Let Me Finish puts me in mind of an elderly, rather distinguished-looking man rummaging in a trunk full of old snapshots. It is not clear what he is looking for. Maybe he is not looking for anything at all. Sometimes it is simply pleasurable to visit bygone times. But if absolutely everything must be justified, let us say that he is exploring the mystery of memory.
Why does one forty-year-old memory, seemingly trivial, survive as vividly as yesterday’s dented fender while a life-changing event of twenty years ago takes intense effort to remember, even inaccurately? Because reviewers have treated Roger Angell’s book as a memoir, it is tempting to suppose that he is looking for the origin of some long-festering unhappiness. The suspicion is fed by the circumspect manner in which he treats his mother, “Mother” being a favorite dark presence among memoir writers.
Yet this is not the book of an unhappy man. A close reading suggests a contented man of the world whose temperament is sufficiently tinged by irony to make him interesting company. Though his life has had a “trickle of rotten news,” he concedes, the rotten news has not been notably plentiful. “Stuff piles up, and people my age [he is in his mid-eighties] come to understand that what’s been happening around them all this time is probably happening all over, in some version or other,” he writes.
An unboastful philosophical fellow, one thinks, imagining him in the attic poking through a trunk filled with all these memories, so pleasant most of them. Now he is a ten-year-old boy hooking school to immerse himself in the marvels of early 1930s movies: Lupe Velez and Bela Lugosi, Wheeler & Woolsey, Paul Muni in Scarface, Garbo in Mata Hari, all three Barrymores in Rasputin and the Empress, Cagney shot dead in gangster pinstripes, and all those supporting actors who still live on Turner Classic Movies—Andy Devine, Alan Hale, Edna Mae Oliver, Una Merkel, Roscoe Karns, Reginald Denny, Douglass Dumbrille.
Here he is at the Polo Grounds with his father watching Bill Terry’s Giants play in the afternoon sunshine. Now he is a young soldier packed into a trainload of new draftees off to fight Nazis or Japs; it’s hard to tell which, since their orders are secret and the train has stopped someplace unknown. Maybe Oregon, somebody guesses.
Time passes and the postwar age of the martini delights an America which has just won World War II on hard whiskey, Camels, Chesterfields, and Lucky Strikes, and is looking for something more sophisticated than rum and Coca-Cola. Angell revisits the martini years fondly, though confessing that he and his wife finally switched from the gin martini to the vodka version because vodka was “less argumentative.” This delicately evokes a time when the glow from the first martini could intensify with seconds and thirds until it produced an incandescence destructive to the household furniture, and sometimes marriage.
Most of these pieces were written over the …