Whenever I spend one of my regular summer weekends in rural Pennsylvania, I'm always sure to bring along a copy of The New Yorker. Not only does it help fill nearly every moment of downtime, but it also gives me serious street cred among my fellow red-state denizens. By waving around a copy of the mag, I can almost guarantee a weekend's worth of wayward glances at the beer repository and an "accidental" 15 percent overcharge when I refill the propane tank.
Okay, not really. But a question dawned on me as a thick veneer of haze lingered over glorious Lake Wallenpaupack: How many people outside major metropolitan areas could read this thing without both eyes suddenly registering TILT, à la Wile E. Coyote after an Acme anvil lands on his patootie? I'm not suggesting that people in rural areas are unthinking grunts, just that there's no other publication on this or any other planet that cops such an unrelentingly urban-high-culture 'tude. Intellectually, The New Yorker exists on a higher plane than most readers care to visit.
Even as someone who has never shared a sentence with the words "hoity" and/or "toity," that's fine with me. The New Yorker remains among the best written and involving publications out there, even if its recipe has gotten a tad stale with age. You know the drill: A bunch of listings, some highly personalized reviews, a few columns meant to be digested and then regurgitated word-for-word (presenting the opinions as your own, naturally) at cocktail parties where plastic keg cups are in tragically short supply.
But it still works, as witnessed by the June 13/20 "Debut Fiction" issue. Three astonishing stories occupy a smattering of its pages, with essays by David Sedaris and Edmund White filling most of the rest. White's essay, in which the gay author writes about his relationships with women, is particularly good. Just once in my life, I'd like to be able to pack as much description and mystery into a two-sentence blurb as White does in this one about a junior-high girlfriend: "She was hard and bold, then suddenly listless. I guessed that she'd been kissed by older men, high-school boys, even dropouts." New Yorker writers do things with the English language that most of us can only dream of. (See, I ended that last sentence with a preposition. I'm clearly beyond hope.)
Also predictably imposing and impressive are the "Talk of the Town" columns and essays, in which the mag features a withering assessment of the battle over judicial filibusters under the almost quaint header of "Comment." Then in "Ink," the peerless Seymour Hersh takes a break from his usual digging to recount what it was like to be reporting on Watergate at a newspaper other than The Washington Post. Even baseball gets a respectful nod, with Ben McGrath checking in with longtime Astro Craig Biggio as he approaches the record for most times being hit with a pitch.
I didn't take much away from the issue's reviews. Despite a smart Led Zeppelin/White Stripes comparison, most of the opinions come across as laughably overstated - sort of like a "Saturday Night Live" lampoon of a humorless PBS show. And I just don't get the mag's trademark cartoons; they seem to hearken back to a long-ago era, one in which humor wasn't, you know, clever. An illustration of a shark chomping on a cigar and holding a champagne flute accompanies a review of the long-awaited "Jaws" DVD, while low-key songwriter John Prine is rendered in a way that makes him look like a 65-year-old Freddie Mercury. To which I say: huh?
I'd be lying if I claimed to have perused every single word of the June 13/20 issue - my eyes glazed over during the overlong, unreadable exegesis on Gertrude Stein's overlong, unreadable "The Making of Americans." In fact, that's why I canceled my subscription a few years back: the stacks of unread New Yorker issues sitting behind my toilet seemed to mock me and my sluggish, lowbrow reading habits. Nonetheless, the publication remains in most ways the flag bearer for American magazine journalism, even if it's likely not flying off the racks at Wal-Mart. Dig in at your leisure.