Posts Tagged ‘james wolcott’
Susan Sontag was serious. I don’t suppose anyone really doubts it. But three documents lately, serendipitously, have floated into view, each one underlining this aspect of her character, making me wonder what it means. To be serious, that is.
A stray newspaper clipping from January 1966 reveals that Sontag intervened in an extraordinary gathering of intellectuals who met in a New York loft. They were there to discuss the Vietnam War. The meeting was chaired by Elizabeth Hardwicke, one of the founding editors of the New York Review of Books. The speakers were Irving Kristol, granddaddy of the neocons; Arthur Schlesinger, house-historian to the Kennedy tribe; Michael Walzer, then a young professor but soon a big-deal political scientist; and Staughton Lynd, revisionist historian and anti-war activist, just back from a trip to communist Hanoi.
The audience was as high-powered as those who sat on the dais. It included Dwight Macdonald and Irving Howe, both old-time lefty critics, editors and intellectuals, and the outrageously provocative novelist Norman Mailer. (The Naked and the Dead was scandalous when it was published and so, at times, was he.) And there among them, just thirty-three years old, fresh from her disastrous marriage to yet another intellectual, Philip Rieff, and prior to the publication of Against Interpretation, the essays that made her reputation, was Susan Sontag. Not yet famous, but ready for fame. Read the rest of this entry »
Review: James Wolcott, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York. (Doubleday, $29.95)
Wine score: 92 / Pennies per page: 8.6
For those not steeped in the genre, rock writing in the James Wolcott vein is a florid and fancy-free dance on the edge of a purple precipice, some phrases flipped casually into the chasm, unmourned and quickly forgotten, while others float magically above it, catching the shimmering light, lovely to behold.
Scraggly panhandlers who didn’t bother to work up an inventive line of patter to go with their outstretched palms would pester anyone stationary, even though CBGB’s customers themselves were the very portrait of slim pickings and linty pockets [he writes of the East Side club where punk first seized New Yorkers’ attention]. Abuse was shouted from passing cars, on general principle, not for anything in particular, and the occasional curiosity-seeker or casual-date couple would serenade by, open the front door for a peek, and get a faceful of inchoate racket blasting from the stage – all the deterrence they needed to keep moving to find a different lovebird destination, assuming they weren’t eaten by cannibals before they got to Canal Street.
To anyone trained in a tradition that probably derives from Hemingway by way of Gertrude Stein, who believes that literary accomplishment comes from the paring away of extraneous verbiage and the precision with which words are placed on the page, this passage (and the thousands like it that make up Wolcott’s book) is problematic. Why “line of patter” when “patter” will do? What does a “portrait” (a thing) of “slim pickings” (an abstraction) look like? “On general principle, not for anything in particular” is redundant. What can “serenade by” mean if those doing it are neither singing nor playing a guitar? And yet, the writing carries the reader along, the length of the sentences offset by their lightness, the very fact that some bits can be mentally jettisoned, tossed from the heights into the canyon below without loss of momentum or meaning, is precisely what makes it all work. All the extraneous bits are actually necessary, not just for their own sake – I get what he means by “serenade by” even though it’s wrong – but also because of the payoff. That last line about cannibals and Canal Street is brilliant, a zany zinger of a putdown that perfectly sets apart the straight world from the Bowery underworld he’s describing. Those not eating got eaten, he implies with intentional hyperbole, in pre-Giuliani New York. Read the rest of this entry »