Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakeable
Love for New York edited by Sari Botton
Touchstone, 2014; 256 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
By the time this review gets posted online, I’ll have returned from visiting my family in New Jersey for the Christmas holiday. I enjoy my seasonal visit for many expected reasons like family, friends, and festivities, but I also savor that time because I'm just a short drive away from New York City. I grew up with the New York skyline hovering in the distance from my home. I took for granted that every kid must have the Yankees, Broadway, and some of the world’s finest museums available for family outings, school trips, birthday parties, and Cub Scout events. The city only opened up more surprises when I began spending time there regularly for work and fun. Now, I’m more than 1,000 miles removed from my favorite city, though I’ve had the terrific new collection Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York to remind me of New York’s eccentric charms that I’ll soon revisit.
Editor Sari Botton collects 27 essays from contemporary writers who have navigated New York for most of their adult lives, struggling to assimilate yet unwavering in their love for it (“It’s like there’s cocaine in the air,” writes contributing author Stephen Elliott). Many of the best essays discuss New York from perspectives built on personal passions or investigative obsessions. In my favorite piece, “City of Mundane Fantasy,” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s head-writer, Elliott Kalan, discusses how the films he watched as a child shaped how he imagined New York. To him, real New Yorkers were in too much of a hurry to notice when flying monsters attacked tourists in Gremlins 2: The New Batch because they encountered those sights every day. Even Kermit the Frog could find contentment in a buttoned-downed, amnesia-induced life in Muppets Take Manhattan. New York is the kind of city where even a frog can become a white collar success story. Kalan is charmed by the mystery—just as Susan Orlean is in her attempts to trace the mysterious lineage of royalty-themed papaya restaurants or Colin Harrison’s perception of the city through his vast collection of maps tracing the frequently changing cityscape. Their personal obsessions unveil many of the idiosyncratic marvels that reveal more about our relationship with the city than any tour guide could.
While I enjoyed seeing New York portrayed through more contemporary authors (rather than the familiar names usually trotted out for collections of New York essays) my millennial rearing may have caused me to grow tired of the occasional author extolling their thoughts on the city they knew before its economic resurgence and skyrocketing cost of living. Some make eloquent cases for the culture lost, while others seem out of touch with most of the world. Rosanne Cash, for instance, wrote the collection’s first essay, and I found it difficult to relate to her mourning of a city lost to the rich when her perception of New York is punctuated by talk of fancy private schools for her kids and shopping trips to Bergdorf’s. Thankfully, the collection never gets bogged down by those mournful city dwellers, instead shifting regularly to new authors and styles that collect more oddball characters than forgotten dive bars. Some choice essays by Elizabeth Gilbert, Adam Sternbergh, Isaac Fitzgerald, and Amy Sohn made Never Can Say Goodbye the sort of absorbing read I want when I need to transport myself back to New York City.