Sociological research shines a light on a nightlife culture in which sex and drugs flourish openly.
Williams (Sociology/New School for Social Research; Teenage Suicide Notes: An Ethnography of Self-Harm, 2017, etc.) bridges the ivory tower and the urban subculture, employing ethnographic research to illuminate a world rarely glimpsed outside pulp fiction and film noir. The after-hours club of the title flourished in 1980s and ’90s Harlem, before rampant gentrification had transformed the neighborhood and cultural attitudes. “I live in two worlds, the world of the academy by day and the life of the street by night,” writes the author, “and I felt I had to reconcile them if I was ever to be the writer—the sociologist—I wanted to be.” In this book, he also has to reconcile then and now, because most of his field work was conducted two or three decades ago, before the internet, smartphones, and changing laws and attitudes had transformed the world. His research took place largely in loud and dark clubs, with subjects drunk or high on cocaine, making it tough to tell what they were saying or whom he could trust. He couldn’t tape or take detailed notes at the time, so much of what he details had to be reconstructed from memory. What he unveils is a subculture with its own codes and language, with moral values at odds with society at large, where drug use isn’t a sickness, addiction, or character defect but rather an “example of present-day resistance to conservative values and the desire of human beings to seek pleasurable ways of being regardless of risk.” Williams explores the cultural currency of cocaine, the commodification of sex by women who do not feel that they are being exploited, and the attitude of cool that pervades the after-hours atmosphere. He admits to voyeurism and some conflicted attitudes about the behavior he reports.
An admirable effort to illuminate a hidden world that will be most useful to fellow researchers in the social sciences.