That sex and modeling feature heavily in Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art & the ‘70s & the ‘80s, Brad Gooch’s new book, should come as no surprise to readers familiar with his work—they’re both aspects of his past that have been explored to critical acclaim in Scary Kisses and The Golden Age of Promiscuity. Yet this memoir is a marked departure from Gooch’s earlier works. It is both unparalleled in its intimacy, focusing on his romance with the filmmaker Howard Brookner, and its universality, as a testament to the havoc wreaked by the AIDS pandemic, something he witnessed firsthand in Brookner’s decline and eventual death in 1989.
While the idea of returning to that period had been percolating for some time, it was the city itself, the backdrop to the life he shared with Brookner, that served as the ultimate catalyst. “I moved back to Chelsea three years ago,” Gooch says, explaining that his current apartment is within walking distance of the one he and Brookner once shared at the Chelsea Hotel, and that in which Brookner died. “I was having these daily flashbacks. But then, at the same time, everything was so radically different,” he says. “It was vaguely familiar, but altered. It got me thinking about how we got from there to here—the smash cut, or the jump cut—from that time to now.”
It wasn’t easy, Gooch admits, to find the best approach to the narrative. “There are only so many ways you can say, ‘That was a wild club and everyone was zonked,’ ” he says with a laugh. “It doesn't really communicate that time.” But as he continued to wade through old notebooks and letters, it became clear that there was only one way forward. “When I began writing,” Gooch says, “I realized that the heart of the story was about my relationship with Howard, and everything else was this fantastic scenery.
“I got hooked in the beginning,” Gooch remembers, “because it was so much fun writing about the ‘70s. Writing about it brought it back, and then it was also like being with Howard. But then there's this point in the middle where it turns to Howard being sick and going to Saint Vincent's Hospital, and then I realized how deep memoir is. The same way this great balmy feeling had come back from writing about the ‘70s, this really terrified feeling came back from thinking about AIDS. Just the unbelievability of the whole thing. I mean,” he says, pausing briefly before continuing, “rarely does something that big happen in life. We didn't really have any conception of it. It seemed like science fiction, but it was happening.”
Like many, Gooch acknowledges that the ravages of the disease galvanized the gay community. “I think that AIDS, in a certain way, helped the politics of it all. People had to come out, and then their friends and family realized that they were gay, and that changed the equation right there. I mean, I'm married now. I have a kid. So the opportunity to do all this legally is amazing. It's worth whatever the changes.” A wistful lilt slips into his voice as he goes on. “The changes, though, first of all it's not so much an artistic movement anymore. In the ‘70s, it was really a small group of people, and it seemed that art and politics were synonymous. So writing a story, writing gay love poems, or writing a gay love story, even though it meant you would be published in a little gay press, was kind of revolutionary. Not to overly romanticize,” he adds quickly. “It really was a pain to live here, always getting mugged, and the subways were really difficult, and it was hot and no one had air conditioning or even answering machines. The changes are all worth it—I'm not complaining about it—but there was something compelling and creative to that early period.”
In covering such a wide expanse of art, modeling, nightlife and romance, Gooch touches upon many important issues. But ultimately, it’s a stark realization that sticks with the reader, the same one, it would seem, that struck the writer himself. “I have this feeling of tragedy, that things wound up becoming tragic,” he says. “And who would have thought, because they started out so utopian and so romantic.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.