All that Lore: On James Wolcott

All that Lore: On James Wolcott

The critic James Wolcott has been gamely fighting losing battles for most of his career.


“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.

“Writers and painters and composers did not talk all the time…of agents, contracts, and movie deals,” White remembered in City Boy, and Sante regretted in “My Lost City” that even those downtown haunts that once seemed “permanently beyond the pale” had since been “colonized by prosperity.” But whereas White and Sante struck an explicitly plaintive note to bring their ’70s recollections to a close, Wolcott kicks his off with one: “So much is gone, stricken from the scene…” He’s looking at the good times through fatalist binoculars: “Niche journalism hadn’t yet whittled too many writers into specialty artists”; Lester Bangs “didn’t ask for references to be trimmed because the readers wouldn’t ‘get it.’ (Today it’s assumed the average reader won’t get anything that isn’t TV related.)” Lucking Out serves well enough as a title, but “before the bland-down”—a phrase he uses in the chapter about CBGB and punk—might have been more accurate.

A quotation from Robert Garis’s “one-of-a-kind critical memoir,” Following Balanchine, elicits from Wolcott an especially bizarre those-were-the-days observation. Garis recalls “an enjoyable argument” at the Fifty-seventh Street automat when the dance critic B.H. Haggin locked horns with the literary critic Marvin Mudrick over Balanchine’s dancers, Violette Verdy and Allegra Kent. For Wolcott, the argument is less important for its content than for the glimpse it provides of the halcyon and bygone. “This would never happen today,” he insists. “It takes the spurious power of a telepsychic to picture a pair of New Yorker arch druids such as James Wood and Louis Menand…debating the merits of Sara Mearns versus Tiler Peck (two of the premier principal dancers in New York City Ballet’s current roster) under a rain-sheltering awning on West Sixty-sixth.” (But what if neither Wood nor Menand is interested in ballet?) It may be the case that nothing’s any good anymore, that what used to matter no longer does, but having waded through so many subpar memoirs, Wolcott surely realizes that nostalgia that sees past heights only in terms of present lows is a psychological con. How strange to read a book of reminiscences by a writer of such analytic gifts and discrimination, and find that one’s commonest margin note is a quizzical and defeated Things change.

* * *

That things do change is an experience Wolcott is unable to accept peaceably, rather than something he overlooks altogether. The young picaro’s perspective is constantly being interrupted by the older author, measuring differences, providing anachronistic reference points. “To start out as a writer then was to set out under a higher, wider, filthier, more window-lit sky”—higher and wider than now, not than before the 1970s. He recalls the Royalton before its “Ian Schrager-Philippe Starck minimalist makeover in 1988 (ah, those waterfall urinals).” A cruising spot visible from his apartment window is “a Pac-Man shadow maze of pickup action. (Pac-Man hadn’t been invented yet, but no other analogy quite dings the bell.)” Roberta Bayley “was (to put it in Mad Men terms) the Joan of CBGB’s,” and so on. Wolcott sometimes loses control of his time machine’s joystick. He quotes, for example, a 1972 entry from Leo Lerman’s journal, identifying Lerman as “the former Vogue and Vanity Fair editor,” but Lerman was still working at Vogue when the entry was written, and wouldn’t edit Vanity Fair for another decade. A calmer chronological narrative would have been unlikely to make these slips, but at least they are minor ones. At other points, Wolcott pays a greater price. The beauty of the book’s coda, in which Wolcott’s sense of the ’70s coming to an end is partly brought on by Renata Adler’s unsparing 1980 essay on Pauline Kael, is damaged because he has already portrayed Kael back on top, in the mid-’80s.

But when Wolcott confines himself to how things looked when “then” was “now,” and resists the temptation to tot up what little remains of the old integrity and “make-do,” Lucking Out projects a stirring sense of purpose and a catching mood of excitement. There are long stretches of the book during which Wolcott curbs his antiquarianism and rekindles his younger impressions and sensations, never quite putting aside his present-day perspective (a fruitless quest) but not always allowing it center stage. The young Wolcott appears to have had a piece of every good thing going, which makes for a varied, high-low sort of reading experience. At times it can seem that his presence as a participant-observer is less a convenient springboard and more an irrelevant pretext for a portrayal of the 1970s, a period here characterized not by civic collapse or political upheaval but by cultural ferment: Patti Smith rather than Patty Hearst, Deep Throat rather than Deep Throat. You can’t say that Wolcott doesn’t have a fresh take. For him, the ’70s wasn’t Tom Wolfe’s “Me” decade or Francis Wheen’s “Golden Age of Paranoia” but the last “Us” decade, a time when journalists gathered in offices, cinephiles hunkered down in the Thalia and the New Yorker theaters to watch scuffed prints of Hollywood classics (“those pre-DVD days”); when punks huddled together at CBGB and porn addicts drooled en masse in dingy movie palaces on Forty-second Street. Each of the chosen subjects—for instance, Kael—or subject-clusters—for instance, porn-homosexuality-ballet—is awarded its own chapter, and Wolcott’s boisterous wordplay and jigsaw syntax somehow remain in sync, enabling him to pull off the feat of sprinting for long distances. The book delivers the same jolts as his journalism, more or less consistently, for 250 pages.

Apart from the chapter on punk (“the last great hurrah period of rock-crit tell-it-from-the-mountain epiphanies”), in which he admits that CBGB is “the only place where my memories are three-dimensional” and proceeds to give them full rein, Wolcott gets everything right in terms of structure and voice, the latter determining the former. He may have talked to the CBGB bartender-bouncer Merv, a fellow reader of the Times Literary Supplement, about how Frank Kermode’s critical style “could do with a dash of pepper,” but the associative approach of Lucking Out is reminiscent of Not Entitled, Kermode’s account of the unruly provincial beating the metropolitans at their own game, and another book heavy on institutional anecdote, light on self-examination. (Wolcott’s rare moments of disclosure come armor-plated with irony: “a gift for friendship not being a prominent item in my golf bag,” “I probably came across as bumptious, though I didn’t conduct a survey.”) As the titles of their books suggest, Wolcott and Kermode share an absentee-bystander mentality; Kermode designated it, broadly, as je-m’en-foutisme. But in his desire to steer away from the self-regard of such books as Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, Joseph Epstein’s Ambition (his review of which ran under the headline Son of ‘Making It’) and Willie Morris’s New York Days (his review of which ran under the headline Remaking It), Wolcott goes further than Kermode, essentially casting himself as a supporting character in his own memoir: an irrelevance during the civil strife that marked Clay Felker’s ownership of the Voice, a thrilled spectator during the emergence of Patti Smith, an attendant to Pauline Kael, a disciple from afar to many others.

* * *

If Lucking Out turns out to be an unlikely, American Not Entitled, it also functions as a rebellious, even Oedipal descendant of another becoming-a-critic memoir, Alfred Kazin’s Starting Out in the Thirties, but set at a time when Kazin, having started out so well, was a purring patrician, to be respected but repudiated. Wolcott recalls the night (in 1981 or thereabouts) when he appeared on The Dick Cavett Show alongside Kazin. “It wasn’t his conceit that rankled…it was the pained moral conscience that accompanied it, the sigh of weary resignation worthy of a Moses with no followers, as if he were the last literary soul in the five boroughs who cared.” Wolcott hates the self-conscious “seriousness” displayed by, among others, George Steiner, William Gass and David Denby, preferring instead an unbuttoned, unapologetic sensibility, which not only does without but does battle against vanity, platitude, received wisdom and the pained moral conscience. He finds this sensibility in Mailer and Kael, and in “serious comedians” such as John Leonard and Wilfrid Sheed.

The danger is that Wolcott could be mistaken for peddling a message of couch-potato apathy and disengagement. But it never quite comes to that. “I have my doubts,” he wrote in 1982, “about the wisdom of critics buttoning up their trenchcoats to shield themselves against the caressing drizzle of high culture”: “Giving art-with-a-capital-A the raspberry can itself turn into a mode of aestheticism.” Toward the end of Lucking Out, Wolcott refers to “Literature with a capital L,” though he does accomplish more than just giving it the raspberry. Following Kael’s line in “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” he founds a critical philosophy on wariness of pristine high taste: “I never accepted why there should be some invisible, wavy cutoff line separating Great Fiction from phosphorescent beauties and dollhouse miniatures, novels that contain a whole world in a snow globe.” In a moment of summing-up, he praises fiction of the 1970s that “expressed, distilled, and bottled a mood”—James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street—at the expense of “big kahunas” such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Sophie’s Choice and Humboldt’s Gift—just as earlier in the book, Hollywood films of the studio era are promoted at the expense of Godard, Truffaut and Bresson. It’s a shame that Wolcott should opt for an iconoclastic-revisionist “instead” (Styron elbowed aside for Salter) rather than an inclusive-democratic “as well” (plenty of room for everyone!), but the sentiment is nonetheless a liberating one.

At some level, Wolcott is merely harking back to a time when it seemed that pop values might prevail, when John Leonard was “omnipresent” as a “baroque calligrapher of the bobbing cultural stream,” a time before Sontag left Kael in the dust. There is a doldrums air, an element of moping, about Lucking Out, and it appears to be the result less of reflection on what has happened since the ’70s than of what hasn’t, not only to the culture but to the author as well. In a moment of oblique self-commentary, Wolcott, the man who damns too much, argues that “a critic remembered only for his damnings…has failed.” Failure lingers around Lucking Out the way success consumed Making It. “In a sense,” he reflects, “we would all fail Pauline because none of us would surpass her defiant nerve, her resounding impact.”

So Wolcott didn’t pupate into another Kael, but it’s not as if anyone else did. For thirty years he has been the most excitingly vocal and ruggedly combative of American critics, often more incisive and inventive than Kael, but writing in a less hospitable period. It could be said that Kael was the one who lucked out, coming into her own during what the Library of America has called “the age of movies,” whereas Wolcott has aspired to a ’70s temperament in what he perceives to be an un-’70s, even anti-’70s, era. However well he writes about, say, Martin Amis’s pomposity, Rick Moody’s vapidity or Piers Morgan’s conceitedness, he is never likely to make the splash that Kael did by bringing news of Last Tango in Paris and Nashville. Kael retired when she felt that she was swimming against the tide, but Wolcott has been gamely fighting losing battles for most of his career. If he has attracted a smaller following than he might have done, he has also made sparks fly. Of all the possible reasons he left The New Yorker in the mid-’90s, the least convincing was the one suggested by Tina Brown, that he felt “jostled” and “outclassed.” As this book demonstrates, when it comes to sizing up a scene or making a case on the fly, there’s no one to match him; his brilliance, and the widespread recognition of it, is partly what undermines the book’s gone-to-the-dogs mood. Wolcott’s forthcoming collection of essays will determine his future influence and reputation. But for the time being, he continues to have an impact, whether it suits him or not.

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