The New Yorker fiction podcast started in May 2007. The format, in which a famous author chooses and reads a story from the New Yorker archive, and discusses it with the magazine’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman, is very simple and perfectly executed.
I cover a lot of motorway miles in my day job, and down the years have listened to every single one of these stories – and there have been over a hundred now.
Some authors have returned to read and chat a few times, and other authors have had their work chosen on multiple occasions, including Harold Brodkey, Denis Johnson, Donald Barthelme and one or two others.
Here’s my favourite five stories to date, in no particular order. If pushed I’d choose the John Cheever or Roddy Doyle story as the best of the best. Don’t make me decide between them.
This one’s read by Dave Eggers, who does a grand job. It tells of four middle aged Irish men, friends since childhood and now weekly drinking buddies, who take a holiday together to Spain. It’s a superb, inch-perfect insight into fatherhood, friendship and middle-aged existential angst. And funny, funny, funny too.
John Updike is surely one of the finest prose stylists of the last 100 years. This story, doesn’t have a word out of place. I remember listening to it on a long drive and it made me hold my breath at times, and replay certain sentences to be sure I’d heard them right. The scene in which Fanshawe is married to his first wife, and flirting with the woman that turns out to be his second wife, oblivious to his young son lying crumpled at his feet with a broken leg from ice skating on a frozen pond, is unforgettable.
This story, ready by Monica Ali, starts quietly, with a couple preparing for a dinner party. They are funny and cynical, but things take a turn for the darker. When the guests don’t show up, the husband goes to their house to find out why, and discovers a party to which he and his wife are not invited. And something shifts: the narrator we’d been complicit with turns out to be an alcoholic boor who nobody likes, and whose wife is preparing to leave him. It’s beautifully done.
I’m a huge fan of Denis Johnson, and the story Two Men from the seminal book Jesus’ Son is one of the reasons why. Jesus’ Son is a chaotic, freewheeling, drug addled collection of short stories, and Two Men is its most disturbing. The story ends with a heart-stopping moment of menace and horror, that arrives completely unexpected after all the paranoid meandering that has gone before it.
This one kick-started the New Yorker fiction podcast, and has one of my favourite living writers reading one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. Reunion, by John Cheever, tells in around 1000 words of the last time a boy sees his father, his mother having divorced him three years earlier. Narrated by the boy, father and son meet in New York for an hour and visit four different restaurants where the father reveals himself to be a drunk and a bully. The boy leaves him berating a newspaper seller as he hurries for his train. It’s flash fiction but does the job of tens of thousands of words.