Poet Field (Counting Myself Lucky, 1992, etc.) atmospherically depicts gay and avant-garde life in the decades following WWII.
His generation of bohemians, the author claims, were the last to reject any kind of fame or commercial success as “selling out.” They clung to poverty and artistic purity as they bounced from Greenwich Village to the Left Bank in Paris to Morocco, but their proudly unconventional odysseys too often ended in mental illness and premature death. The better-known names here—Frank O’Hara, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, May Swenson—achieved varying degrees of mainstream renown; Field’s closest friends were more marginal figures. Typical in his self-destructive but oddly admirable eccentricity was critic and novelist Alfred Chester (the would-be Sontag spouse of the title), who had a brief moment of minor celebrity in the New York literary scene of the early 1960s before he descended into alcoholism and madness. Chester’s decline was sparked in part by the malevolent impact of time spent in Tangiers under the influence of Paul Bowles, one of the few people who gets a predominantly negative assessment from the author, who depicts Bowles as a self-protective vampire sucking his inspiration from the reckless acting out of both his wife Jane and Chester. In general, Field is gossipy and mildly bitchy but basically good-hearted as he profiles such now-forgotten figures as Gurdjieff disciple Fritz Peters, painter/friend-to-cannibals Tobias Schneebaum and poets Dunstan Thompson, Robert Friend and Ralph Pomeroy. He offers plenty of eye-openingly frank accounts of gay sex (penis size, orifice preference, etc.) and dish on who slept with whom. But Field also writes eloquently about his efforts to make his poetry more conversational and less literary, affectionately about settling down with lifelong partner Neil Derrick and shrewdly about the politics of literary bohemia. A touching final chapter about friends in the present-day Village reminds us that rebels get old too.
A minor but charming addendum to 20th-century literary history.