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07Jun

New Yorkers by Craig Taylor review – the Big Apple cut to the core

The oral historian takes the winning formula of 2011’s Londoners over the Atlantic to reveal a city more fearful, but still full of dreamers

In 2011, the Canadian author and oral historian Craig Taylor published Londoners, a series of verbatim interviews with citizens from all walks of life for a book whose aim was to build a kaleidoscopic portrait of the city. Now, nearly a decade on, he has visited New York and taken the same approach. But its residents live in a more fearful age, in the shadow of Trump, BLM protests and a global pandemic. Taylor wrote the book between 2014 and 2020, and even in these six years the city changed significantly. The world depicted here can be a harsh and bleak one, but not without humanity and wit, which Taylor captures superbly.

Armed with 71 notebooks and 400 hours’ worth of taped interviews, the author tries to make sense of a confusing and bewitching metropolis. His first thought, as he prepares to leave his apartment, is that he should “get ready to enter the oceanic power”: one of this fine book’s many pleasures is the way in which its overlapping prose aptly complements the adrenaline rush of the city’s frantic daily ballet. Taylor calls the people of New York “the greatest ongoing flicker of human life I’d ever encountered”, and cites the photographer Gus Powell, whose work embraces “the quotidian poetry” of the city, as well as the spirit of life there. As Powell says: “It is an incredibly generous place… this is why you can get things done here.” Taylor’s own experience of volunteering at a lunch programme in the Flatiron District gives him a first-hand insight into the city’s gruff good nature, especially in his affectingly evoked friendship with Joe, a homeless but indomitable Vietnam veteran.

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