To quote James Wolcott requires that you paraphrase James Wolcott. Otherwise, his actual sentences, adroitly discerned as they are, are simply too long and too laden to serve as stand-alone quotes. His run-on sentences run around introducing so many tangential interjections, and so many rolling elaborations, that he ends up diluting the potency of his very considerable writing skills.
The talent on display in Wolcott’s Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York is undeniable, as it is in everything else he’s written. Few writers can summon such a consistent range of descriptions and metaphors in the service of conveying his finely honed sensibilities, as he regularly does in his Vanity Fair columns and blog. And few people were so uniquely positioned as to have both accompanied Pauline Kael to a decade of movies as well as to have watched first-hand the burst of new bands at CBGBs that defined New York punk music in the seventies—and then have written about it as a critic in the Village Voice. Whether he could write or not, Lucking Out would be well worth reading.
The luck that Lucking Out refers to are a couple early incidents in 1972 when Wolcott just happened to reach two men with great influence at just the right time. As a college student, Wolcott mailed Norman Mailer a defense of Mailer’s skirmish on the Dick Cavett Show (the still-famous one with Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner). Mailer appreciated the rare and flagrantly flattering support and wrote to Dan Wolf, a co-founder and editor of the Village Voice, recommending Wolcott for a job. Wolf absent-mindedly gave Wolcott some small freelance assignments that got Wolcott into New York, then later just as absent-mindedly gave him a clerical job answering the phone which allowed Wolcott to stay in the city and eventually become a staff writer at the Voice. “And, really, everything that’s happened to me since,” he writes, “swung from the hinge of that moment, the gate that opened because one editor shrugged and said, Ah, what the hell.”
Those moments of luck aside, it seems to be Wolcott’s astute taste, and his nimble prowess at sharply articulating that taste, that propelled his career. The luck got him into print at just the right magazine early enough to go from dorm room to desk at the Voice (not hesitating to quit college). The Voice of the early seventies, he writes, felt so volatile that you couldn’t read it “without getting your hands smudged with what looked like real powder burns”:
At the Voice the answer to the pukewarm pieties of official liberalism and the remedy for boredom were the unofficial individuality of locals sounding off in print as if the paper were their personal mike. Anticipating the blogosphere, the Voice thinned the distinction between the professional keyboard peckers and stir-crazy amateurs in fifth-floor walk-ups, presenting a Beat-flavored alternative to the vaunted notion of the author as member of a sacred novitiate whose brow was sprinkled with the beneficent ashes of Lionel Trilling’s cigarette. Dainty aesthetes and goateed pedants could apply elsewhere.
Wolcott would probably refer to himself, only half-jokingly, as a dainty aesthete, but he was also a militant aesthete unafraid to toss acid onto the egos of those whose work he found fault in. It may have been his unhumbled early success that enabled Wolcott to guiltlessly trounce so many bands and writers and directors. He now admits “I sometimes wince at the nasty incisions I inflicted on writers when I crossed the line between cutup and cutthroat”. But, at least in his own telling, he may have been one of the sharp-quilled writers who criticized based on stringent artistic imperatives rather than personal spite: “the Voice convulsed into feuds every few years to purge the bad blood and begin a fresh cycle of animosities”.
Lucking Out is more of a tour of Wolcott’s memory than it is a perspective on a city and a decade illustrated through those memories. We’re given an endless whir of inside tales of writers and editors, directors and musicians ascending and descending, illuminating and imploding, all told briefly and with only loose ordering into themes or narratives. The broader commentary that Wolcott provides on what this decade and this city meant to him or to culture at large are lost among the pops and whizzes that he insists on overloading his lines with—brilliant in each glint but glaring all at once.
Wolcott, now a writer for Vanity Fair, has a writing style that resembles that magazine’s photo features of a hundred tiny snip-outs of famous faces at parties, all pasted at “fun” slants, overlapping and altogether too frenetic for anything but a quick glance. Try keeping your balance as each segment of this single sentence gives you another spin:
Not a movie whose mention today lights the black-mass candles of Nazi-kink nostalgia (displaced by Liliana Cavani’s Night Porter, where sadomasochistic decadence was represented by the ravishing desolation of Charlotte Rampling’s Euro-goddess bone structure), Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties was a major honking controversy when it was released in 1975, a black comedy set mostly in a concentration camp where Giancarlo Giannini, to save his cowardly hide, submitted to sex with the obese commandant, played by Shirley Stoler, their coupling filmed as if he were mating with a hippopotamus or elephant, an obdurate, bestial, Diane Arbus bulk.
Now imagine an entire book of such spun-about sentences.
But here are the translations of perception into articulation that Wolcott is capable of without end:
Punk fashion itself began to feast on its own lean meat as the “look” at CBGB’s and similar clubs mutated into mutant Clockwork Orange aggro-wear baroque in its puncture-mark motorcycle-vampire detailing—a scavenger mix of Goth and garbage heap still venereally visible in what remains of the ungentrified East Village today (the punk equivalent to the historical restoration of the bonnets and shoe buckles in Colonial Williamsburg).
Wolcott’s inexhaustible run-on one-liners are well worth absorbing, even if doing so requires nibbling slowly through the mealy density of each sentence.