The Old Man and the Seafood

Reporter Joseph Mitchell's fiction finally emerges in book form. Pass the cod bladders!

The book consists of three long stories, none with much of a plot beyond Mr. Flood holding forth about life, often while eating and drinking. The last piece is an account of his 95th birthday party, where there was a lot of drinking to go along with the seafood. There is so much boozing in Old Mr. Flood, described with such merriment and approval, that if Mitchell suddenly became widely read I wouldn't be surprised if AA issued a reproach to his whole oeuvre.

Mr. Flood is casually but deeply concerned with history, speaking not just about now extinct oyster houses (such as Still's Oyster and Chop House, Third Avenue between 17th and 18th streets), but about a particular horse named Sam, owned by George Still himself, who opened the place in 1853. If this information sounds a bit obscure to be the thread of a whole book, note that what makes Old Mr. Flood so satisfying is not the information, but the enormous spirited gusts of Joycean declaration on which it is delivered. The wild ramblers and free-associating talkers of Joyce are present in Mitchell's work, transplanted to the flinty, vanishing waterfront milieu of early-20th-century Manhattan. Mitchell is a pioneer of the long quote in journalism and a master of making it sing.

Here is one of Mr. Flood's friends posing a question to him: "You've got enough money put away you could live high if you wanted to. Why in God's name do you live in a little box of a room in a back-street hotel and hang out in the fish market when you could go down to Miami, Florida, and sit in the sun?"

Mitchell: Silence, exile, and cunning
photo: James Hamilton
Mitchell: Silence, exile, and cunning

"Nobody knows why they do anything," Mr. Flood explains, and to illustrate this point he launches into a long anecdote involving a New Jersey farmer who has just taken the train to Trenton to pick up his supply of booze. On his way home a drummer sitting across from him on the train asks the farmer the time. The farmer, who has just looked at his watch, will not tell him the time.

" 'Friend, all I asked was the time of day. It don't cost anything to tell the time of day.' "

Mr. Flood acts the whole thing out, speaking both parts: "If I was to tell you the time of day," says Mr. Flood, as the farmer, "we'd get into a conversation, and I got a crock of spirits down on the floor between my feet, and in a minute I'm going to take a drink, and if we were having a conversation I'd ask you to take a drink with me, and you would, and presently I'd take another, and I'd ask you to do the same, and you would, and we'd get to drinking, and by and by the train'd pull up to the stop where I get off, and I'd ask you why don't you get off and spend the afternoon with me, and you would, and we'd walk up to my house and sit on the front porch and drink and sing, and along about dark my old lady would come out and ask you to take supper with us, and you would, and after supper I'd ask if you'd care to drink some more, and you would, and it'd get to be real late and I'd ask you to spend the night in the spare room, and you would, and along about two o'clock in the morning I'd get up to go to the pump, and I'd pass my daughter's room, and there you'd be, in there with my daughter, and I'd have to turn the bureau upside down and get out my pistol, and my old lady would have to get dressed and hitch up the horse and go down the road and get the preacher, and I don't want no God-damned son-in-law who don't own a watch."

Thomas Beller's How to Be a Man: Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood (Norton) will appear in August.

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