American Gotham

New Yorker characters revealed in multileveled Joe Gould's Secret

In the rich mythology of the New Yorker, a periodical renowned for the quality of its writing and the quirks of its writers, no legend carries more weight than that of Joseph Mitchell. On the occasion of the magazine's 75th anniversary, it is currently great sport among the literati to remember the bons mots of Robert Benchley and the gin-soaked solitude of Dorothy Parker, the classic wit of blind James Thurber and the insight of all-seeing Pauline Kael. Some departed staffers are also making hay, through their acid-tinged memoirs, on the New Yorker's peculiar internal politics, its tangled office romances and the much-disputed foibles of its editors. But among all the luminaries who occupied the dark warrens of West 43rd Street through the decades, Mitchell continues to occupy the highest romantic perch. Two reasons: He is regarded as the ultimate New Yorker reporter and, true to the mysteries of that institution, he spent the last 32 years of his tenure there without publishing a single word.

How is this possible? Why did it happen? Given the depth of the magazine's privacies, we may never know for sure. But Stanley Tucci's new movie, Joe Gould's Secret, provides some tantalizing hints and fetching speculations about a celebrated writer and the demons that may have possessed him.

Still, Secret has as much to do with Joe Gould as with Joe Mitchell. The former was the subject of three of Mitchell's most celebrated (and carefully studied) profiles and, significantly, the focus of the writer's very last story, which ran in 1964. A Harvard-educated hobo with a touch of genius in him, Gould was exactly the kind of eccentric upon which Mitchell built his reputation as the James Joyce of New York. The personification of shabby-genteel street madness in the 1940s, Gould claimed he could converse with sea gulls, bragged that he was writing a multimillion-word magnum opus called the Oral History of the World, and generally played the twin roles of deep thinker and alienated artist. In the course of his travails, he attracted the attention of e. e. cummings and Ezra Pound, and there was hardly a gallery owner or a painter in Greenwich Village (witness Susan Sarandon's Alice Neel) unwilling to contribute money to what he called "the Joe Gould Fund." Mitchell contributed, too, and in Gould he apparently found not only his most fertile subject but also the dark side of his own life.

In the film, we meet both Joes -- the ragged little lunatic stuffed inside three dirty shirts as he begs for beer money, in the person of the great British actor Ian Holm, and the quiet, courtly, North Carolina-born reporter, neat as a pin in gray topcoat and fedora, played by actor-director Tucci. Three years ago, these actors worked together in Tucci's splendid directorial debut, Big Night, but the two-man show they put on here is even more extraordinary -- not least for the fact that in a very real sense it is also a one-man show. Ever careful, ever the good listener, ever the guy who bought the drinks, Mitchell was mystically drawn to New York's misfits and outsiders -- gypsy fortunetellers and Fulton fishmongers, Mohawk Indians who worked high steel and the proprietor of something called Captain Charley's Private Museum for Intelligent People. From his patient, sometimes laborious encounters with these anonymous people he fashioned some of the most memorable nonfiction writing in the English language for the most indulgent magazine in America. But in Joe Gould he likely found something even more profound, frightening even. He found a part of himself -- acutely intelligent but half-mad, deliberate but tortured by doubts, sublimely visionary but crippled in his vision. At least, that's the way it feels to this auditor in the rereading, and after viewing the film. Many of Joseph Mitchell's current crop of readers discovered his work, which had long been out of print, when he allowed a vintage collection called Up in the Old Hotel to be published in 1992, four years before his death at age 87. Now we may begin to understand why he went to work at the New Yorker offices every day for more than three decades but never completed another story.

Along with shedding some light on this great American literary mystery, director Tucci ably reproduces a vanished New York. It's a city where men wear hats and pure language is cherished, where great liners dock on the Hudson and artistic ferment is palpable in the streets. It is a city where anything is possible -- including notoriety for a furious bum with a dirty portfolio clutched under his arm, a man who could just as easily jump up on a table and shout, "In winter I'm a Buddhist, in summer I'm a nudist" as, in his darker contemplations, unravel the secrets of the human comedy. This is the city, too, where a buttoned-up bourgeois like Mitchell -- nice wife (here played by Hope Davis), nice apartment, two nice daughters -- can discover that he, too, is an outsider.

There is no substitute for Mitchell's precise and luminous prose, and we get barely a hint of it in Tucci's movie. What we do get is a vivid double portrait of the artistic sensibility in its many weathers -- expressed by two fine actors clearly engaged in a labor of love. In telling the story of a long-forgotten eccentric (Gould died in 1957) and paying tribute to a great American writer, Joe Gould's Secret also suggests the outlines of a tragedy.

 
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