the seedy side of a now-vanished East Side, but McNulty, son of immigrants, got the mood down equally well: "He's Irish, so he broods," to paraphrase his summation of one bartender's quote at Costello's at Third Avenue around 42nd Street.
Both Mitchell and McNulty thrived on capturing the rhythms of the speaker on the streets, and for McNulty, especially at the bar. Mitchell chose McSorley's, Mitchell Costello's. They listened, one suspects, more than they themselves spoke, but their essays conveyed what they heard for us, decades on. As with an oral history, we read and the tales unfold.
The best are around WWII, as the stories arranged by his widow, Faith, demonstrate the entanglements of Grogan the Horseplayer, Clancy the gigolo, and various characters. One bartender, the night before he is called up to serve, lets out bitterly with well-aimed barbs after fifteen-odd years of silence at his feckless, boasting, sodden customers. One bickers in a great vignette with a barkeep over his attempt to hold back a barometer's little figure of a woman signalling calm and a little cardboard counterpart, a tiny man as a harbinger of storms: this approaches existentialism by what it says and what it suggests.
It's a small book, easily read in a night. It got off to a shaky start, as you can feel McNulty improving after he's hired by the magazine and begins to get down his own style, and his pacing--by the time the war comes, the pace arrives and McNulty finds his voice by channeling that of others--no easy feat. It must have been a challenge to do this, for him.
Faith's foreward places her husband in his own struggles with the bottle, his tenure at the magazine, and his haunting the place that made his reputation. The patter nears music in how accurately it sustains notes of the voices, when they leap out of the silence as each man contemplates "the mirror" of a face he may not recognize or want as his own.
Out of such encounters, McNulty skillfully, and subtly, limns the tension of life in mid-century Manhattan. The fashions, slang, and drinks may change--Costello's seems an early casualty of what later decades might call yuppification after it gained a reputation in McNulty's magazine, ironically--but the lessons remain. Decency, skulduggery, and a challenge to repeat truth rather than tall tales. One senses, after his wife's remarks, that McNulty himself gazed into the mirror many nights. (See also my Sept. 2012 review of Mitchell's anthology, Up in the Old Hotel . This McN to Amazon 10-23-12)