MAN IN PROFILE
By Thomas Kunkel. (Random House, 366 pages, $30.)
Magazine writer Joseph Mitchell told stories of the quirky underbelly of New York using all the tools of a good novelist. Starting in the mid-1930s, he spent three decades delighting readers of the New Yorker magazine with his colorful characters and brilliant ear for dialogue.
And then: nothing. Mitchell went to his office every day for another 30 years, and colleagues heard him typing. But his last story for the magazine was published in 1964.
Thomas Kunkel's new biography, "Man in Profile," helps explain Mitchell's long fallow period, while making the case that he should be remembered more for his literary talent than for his years in the writing wilderness.
Kunkel, who also wrote a biography of the New Yorker's founding editor, Harold Ross, was well-suited for the task. Mitchell pioneered a narrative writing style that became known as "new journalism," or creative nonfiction. But Mitchell bent the journalistic rules, often with Ross' blessing, and later admitted that many of his best-loved characters were composites. "It's more truthful than factual," Mitchell liked to say.
Kunkel investigated what he called Mitchell's "fact-fiction mélange," and uncovered additional instances where Mitchell played fast-and-loose with the facts.
But the book's real treasure arises in excerpts from Mitchell's unpublished autobiography and opus on New York City — that's what he had been working on all those years.
Kunkel received the work in grocery bags and unorganized piles of paper after Mitchell's death in 1996 at age 87, and he quotes liberally from it (including one 1,200-word sentence).
Kunkel explores Mitchell's clinical depression, his torment over not writing, and his suffocating sense that he was losing the New York he loved so much to "progress." The son of a wealthy North Carolina tobacco and cotton farmer, Mitchell began to feel like an outcast — not unlike so many of his literary characters.