If you wanted to explain to a visiting Martian what the old American WASP aristocracy was all about, you could find worse examples than Roger Angell. First, there is the pedigree: one ancestor, Captain John Sheple, was captured as a teenager by Abenaki Indians in a raid on Groton, Mass., in 1694. A prisoner for three years, he later, a local historian declared, held many offices of trust and responsibility, both civil and ecclesiastical. One of Angell’s great-grandfathers, James Shepley, graduated from Bowdoin College in 1846, helped to write the state constitution of Minnesota, before moving west in the 1870’s to California, where he was murdered by unknown desperadoes. Angell’s father, Ernest (a 1913 graduate of Harvard Law School), was one of the early stalwarts of the A.C.L.U.; his mother, Katherine, was a highly regarded New Yorker editor, who left her husband for the writer E. B. White.
Born in 1920, Angell went to Harvard, of course. Drafted in 1942, he proved to be mechanically gifted and spent much of World War II in Colorado, instructing G.I.’s how to fire and fix the Browning caliber .50 machine gun, M2 and other complicated weapons. Angell became one of America’s classic baseball writers as part of a broader literary career that began in 1944, with his first contribution to The New Yorker, where he worked for the better part of a lifetime as a fiction editor, among other things. A skilled skipper, he smiles amiably at the reader from the book jacket photo, in his life jacket and Yankees cap, with his pensive fox terrier, Harry, somewhere near the coast of Brooklin, Me., a bespectacled, white-mustached, absurdly hale 85-year-old veteran, in every sense of the word.
In the introduction to his new book, Let Me Finish, Angell speaks offhandedly of his memoir, if that’s what this is, and notes how its disjointed pieces came to him out of the blue, items like his father’s fictional account (written at age 13 for a children’s magazine) of his father’s drowning when the French liner La Bourgogne went down on July 4, 1898. The result is a rambling, rich, sad autobiography-despite-itself that shows this Renaissance geezer (his word) at the top of his game.
Right from the start, Angell admits that our stories about our own lives are a form of fiction, a point he wastes no time in illustrating with intricately detailed, often downright brilliant recollections of moments more than half a century old.
There is, for instance, the muted erotic tale of undergraduate Angell and a woman golf partner scouring a country course yard by yard for the engagement ring that she, a total stranger, had impulsively entrusted to him the day before. Nothing comes of this brief encounter (Angell can’t even remember her name); but he arbitrarily gives us this and other vivid, semi-random nuggets, while merely alluding to far more crucial events, such as the way he wound up reproducing the key tragedy of his parents’ lives, their divorce, on his own.
That is his prerogative, naturally; so our curiosity about how he shed his first wife, Evelyn, whom he describes with admiration, appreciation and mourning, how he acquired his second wife, Carol, how he juggled his two families, how he raised his kids, etc., has to go mostly unsatisfied. But, come to think of it, aren’t WASPs supposed to be cool and emotionally distant? Angell acknowledges his mother’s affective limits (a worrier, not a hugger), and suggests that both his parents were permanently wounded by the premature deaths of their same-sex parent, which seems in turn to have been the reason why Angell spent what sounds like a long stretch in therapy.
Still, although his narrative has a habitually relaxed and mellow tonehe uses the word suave five timesAngell is no cold fish. He may never break down and weep, but Let Me Finish is full of quirky, meticulously observed scenes, whose power to touch us derives not least of all from the simple fact that most or all the actors are now dead. There is the time when Ernest Angell, after a few drinksthese pages are redolent with boozeheading off with some pals to the Roman Revel masquerade party at the Century Association, takes Roger’s advice and dresses up as Cleopatra with his son’s live four-foot king snake, Humphrey, as the ultimate accessory. Or the fateful instant in 1958, when Angell’s dear friend Walker Field, driving up to Haverstraw, N.Y., oddly misses a turn in the road and speeds up onto a gravel driveway nowhere in particular and starts shaking his head. Now, why did I do that? (it was because of a malignant brain tumor, which would kill him months later).
Angell warmly recalls his friends and associates at The New Yorker (William Shawn, Harold Ross, Donald Barthelme, Emily Hahn, Gardner Botsford, et al.) and doomed, eccentric birds of passage like Jake Murray, author of a few striking short stories, who escaped the D.T.’s by plunging into the Hudson.
Like any good imaginative writer, Roger Angell knows the power of lists and delights in evoking lost worlds with long, deftly annotated catalogs of their protagonists, whether 1930’s movie stars or similar-vintage New York Giants and Yankees players. The young fan knew basically everything about them (he once ran into the retired Babe Ruth on the streets of the Bronx). And too, there is the endless stream of writers he met or helped or learned from in a career now in its seventh decade.
Perhaps inevitably, Angell’s final reflections tend toward the Stoic. I’ve had a life sheltered by privilege and engrossing work, and shot through by good luck, but I don’t believe that this accompanying trickle of rotten news [the untimely deaths of friends and relations] is exactly rare. No, but Angell rehearses these and other chronicles of love and loss with vigor, style and, needless to say, suavity. What a pro.