A Cornucopia of Stories
Posted 6th February 2007
I begin each morning reading The New York Times. Such is my scrupulousness that it takes me over an hour to complete the sections that I am interested in. What repeatedly strikes me about the Times is its relatively full, often incisive coverage of culture and international, national, and local politics; but also the many incidental pieces, pieces that offer little hard news, but move me to reflect on the behavior of human beings or, more grandiosely, on the human condition. Some of these pieces, if deepened and refined, could easily form into a book of luminous short stories.
On any given day the Times will publish a couple of humanly revelatory pieces, that inform us about the private lives and feelings of people who do newsworthy things, or anonymous people who help illustrate some larger story. For example, about a month ago, a piece appeared about the interim executive director of the scandal-ridden New York City Central Labor Council, Ed Ott—a Social –Democrat and committed union activist. Ott replaced the crooked former Council head, the high living, politically savvy Brian McLaughlin, who has been accused of ripping off $2.2 million in kickbacks and bribes, including money from his own union among many others. Ott has few illusions, but “believes that labor is “the most effective anti-poverty program this country has.” One could write a short story around the painful struggle of a tough-minded idealist like Ott to reshape an organization filled with self-interested and corrupt hacks. He must deal daily with men and women who enjoy the fruits of the status quo, and who care nothing about a union movement that carries a vision of social change. In this miasma, small victories are all a man like Ott can realistically hope for.
There are other articles as well that are natural material for the short story writer. Consider the item about the defeated Republican Attorney General candidate Jeanine Pirro’s husband, Albert, who during the election gave an interview in which he expressed resentment about getting little “attention at home;” and suggested that his wife’s career impacted negatively on the family’s finances. The battling Pirros could be turned into a standard Hollywood marital comedy with Marisa Tomei starring with John Travolta or James Gandolfini and. But could also be turned into a subtle psychological tale, in which an overbearing, chauvinist man marries a pretty, smart, vital woman who he thought would be both a social adornment and a traditional housewife and mother. He’s stunned and angry when she becomes an ambitious, successful, camera-ready politician—who stays with him because she wants the money and political contacts he offers. Their relationship becomes volatile, and their conflict plays itself out in public—disrupting her campaign and helping her to lose the election.
Yet another story concerns the one victorious (in a difficult race) Republican Connecticut Congressman, Christopher Shays—a moderate with personal integrity who supported the war in Iraq, This story would be written in the first person, through the consciousness of a decent politician who is tormented about the great human cost of a war which he still wants to believe can be won. The story would evoke the jagged uncertainty and emotional ambivalence (just barely visible in the Times Story) that lies underneath the smooth rhetoric and sound bites that a veteran politico like Shays usually draws on.
In addition to Times news stories that read like short stories, there is the About New York column in its Metro section that is often built around the lives of ordinary people. Written by Dan Barry, it’s one of the most stylistically distinctive and literary of the Times’ columns. Recently, Barry wrote his final column—a homage to the city he loves (“full throated and fully charged, brusque and vulgar, it’s all New York”) and will no longer cover, since he’s moving on to write a national column for the Times. The piece reminded me of what I’ve attempted to do in my more impressionistic columns—observing the city’s constant flow of life and people and the infinite variety of stories it throws up. Barry writes of “the saints and con artists, the fallen and the redeemed, the immigrants from Missouri and from Mexico. The work-weary people who succumb to a subway’s gentle rocking.” He can overwrite and be more than a touch sentimental, but his richly textured columns have provided a parallel universe to all the articles that analyze the political tactics of Nancy Pelosi, or the powerlessness of the Iraqi government and the American occupation to stem Baghdad’s daily chaos and violence.
It’s that parallel universe, in which social and personal worlds are sharply observed and private lives are revealed, that makes the Times as complete a paper as is published today.