Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Book I Read: Lucking Out by James Wolcott

James Wolcott arrived in New York with little more than a letter of introduction from Norman Mailer, and Lucking Out is the story of how he parlayed that into a job at the Village Voice and an eventual career as a freelance writer. Wolcott isn’t interested in reliving old editorial battles, wailing about how much better things used to be, or putting himself at the center of great events; indeed, Lucking Out is chiefly about what a good time he had writing about culture and knowing those who made it. Wolcott was a friend and frequent screening colleague of Pauline Kael, who gets a chapter to herself. The dynamism of Kael’s company is well-described, as are all the personality traits that made her a divisive figure. (Lucking Out is worth it just for the description of the seating hierarchy at 1970’s New York press screenings.) Yet Kael couldn’t be any other way, and in Wolcott’s telling she comes off as someone aware of what her sometimes scathing reviews cost her both personally and professionally. No doubt there are plenty of memoirs that could be written in which Kael would come off differently, but it’s heartening to learn that Wolcott’s friendship with and love for Kael endured and wasn’t tainted by ambition or office politics. The image of Kael leaving her friends and heading off alone at the end of a post-screening salon is a poignant one, and says much about the even-then tenuous place of the critic. Wolcott, lucky bastard, was also present for the best years of CBGB; the whirling spirit that is Patti Smith is a guiding light. Smith is kept at a remove, there’s little sense of the woman who told her own story in Just Kids, but Wolcott’s (perhaps too New York-centric view) take is that Smith was the antidote to the excesses of the classic rock era. The young Talking Heads also play a part; Wolcott gives Tina Weymouth her due as an early female rock instrumentalist and the scene where Wolcott and Weymouth see a Fassbender movie cries out to be treated as a play or short story. (Did Weymouth let slip any good David Byrne anecdotes? )

Lucking Out dawdles only in a chapter that begins as a discussion of the New York ‘70s porn scene, and it’s as if Wolcott (who seems a temperate fellow, certainly no punk) was asked to write this part of the book in the hopes that sex might gin up the sales. Fortunately Wolcott uses porn as a counterpoint to his emerging love of ballet, an art form he approaches as an outsider and comes to love. I’d enjoy a Wolcott book on the world of late Balanchine New York ballet culture; the way he describes audience members and young ballet students attempting to reenact the dancers’ moves made me want to catch the next train to Lincoln Center. If the moment that Wolcott chooses to label the “end of an era’ (the murder of John Lennon) isn’t a surprise then the joy and particularity with which he recounts his early New York years certainly is. The aptly titled Lucking Out is the story of a man who made the most of his ticket to the show.

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