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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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.