“All the Beauty in the World,” by Patrick Bringley (Simon & Schuster)
When his older brother died of cancer at age 26, Patrick Bringley’s life was upended. Not even two years younger, Bringley quit his “high-flying desk job” at the New Yorker magazine and in a profound act of mourning, went to work as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum – “the most straight-forward job I could think of in the most beautiful place I knew.” Yes, a guard. Proud member of DC 37 Local 1503. Bringley, who had fond memories of his first trip to the Met at age 11, back when visitors still wore brightly colored tin admission pins, ended up staying 10 years, long enough for the museum to work its magic and bring him back from the brink.
His reflections on that decade form the spine of his hauntingly beautiful memoir, “All the Beauty in the World.” Elegant in its simplicity and dedicated to his brother, Tom, Bringley explores the way that great works of art can function as a balm for the soul, not unlike the immersive experience of travel to a foreign land. “You dissolve almost … You walk the streets alive to the exotic details, but even an ordinary pigeon flapping its wings is oddly vivid. There is a poetry about it, and as long as you glide through watchfully, the spell won’t break.” In front of Vermeer’s “Maid Asleep,” he perceives “a grandeur and holiness” in its intimate setting. Standing amid what one visitor calls the “Jesus pictures,” he is transfixed by a 14th century crucifixion, using it as “a kind of machine to aid in necessary and painful reflection” about suffering. As time goes by, his discovers that his broken heart has started to heal.
In some respects, Bringley’s debut is a classic workplace memoir, filled with stories about the Met’s collections, his fellow guards and some of the millions of visitors who have traipsed up the institution’s iconic stone steps overlooking 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Most of his insider stories are sweet and funny, including the tidbit that guards back in 2008 received an $80 annual “hose allowance” for socks. But Bringley’s primary interest is in the miracle of art, whether painting, sculpture or his own vocation, writing. His intuition that the Met — a place of “soundless beauty” — would be a better place than a trendy magazine to pursue his craft turned out to be right. The humble union job gave him the time and space he needed to produce a work of art as luminous as the old masters paintings that comforted him in his grief.