Pauline Kael, James Wolcott writes in Lucking Out, his memoir of New York in the Seventies (Doubleday, 260 pages, $25.95), believed that “first responses were the true responses and that repeated viewings gave rise to rationalizations, a fussy curatorship—a consensus-building exercise in your own mind full of minor adjustments that took you further and further away from the original altercation.”
There is a good deal of this Lord-Nelson, never-mind-maneuvers-just-go-straight-at-them approach in Wolcott’s writing for Vanity Fair, and his memoir combines that with a long-string, run-out-the-recollections narrative. Lucking Out takes the Seventies in large-chunk chapters, each focusing on an aspect of that era, such as his start at the Village Voice, his association with Pauline Kael, the rock music scene. It’s an exhilarating ride.
Growing up in Harford County, Wolcott was a student at Frostburg State when encountering the work of Norman Mailer opened his eyes to the fair field of writing. He published in the campus paper an enthusiastic response to Mailer’s account of the march on the Pentagon and presumptuously sent a copy to Mailer. Impressed, Mailer gave him a letter of introduction, and Wolcott dropped out of college there and then and went to New York to make his fortune.*
He was, as his title suggests, lucky. He took his letter from Mailer to Dan Wolf at the Voice, and Wolf sighed and said, “Why don’t you come don, we’ll see if we can find something.”
“And really,” he writes, “everything that’s happened to me since swung from the hinge of that moment, the gate the opened because one editor shrugged and said, Ah, what the hell.”
After a while he moved from clerical duty to publishing pieces in the Voice, and in due time moved beyond it to his current eminence.
I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Pauline Kael and her coterie at screenings. Of Kael’s writing, he says, “She wanted the writing to read like one long exhalation that would seize the reader from the opening gunshot and drop him off at the curb after a dizzy ride.”
The ride with Kael was dizzying for a lad with no particular background. At one point Gore Vidal makes a dismissive remark that takes in Mailer and Wolcott at once: “Boy, did I feel swatted! And yet thrilled too., Here I was, low person on the totem pole, being put in my place as a Mailer fanboy by Gore Vidal in his inimitable epigrammatic manner, his irony at my expense proof that he had been reading me in the Voice and was aware of my existence as a writer, however irksome. That he found me egregious was secondary. I had, in some small, meaningless, minuscule way, arrived.”
Here you see the double perspective that can be so tricky in memoir. He is trying, after the Kael manner, to hurtle along on the events of his callow youth—drinking Coca-Cola at the Algonquin after screenings while the Paulinistas down their cocktails—but with the skill and irony of the developed writer.
I was less enthralled by his account of hearing the young Patti Smith and others at seedy CBCG’s in the Village, having determinedly given no conscious attention to rock music for the past forty years, but there is material there about being a critic that is worth noting. Such as: “It’s better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat.” Or: “Readers and fellow writers get a mean rise out of demolition work of overblown popularities or grandiose follies, but it’s the trail-scout discoveries that a critic cracks into daylight that make the difference after all the balloons have popped.” Or more still: “A reviewer’s praise only means something to readers if it has a force of personality and conviction behind it that hasn’t been compromised by too much cream filling in everything else you’ve written.”
This is a memoir of aesthetic experiences, of the experience of writing, of developing a critical apparatus, of the cultural values and mores of the groups within which he moved. It’s about the development of a critic of writing and music and the arts and society. There is not a great deal of intimate personal detail, even in the chapter on sex in the Village in the Seventies. There is not a great deal of information about people beyond the half-dozen or so figures whom Wolcott has chosen to highlight—though I assume that people in the know will decode the initials identifying certain persons and perceive some score-settling going on in the background. (But if you can’t have a little revenge in your own memoir, then where?)
It is indeed a bouncy ride from Harford County to Frostburg State to the Village, and on through the Seventies, and it does end in a bump with the dawning of the grimmer Eighties. If you were around then, you will recognize the time. If you’re young, you can see what you missed.
*Here is as good a point as any to make necessary disclosures. Though I, like Wolcott, rose from obscure origins, unlike Wolcott, I stayed in school and tried always to live up to my teachers’ expectations (and you see how that turned out). But this blog caught his eye, and he has described me as “the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing.” You may take it for granted that I was well disposed toward him before opening the pages of his book.