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Joseph Mitchell, Old Mr. Flood

Joseph Mitchell's Old Mr. Flood is a fictional portrait of a man who lives in an aged hotel near New York City's Fulton Fish Market during the 1940s; the title character is a composite of numerous individuals that Mitchell knew in the Fulton Market area. The book is endlessly quotable, but I'll restrain myself to just two passages. First, here's Mr. Flood's philosophy on mortality (he's 93 years old, and wants to live to 115):

Many aged people reconcile themselves to the certainty of death and become tranquil; Mr. Flood is unreconcilable. There are three reasons for this. First, he deeply enjoys living. Second, he comes of a long line of Baptists and has a nagging fear of the hereafter, complicated by the fact that the descriptions of heaven in the Bible are as forbidding to him as those of hell. "I really don't want to go to either of those places," he says. He broods about religion and reads a chapter of the Bible practically every day. Even so, he goes to church only on Easter. On that day he has several drinks of Scotch for breakfast and then gets in a cab and goes to a Baptist church in Chelsea. For at least a week thereafter he is gloomy and silent. "I'm a God-fearing man," he says, "and I believe in Jesus Christ crucified, risen and coming again, but one sermon a year is all I can stand." Third, he is a diet theorist - he calls himself a seafoodetarian - and feels obliged to reach a spectacular age in order to prove his theory. He is convinced that the eating of meat and vegetables shortens life and he maintains that the only sensible food for man, particularly for a man who wants to hit a hundred and fifteen, is fish.

And here's how he maintains his surprisingly good health:

Mr. Flood doesn't think much of doctors and never goes near one. He passes many evenings in a comfortable old spindle-back chair in the barroom of the Hartford House, drinking Scotch and tap water and arguing, and sometimes late at night he unaccountably switches to brandy and wakes up next morning with an overwhelming hangover - which he calls a katzenjammer. On those occasions he goes over to S.A. Brown's, at 28 Fulton Street, a highly aromatic little drugstore which was opened during President Thomas Jefferson's second term and which specialized in outfitting medicine chests for fishing boats, and buys a bottle of Dr. Brown's Next Morning, a proprietary greatly respected in the fish market. For all other ailments, physical or mental, he eats raw oysters. Once, in the Hartford barroom, a trembly fellow in his seventies, another tenant of the hotel, turned to Mr. Flood and said, "Flood, I had a birthday last week. I'm getting on. I'm not long for this world."

Mr. Flood snorted angrily. "Well, by God, I am," he said. "I just got started."

The book is a charming, delightful and marvelous evocation of a vanished place and time. At 122 pages, it's a swift and easy read, and when I finished it this morning I launched right back into a second reading - a very rare occurrence for me. The book is currently out of print, but is collected in Up in the Old Hotel, along with three other Mitchell collections.

January 15, 2014 in Books | Permalink

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