Friday, March 26, 2010

Old Mr. Flood by Joseph Mitchell

Old Mr. Flood
by Joseph Mitchell
Foreword by Charles McGrath
(MacAdam Cage hardcover edition, April 2005)

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A wise bookseller once taught me that right after reading something really, especially good, it's a good idea to read something completely different, as a sort of palate cleanser. After The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Passage, I felt the need to read something that was definitively not a big fat novel of an unfamiliar world. Luckily, my hand trailing over the unread riches of my bookshelves landed on Old Mr. Flood. As a small collection of three short semi-nonfictional pieces about a downtown New Yorker, it was exactly what I had been wanting.

For some inexcusable reason I had never read Joseph Mitchell before, though he's one of those authors you feel you know all about without reading him (the same way I thought, mistakenly, that I knew what Michaelangelo's David looked like before I saw the real thing). Apparently he is the sort of writer other writers go back and reread when they need to remind themselves how this whole business of stringing words together ought to work. This volume came into my possession at a launch party at a bar for MacAdam Cage's reissued edition (I was the offsite bookseller), where I heard Eli Wallach read Mitchell's words in a precisely appropriate grizzled, humorous old man sort of way.

The cover is a photograph of an old man at the remnants of the Fulton Fish Market, where the pieces about Mr. Flood are set; it's natural to interpret this as a representation of the title character, but in fact the photo is of Mitchell himself. As Charles McGrath points out in his illuminating introduction, Mr. Flood is not only a composite character of men Mitchell had talked with at the fish market, but also "an alter ego, who has countless things in common with his creator", including a fondness for drink, a graveyard sense of humor, and a love of seafood. (Despite his derision of "goormys", aka gourmets, I kept thinking Flood/Mitchell's sense of what's good to eat has a lot in common with contemporary foodie wisdom: he's not interested in vitamins or processed bread, just food as fresh and natural as he can get it.)

Mr. Flood, a retired demolition man who has taken up residence in a hotel near the fish market in the early 1940s, is very old. The subject of imminent death is one often discussed or irritably avoided. But he's also irrepressibly full of life, somehow immortal -- much like the fish market and the New York harbor life itself, which was on its way out even as Mitchell wrote about it. The stories should be depressing, but I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit, and tugging on the ALP's sleeve to read him the good parts. The writing is quite astonishingly good, even as it effaces itself in service of the textures and details and talk and tools and mannerisms of its subjects. I've since been seeking out more of Mitchell's pieces, which are thankfully now readily available, and observing the world with his eyes and thinking in his language -- which is a sure sign that a writer has really gotten to you.

I'm going to take the liberty to quote in full my favorite passage, which I read out loud to the ALP -- I'm hopeful that Mitchell's publishers and estate won't take it amiss. It's got a bit of all the good stuff that the book delivers: humor, dialect, the texture of details, and good food writing. One warning: I gave up eating any meat for Lent, but this bit made me crave oysters something fierce. As soon as Easter comes, I'm going in search of a place that serves oysters just like this. As a cure for a lingering cold or a spell of bad weather or the uneasiness of mortality, it seems you could do worse.

Mr. Flood snorted again. "Oh, shut up," he said. "Damn your doctor! I tell you what you do. You get right out of here and go over to Libby's oyster house and tell the man you want to eat some of his best oysters. Don't sit down. Stand up at the at that fine marble bar they got over there, where you can watch the man knife them open. And tell him you intend to drink the oyster liquor; he'll knife them on the cup shell, so the liquor won't spill. And be sure you get the big ones. Get them so big you'll have to rear back to swallow, the size that most restaurants use for fries and stews; God forgive them, they don't know any better. Ask for Robbins Islands, Mattitucks, Cape Cods, or Saddle Rocks. And don't put any of that red sauce on them, that cocktail sauce, that mess, that gurry. Ask the man for half a lemon, poke it a time or two to free the juice, and squeeze it over the oysters. And the first one he knifes, pick it up and smell it, the way you'd smell a rose, or a shot of brandy. That briny, seaweedy fragrance will clear your head; it'll make your blood run faster. And don't just eat six; take your time and eat a dozen, eat two dozen, eat three dozen, eat four dozen. And then leave the man a generous tip and go buy yourself a fifty-cent cigar and put your hat on the side of your head and take a walk down to Bowling Green. Look at the sky! Isn't it blue? And look at the girls a tap-tap-tapping past on their pretty little feet! Aren't they just the finest girls you ever saw, the bounciest, the rumpiest, the laughingest? Aren't you ashamed of yourself for even thinking about spending good money on a damned doctor? And along about here, you better be careful. You're apt to feel so bucked-up you'll slap strangers on the back, or kick a window in, or fight a cop, or jump on the tailboard of a truck and steal a ride."