Lifers: Biographers and Memoirists at The New Yorker Festival (Part 1 of 2)

The New Yorker Festival, an annual live-streamed celebration of ideas and the arts, runs October 5 through 7, 2012 in New York City (last minute tickets still available). See below for Signature's first installment of Lifers: Biographers and Memoirists at The New Yorker Festival, and check back tomorrow for part two.

Get several dozen New Yorker contributors in a room, or in a lot of rooms, over a long weekend, and you can pretty much count on the fact that at some point many of them have published a book on their own life, like Salman Rushdie’s "Joseph Anton: A Memoir" or on the lives of others, like D.T. Max’s recent "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace." Here are some more to visit, and revisit.

"Lit" by Mary Karr

The modern-day memoir has its origins in Mary Karr’s "The Liars’ Club," her raw, darkly comic rendering of growing up in a family riddled by drink in small-town east Texas. Karr went on to perfect the art of the coming-of-age/sexual awakening memoir in "Cherry," and did the same with the rehab/spiritual memoir in "Lit." If you’re going to read one Karr book, you should really read all three, and in order—why deny yourself the pleasure of narrative structure? It’s the years she recalls in "Lit" that will come into play at the festival. On Saturday, Karr will be participating in “Rereading David Foster Wallace,” her onetime boyfriend and subject of D.T. Max’s "Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace." From "Lit," Karr on the first time she met Wallace:

“The door opens a crack, and in the spilled, triangular glow, a tall kid wearing a red bandanna over his streaming brown hair slips out. He stops six feet away and bends slightly forward—almost a butler’s bow—saying, Excuse me, Miss Karr. Mind if I join you?

Who is he? With his formal demeanor and gold granny glasses, he could be a student—some Ivy League suck-up.

Join away, I say, adding as I flash my wedding ring, I’m a miz.”

"Just Kids" by Patti Smith

Before Patti Smith (who discusses lyric poetry with Paul Muldoon on Saturday) published "Just Kids," songs like “Piss Factory” (Sixteen and time to pay off/ I get this job in a piss factory inspecting pipe/Forty hours thirty-six dollars a week/ But it’s a paycheck, Jack. . . I'm gonna be somebody, I'm gonna get on that train, go to New York City) were the closest to a life story she’d delivered. But National Book Award–winning best-seller doesn’t equal sell-out, and "Just Kids" still ranks as the memoir you wish you’d written, full of lines you wish you’d been cool enough to say when you were eighteen. (“Hey sister, what’s your situation?” asks a fellow vagabond park-sleeper of homeless Patti, who responds, “On earth or in the universe?”) Even if she didn’t really say it (though she probably did), the book is so good you’re willing to believe it. "Just Kids" is part object lesson, but Smith’s materialism is symbolic and sentiment: her talismans include mandala patterns she obsessed over as a child and the Persian trinket that first links her and Mapplethorpe. As a memoir of details—the pilfered copies of Rimbaud, the shoplifted steaks cooked on a hot plate for “Slim” (Sam Shepard), the paintings bartered for rent, the “guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses” at the Chelsea Hotel—her narrative adds up to a torn, but beautiful homage to her first love and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe, to the city, to young love and young death. It’s the story of the New York you moved here to find.

"Up in the Old Hotel" by Joseph Mitchell

Which brings us to Joseph Mitchell, consummate reporter of an even more long-lost New York, the Fulton Fish Market, the bars on the wharf, the flophouses on the Bowery. Mitchell is the writer whose stories makes you long to be a New Yorker writer. Immortalized in his work, collected in "Up in the Old Hotel" (which Mark Singer, Ian Frazier, and others will discuss on Sunday in a tribute accompanied by local oysters and champagne), are deeply observed narratives of lives that would otherwise have been forgotten and left unknown. His people—saloon-keepers, shoe-shiners, fish mongers, and so on—are larger-than-life characters in their own milieu, like the diminutive, yet commanding Joe Gould, a.k.a. Professor Seagull, a.k.a. “the last of the bohemians." By his own estimate, he “looked like a bum and lived like a bum,” according to Mitchell, whose profiles in the magazine chronicled Gould’s so-called secret, a monumental Oral History that he claimed to be writing. "‘I never felt at home. I stuck out . . .,’ ” Gould told Mitchell. “ ‘In New York City, especially in Greenwich Village, down among the cranks and the misfits and the one-lungers and the has-beens and the might've beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats, I have always felt at home.’" Years after he stopped publishing his stories, Mitchell continued to arrive at his office regularly, where the sounds of his typewriter could still be heard. Whatever he was working on remained his own secret. Meanwhile he also collected ephemera—rocks, nails, doorknobs, shards of buildings being torn down; that collection was a secret too, as captivating as the stories that are his powerfully affecting, meant to be read-and-reread legacy.

"The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino" by Alec Wilkinson

One of the many who probably longed, maybe still longs, to be Joseph Mitchell is Alec Wilkinson (participating in festival conversations on Friday and Sunday), who made his own name writing memoirs of his days as a member of the Wellfleet, Massachusetts police force ("Midnights: A Year With the Wellfleet Police") and with reverence for one of the most beloved New Yorker editors ("My Mentor: A Young Writer's Friendship with William Maxwell"). Wilkinson's 1998 "Moonshine: A Life in Pursuit of White Liquor," a slim, arresting portrait of a revenue agent in eastern North Carolina, sets his sharp, economical prose against the appealingly honed trash talk of his subject, Garland Bunting. Here's Bunting on his talent for assimilating into a crowd to pass himself off as a potential customer: “ ‘It’s like a medicine show, really. If you go into these rural areas, you can’t get nothing out of these people unless you start something for yourself. You’ve got to disarm them. These folks are suspicious, and they’ll kill you. They’ll shoot the grease right out of a biscuit and never even break the crust.’ ” Bunting is as outsize a character as Joe Gould, and as Poppa Neutrino, née David Pearlman, subject of Wilkinson’s more recent "The Happiest Man in the World," inspiring for his iconoclastic, nomadic, free-spirited possession-less approach to life. (Poppa Neutrino’s object lesson? Get rid of them. When you need them, find someone else’s, nail it to something else, and build yourself an escape mechanism.) A Renaissance man whose achievements run the gamut from musicianship to inventing football plays to sailing, Neutrino, along with his family, the Flying Neutrinos, built rafts out of junked, found materials, and took them out for extended voyages on the high seas. Neutrino was the second person to sail a raft across the Atlantic and the first to do so on a vessel made entirely of trash. He is the character who makes you long to run away and leave it all behind.