“Collectors,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “are physiognomists of the world of things.” Luc Sante is such a collector, rescuing materials from the dustbin (or used-record bin) of history. Whether tracking the origin of words like “funk” and “dope”; eulogizing an old New York of burned-out buildings and flamboyant addicts; listening to the Mekons and the blues; reading Apollinaire, Terry Southern and Tintin; looking at Robert Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio and Farm Security Administration photographs; extolling cigarettes; or remembering his immigrant Belgian parents and soul-killing high-school job at a seedy factory molding nameless plastic parts, Sante traces the lineaments of a world that has not vanished because he is still writing about it. As he says of downtown Manhattan in the 1970s, “I was enthralled by decay and eager for more.”
Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 collects mostly portraits, plus reviews and catalog essays. First published in places like Granta and the Village Voice, the selections are short but expansive. Subjects are writers, artists, musicians and their haunts–Francesco Clemente in 1985, painting murals at the Palladium on Fourteenth Street; Buddy Bolden in 1902, improvising “Funky Butt” at the Union Sons Hall in New Orleans. Sante’s deep preoccupation is an outlaw history of Modernism in which avant-gardists and roustabouts sync up. Masters of the idiom include Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, Walker Evans and the anonymous rural photographers presented in Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973). Certain innovators (Rimbaud, Dylan) loom as importantly as in other histories of the Modernist recognition (ecstatic, agonized) that “I is somebody else.” Sante, however, selects his heroes not through survey or snobbism but by dint of a passionate gaze into the face of their work. It functions as a mirror.
Such fervent identification with aesthetics offers a method–one of few good ones–for forging a persona, a community and an ethos. This is another argument implied in Kill All Your Darlings, and it is grounded in autobiographical detail. As readers of the memoir The Factory of Facts (1999) know, Sante was born in Belgium in 1954 and arrived in the United States in the early 1960s. He grew up bilingual, bicultural and working-class. “I thought I might someday be a cartoonist or an historian or a researcher of the paranormal,” he recalls. “Then, not long before my tenth birthday, a teacher told me I had talent as a writer, and for some reason that changed everything.” Or rather, it brought everything together, since an author whose interests include Hergé–creator of Tintin, the “Euclid” of the comic form–and the bluesman’s fabled pact with the devil at the crossroads–allegedly sworn by Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson and others–has upheld that 9-year-old’s ambitions. Sante’s mother drilled him in French and was reluctant to speak English. His father was a socialist whose eventual Parkinson’s and dementia were related to a lifetime of toxic factory labor. Thus, in the essay “The Injection Mold,” when the teenage Luc arrives on the plastic-parts shop floor, he understands that the machine in question is not only a rig he operates but a rigid shape into which society pours the ductile materials of teenagers without privilege. He reads Céline while feeding the extruder, because his books “were all spat out in brief, angry bursts.” Most kids in dead-end New Jersey jobs in 1970 were probably not reading Death on the Installment Plan in French. But then, such conscious self-fashioning from inherited oddments–either towering, glowering archetypes or “folk-lyric readymades”–also seems as American as rock ‘n’ roll.