Tuesday, November 5, 2013

James Wolcott's "Lucking Out": Book Review

In 1972, dropping out of college on the strength of an encouraging letter from Norman Mailer, Wolcott moves to Manhattan. He comes of age in a dramatic decade, and this brisk, sharp narrative conveys his story in fresh language and enjoyable style. Working his way up from the slush pile and circulation desk to a byline at the Village Voice, moving into the coterie around Pauline Kael, watching the rise of punk, risking his life at the fringes of "adult" entertainment before exposing himself to ballet, and finally reflecting on his arc as a reviewer and journalist, Wolcott's worthwhile.

Despite his patrician name, his humble background didn't nurture high expectations "in my neck of nowhere back then; children weren't fawned over from an early age as 'gifted' and groomed for a prizewinning future; self-esteem was considered something you had to pluck from the garden yourself." (6) Always cautious due to perhaps this upbringing but bent on breaking in to the circle of New York intellects and characters he idolized, he sums up its limits once he entered their liberal arena. "Everybody seemed to be staring at the same targets through the same pair of binoculars." (24)  

He realizes his luck. Fired from the Voice for daring to display a clean desk twenty minutes before closing time, he writes for a living, "something that would have been impossible if New York had not been a city of low rents and crappy expectations that didn't require a trust fund or a six-figure income for the privilege of watching everything fall apart before your eyes." (47)

The New Yorker gains its evocative place, with its ramshackle airs and many characters, back when (a few) writers had offices and editors met with journalists face to face, to dissect their submissions. Pauline Kael takes Wolcott into her own entourage, and we marvel along with Wolcott, "just a few years after leaving college, sitting at the Algonquin with the greatest film critic then or now, part of the gang, wearing jeans that probably need washing and nursing a Coke, the only thing I ever ordered." (103) His affectionate but honest appraisal of Kael and many other talents shows his balanced sensibility, self-aware of his own potential while modest enough to realize his rare luck.

He learns from her to burst into enthusiasms and not to hold back when championing an unfamiliar artist or an unpopular critique, for that may be the only chance "to make people care" about it. "It's better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat." (109)  He segues from the movies to CBGB's and his vignettes with Patti Smith, John Cale, the Talking Heads (he has a crush on Tina Weymouth), and Tom Verlaine enliven this moment of fame as it begins to peep out for a few talents, while leaving others in obscurity. The fickleness of who makes it and who doesn't works for other fields, too. Pornography, ballet, and punk all receive Wolcott's attention as places for the body's pain or transcendence in an awkward or bold moment.

Yet he refuses to "romanticize the antiromanticism of Times Square in the seventies, mourning a lost vibrancy and Brueghelesque teem more authentic that the toy mall we have today, where few tourists will ever know the thrilling fear of having defecation thrown at them or being caught in the middle of a difference of opinion between two hookers ready to cut themselves into unequal chunks." (186) This register shows Wolcott at his sharpest. While despite his verve some of this meanders (the ballet section, for instance), and the five-act structure forces some areas to be attenuated or foreshortened.

He wryly imagines himself as a literary critic, and how bitter he'd be now. "Staring out like Tommy Lee Jones in a bad mood, having long been farmed out by whatever magazine employed me and wishing I had drunk more so I could write a sobriety memoir." (245) Ideas turn into weapons, as exponents bicker and jostle. Wolcott now writes for Vanity Fair, so the clash of celebrities with social critique mixes in a manner suited for that readership. In his final pages, he looks over the decade's literary highs and lows, and how (as in ballet) they gave him a respite from street life, when parks and alleys meant danger. The pleasure of his style moves this memoir along, in its best parts with flair.
(Amazon US 9-5-13)

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