A Veteran Writer's Ode to His Favorite Watering Hole: Background information when reading Sunny's Nights

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Sunny's Nights

Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World

by Tim Sultan

Sunny's Nights by Tim Sultan X
Sunny's Nights by Tim Sultan
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2016, 288 pages
    Mar 2018, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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About this Book

A Veteran Writer's Ode to His Favorite Watering Hole

This article relates to Sunny's Nights

Print Review

There are two fairly common ways to memorialize someone: Raise a drink and propose a toast, or pick up a pen and write a tribute. But a handful of great writers have combined those two impulses and created memorable works that lionize their favorite drinking establishments. From Dickens' historic The George Inn in London to Hemingway's celebrated Paris haunt, The Dingo, some well-known writers have occasionally turned their literary focus to the publican's art.

McSorley's Old Ale House Perhaps no writer has been more adept at capturing the decadent charm of a local watering hole than Joseph Mitchell, a New Yorker staff writer who immortalized a Greenwich Village pub called McSorley's Old Ale House in a series of articles in the 1940s and 50s – many of which were collected in a book lovingly titled McSorley's Wonderful Saloon. Mitchell's contribution to the genre of pub-licity has impacted many modern writers, including Tim Sultan, author of Sunny's Nights: "I know that meeting Sunny and coming to his bar would have reminded him of some of the things he loved in life," Sultan thinks as he returns home after attending Mitchell's memorial service in 1996.

Readers of Sunny's Nights who know Mitchell's work will detect a whiff of the elder statesman's Porter-tinged prose. Readers who don't know Mitchell are in for a treat should they drink in his work. His profiles of eclectic people and places in post-depression Manhattan are staples of the non-fiction journalism canon. He captured the romance and roguery of the city and turned a hidden New York gem into a national treasure. McSorley's, which still operates, has reportedly not redecorated since the 1940s because tourists expect to see the exact bar that Mitchell wrote about as if time has stood still.

In many way, time did stand still for Mitchell, who endured one of the most famous bouts of writer's block in history: three decades. "Joseph Mitchell famously wrote his last story for The New Yorker in 1964, and for the following thirty-some years, went to work every day, closed his office door behind him, and never published another word," writes Sultan, relating the puzzling tale of Mitchell's unproductivity. Even more puzzling to many critics and biographers is that The New Yorker continued paying him for those thirty years.

Mitchell's creative hiatus has been dissected in articles, books, and even films, with no definitive resolution. But there's no disputing the quality of his prose, a sinewy mix of reportorial candor, literary elan, and street-wise sagacity:

To a devoted McSorley customer, most other New York City saloons are tense and disquieting. It is possible to relax in McSorley's. For one thing, it is dark and gloomy, and repose comes easy in a gloomy place. Also, the barely audible heartbeatlike ticking of the old clocks is soothing. Also, there is a thick, musty smell that acts as a balm to jerky nerves; it is really a rich compound of the smells of pine sawdust, tap drippings, pipe tobacco, coal smoke, and onions. A Bellevue intern once remarked that for some mental states the smell in McSorley's would be a lot more beneficial than psychoanalysis or sedative pills or prayer.

Writing like that calls for a toast.

Picture of McSorley's Old Ale House by Leonard J. Francisci

This "beyond the book article" relates to Sunny's Nights. It originally ran in April 2016 and has been updated for the March 2018 paperback edition.

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