Reeling from Lorrie Moore’s withering review of my generation in the New York Review of Books via a Sally Rooney takedown—is Moore right? Is she dead wrong? Is it both?! Why am I weeping?!—I needed a boost.
So I went to Ben Fountain, who wrote Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (which I loved) and who has a new short story in the Oxford American called “Cane Creek.” It’s lovely. It’s also about death. I felt, again, wrecked by a writer; sentences like this tore me up: “If asked, she would have said this was what she knew from fifty-five years of life, the distillation of everything she’d learned from parents, teachers, lovers, books, three children, one miscarriage, and a problematic marriage of some thirty years: when someone dies who you are close to, their death brings other things close for a time.”
I needed, instead, the cheery old-person bliss. Or something close to that—whatever it is that makes a writer the kind of person who can describe something horrific with bubbly curiosity, or pinpoint the world’s failings with a laugh. My main sources for this are Mel Brooks, Oliver Sacks, and Studs Terkel. I decided to look through the Mother Jones archive to see if we have any good stuff in that vein in the dusty cupboard. I found something much better than I even expected: a 1995 interview with Terkel—the famous oral historian, radio interviewer, and seeming mensch of the working class.
First of all, it begins with him hating on the internet! I love it. It’s very 1995. And, I think, still probably right:
The trouble with me and the Internet is that it’s about facts and figures and information. But without the flesh and blood and the breathing that goes on, who am I talking to? What do they look like? Is it a multitude? Are there 25 people there? Who is that scraggly kid? The old woman there with a cane? That part–the human touch, that’s what’s missing.
The whole interview, and Terkel’s dogged obsession with the idea that everyone—everyone—is a person with a story to tell, especially in America, made me hopeful. And it made me miss strangers. Do you remember walking around, bumping shoulders, someone talking loudly within 6 feet so you could overhear their stories (and gossip about it at a bar, also within 6 feet)? That was great! I miss it. Some days I miss it with an unhelpful pang. Some days I miss it by pretending that any feeling of dismay midlockdown is dumb. Some days I indulge and miss it by complaining to my friends in ways that are annoying.
Someone like Terkel would probably listen to me, and you, and all of us, with a glint of recognition and ask, if we could, to say just a little bit more about that.