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Reporting at Wit's End: Tales from the New Yorker Paperback – February 16, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A rogue's gallery of shady, quirky, beguiling figures populates this scintillating collection of essays by one of the New Yorker's seldom-sung masters. Writing for the magazine from the 1930s through the 1960s, McKelway specialized in light true crime stories about arsonists, embezzlers, counterfeiters, suspected Communists, and innocent men and the fire investigators, forensic accountants, Secret Service men, clueless FBI agents, and biased cops who pursued them. He's fascinated by procedural, cat-and-mouse games and the sheer artistry of crime for crime's sake; his portrait of serial impostor Stanley Weyman is a gem of motiveless miscreancy, culminating in Weyman's impersonation of the (nonexistent) State Department Naval Liaison Officer in order to introduce one Princess Fatima of Afghanistan to President Harding. In addition to police blotter material, the author pens a cutting profile of the egomaniacal gossip columnist Walter Winchell and recollections of his war-time stint as an air force PR flack (with a rather blithe account of the firebombing of Tokyo). McKelway's deceptively straightforward prose accretes facts, testimony, and court documents into subtle character studies and unobtrusive ruminations on the crooked timber of humanity. His limpid style and wry humor make these pieces as fresh and engaging as the day they appeared. (Mar.)
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From Booklist

This volume brings together nearly four decades of memorable reporting and storytelling from one of the New Yorker’s most prolific but long overlooked writers. Readers can trace changes in the local and national sensibilities as McKelway chronicles the strange and ordinary of city life, favoring the characters who were the lifeblood of New York. Among his subjects: Father Divine, the Harlem charlatan minister, amassing wealth from hundreds of low-wage workers; Mister 880, finally caught by the Secret Service at the age of 73 after 10 years of passing counterfeit dollar bills to supplement his modest income; a summons server who raises a greater indignation than his unhappy targets; gossip columnist Walter Winchell, a favorite of powerful politicians, entertainers, and mobsters alike; and a wealthy, reclusive old woman, who is rediscovered by a well-heeled law firm when her sister dies and then is suddenly and confusedly thrust to their attention. McKelway’s writing is deliciously detailed, subtle and wry, full of keen observations and connections. Readers who are fans of the New Yorker or great storytelling in general will appreciate this book. --Vanessa Bush

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 620 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury; 1st edition (February 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 160819034X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608190348
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,133,438 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Oh man.... this has been a long time coming. McKelway's contemporaries and peers A.J.Liebling and Joseph Mitchell have been getting their (deserved) props for a while, now. Finally McKelway is ready to get his, albeit posthumously. I don't yet have this book, but for years I have treasured my two copies (one for loaning) of his long-out-of-print collection "True Tales From The Annals Of Crime And Rascality." Anyone who knows that book, or "The Edinburgh Caper," will be dancing in the streets over this publication. McKelway had a deeply strange view of the world, and it seeped through his reports on con-men and misfits. You have to read this stuff. If you are already a fan of Liebling or Mitchell, have amazon overnight you the book. If you haven't read them, either... start here and have some fun.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is mostly a collection of columns written by St. Clair McKelway and published in The New Yorker magazine. They are a marvelous collection of sideways looks at America, and most of the stories are marvelous looks at offbeat and unusual occurrences.

=== The Good Stuff ===

* Several of the tales are literally laugh-out-loud funny. Self-proclaimed diplomats and low-value counterfeiters are both amusing and sad tales, but eminently readable. McKelway has a talent for capturing these characters and relating their story. Even though these tales are fifty or more years old, they still stand the test of time and are relevant and enjoyable today.

* Most of the tales are based in New York City, but there are stories from the South Pacific and Europe. Even if you have never lived in NYC, or any big city, the characters and plots are interesting enough to satisfy most any reader.

* McKelway is nothing if not thorough. For every story, we typically meet the character, explore his childhood, and see him in later years including the consequences of his actions. The author errs on the side of more rather than less information and detail.

=== The Not-So-Good Stuff ===

* Perhaps the most charitable description of McKelway's writing style is to say that it is the product of a different time. I found many of the stories to be overly detailed, sometimes rambling, and often full of details and diversions not needed to develop the plot. All of the tales seem too long, but a couple cross the line into becoming unreadable. In at least two of the stories, I found myself losing interest and skimming parts of the narrative.

* McKelway is much better at relating 3rd person tales than autobiographical stories.
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Format: Paperback
Among the many pleasures of reading The New Yorker are its occasional pieces on the annals of human frailty (and accomplishment). For nearly all of the 1930's. 40's and 50's, The New Yorker's go to guy for many of these reports was St.Clair McKelway. Now Bloomsbury USA has republished 18 of McKelway's more memorable efforts in this 619-page trade paperback edition, "Reporting at Wit's End." It begins with a knowledgeable introduction by Adam Gopnik, one of the magazine's current stars.

First a word about the book's title. McKelway literally found himself at his wit's end more than once and, as a result, under psychiatric care. Two of the longer pieces in the collection, "The Blowing of the Top of Peter Roger Oboe" and "The Edinburgh Caper" are McKelway's own accounts of two memorable occasions when his paranoid imagination got the better of him.

Next, a word about the strengths and weakness of compiling so much choice McKelway in one volume. It is a great treat to discover one of The New Yorker's "Annals" pieces in the Table of Contents of the latest issue. My favorites are those dealing with uncommon criminals, imposters, and other screwballs lurking in the byways of Manhattan. Great treats, but piled one on top of another like a Dagwood sandwich, these articles lose something. My suggestion, don't slog through them over the course of a week or a fortnight, but read one or two at a time and put the book aside until you are ready for another helping.

When you do get to them, you are in for some great treats. Among those I most enjoyed are "Mister 880" and "The Big Little Man from Brooklyn." The subject of the first of the two, an elderly widower, supplemented his modest pension by printing and passing crudely counterfeited one dollar bills.
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Format: Paperback
How good are these essays? Well, I remember reading them in old copies of `The New Yorker' many years ago, that my grandmother had. They increased my fascination of the city and people in it where I spent most of my summers. Here is the real New York. There are stories from the 30's, but they could still be of today, as are the works done in the 40's, 50's and 60's.
Most are stories of New York and the interesting people McKelway profiled, such as; a counterfeiter of $1 bills, and a man who posed as a naval officer among others and is able to meet the president in the White House.
There are a few exceptions to the stories of New York characters; when he was a runaway from home and those done mostly when he was a public relations officer and with them you will see perhaps a different side of Curtis LeMay The quality of the writing allows you to glimpse these people and places even if you have never been near his subjects or New York. McKelway's thoughts and words are extraordinary.
It's a delight to find an author, that as you finish reading their work, you not only regret it ending, but you immediately go to find other creations by them. St. Clair McKelway is one of those authors and this collection of his essays is worth the time to sit and read and absorb his descriptions of life and most of all the characters he depicted.
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