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Reporting at Wit's End: Tales from the New Yorker Paperback – February 16, 2010
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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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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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=== 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. In at least one of the stories, he appears to be delusional and the story becomes a rambling, hard-to-read, and borderline nonsensical story that I ended up mostly skipping after the first 20 pages.
=== Summary ===
The good parts of the book are very good, but the bad parts are equally bad. I ended up powering through the book, but if I knew what the book contained, I would have only read about half the stories. If you like offbeat tales of life's curious characters, there are several in this book. My only advice would be that once you feel a story starting to get boring, repetitive or full of obtuse details, don't be afraid to skim the rest of it. It doesn't get better.
This particular collection unexpectedly seems to offer insights on several levels: first is the immediate content of the stories as portraits themselves. My favorites are Father Divine ("King of Glory") for its hysterical deadpan presentation (written during the 1930's); "Mister 880" with its droll ending and "The Wily Wilby" challenging credulity (1940's); "The Rich Recluse of Herald Square" for the cat-and-mouse game between an older woman on her own defying a pack of avaricious lawyers (1950's); finally, "The Big Little Man from Brooklyn" whose jaw-dropping shenanigans put the hero, if you will, on the same level as the popular Mad Men TV series of today.
There is also a second less visible portrayal running through the collection timeline: this is of McKelway himself. While some stories are autobiographical and the content may be less relevant to today's readers, you cannot miss the subtle changes in McKelway himself as time and experience affected him. The style is always entertaining but shifts from bright, curious observation to a more self-reflective tone as the decades pass. In fact, there is a sort of descent into certainly confusion, if not madness, with "The Edinburgh Caper" and its references to spy and intrigue melodramas, popular with the 1960's Cold War preoccupation of many writers, e.g. Fleming and LeCarre, as well as personal references to the "multiple heads" of the author. The epiphany lies in the last portrait of "The Little Big Man from Brooklyn" whose multiple roles can easily be seen as a cipher for McKelway himself.
Not to be overlooked is Adam Gopnik's introduction well worth reading before and after completing the collection. The thoughtful comments frame out the period within which McKelway and his contemporaries at The New Yorker were writing. He has his own shrewd expressions such as observing that McKelway's approach to style was "deceptively simple, not simply deceptive."
One final footnote is the collection title itself: "Reporting at Wit's End." The obvious connection is to not only the nature of the characters portrayed but also McKelway himself. However, there may also be an intentional reference to The New Yorker coterie of writers, the fabled Round Table, led by Alexander Wolcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, some of the Marx Brothers and occasionally the publisher Harold Ross, that regularly met during the 1920's and 30's at the Algonquin Hotel. Sometime during the 1940's after the group broke up Wolcott moved to an apartment on Manhattan's East 53rd Street overlooking the East River: the name bestowed on this place, I believe, was "Wit's End."
You'll learn things about people whose names you've heard, but whose stories are brand new. Sometimes you'll find yourself laughing out loud, and you'll be sad when you realize McKelway's no longer around to give us more.
. It's hard to believe the stories are really true because they're often so amazing. But it's a guarantee that you'll enjoy every page and you'll wish you'd been around several decades ago to get to know St.Clair McKelway. He came from a fine newspaper family, and he certainly was a fine reporter/writer, just better able to see things historians missed. . Enjoy!
The articles all have a story arc that hooks the reader in. After a while you will have to remind yourself that these stories are about real events, not from the imagination of writer; i.e., he was a reporter not an author.
It's a big book, but worth the time to read it. Pick it up and step back in time to another age.
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