December 3, 2011

LUCKING ONTO `LUCKING OUT’

Filed under: Books & Authors,Pop Culture — Jamie @ 12:13 pm

I have long admired the critic James Wolcott–his slashing wit, his erudition, his vocabulary, his taste and perception–but although we know many people in common, we have never met. Until I read his new book Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, his lively memoir of a youth spent in Manhattan during a decadent, fertile decade, I didn’t realize how very much more we had in common. Wolcott, like me, grew up in Maryland, although his home was not Baltimore but Edgewood, where my sister now lives. He, like I, spent afternoons in libraries sopping up Norman Mailer essays and evenings watching Dick Cavett, trying to absorb their teachings of far-off New York. He mentions making exciting visits to Sherman’s newsstand (on Charles Street, was it? Or Cathedral?), just as I did, where under the dusty posters of Yves Montand and Steve McQueen and the gnarled supervision of the proprietor, Abe Sherman, he eyeballed exotic publications like Ramparts and The Nation and tasted an intellectual world far away. Later, his Old Line State roots served him well when he was able to decode the Baltimore Colt references in Diner for the New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael. Wolcott is a coupla-three years older than I, knew what he wanted earlier than I, moved to New York several years before I, and made important connections sooner; in reading his memoir, I felt like I was being caught up on what I’d missed about scenes that I had entered a few years later in their lives–garbagy, crime-ridden Manhattan, porny Times Square (“Wanna go out?”), punky Greenwich Village, the fesity, glamorous Village Voice and New York magazine, the city’s whole collapsing, Bronx-Is-Burning era. Those were different days,as Wolcott points out, when people didn’t spend much thinking about real estate or their salaries; when the city, as Christine Baranski recently pointed out, was governed by creative people who cared about the arts, not by financiers. It was a city that writers found it worth fighting to get into; now I wonder if it still a city worth fighting to hold onto. In one of the most valuable moments in the book, Wolcott shares the lessons he learned from his days working the front desk at the Voice, taking in over-the-transom submissions from optimistic freelance writers. “Avoid parody, which slides too easily into facetiousness. Avoid political satire, which has the shelf life of a sneeze. Avoid preamble–flip on the switch in the first sentence. Find a focal point for your nervous energy, assume a forward offensive stance, and drive to the finish line, even if it’s only a five hundred word slot: no matter how short a piece, there has to be a sense of momentum and travel, rather than just allotted space being texted in. . . Writing that was too talky lacked the third rail below the surface that suggested untapped power reserves, an extra store of ammo.” And danger, I might add. Thank you, maestro, for the lesson, and for the recollections.

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