Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral , by Charles Siebert. Crown Publishers, 216 pages, $21.
This guy Siebert is a writer. Somewhere near the end of his book, on the night he returns to New York after a summer in a semi-isolated Canadian cabin, he describes catching his first glimpse of the city’s glowing skyscrapers, “savoring the familiar, the nearly pronounceable glyph of that skyline.” There’s a phrase worth coining.
And he’s not just a writer, he’s an observer-one of those New Yorkers who live with their eyes up. He is, in fact, one of the city’s sweetest, most clear-eyed chroniclers since E.B. White, and at its best, this book reads like White’s classic “Here Is New York,” transposed to the outer boroughs and the 1990’s.
Mr. Siebert knows of the onetime glory of Eastern Parkway, that Frederick Law Olmsted-designed tree-lined monument to a certain gracious ideal; he lives amid its decay in a neighborhood of “drug dealers, overpriced supermarkets purveying mostly rancid goods and the multicolored-lightbulb-rimmed corner bodegas selling beer and pork rinds”; rarest of all, he understands that within that decay, life goes on. He describes a gun battle one evening in the nearest crack house. The shooting “had been going on for at least a minute when Mr. Softee, an apparent inebriate of his own repeating jingle, rolled right into the fray. He slammed on his brakes, then began backing madly up the street, his jingle, I swear, going into a wacky, high-pitched reverse with him.” If there’s a better metaphor for fin de siècle New York, I’ve never heard it, especially since Mr. Softee comes back the next night to peddle his cones.
The writing is so sharp, in fact, that it hardly matters that the ostensible message of the book seems a little forced. Because his girlfriend has disappeared to Africa for an unpredictable period of time, Mr. Siebert decides to spend the summer at the cabin where she spent her summers growing up, a decaying cottage just north of Vermont’s border with Canada. There he goes off his feed, mopes around and decides that his Brooklyn home is no less “natural” than this sylvan retreat, that in fact “there is no such thing as nature … There is just the earth and us, the namers, standing upon it, naming those places without us, nature.”
Mr. Siebert’s publishers, Crown Publishers, profess to believe in their flap copy that this insight “explode[s] the classic Romantic distinctions between city and country, man-made and natural.” But of course, it’s actually one of those ideas that has occurred to anyone who has given any thought to the subject-“aren’t we part of nature, too?” And it’s one of those ideas that anyone who has thought a little longer realizes is both true and false. We are animals, and we are the animal that realizes we are something different. A Coke bottle dropped by the side of a pretty lake is not the same thing as a pile of moose droppings. You can tell yourself it is, but you can’t feel it to be so unless you hold an advanced degree in philosophy.
Which, thankfully, Mr. Siebert does not. He makes a conscientious and often moving effort to chronicle the emptiness of his days at the cabin called Wickerby in comparison to the “well-lit wreckage” around his Brooklyn home. But he mostly reveals a tin ear-a tin eye, a tin heart-for the complexity and joy to be found in the outdoor world. As soon as he’s cut out of town, Mr. Siebert starts kvetching: “The day seemed too wide,” he writes. Time moves too gradually. Night’s too scary, filled in his imagination with “thousands of tiny eye pairs peering at me from the cabin’s walls and floorboards and loft eaves, and from the darkness of the surrounding woods.” He writes of his “repeated visits with blank hillsides and woods, places and silences which, nevertheless, the further I pursued them, the harder I listened there, the more they issued me the gentlest rebuke, disposed me, in the end, to want to leave …”
And leave he certainly should, for what is troubling him seems mostly to be loneliness. His girl is gone, and he’s stuck in a natural and a human community that mean nothing to him. His only contact to the latter appears to be with an oafish bachelor farmer named Albert and with the customs officers when he drives back to the States for cheap whisky. That’s not how life is supposed to be lived, not in the country and not in the city. He describes the indigenous peoples he’s interviewed in tropical jungles, but they, possessing each other, have nothing in common with him. There is Henry David Thoreau, of course, who Mr. Siebert’s publishers want to set him up as the antidote to. But Thoreau had Concord, Mass., his lifelong home, just down the road; he had the company of his own wide-ranging mind, which was the best company any American could ask for; and he had the friendship of the natural world, which he had spent enough time in to make it a true companion. Walden rings with joy-the joy of the sound the ice makes as it shifts, say. Wickerby, by contrast, is a joyless place, at least in this account.
If one were to take Mr. Siebert’s philosophical musings entirely seriously, the only real damage they could do would be to our sense that it might be worth protecting the world from the damage we are now wreaking on it. If we’re as natural as everything else, then our pollution is just like the squid’s ink and our wave of extinctions no more malign than the impact of a comet, since “we and all the other large, land-based animals … occupy but one brief wave swell of living matter, constitute little more than the spume above the wave of moiling DNA tides below.” True enough in its way, but a bit relativist for me; it’s a debater’s point, something from a late-night dorm room bull session. We live in a time of great simplifying evil, mindlessly wiping out huge chunks of the creation, but it’s hard to feel it unless you’ve sensed the magic of the otherness that surrounds us.
Still, that’s no serious knock on Mr. Siebert. If his philosophizing leaves a gap here and there, who really cares. We have too many philosophers and not enough writers of this power and wit and splendor. He reminds me of Joseph Mitchell in places, and I know no higher praise for writers about cities, about the City in particular. The pigeon mumblers, the candy store owners, the construction crews give this man a large contract to tell the story of Brooklyn and Queens at the end of the century, which is one of the great untold stones America offers. Even if his girlfriend returns, Mr. Siebert should forsake the woods; it is an era of great nature writers. We need him to be a Roger Tory Peterson of the outer-borough streets, an Audubon of Grand Army Plaza.