Cunningham and the red sauce he loves. Illustration: by Margalit Cutler

Vinson Cunningham is better known as a staff writer and theater critic at The New Yorker than for his deep appreciation of red-sauce pasta. And as of next week, he’ll be a published novelist: Great Expectations is out on Tuesday. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young man named David who works on the historic presidential campaign of a senator from Illinois — yes, that one — and is tossed into a world that makes him interrogate both his identity and his trajectory.

Monday, February 26
Every Monday, I record a podcast about culture and the arts for The New Yorker called Critics at Large. I co-host it with my friends Alex and Naomi, which is a lucky thing: It’s nice to start out the week talking with people you like. We record downtown at One World Trade Center in a studio on a highish floor. Every week, I get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and the waters beyond it farther south.

A radio producer once told me I should avoid eating before recording. It glues up the cords, apparently, and makes the voice sound gummy instead of clear. So on these podcast Mondays, I tend to go to a Blue Bottle Coffee not far from the office. The shop is neat and futuristic — blond-wood tables and big glass windows for walls. Because I’m a ritualistic person (this is my self-elevating way of admitting that I am a “creature of habit,” which sounds dowdy and cowardly and old, whereas ritual has a certain ceremonial mystery that I like), I order the same thing every time: a cold brew (they always ask me which “blend,” and I always make them decide), a green juice, and, just to hold my morning hunger at bay, a brown-butter blondie.

I don’t think I even really like the blondie. It’s sweet in a generic way and often tastes somewhat burned. The best part of the little thing — a tan rectangle maybe two inches long and a half an inch wide — is the dusting of sea-salt flakes on top. I finish it off in two bites and wash it down with the coffee as I walk across the plaza toward work. It’s hard not to think, while smacking my lips and looping through the 9/11 Memorial pools — big whooshing sinks of rushing water like a pair of falls leading toward the grave — about how much I associate eating with being alive and hunger with death. It’s a weird thing working just above a cemetery.

After recording, I have another ritual. Somehow I’ve become obsessed with the restaurant Serafina. It’s like the Olive Garden but for the idle upper middle class. Almost no matter where you are in Manhattan, you can track the place down and know exactly how the tartare’s going to taste. It’s past 2 p.m. now — I’m dead hungry. The blondie was no sustenance, and talking is surprisingly draining. I walk up West Broadway and slip into the Serafina on Chambers Street.

At the outset, I should admit two things I’m neither proud nor ashamed of, both fairly important to my eating this week: I’m sort of trying to lose weight and sort of trying to avoid booze. Usually at these solo Monday lunches, I get a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs — red sauce is one of my foremost obsessions — and let myself have a glass or two (or three) of wine. I have an abundance mind-set. (This is my self-elevating way of admitting that I am greedy. When I was a kid, my father used to admiringly watch me eat, then call me, with all the affection in the world, a “greedbucket.” I often wonder what he would’ve said if he’d survived to see me drink.) Earlier this year, I decided I probably drink too much, and I’m hoping to figure out what that should mean: some recourse to rules — only on weekends, only when out with friends, etc. — or teetotaling altogether, which, like all demanding adventures, sounds sort of fun but also insane. By nature, I eat and drink to celebrate, to mourn, to reward myself, and sometimes, sure, to ward off unwanted thoughts.

Anyway, I’m inching toward quitting drinking and — because I’m putting out a book, because I’m vain, because I do happen to weigh more than I ever have before — trying to trim just a couple of pounds. To tell the truth, my constant thinking about the pounds far exceeds my actual effort to lose them. I’m not a great friend of my own body, even though I tend almost uniformly to like the body types of other people. I weigh myself every morning and make contemptuous faces in the mirror. Today, I order the aforementioned Tartare di Sofia — a quivering red-and-green tower of tuna, salmon, and avocado with cucumber splayed at its base like a lawn — and a Caesar salad. It’s all just fine, exactly how I remember it from last week. The friendly host who has started to treat me like a regular asks about the wine I usually get, but I sheepishly ask for a bitters-and-soda instead.

Tuesday, February 27
In the fall, I teach at the Yale School of Art, one of my favorite jobs. I lead a class on writing for a group of visual artists — photographers, painters, graphic designers, sculptors — and often serve as a critic on the photography program’s weekly panel. It’s a beautiful activity, by my lights: looking at other people’s art and trying to figure out how to put it into totally improvised words. I’m not at Yale in the spring semester, but today I’m filling in on the photography panel.

Yale means riding the Metro-North, a relaxing experience that nevertheless makes keeping time a huge ordeal. A two-hour chunk of the day devoted to travel makes the rest of the day run like an increasingly loud metronome. I make the train just in time at 9:05 a.m., which means I’m too late to grab a snack. I listen to music and try to rest, even to sleep, until I realize that, in my haste, I got on the local. So slow. I have to get off at Stamford and catch the train to New Haven. Now I’m half an hour late and even more hungry.

When I reach the deli across the street from the art school, I’m already irritated and tired. But I put on a nice face because the husband and wife who own and run the deli — at least I think that’s their relationship; I’m too shy to ask — are always so kind to me. I’ve got only 15 minutes before I need to run to a meeting. I order (or think I order) a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich and, while I wait, silently blame the train for the litany of stereotypically black-male ailments the sandwich will surely cause: clogged arteries, high cholesterol, faulty heart, early death. I’m almost visibly shaking my head when the sandwich comes. I walk out and rustle it open, and I realize it’s got bacon instead of sausage. I’m sure this is my fault, but still I feel the futile, humiliating anger of the misplaced order. I’m not a “go back and get what you really wanted” kind of person. I stifle my botheration at the train and at my mealymouthed self and choke down the sandwich before I have to be “on.”

Later, in the short breaks between sessions of photo critique, I run back and forth to the deli to get little snacks: a “Low Fat Yogurt Parfait” in a clear plastic cup; a pack of something called “Fiorucci Paninos,” which are tart sticks of mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto; a banana.

Wednesday, February 28
Today, it’s back to One World Trade on a rare Wednesday. This time, I’m recording an interview for The New Yorker Radio Hour. My boss, David Remnick, is going to ask me questions about my novel. I respect and like David so much, and it feels surreal that he has read a book of mine. To be honest, I’m nervous. I love to listen to interviews and love to conduct them — another favorite job — and therefore have a fairly well defined, unfortunately lofty sense of how a “good” interview subject should sound. Can I sound like that? Can I make my book sound as good as I genuinely think it is? I’m not sure. For the reasons above, but also because I’m feeling queasy, I don’t eat before the interview at noon.

Afterward, I have lunch upstairs at the Condé Nast cafeteria with one of my editors, a different David, who, when I think about it, has been one of my closest friends over the past seven or so years. We’re both basketball fans and both fret over our families and both like to walk and talk and think about art. Friendships don’t need much more than that.

The cafeteria has a clean, almost anti-septic look. White and cream and pearl tones, textures of marble and glass. When I’m up there, I always think about slipping and hitting my head against one of the high, hard-edged counters near the windows. It’s like the luxury-shopping section of an airport, a vibe I know I’m not supposed to admire but actually like just fine. The chairs are soft; the views are gorgeous. Today, they’re serving a “house-made stuffed pasta,” a plump tire of pasta filled with “cacio e pepe sauce” and wild mushrooms, topped off with quarter-size shavings of funky black truffle.

While David and I are eating — he got the pasta thing too — I get an email from my agent, Jessica, another colleague turned close friend. The first full-length review of the book is out. A very kind one. I breathe deeply, realizing suddenly that I haven’t done so in about a week, and I finish the pasta, about which I had already started to feel vaguely guilty.

So unburdened am I by the good press that when I get to my next stop, Mariana’s apartment in Bed-Stuy, I gamely agree to order burgers and fries. It’s sort of a second lunch, and not a healthy one — as usual, I can feel my lukewarm resolutions recede into the distance, relics of Monday’s optimism — but I’ll call it dinner and try to move on. I still haven’t had a drink this week, I remind myself. Not terrible.

We try to watch the first Dune movie after the burgers, but halfway through, we’re both asleep.

Thursday, February 29
Leap Day! When I wake up, I have the thrilling, morbid thought that I should try very hard to have fun today since there’s no guarantee I’ll see tomorrow, let alone the next leap year, four years down the road. I feel — following this groggy flight of fancy — that having made it to this shy, rare, special date, I’ve graduated into something, perhaps a new chapter of my life. This line of thought, I concede, rousing myself, must be related to my persistent sorrow, which is especially acute this week. My wife, Renée, to whom my book is dedicated, who runs fugitively through each of my thoughts every day, died last February. The whole month has been a dirge, and I’m glad to see it go. I decide to loosen up my eating — and even my drinking; shouldn’t I toast that good review? — in an attempt to enjoy life. That was never a problem for me before.

I jet from Bed-Stuy to midtown. I’ve got to go to my publisher’s office to sign some books. I’ve never “signed books” before, and the novelty of the experience cheers me up as the A train rocks me back and forth. I stop at a diner on 57th Street and settle in, hoping to find corned-beef hash — one of my all-time favorite foods — on the menu. It’s not there, which astounds me. No corned-beef hash at a diner? How? I think longingly of my favorite joint, Metro Diner, on 100th and Broadway. It’s not far from the apartment I grew up in, where my sweet mom still lives. I used to go there all the time with Mom and her closest friends, always ordering the hash or a fried fillet-of-sole sandwich. Fried filet of sole — I like a slice of cheddar melted over it — makes me think of Washington Square Diner, down near West Fourth, where I used to eat with Renée back when we were both dating other people, before we’d wound our way to each other. I used to look over the glossy tables of that bright place and wish I could tell her I loved her.

Now, though, I settle for an omelet and toast and endless cups of coffee. My motion through the week is making me sleepy, almost permanently.

Much later, at 10 p.m., I meet up with Victoria and Hamna to eat at Sailor in Fort Greene. We three went together back in November when the restaurant was new. It still feels fresh and exciting to eat there, which is almost definitely why the reservation (nabbed expertly by Victoria) is so deep into the evening. Everybody still wants to be here.

It’s hard to explain what’s so good about April Bloomfield’s cooking, which I’d never eaten before Sailor popped up. When I try to describe her to myself, I can think only of other American artists whose mix of simplicity and flourish I admire: Ralph Lauren, maybe, or Herman Melville, or the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, who, in her poem “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666,” turned an awful fire — which consumed not only her family home but a whole library of books — into some of my favorite lines of verse, all resignation and terrible acceptance:

And when I could no longer look,

I blest His name that gave and took,

That laid my goods now in the dust.

Yea, so it was, and so ’twas just.

It was his own, it was not mine,

Far be it that I should repine

I can’t tell you why Bloomfield reminds me of Bradstreet. I guess she cooks like someone who has been through the fight of her life and, at high cost, survived, somehow loving herself better on the other side. The sauce on her Mussel Toast is hot with cinnamon. It just knocks me out. We drag the bread through the brown sauce, leaving wide gelatinous streaks like marks of impasto on a canvas.

Victoria is one of my oldest and best friends. We’ve known each other since we were 12 and have shared everything. The first time I let myself cry about my father in front of another kid, it was onto her shoulder. I met Hamna through Vicky much later, in our 20s, I guess. We used to joke about how tenuous that situation is: friends through a friend. We would wonder aloud whether we were close enough yet for one of us to attend the other’s funeral. Now we’re just friends, locked in and totally obligated future mourners, which feels nice. As the courses march on, I have a glass of “skin contact” wine — I’m still riding that wave — then a pair of martinis, one hot on the tail of the other, then, for dessert (alongside some ginger cake and a pile of profiteroles), a glass of Champagne. The Champagne’s for the review.

As we sway down Dekalb Avenue playing music aloud on my phone — to be specific, it’s “Water,” by the South African singer Tyla, an overexposed song that hasn’t gotten old to me yet — Vicky hands me a cigarette she got on a recent trip to Bali. It says “Berry Pop” on the side. You snap some small packet hiding in the filter and then the whole cigarette tastes like fruit. Who knew?

Friday, March 1
Mariana and I go to lunch in Soho at Balthazar. I love that big room and all the mirrors. Mariana is a rare thing in my new life: someone I met after Renée passed away. It’s strange to let someone grow close to you — true closeness, so harrowing — after a bright, traumatic shock, when you still don’t know what kind of person you have become. She’s sweet and smart and more bravely open than I am. She has introduced me to the music of the pagode singer Alexandre Pires.

I get the omelet with cheddar and a bright, gemlike juice with collard greens in it. A nod to the kind of week I wanted to have but couldn’t quite manage.

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