Staff Picks: Moo, Maine, Malfeasance


This Week’s Reading


This collage helped solve a crime. Robert Rauschenberg, Collection, 1954-55; image via the New York Observer.

“From the outside it was clear that the building known generally as ‘Old Meats’ had eased under the hegemony of the horticulture department.” So begins Jane Smiley’s 1995 campus satire, Moo; from that first sentence I knew it was the only book I needed for the weekend. It had that tone—that late-century Midwestern tone. You hear it in Jonathan Franzen’s first two novels, and in Infinite Jest, too. It’s the sound of an omniscient narrator who is sophisticated and slightly wry and who, at the same time, belongs to a safe, stable, neighborly community, the sort of place where things can be “known generally.” Maybe because I grew up on the East Coast, in a city—or maybe just because it is so manifestly pre-Internet—that kind of sentence is as soothing and inviting to me as “Once upon a time.” And Moo lived up to its promise. —Lorin Stein

What happens when myth becomes reality? For the residents around Maine’s North Pond, a legend about a hermit became strikingly less legendary when the hermit, a man by the name of Christopher Knight, was found and arrested last year during a burglary attempt. For twenty-seven years, Knight had lived in the woods of Maine in a tent, never communicating with the outside world (except once, when he passed a hiker). “Silence is to me normal, comfortable,” he tells Mike Finkel, a journalist for GQ. “I’m not used to seeing people’s faces. There’s too much information there.” What’s remarkable about Knight’s story is that there wasn’t any particular reason he chose to disappear. He merely started driving one day and didn’t stop until he came across his camp in the woods. “I found a place where I was content.” Thoreau couldn’t have summed it up better himself. —Justin Alvarez

Sixty years ago in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the NYPD pinned a crime spree on four innocent men. What else is new, you might say. Well, a researcher has brought the malfeasance to light, and a collage by Robert Rauschenberg helped solve the mystery. Specifically, it was “Collection,” which Rauschenberg composed in the mid-fifties from newspapers containing accounts of the crimes. The Observer tells the story, which is full of crooked cops and falsified documents and botched autopsies and noirish goings-on under the Williamsburg Bridge; Rauschenberg’s involvement, however peripheral, makes the whole thing impressively surreal. —Dan Piepenbring

Many clichéd things can be said of the stories in Justin Taylor’s new collection, Flings. They’re hilarious and heartbreaking; there’s an existential loneliness to their characters; there’s a stark beauty in their sentences. But these sentiments smooth over the messy truths that Taylor works with—he’s managed to gather up all the confusion, repressed aggression, and misplaced acceptance of growing up in the nineties and becoming a young adult in the twenty-first century. Taylor isn’t afraid to place his characters squarely in our place and time. The narrator of “Sungold” manipulates his boss—a coked-up, alcoholic, trust-funded man-baby who owns an unnamed pizza chain—into not being so much of a fuck-up. In “Mike’s Song,” a brother and sister and their divorced father attend a Phish concert together. But behind his contemporary premises, Taylor is practicing a brand of acute, oblique realism that stretches back to Carver and Yates and even to Sherwood Anderson, in which events act as triggers for memories that are the real story. —Andrew Jimenez

It’s back-to-school time again, and there’s probably no more effective way to burden these precious last days of summer with anxiety dreams than to delve into a campus novel. And yet, I have no regrets about picking up Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, a classic about a young lecturer at a provincial English university who’s not too ambitious—he just wants not to be fired and also for this one girl to like him. Lucky Jim sends up the boredom and futility of midcentury academic pretension; the sour little cover illustration from Eric Hanson on the NYRB Classics edition is a nice bonus. In a characteristically witty passage, Amis unpacks the doublespeak of the phrase “Can I have a word with you?” among colleagues: “This was the most dreadful of all summonses … Intellectually, Dixon could conceive of such a request leading to praise for work done on indexing Welch’s notes for his book, to the offer of a staff post on Medium Aevum, to an invitation to an indecent house party, but emotionally and physically he was half-throttled by the certainty of nastiness.” —Chantal McStay

The popularity of the ironic urban musical has soared since its conception around the 1960s. Smash hits such as Guys and Dolls and Chicago, plus more recent shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Urinetown, have all deconstructed the traditional sincerity that characterized musical theater at the beginning of the twentieth century. But how do we look back at the simplistic and silly musicals that we used to know and love? “I’m not ironic, I’m not very urban. I love trees. I hope I’ll never stop loving them. Trees, green meadows … who cannot love them?” That’s Oscar Hammerstein II defending the sentimentality of his lyrics with a Maria Von Trapp–esque list of his favorite things. When Hammerstein died fifty-four years ago this month, Times Square and London’s West End both went dark in tribute; the glitz and glamour of musical theater today provide the perfect backdrop for an ironic reaction, but keep them off and we see that, in Hammerstein’s words, “the things we’re sentimental about are the fundamental things in life.” Love, death, conflict … trees. —Helena Sutcliffe