From renowned novelist and essayist White (Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel, 2008, etc.), a graceful memoir of a decidedly ungraceful time in the life of New York City.
“In the 1970s in New York,” writes the author, “everyone slept till noon.” Also, “everyone smoked all the time, and when you French-kissed someone, it was like rubbing one ashtray against another.” The era was one of aspiration and poverty, of a time before New York had “become enslaved by wealth and glitz,” when “people still embraced Ezra Pound’s motto ‘Beauty is difficult.’ ” There is much difficult beauty—and much French kissing—in these pages, which recount White’s arrival to the city in 1962 as a transplanted Texan by way of Ann Arbor and his eventual assimilation. His arrival coincided with a slight but noticeable uptick in the general awareness that there were such a thing as gay people. White lived openly with a young man, but he still knotted his narrow tie carefully and went to work as one of the great silent majority. A “living contradiction,” he reveled in gay weekends while roiling in self-hatred and seeing a psychotherapist in the hope of turning straight and getting married. The cure didn’t take, and White’s self-awareness grew with times that included the rise of the so-called Pink Panthers and the Stonewall Riots. Those were times of danger. As White recounts, wary Manhattanites negotiated the city block by block, shunning, say, 85th Street in favor of one on either side of it and generally keeping doors bolted and windows gated. But they were also times of liberating art, with White enjoying the company of intellectuals and writers—including Richard Howard (“Every moment with him had a sense of occasion”), Richard Sennett (“an odd combination of schoolboy nerd, flamboyant queen, and Mrs. Astor”) and Simon Karlinsky—while publishing his first books and gaining recognition in the literary world.
Full of small provocations—among them, “I sometimes regret the invention of the category ‘gay’ ”—this is a welcome portrait of a time and place long past, and much yearned for.