A brilliant account of the evolution of modern gay culture in post-WWII New York.
Not that such things can be pinpointed with any precision. “Queer Street,” as McCourt (Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake, 2002, etc.) calls it, is really a state of mind: “It doesn’t start anywhere; there isn’t a beginning.” Yet a story has to begin somewhere, and McCourt locates his at about the time that armies of war-weary, liberated combat veterans returned home and decided to live on their own terms. Beyond Manhattan, the rest of the country wasn’t quite ready for the gay veterans “and their undecorated coevals,” McCourt adds: “Viewed by the world of straight America (primed to rescind the liberty and license vouchsafed queers under grueling combat conditions), [Queer Street] becomes the radical inverse of the renewed moral and civic duty prescribed in the triumphalist Republic.” If that snippet has your head spinning, it is typical of McCourt’s exuberant, elliptical style, which sometimes begs a Derrida to serve as translator. Blending personal and cultural history, McCourt takes a leisurely stroll along that long avenue, examining attitudes pro and con vis-à-vis the gay demimonde in a narrative that touches, dizzyingly, on the French martyr Simone Weil, Counter-Reformation Jesuitism, J. Edgar Hoover, Kaye Ballard, Broadway (when, in the 1950s, the “sensitive boy” à la Anthony Perkins, Roddy MacDowell, and Dean Stockwell emerged as an ideal), Method acting, Fire Island, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stonewall, and Bette Davis. This is magpie history, highly selective and full of shiny objects, but it is remarkably coherent for all its strange turns; McCourt’s notes on camp (which locates “the success in certain passionate failures”) are worth the price of admission alone. So is McCourt’s sharp reminder that not the larger culture, not recruitment, not seminary “makes any boy gay . . . the job is done by the parents in the first two to four years of life, the end.”
A welcome makeover for the textbook view of New York—and American—cultural history.