The Magazine

Memoirs of a Voyeur

A firsthand account of the second-rate.

Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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In Lucking Out, one learns that its author is a man of humble origins. He was born, he reports, into a drab working-class family in Baltimore: “socially corner-pocketed,” as he puts it in one of the many phrases he avails himself of that have more flair than precision, “and Beauty deprived.” He began his professional life even humbler, as a rock critic for the Village Voice. In the hierarchy of arts criticism, that of rock ranks just a notch above the criticism of marbles.

Photo of Bianca Jagger, Halston, Tatum O’Neal, Steve Rubell at Studio 54

Bianca Jagger, Halston, Tatum O’Neal, Steve Rubell at Studio 54

Newscom

Rock music, like sex, doesn’t really require being written about. Best to enjoy it if you can and shut up about it afterward. But this doesn’t stop its critics from taking up the old air guitar—once in the form of a typewriter, today in that of a laptop—and stompin’ away. An early critic of rock, my friend the late Albert Goldman, who wrote iconoclastic biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, many years ago sent me an essay he wrote on The Doors—“Come on, baby, light my fire” and all that—which caused me to buy the group’s most recent album. When I told him I had done so, he asked me what I thought of The Doors. “Al,” I replied, “they should have sung your essay.”

Beginning as a rock critic explains a lot about James Wolcott’s overwrought prose—that old air guitar—which he slathers lavishly on all subjects. “Being facile is harder than it looks,” he writes. To which I would reply that finding a paragraph in his memoir free of heavy injections of false energy and sloppy phrasing isn’t any easier. Wolcott will strike off a straight arresting sentence, then follow it up with two or three clotted ones, usually larded with sexual metaphors, similes, and allusions: “I had too much altar boy in me to seize the bitch goddess of success by her ponytail and bugger the Zeitgeist with my throbbing baguette” is but one example among scores. In writing about punk rock, he alerts us that this was a time before “the gold medallions and furry testicles of disco descended” (get that metaphor to a urologist!). “A date movie for the damned, Looking for Mr. Goodbar looked as if it had been coated from floor to ceiling with contraceptive jelly.” “Niche journalism hadn’t yet whittled too many writers into specialty artists, dildos for rent.”

Such prose is beyond mere editing; it requires Drano.

“Our idols are our instructors,” writes Wolcott, and his own idols have been Norman Mailer, Seymour Krim, John Leonard, Marvin Mudrick, Alfred Chester, and above all, Pauline Kael. What these writers have in common is that—with the exception of Mudrick, a literary attack specialist—they all vaunted, and themselves went on, instinct, and had no great regard for intelligence. Pauline Kael once remarked in Wolcott’s presence of the movie reviewer David Denby: “All that boring intelligence.” If a porn movie, a rock performance, a book feels good, it must, ipso facto, be good. Feeling, which must never be betrayed, is all.

Lucking Out includes chapters on Wolcott’s days at the Village Voice, his friendship with Pauline Kael, his fascination with punk rock as he encountered it at the CBGB (Country, BlueGrass, Blues) bar in the Bowery, his interest in pornographic movies, and his discovery, the illegitimate child at this family reunion, of the burnished beauty of the New York City Ballet.

The book begins with Wolcott’s dropping out of Frostburg State in Maryland during his sophomore year and taking his chances on a career in New York. The goad for Wolcott’s leaving school and making a raid on Manhattan was a letter from Norman Mailer. Watching Mailer’s antics one night on television while he was under attack from Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner and Dick Cavett, Wolcott wrote an article for his college paper on the mêlée—a tempest, more precisely, in a demitasse—in defense of Mailer. When he sent the article to Mailer, the novelist responded by suggesting that Wolcott apply for a job at the Village Voice.

Wolcott was eventually given a menial job at the Voice—first in the circulation department answering phone complaints, then as a receptionist of sorts—from which he was able to jump himself up through writing brief entries, then longer pieces, on rock concerts and other popular culture oddments. Charm, one gathers, has never been even Wolcott’s short suit, and his failure to please his boss at the Voice, the city news editor, a woman named Mary Perot Nichols, resulted in his being fired.

From that point onward, I never worked a regular office job again, solely writing for a living, something that would have been impossible if New York hadn’t been a city of low rents [in the 1970s] 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.

Lucking Out is as much a book about New York in the 1970s as it is about James Wolcott. No one would argue that the 1970s in New York was a golden age, unless one’s taste ran to grunge, graffiti, unorganized crime, aggressive begging, and ubiquitous squalor. In one of his dreary Greenwich Village apartments, from which the view presented on the streets below was of muggings and sexual exhibitionism, Wolcott one day received a phone call from Pauline Kael. She liked an article he had written about stand-up comics, and now invited him, in effect, to join the cult devoted to her and become, as the various young men in the cult came to be known, one of the Paulettes. (The names of some of the other Paulettes are Michael Sragow, Joe Morgenstern, Terrence Rafferty, Owen Gleiberman, and, mentioned earlier, David Denby, who published an essay in the New Yorker in 2003 called “My Life as a Paulette.”)

In his lengthy chapter on Kael, Wolcott records several of her more wickedly amusing remarks about John Simon, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, and others. (A shame that Kael, who always mocked Didion’s stylish despair, wasn’t alive to comment on Didion in her current professional mourner phase.) She was death on Neil Simon and Mike Nichols (“God, the shit he gets away with!” she said of the latter). William Styron and Gore Vidal were also on her blacklist. She sniffed, then snuffed out, pretension, of which in the making of movies there is never a short supply. Of the movies of John Cassavetes she wrote that he exhibits “the kind of seriousness that a serious artist couldn’t take seriously.” She was not much taken with Woody Allen, and thought even less of him after he officially became a genius.

Kael never allowed herself to see a movie twice, lest thoughtfulness kick in, eliminating feeling and ousting original gut instinct.

One thing I learned from Pauline was that when something hits you that high and hard, you have to be able to travel wherever the point of impact takes you and be willing to go to the wall with enthusiasm and over it if need be, even if you look foolish or “carried away,” because your first shot at writing about it may be the only chance to make people care.

Wolcott’s exact relation with Kael isn’t entirely clear. Was he her Boswell and best imitator, or merely her Jerome Zipkin, the man known for walking fashionable women in Manhattan? He notes that she would sometimes read her New Yorker reviews to him over the phone. He was among those invited to join her for screenings of new movies, where her most glancing comments could gravely upset the producers of the movies. Friendship with Pauline Kael came at a price; it was said that one was allowed to disagree with her about three movies—but no more. Wolcott claims no influence upon Kael, and, rather the reverse, feared her influence upon him, or at least feared her wanting to control his life by choosing not merely his opinions but also his lady friends.

“In a sense,” Wolcott writes, “we would all fail Pauline because none of us would surpass her defiant nerve, her resounding impact.” Certainly no critic stirred up more talk about his or her subject than did Pauline Kael about the movies during her years (1968-91) at the New Yorker (minus the time she spent on a failed excursion as a producer and consultant in Hollywood). Her opinions were far from conventional: She didn’t care for Charlie Chaplin, she disliked Chinatown and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She raved about Last Tango in Paris, comparing its historical importance to the night of May 29, 1913, when Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps was first performed. She was always brilliant but frequently wrong. She could treat a throwaway movie like Popeye as if it were Pindar. Moral seriousness in movies seemed to infuriate her; she would supply that on her own.

Kael’s style could be imitated—contemporary slang, kitchen confidentiality—but not her passion. Passion is what one feels missing from James Wolcott’s writing. In an author’s note to a collection of political pieces published under the title Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants, Wolcott wrote: “Don’t fake what you don’t feel is an adage I try to live and write by, because the pieces that mean the most to me will mean the most to the reader as long as the emotions behind the arguments are true.” But behind his bloated prose, his relentless with-it-ness, his slashing insults, one doesn’t finally know what James Wolcott stands for, what truly matters to him.

In Lucking Out, Wolcott refers to his own sense of detachment as a young man and writer: “But this hanging-back business was more than precedence and habit. It betrayed my reluctance, my fear of getting too close to anybody or anything; my preference for maintaining detachment, distance, for avoiding involvement and allowing myself a quick escape route from where I found myself. I wanted to take everything in, from safe afar, through a panoramic lens.” Yet the line between being detached and being a voyeur can be blurry, and Wolcott, man and critic, frequently smudges it.

What Wolcott claims changed all this was his engagement with punk rock. This began with his untrammeled admiration for the singer Patti Smith. The pages on punk rock in Lucking Out are perhaps the most embarrassing in Wolcott’s memoir. He sets off the full lawn-assortment of fireworks in describing how it first hit him:

The band wasn’t as tight and motoring as it would become (especially after Jay Dee Daugherty joined on drums), but it also wasn’t the Fugs futzing around, and Patti already had her stage persona pencil-sharpened into a self-conscious, couldn’t-care-less wild child, playing with her zipper like a teenage boy with a horny itch, pistoning her hips, hocking an amoeba blob of spit between songs, scratching her breast as if addressing a stray thought, and, during the incantatory highs, spreading her fingers like a preacher woman summoning the spirits from the Père Lachaise graveyard where Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde were buried to rise and reclaim their former glory.

Punk rock is, I suppose, an acquired taste, like that for arsenic. If you don’t have it, sentences such as the following aren’t magically going to infuse you with it:

The band called the Sic F—s—whose backup singers, Tish and Snooky (the Laverne and Shirley of the East Village), dressed onstage in nuns’s cowls and Bettie Page lingerie, were the entrepreneurial founders of the St. Marks Place landmark store Manic Panic—endeared themselves with such plainly felt sentiments as “St. Louis Sucks” and “Chop Up Your Mother,” the lead singer, Russell Wolinsky, doing a hilarious running patter between numbers like some Catskills emcee, mocking punk pretenders and crusaders (he could be scathing about the Clash and their commando attitude), the scene having evolved far enough to burlesque itself.

Perhaps, like the Spanish Inquisition, or the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, you had to be there.

Of his enthusiastic if not entirely decipherable advocacy of punk rock, Wolcott writes that “it was nice not feeling like the bad guy in print for a change.” Praise does not come easily to Wolcott; nor, when he attempts it, does it persuade. In what he calls “my ruthless climb to the top of the middle,” Wolcott, as he writes, “developed a reputation for being ‘a smart-ass’ in print.” I have myself always thought of him as a hit man, with no mafia behind him, a man who killed for the sheer pleasure of expressing his free-floating hostility. “When I flick back at the book reviews I did in the seventies, I sometimes wince at the nasty incisions I inflicted on writers when I crossed the line between cutup and cutthroat (I won’t quote examples—no need to re-inflict wounds).” One of my books in those days was so inflicted; the experience resembled going to bayonet practice, with your book serving as the straw-filled bag.

Wolcott doesn’t have much of interest to say about porn movies in the 1970s, though it does allow him to crayon in some of the scuzziness of Times Square in those days. His introduction to porn movies began with a Village Voice assignment. Porn had in common with punk, he writes, that both “were amateur uprisings from below deck, ragtag operations of low production values and high casualty tolls where fame was sought under an assumed identity.” Describing the crowd at porn movies, Wolcott writes:

Porn hobbyists and rapid rejaculators with dark circles under their eyes and dull hair never reap the benefits of the dramatic gutter romance of alcohol or drug addiction, the binges and blackouts and bleary dawns in strange beds, the Christly withdrawal convulsions of the racked flesh and the beatific predawns that lead to the resurrection of recovery, reentry into society.

Fun.

When he encountered George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, which he began attending with some regularity, Wolcott was staggered. Witnessing high art in pure form after years of playing exclusively in the grimy grey sandbox of popular culture—writing about punk, porn, television, the whole shabby works—blew him away. “Ballet,” he writes, “was nearly everything I wasn’t, and what I wasn’t was what I must have wanted most.” The New York City Ballet, then still under the direction of Balanchine, the last living hero of high modernism, “remained a pennant-bannered Monaco moated and aloof from the nagging needlings of the Zeitgeist to be relevant, socially concerned, hip, happening, and in harmony with the vibrating moment.”

Still, to be “relevant, socially concerned, hip, happening, and in harmony with the vibrating moment” remains the name of Wolcott’s desire. Whether he is writing about the media, popular culture, or politics—on politics he eschews analysis and plays the insult comedian, a Bill Maher with a gaudier vocabulary—Wolcott is intensely, relentlessly, hopelessly with-it, breathing heavily in the attempt to stay 20 minutes ahead of the loop. Always a mistake, this venture, because with-it-ness does not comport well with getting older, and Wolcott, who will be 60 this year, is no longer a kid. Unless he is up for wearing one of those depressing grey ponytails, James Wolcott, clearly, needs a new style. In fact, he needs an entire intellectual makeover.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit.