September 18, 2020KR Reviews

On In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays by Rebecca McClanahan

Note: I was introduced to Rebecca and came to appreciate her writing thanks to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops. (I did not attend her workshop but Dinty’s and David’s, as their fellows.)

Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2020. 176 pages. $14.95.

“When we first moved to New York, we couldn’t believe how cheap the flowers were,” Rebecca McClanahan says in the opening essay of In the Key of New York City. Then, she and her husband go to the grocery store, see the food prices, and he concludes, “We’ll just have to eat flowers.” Newcomers at middle age, their love affair with the city includes reality checks.

“Sometimes to get at the truth, you must poke it with something sharpa stick, a memory” McClanahan writes. One sharp memory, at which she pokes in these pages, is the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11; another is her diagnosis and treatment for cancer; another is the “Other Woman” who nearly ends her marriage. But she also might have said that sometimes to get at the truth, you must suffuse it with something warm and funnytwo longtime friends chatting in Central Park, a squirrel dropping down your chimney, the hands of the worker retiling the Imagine mosaic. Every shared memory deepens the truth of the city, which becomes its song.

The tune, though, is not of New York City alone; it is the siren song of human nature. It is a homecoming hymn for a home that is always changing. It is the croon and growl of intimacy before COVID-19 changed our relationship to intimacywritten in the key of the city that never sleeps.

This memoir follows McClanahan’s childhood moves between military bases, to the sublet apartment where she learns her neighbors from sobs and arias that leak through shared walls. Lonely, when her husband leaves each day, she sits down to write and learns the old methods for befriending one’s neighbors with homemade chocolate chip cookies and small talk at mailboxes cannot work in a city where each apartment has become a sanctuary. The connections she makes, despite the fortresses of privacy erected all around her, offer alternatives for those of us forced by a pandemic to social distance for months that may become years.

McClanahan’s keen observations reward her with glimpses of care all around the city. She spots it in a Ninth Avenue cyclist’s dutiful buckling of a Cabbage Patch doll into his basket with a handmade seat belt. She finds it in the gesture of a woman who tests the heat of a spoon of soup against her lips before offering it to an adolescent in a wheelchair. She witnesses it in a park bench stranger who tucks a fallen baby bird into the silk lining of his jacket so that it can die “in a soft place.” Such records are more poignant than any dream of a city that is larger than life, for McClanahan’s New York is precisely the size of a life more expansive, textured, and engaged than we might have imagined possible. We can gawk at it for its tenderness as well as its grandeur. And, McClanahan illustrates, such a life is the only kind worth living, given that “our lives are sublets anyway, and too quickly gone at that.”

The subtitle “A Memoir in Essays” suggests that this memoir will follow a nontraditional narrative, and its unexpected movements are part of the reward. The narrative rises and falls with the crescendo of sirens and tumbles into the bass notes of buses. Would-be chapters function like solos. We begin in the middle of things that have no beginning or end but are in concert with one another. McClanahan conducts each anecdote not with the sweep of a baton but with a hand gliding over the gilt pages of her twenty-volume, buckram-covered Oxford English Dictionary.

The complete cobalt set, which her husband gave her for her fiftieth birthday, gets her from their rented sublet to subtle, subliminal, and Su-Thrivingly, the volume that takes a hitalong with McClanahan’s shoulderwhen her landlord’s bicycle crashes from its wall hook. For those familiar with McClanahan’s writing, her eleventh book continues her search for connections embedded in the roots of words. Throughout The Tribal Knot (Indiana University Press), The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings (University of Georgia Press), and Deep Light: New and Selected Poems (Iris Press), McClanahan illuminates bonds inherent in word histories. In the Key adds to this study an overtone that can only be mastered by a singer capable of holding more than one pitch in her vocal folds. It is compelling alone, but in conjunction with previous work, one hears the dual notes of then and now.

Memoirs, especially by women, are often thought less important than works of general nonfiction. The individual gaze can be found limiting, but McClanahan is far too subtle and curious a reader to reflect only on herself. Throughout these essays, she demonstrates the art of interpreting people through body language, actions, and the hints they leave in the marginalia of library books. She tunes into the undercurrents of human relations to modulate between the personal and social, tragic and laughable, profound and quotidian. She writes large and small the context of culture that will never be the same again. This memoir brings her life to lightand with it the lives of lonely people on park benches, revelers in Paul Newman’s return to Broadway, and children who lost their parents in the downed towers. It is a life-affirming account of the richness of our responses to hardship, alienation, sickness, and success.

McClanahan invites into her story the anesthesiologists, or “pain guys,” as well as singing toddlers who wash the Itsy Bitsy Spider from its spout. She watches with the same boundless wonder the Japanese artist who can write a person’s name on a grain of rice as she learns about a Naskapi tribesman who, according to legend, was adopted by a caribou herd. Each essay sounds an orchestra of human relations, as prismatic as a polyphonic harmony, because to get at the truth of any life we must let go of what we think we know and listen to someone else for a change.