Poor, Fractured Atlas Shoulders Failure and Envy

My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale, by James Atlas. HarperCollins, 240 pages, $25.95.

James Atlas used to really annoy me. He was a trustee of my college literary magazine, memorable for wearing a bow tie. I remember the lot of them (almost all men, of course) convening a few quaking feminine members of the undergraduate editorial board one rainy afternoon at the Century Club-a stuffy, awkward and pointless gathering. Later, a friend of mine wangled an “informational interview” with Mr. Atlas, then working at The New York Times Book Review, about joining the Manhattan literati. The whole thing made me want to puke.

That friend is now a well-compensated entertainment lawyer. Mr. Atlas, meanwhile, became a contributor at Tina Brown’s New Yorker, specializing in the city’s elite, and founded a populist biography series called Penguin Lives. Interviewed by his friend and fellow lucre-seeking man of letters, Michael Wolff, Mr. Atlas declared boldly that you need an income of half a million dollars to be middle-class today in New York.

“But that’s true!” wailed a dining companion last week, a New Yorker exiled to L.A., where it’s all too easy to be middle-class.

In one of those Tina Brown pieces, Mr. Atlas bragged about resisting the charms of a young “pillow-lipped publicist”-this from a guy who was married to a brainy and age-appropriate psychiatrist, Anna Fels (author of last year’s excellent and empowering Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives). That was it: I officially hated him.

But then something happened. Mr. Atlas left The New Yorker. I presumed he was fired; who on earth leaves The New Yorker voluntarily? Actually, I presumed nothing. I didn’t even realize he was officially gone until I read the chapter entitled “Failure” in his new memoir, excerpted recently in New York magazine under the headline “The Big F” (as in, perhaps, “Fuck you, New Yorker!”). Therein, Mr. Atlas tells-a touch less boldly this time-of being downsized at age 50 by an anonymous somebody who, mounting narrative evidence suggests, was editor David Remnick (“a handsome man, tall, vigorous … a full decade younger than me … he’d been one of us … his predecessor [that would be Tina Brown] had spent a fortune throwing lavish parties”). Prone to experiencing literary “moments” like so many hot flashes (while jogging in Southampton, Mr. Atlas thinks of Keats; eating in a fancy restaurant, a line of Roethke comes to mind), he hears “the bleat of traffic down below on Forty-second Street” and for a brief, despairing moment identifies with Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman.

Thank God, Mr. Atlas does not fling himself out the window into that bleating traffic. He takes his son to a hockey game, downs three Scotches and keeps writing. And, I swear, somewhere in the process gets much better! Being humbled-by the resounding flop of his first (and perhaps last) novel; by The New Yorker; and subsequently in graver ways (the Lives series turned out to be short-lived; his father died two weeks before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center) seems to have sharpened the bow-tied scrivener’s pencil, made him more honest-or maybe just a more sympathetic character in the ongoing psychodrama of moneyed millennial Manhattan. Whatever. Instead of fuming at the appearance of his byline, I began applauding it.

Envy, rather than failure, is Mr. Atlas’ best beat-the ugly deep-green variety that most members of polite society take pains to conceal. Eastern-establishment envy (he’s from Chicago-a “clueless midwestern aspirant,” as he puts it). WASP envy (he’s Jewish: “we were once Atlasberg”). Envy of people who are more observantly Jewish than he is (“They seemed happy and serene”). Real-estate envy (sure, he has a country house, but it’s ramshackle). Media envy (“I turn on Charlie Rose and there is a guy I know …. Instantly my stomach knots up: his book will sell, he’ll make money, he’ll buy a BMW”).

Yet though he might openly covet shiny cars and crisp shirts from Turnbull and Asser, though his long-running depression might be resolved by the tunes on a sleek new iPod, one could never imagine James Atlas really reveling in wealth-laughing maniacally as he rolls around on a bedful of dollar bills. He’s just too painfully self-conscious: “It was embarrassing,” he writes of a long-awaited renovation to that country house, “to find ourselves sitting around the dinner table with friends and going on about faucets, debating the merits of Kohler and Miele.” A new bed from Pottery Barn arrives pre-aged-“distressed”-from the factory. “‘Distressed?’ I was distressed,” quips the author, in appealing old-fogey befuddlement at the Ralph Lauren vagaries of the modern rich.

Really, all he seems to want at this point are simple pleasures-a taxi home, a creme horn or Ding Dong (the man has a sweet tooth), coffee and The New York Times. On second thought, scratch that last-for the enormity of the paper, he repeatedly confesses, simply overwhelms him. “The long slog,” he calls it, and later: “so mammoth with its metastasizing sections … that I have to bend at the knees like a sumo wrestler to lift it off the doorstep.” Mind that back, Uncle Jim, I’m thinking with sudden tenderness. Today’s mega-novel best-sellers, the complicated literary clafoutis of Franzens and Foers, also seem like just too much for the truly erudite Mr. Atlas. (I don’t think he’s faking those hot flashes.)

How apt that he’s named Atlas (even if it came at the expense of a lopped-off “-berg”)! Like the Greek Titan, the author bears the weight of the world on his shoulders. These are the big issues: Time, God, Money. Problem is, those shoulders are beginning to slope. Unable to ski or play tennis like he used to, he obsessively hangs a painting till it’s just so, pores over his alumni bulletin and shambles to the Shambala Center on a belated spiritual quest. “Millions of lost souls,” he thinks grumpily, not wanting to be one of them. “Losers.” Mr. Atlas has an especially keen ear for the pretentious phrases of our era, especially when they apply to himself (authors who “divided their time”) and a knack for his own neologisms and one-liners (“And the rest is therapy”; “My address book is a necropolis.”)

In a weird way, this is Oprah lit, a Tuesdays with Morrie for Upper West Side intellectuals-there are a dozen or so of those left, aren’t there? Let’s not forget that Mr. Atlas is also a respected biographer (Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz). But My Life in the Middle Ages makes a strong case that his most compelling human subject is … yup, himself. And that self-dry, wry, amused, bemused, occasionally plaintive, sometimes unabashedly grasping-turns out to be very likable.

Alexandra Jacobs is features editor of The Observer.