He’s extremely persuasive, partly because he’s right, and partly because his writing is utterly unique: arch but trippy. Every few paragraphs of “Context” get a title like “The Adolescent Orthodoxy” or “The Authority of No-Authority” or “The Cold Child” or “Defacement.” Some of them make perfect sense. Some seem nuts.
It’s possible, of course, to think that all Trow’s elegant ranting amounted to cultural elitism. That of course he mourned the end of Wasp hegemony with its wisdom and history and moral clarity and—by the way—ethnic and economic exclusivity: He was its embodiment. Though not the son of a Vanderbilt or an Astor, he was still the great-great-grandson of a prominent New York City printer named John Fowler Trow (who invented a kind of early version of the phone book, the Trow City Directory). He still went to Exeter and Harvard, where he wrote his thesis about Edith Wharton and her treatment of social hierarchy. And he is now, as they say, a Dead White Male.
But as much as a certain kind of contemporary academic likes to try, it’s silly to dismiss Trow as a nostalgic snob. It misses the point. Trow’s rather amazing accomplishment was to make a whine about decline thrilling instead of boring, shocking instead of predictable. And while the intensity and singularity of Trow’s work had everything to do with his talent, it was also inseparable from another truth: that George Trow was slowly going crazy.
Up in Hudson, with his long gray hair and his rainbow crocheted hat, Jacob Brackman makes the following observation: “ ‘Within the Context of No Context’ is like a half-mad piece already. There’s a New Yorker tradition of that, of half-mad New Yorker writers who Mr. Shawn nurses along and knows when they have to go to the hospital and rest up, maybe not worry about what they’re writing for a while.” “Context” is partly a meditation on the conditions of a world gone wrong, a world that will make you crazy if you think about it too much, and partly the record of a mind starting to unravel from doing just that.
There were always things about George Trow that were unusual. He had always been a bit manic and extravagant in his gestures; there was that famous laugh. “It was high and piercing, much too loud and alarming, and it became a way of punctuating his conversation,” says Kathryn Walker. “It was high style, à la Vreeland.” He had always been very sensitive, and not so much easy to antagonize as peculiar in what would infuriate him.
Trow liked to go on road trips with Ian Frazier. Once, after they hiked through Glacier National Park, Frazier drove them down the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which goes along a precipice over the Continental Divide. As Frazier drove his van, clutching the wheel, buzzing with anxiety, Trow attempted to remember the lyrics to a Noël Coward song, reciting, over and over again, “I’ve been to a marvelous party, with Nounou and Nada and Nell ... ”
“He was driving me crazy,” says Frazier. “When we got down to the bottom I was just shot; I was just totally in pieces. So I bought a six-pack and drank four in one shot and George got very angry. He thought I shouldn’t have drank those beers.”
Often, when they traveled, Trow would ask Frazier to take photographs of him to send to his sister, Ellen, who was mentally handicapped and spent much of her life in an institution. “He always had the same pose, a very sweet pose,” says Frazier. “When I took my first dust-jacket photo I tried to do that pose.” Ellen died in her early forties.
“George had a real tenderness for her and loved her dearly, in a way,” says Ken Kleinpeter, who saw Trow at least once a week for about ten years. “I helped him build a woodshed; that was the kind of stuff he loved to do with me. I was like his country buddy, you know what I mean? And if I were going to be absolutely honest, I think he had a crush on me and at first he was really trying to seduce me in a way. I often felt like a good-looking woman must feel sometimes when a guy is giving her attention: I’m thinking, Why is this guy trying to be friends with me? He can go and have dinner with Jackie Onassis. Why is he calling me to go to some little dive?” Trow propositioned Kleinpeter rather boldly one Fourth of July as part of a disquisition on independence.
Trow seems never to have quite made peace with his own sexuality. “I think that he had an old-fashioned discomfort with the subject and with the application to himself,” says McIntosh. “In many ways, George longed to be absolutely normal.” He had been taught certain rules, certain rituals with which to pursue happiness—the folding of the newspaper, success in the world of letters—and they were failing him.