A disjunctive memoir cum meditation on Gotham.
Tytell (English/Queens College; Paradise Outlaws, 1999, etc.) focuses on writers who lived in New York, from Henry James to the Beats, but intercuts scenes from his own life, not always to the desired effect. The early pages are appealing. The author describes boyhood eye problems that made reading difficult (cortisone eventually cured what numerous surgeries did not) and relates how his imagination was fired by Herman Melville’s fiction, especially “Billy Budd” and Typee. Relying heavily on Herschel Parker’s monumental biography, Tytell chronicles Melville’s decline from a popular writer of travel books to an unknown customs inspector who cranked out thousands of obscure lines in his massive pilgrimage poem, Clarel (Tytell’s vagueness about this work suggests he has not read it). The author is a bit dismissive of such Melville peers as Nathaniel Hawthorne (“cold and analytical”) and Washington Irving (a “local colorist”). Among the other literary figures whose lives and writings he examines closely are Edgar Poe, Walt Whitman, Henrys Miller and James. (Oddly, Tytell declares factual the highly debatable story that Poe died in Baltimore after selling his vote in assorted precincts.) Into all of this he weaves family history—his grandfather, a diamond trader, expected the author to be the same—as well as memories of his childhood, adolescence, education, love affairs, first apartments and part-time jobs. Tytell obviously loves literature and his city, but he’s also exceedingly fond of himself. He makes sure to let us know that he is often the brightest light in the room, cataloguing high-school grades and undergraduate honors, and he tells us more than we want to know about his sexual performance with beautiful women. Equally unwelcome is the nasty intelligence that while working in a restaurant Tytell once urinated in the drink of an offensive customer.
In this display case, auriferous observations about literature lie alongside some substantial chunks of fool’s gold.