“Everyone is entitled to his own nostalgia,” wrote the Vanity Fair critic James Wolcott in a review of George W.S. Trow’s polemical memoir, My Pilgrim’s Progress. But entitled on what terms? Wolcott is easily displeased by writing concerned with golden ages, slipping standards and vanished values. Trow was accused of wearing his “doldrums” about the dumb present as a badge of integrity; Gail Pool was found guilty of “moping” in Faint Praise, her monograph about the decline of American book reviewing; the nostalgia in Frank Rich’s memoir Ghost Light had come “too early.” Yet despite his tendency to touch on, or brush past, such particularities, Wolcott’s beef really lies with the nostalgic impulse itself. “Sugarcoating the past is unworthy of someone with Trow’s brilliance,” he decided. “Where these books don’t take you,” he wrote in the final line of a piece about Harvard memoirs, “is beyond nostalgia.”
How much space do Wolcott’s proscriptions leave for his own trip down memory lane, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York? Even less than it seems. Not only has he taken a bat to the genre but others have beaten him to his subject. Greenwich Village of the 1950s, Wolcott once noted, “has been fictionally satirized by Dawn Powell and Wallace Markfield, replayed like a nostalgic newsreel in Dan Wakefield’s New York in the ’50s, reduced to a cigarette flicker in Herbert Gold’s Bohemia: Where Art, Angst, Love and Strong Coffee Meet, restaged like a Strindberg play in Leonard Michaels’s Sylvia.” New York City in the 1970s has been getting similar treatment recently. “You could have an apartment all to yourself for less than $150 a month,” wrote Luc Sante in 2003 about the Lower East Side in his essay “My Lost City.” “We needed to raise four hundred fifty dollars, a month’s rent and a month’s deposit,” Patti Smith recalled of life with Robert Mapplethorpe in her recent memoir, Just Kids. “I had a low rent and few expenses,” wrote Mapplethorpe’s friend Edmund White in City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s, published in 2009. Even the late Christopher Hitchens, who lived in England until 1981, devoted some lines to 1970s Manhattan in his memoir Hitch-22. Robert Hughes, older and more established than Sante, Smith, White and Hitchens when he set up there, will doubtless attempt to give the era a fresh lick of paint in his promised sequel to Things I Didn’t Know, which ended with his Time-funded arrival in the imperial city in 1970. Until then, Lucking Out gives us yet another account of hand-to-mouth living in “a city of low rents.”
The book starts in 1972, with the Baltimore hayseed arriving in Gotham armed with nothing but a golden ticket—a letter of recommendation from Norman Mailer, who had been impressed by Wolcott’s college-rag account of the Mailer-Vidal bust-up on The Dick Cavett Show. Wolcott proceeded to work his way into the Village Voice, landing a job as writer-receptionist before being fired for indolence and insubordination. This proved another stroke of luck, as it enabled him to write “full out,” which he is still doing thirty-five years on. Pauline Kael was an early admirer of Wolcott’s writing, and the two spent a lot of time together, attending film screenings (“I made an unnamed appearance in Pauline’s review of The Goodbye Girl, as the friend who shared her ‘stony silence’”), sniggering through panel discussions (“Can you believe this shit?” Kael whispered to him as Cynthia Ozick and Joyce Carol Oates traded onstage compliments), drinking soft drinks at the Algonquin, cracking jokes with Clive James—doing what critics do.