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How About Never – Is Never Good for You?:

My Life in Cartoons

By Bob Mankoff

Henry Holt

285 pages, $32.50

By Jeff Simon

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Now we know. In this book is the definitive answer to one of the world’s great origin mysteries – almost up there with the implicit question in Jonathan Swift’s immortal speculation “He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.”

We’ll never know who that first man (it might have been a woman, of course) was who first ate an oyster but we know from this book the answer to a question almost as remarkable for our species: the name of the first magazine editor ever to realize the cartoons of Roz Chast were funny.

His name is Lee Lorenz. He is a cartoonist himself and he preceded Bob Mankoff as the longtime cartoon editor of The New Yorker, which, on a weekly basis, is the zenith of the cartoonist’s rare and glorious and seemingly endangered art.

Chast is one of many cartoonists whom the obviously collegial and generous self-styled “cartoonologist” Mankoff got to contribute to his memoir of life as a cartoonist and editor and inventor of the Cartoon Bank where you’ll find every New Yorker cartoon since the magazine’s founding as well as a huge online data bank of cartoons by great cartoonists that were never published.

The utterly extraordinary Chast created a magnificently strange and neurotic melding of Saul Steinberg, Paul Klee and your 8-year-old daughter which seemed to usher in a Brave New World of cartoon conceptualism. She is very much in season at the moment. In May, Bloomsbury will publish something very different than we’re used to from her – a graphic memoir of her parents’ final years called “Can’t We Talk About Something Pleasant?”

Here, though, in Mankoff’s book is the day in April 1978 when Chast – who “didn’t think anyone would like” her cartoons “because they were very personal and peculiar” – somehow won the understanding of Lee Lorenz, cartoonist and obviously something of an editorial genius. His title then was “art editor.” Without knowing who, if anyone, would like them Chast dropped off a packet of 50 or 60 cartoons at the New Yorker thinking nothing could possibly come of it. When she came back the next week, “there was a note inside (the returned packet) I couldn’t read.” Decoded by a staffer, it said “Please see me, Lee.… He told me they were buying a cartoon. I was pretty flabbergasted. It was, in many ways, the most peculiar and personal of the lot: ‘Little Things.’ ”

To look at that cartoon and understand what a quantum leap it seems in American humor – even New Yorker cartoon humor – is, I think, to understand that Lorenz’s audacity, in its way, far exceeded Chast’s own. To a cartoon staff that already included George Booth, George Price, James Stevenson, Sam Gross, William Hamilton, Ed Koren and the legendary Charles Addams, Lorenz added Chast, Jack Ziegler, Mankoff, Michael Maslin, Mick Stevens, Danny Shanahan, Glen Baxter and Bruce Eric Kaplan.

He was a small miracle of taste in his art.

If Mankoff – his successor and the writer of this completely irresistible and revelatory book about the New Yorker cartoonists’ life and art – doesn’t seem quite the conductor of radical change in content that Lorenz was, he is brilliant in his own way and, in the creation of the Internet Cartoon Bank, brought an apparently waning art form into the 21st century.

His book is a reader’s delight, telling the story of his own life and art (no, he didn’t really need to explain to us that Seurat was a pointillist, much less be apologetic about doing so) and of the process of cartoon selection at his magazine, the last outpost of one of the most lovable (and sophisticated) American arts.

To all those whose love of The New Yorker’s cartoons is life-long, Mankoff’s book tells us most of what we’ve long wanted to know, including the not-really-secret fact over the years that there was, in the ’70s a radical change in conception of what New Yorker cartoonists did. Where they are now suppliers of picture and caption both and have been since Lorenz’s time, in the “classic” era of New Yorker cartooning, it was a commonplace that captions were supplied by others (e.g. E.B. White’s famous line to Carl Rose’s drawing, “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.”). An old friend and former News reporter, in fact, long ago told me the story of selling a cartoon idea about Muzak to the great Charles Addams – an indication that it was far from the only one even if Addams’ macabre sensibility and talent were clearly original, unique and hilarious.

But in that, and in so many things, Mankoff is enormously revealing in very specific ways. This is a practioner’s portrait of cartooning as one trade and cartoon-editing as another. In the latter, then, it is a thoroughly essential book in the library shelf of what might be called “New Yorker Studies” – the shelf that began in earnest with Brendan Gill’s “Here at the New Yorker,” and reached all manner of dramatic and indiscreet plateaus in Renata Adler’s “Gone” and Daniel Menaker’s recent “My Mistake.”

Mankoff is a curious mixture of discretion and brashness, but then you might expect that from a guy both mildly spoiled and misunderstood in early life – a misfit who went to New York City’s High School of Art and Music, but then in his senior year got on its basketball team, a guy who, at Syracuse University in the ’60s “devoted myself to the aesthetics of my hair” and evaded Vietnam by going to psychology graduate school.

He’s mostly an entertaining, instructive and companionable presence. The book’s only moment of dubious disingenuousness is his confession of wanting to take Lorenz’s job but being saved from stealing it outright by Lorenz’s decision to retire. His later defense of the always-assailable Tina Brown in her New Yorker editorship seems both candid and – at least in part – admirable. (Bashing Tina Brown is a bit like thoughtlessly blowtorching Oprah Winfrey.)

His list of cartoon talents brought to The New Yorker isn’t as distinguished as Lorenz’s. And there are weeks now when the cartoon choices made by him in consort with editor David Remnick seem less than inspired.

Undeniable, though, is that the two of them have not only kept a singular art form alive but prominent and, amazingly, creatively ambitious and growing.

Bob Mankoff, it seems, is a cartoonist down to his chromosomes. It’s both this book’s greatest virtue and its greatest flaw.

If only we could know what he REALLY thinks about colleagues and forebears. That, no doubt, awaits his own retirement years.

In that case, never would not be at all good for me.

Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Books Editor.