Depending on the reader's age, a point will come in the book when the cartoons stop representing The New Yorker's history, let alone American society's, and start recalling bits of his own life. For me, this happened on Page 382 with a William Hamilton cartoon from 1972. I was 9 years old when I first saw it, growing up in a Minnesota village that had changed in four or five short years from a sleepy ma-and-pa farm town to a hip colony for outdoorsy Twin City professionals. This new crowd, which included my parents, was on a tear just then, drinking, dancing and divorcing. When my parents threw one of their smoky, noisy parties (many featuring fondue) a terrible sense of moral peril floated upstairs to my bedroom. Please save us, God. My fear that my family, and all of civilization, was about to collapse in some swinging, groovy orgy that would leave me and all other young children homeless merged somehow with certain objects: the bottle of Smirnoff vodka in our pantry, the copy of ''The Happy Hooker'' in my father's sock drawer and, most frightening of all, the stack of magazines beside the toilet in our downstairs bathroom.
I'd opened one of them once and seen a drawing -- angular, snappy and very mod in precisely the manner I found so menacing -- of a strange man and a woman seated in a restaurant in front of a crowded, lively bar. The man had long hair, big glasses, a droopy mustache and a flowery wide tie. The woman had a plume of frizzy hair, chunky earrings and startlingly thin arms. He was leaning back, smoking. She was drinking wine. She was saying something, but I didn't get the joke. It hardly mattered. The picture's feeling, its vibe, was disturbing enough. It haunted me. Seeing it again, I got the chills. (''It's hard to believe,'' the forgotten caption reads, ''that someday we'll be just so much nostalgia.'')
The magazines in the frightening stack beside the downstairs toilet were New Yorkers? A 9-year-old hears a party and fears an orgy? And what was it about this fateful cartoon that disturbed Kirn so much? A man and a woman, in the fashions of the time, out on a dinner date?
This is the cover review of the NYT Book Review today, not a wacky personal essay.
The portion of the review that appears on the cover tries to connect the history of New Yorker cartoons to the present day fussing about red state "moral values" and the election. The notion seems to be that the mere look, the urbanity, the smirking of blue staters appalls the skittish people of the heartland, who see frizzy hair and a glass of wine and have palpitations.