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There was some happy irony, back in 1992, when Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel -- a collection of the long-time New Yorker writer's best and earthiest reportage -- began its improbable climb up various bestseller lists. Up in the Old Hotel began flying out of bookstores at almost exactly the same moment Tina Brown was making her first, fumbling efforts to tart up The New Yorker's image, and there was clearly an autumnal tinge of nostalgia in the air. Readers responded to Mitchell's unflappable, offhandedly graceful prose, as well as his interest in characters (saloon keepers, street preachers, bearded ladies) whose lives were otherwise utterly unsung. Still very much alive, Mitchell felt like an absolute relic -- an apparition from another journalistic era.
Readers who admired Up at the Old Hotel may not want to shell out $13.50 for this compact, reissued edition of Mitchell's 1965 book Joe Gould's Secret -- after all, the two profiles of Gould that make up this volume appeared in 1992's omnibus bestseller. But Joe Gould's Secret does seem worthy of note, if only for putting Mitchell's two articles about this famous Greenwich Village writer and panhandler, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1942 and 1964, back together again. (In Up in the Old Hotel they appeared in different chronological sections.) Just as notably, Mitchell's spare, careful prose seems better served in this new edition; it's a slim, lovely book that reminds us, in an era when length is used to indicate seriousness, how much more rewarding (and well-crafted) small books can be.
Joe Gould -- if you don't know his story -- was a famous character in the Greenwich Village of the 1940s and '50s. A graduate of Harvard and the scion of a well-to-do Boston family, he nevertheless lived like an outcast, sleeping in flophouses and, as he tells Mitchell, living on "air, self-esteem, cigarette butts, cowboy coffee, fried-egg sandwiches, and ketchup." (Gould was infamous in New York restaurants for emptying two or three bottles of ketchup onto his plate and eating every drop -- free food! -- with a spoon.) At the same time, Gould claimed to be working on a massive book, a collection of overheard conversations and offhand remarks that would be titled An Oral History of Our Time. Friends saw him as "the Samuel Pepys of the Bowery." Gould's claim was backed-up by his unlikely friendships with e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound and other Village literary figures, and Gould even managed to publish some pieces in magazines like The Dial.
There's a slightly rueful quality to Joe Gould's Secret as the true story behind Gould's "book" begins to emerge. But the real joys here are in Mitchell's calm evocation of Gould's wildly complicated life and personality. He was, Mitchell writes, "one of those men who are too shy to talk to strangers but not too shy to hold up a bank." In Joe Gould's Secret, it's Mitchell who makes off with the loot. -- Salon