Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Joseph Mitchell's "Up in the Old Hotel": Book Review

Preparing for a stay near McSorley's Old Ale House, I read this over a weekend. It flows, as profiles and stories aimed at "The New Yorker" often do, very well. Joseph Mitchell combines his Piedmont North Carolina roots in the fiction included with his outsider-insider's knack at recording (perhaps with a bit of editing and improving, who knows it being the '40s) his fellow denizens of the Bowery, the fishing fleets, and the boardinghouses that once comprised so much of vanished Manhattan.

This nostalgic appeal feels even in the late '30s articles very strong. Mitchell records not only Joe Gould in two extended and slightly overlapping entries about this enigmatic fellow turned down-and-outer, but others as compelling if less annoying. The glimpses of McSorley's introduce the collection reprinted of that name, and among the twenty-odd selections, I liked the masterful manner in which the back-to-back social commentary of Mohawk high steel walkers and the tipsy beefsteak celebrants were introduced and sustained. There's much on gypsies, one of Mitchell's passions, as seen by the cops. Mazie of the theater district, Lady Olga of the beard, and the rather cruel trickster Santa Claus Smith all gain noteworthy starring roles. These earlier vignettes and profiles for me proved the most intriguing.

Stories follow, with an ear for the vernacular and a tone not dissimilar from his non-fiction observations. Some are set in the same environs as the essays, others in his native South. "Old Mr. Flood" offers three long looks at local fishing. I admit about zero interest in clams, but the skill of Mitchell's diligent attention makes you--as with John McPhee's geological studies in the magazine in later years--learn as you follow a chronicler of the hidden terrain underneath our eyes and noses. However, the increasing documentation with all things maritime once upon a time in New York City may not keep you reading every salty word as closely as the tales set on the sidewalk or the tenement do.

Finally, after much more of the same adding to the anthology titled "The Bottom of the Harbor," I confessed I was happy to find the title story "Up in the Old Hotel" with its peering into the dust of an abandoned ferry hotel above the Fulton Fish Market enticing, back to a landlubber's curious gaze upward. The article chasing down lore and legend about the giant rats on the waterfront may haunt you, to say the least.

Therefore, ending this with "Joe Gould's Secret" (given away in the paperback preface of this reprint edition by David Remnick) feels appropriate. The stages of interest, disgust, fascination and forgiveness play themselves out in Mitchell's hearing and telling deftly. And, the parallels to Mitchell's own career, in its second half, will also linger as a parable. (See also my review of his colleague at the magazine, John McNulty's The Place on Third Avenue, with similar tales from the same time at Costello's. This review of Mitchell 9/29/12 to Amazon US.)

No comments: