1:35 pm Oct. 20, 2011
The first surprising thing about James Wolcott's new memoir, Lucking Out, is its title.
In his monthly columns in Vanity Fair and on his blog, Wolcott hardly seems like the kind of author who'd acknowledge the part dumb luck played in his rise to the heights of serious cultural criticism, a field so small its regular, paid practitioners would be hard pressed to pull together a pickup volleyball team to go against the world's remaining door-to-door seltzer salesmen.
Writing for the last 40 years in Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The London Review of Books,The New Yorker, The New Criterion, Esquire, Harper's, Texas Monthly, and The Village Voice, Wolcott made his name with a curmudgeonly disposition and orotund style of criticism. In his Vanity Fair columns, he's slain manqués like Piers Morgan ("How did we get stuck with Piers Morgan? Who is he, why is he here, is he returnable?") and mooks like the cast of Jersey Shore ("I recognize that Jersey Shore is a pop sensation, and as such we’re stuck with the stupid thing…"), while gutting mountebanks like Lou Dobbs ("If Lou Dobbs were any more full of himself, the tub would overflow…") and Bill O'Reilly ("O’Reilly’s posturing as a working-class hero has been derided as pure salami…").
The Don Rickles of commentary, Wolcott has delighted in going after cultural figures at the highest levels. A 1989 Vanity Fair column about Richard Ford had the blunt-force headline "Guns and Poses: A Revisionist View of Richard Ford, the Lauded Novelist," prompting a friend of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author to (jokingly?) threaten to have Wolcott shot.
Writers were a special target. Jay McInerney once compared Wolcott to Mark David Chapman, employing all the moral seriousness a novelist dressed as a ninja on the cover of Esquire could muster. Harold Brodkey supposedly wanted to hit him with a baseball bat.
One can only imagine what those writers (and others like Joyce Carol Oates and the late Mario Puzo) would think upon reading this: "When I flick back at the book reviews I did in the seventies, I sometimes wince at the nasty incisions I inflicted on writers when I crossed the line between cutup and cutthroat." Or what his former colleagues might make of this admission: "I can see now why others might have found me abrasive, overfull of myself, acting as if expecting a star on my dressing room door any day soon."
"Placating" isn't the first word most readers would use to describe the spirit of his work, but here it is, coloring the pages of Wolcott's funny, gossipy Instagram portrait of New York in the '70s. Lucking Out, except for the few kitten scratches he employs more deftly than most writers use semicolons, is a generous, large-hearted love letter to New York, to music, movies, dance, literature, and, ultimately, to the art and craft of criticism. For a longtime reader of Wolcott's work, this prompts a little cognitive dissonance, Wolcott being no one's idea of warm and fuzzy.
Here he is describing his pinch-me amazement at going from Frostburg State (Maryland) dropout to 19-year-old Village Voice staffer: "How lucky I was, arriving in New York just as everything was going to hell. I had no idea how fortunate I was at the time, eaten up as I was in my present-tense concerns and taking for granted the lively decay, the intense dissonance that seemed like normality."
Flash forward 39 years and that lucky kid is holding down a tenured gig as one of Graydon Carter's "murderers row," a position so prominent, it earned him a spot (ahead of David Duke!) in Bernard Golberg's 2005 book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken is #37): "America will never come back together—liberals/conservatives, Democrats/Republicans, Red States/Blue States—as long as journalists like James Wolcott hold important positions at big mainstream media outlets."
Wolcott's image of himself in Lucking Out is far humbler. A religious reader of Marvel Comics as a kid, the author relays his own origin story as a variation of Peter Parker's, bound volumes of Partisan Review at the library standing in for the radioactive spider bite that turned the 90-pound weakling into your friendly neighborhood Critic-Man.
It all starts when a lackluster student with a home life barely worth mentioning finds a father figure in the high-flying literary superhero Norman Mailer, whose recommendation lands young Wolcott his first job at the Voice. Once there, Wolcott discovers his own super powers:
Upon appearing in print, I realized I possessed an asset that I had never reckoned on, something given to me at birth… My name… My byline, James Wolcott, it sounded so mature, so English, so litty-critty and stamped with authority. It was a byline that sounded as if it knew what it was talking about and had an extensive library for backup.
Had anyone known the truth—that this litty-critty, authority-stamped byline also appeared on the mailboxes of rat-trap apartments in marginal neighborhoods, its human counterpart "living on Cokes and powdered donuts"—Wolcott might not have gone quite so far. But this was the '70s, when a writer lived on the page, not in party photos on Mediabistro, drink in hand, notebook nowhere in sight. Then, mystique trumped accessibility; what would eventually (revoltingly) be called a writer's "brand" was once just their style. As Wolcott learned, if you swaggered with lordly aplomb on the page, no one had to know you were actually a schlub from Bumfuck, Maryland.
If the writers who lately have been assiduously tending to their brands with tweets and iPhone self-portraiture take the time to read Lucking Out, they'll find valuable advice:
Avoid parody, which also slides too easily into facetiousness. Avoid political satire, which has a shelf life of a sneeze. Avoid preamble—flip the on switch in the first sentence. Find a focal point for your nervous energy, assume a forward offensive stance, and drive to the finish line, even if it's only a five-hundred word slot.
Writers still sticking it out without a Twitter-to-book deal or an invitation to an unconference might embroider this bit of perspective on the lumbar pillows they bring to Starbucks: "That's one of the advantages of sticking around in life long enough: you get to see how other people's stories turn out, though it doesn't do your own any good, the future having laid its own special snow-covered wolf traps just for you."
Other people and their stories drift in and out of Lucking Out, allowing Wolcott to dole out funny, juicy gossip about some of his half-forgotten colleagues and the never-remembered artists he wrote about. There's the hilarious description of Robert Christgau, longtime Voice music editor and self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics, "wearing nothing but red sheer bikini underwear, attending to something at the kitchen stove and pensively scratching his ass." Or the time Tom Verlaine confronted Lou Reed for "foraging for inspiration" with a hidden tape recorder during a Television show at CBGB.
When Wolcott falls in with legendary New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael (he calls himself one of "Pauline's junior G-men" instead of the less flattering epithet of "Paulette," which he manages to never use in the book), the names start piling up. Kael, a mother figure for Wolcott with an influence and cult of personality to match that of Papa Mailer's, takes Wolcott by the arm and leads him like Woody Allen's second wife in Annie Hall pointing out Paul Goodman among the party guests with chairs in history at Princeton or philosophy at Cornell. "That's Joe Mitchell," Kael tells Wolcott during a visit to the old New Yorker offices.
"I keep reading about Joe Mitchell the Southern gentleman," she continues. "I've been saying hello to him for twenty years and all I've ever gotten back is a grunt."
It's one of the dirtier tricks in Lucking Out that Wolcott uses Kael to voice some of the book's most dismissive asides, as when he quotes her complaining about David Denby, the critic who would one day inherit her New Yorker job: "All that boring intelligence."
Denby aside, Wolcott goes a long way toward making peace with some of his former antagonists. In his chapter on punk, Wolcott writes about Lester Bangs with an admirable degree of sensitivity to Bangs' drug- and alcohol-fueled career tailspin, especially considering the fact that Bangs once accused Wolcott of being a white supremacist in print.
He even has a few nice things to say about his former Voice colleague Alexander Cockburn, whom he describes as the paper's "brightest journalistic star," "whooshing in and out of the building on a jet stream of daredevilish charisma." That's an especially munificent assessment given the fact that Cockburn repeatedly referred to Wolcott as "Wanker" in a snotty Nation column from May 1, 1989 headlined "The Sons of Onan," in which he wrote, "I fear that James (Wanker) Wolcott has become discomfited by my speculations about the ravages wrought upon his countenance by solitary vice."
In Cockburn's defense, Wolcott does write quite a bit about his solitary vice in a chapter about his decade-long love/hate affair with pornography.
"I intermittently haunted Times Square and it haunted me, the place exerting a pull even as it deadened the nerves, nerve deadening being part of the pull," he writes. "Porn was an addictive fix—masturbation as self-medication..."
Finally, an explanation for why pornography has always been a motif in Wolcott's work, a Rosebud of sorts. In a 1987 Vanity Fair column about porn auteurs The Dark Brothers, Wolcott noted the hardcore producers' "attempt to bring to porn what Sam Kinison brings to stand-up comedy: sacrilege, no apology, hostile pathology, hoarse gusts of laughter from the jaws of hell." That's pretty charitable to the creators of such dubious classics as Black Throat and The Creasemaster. The fact that director Greg Dark (née Greg Brown) would go on to direct videos for Britney Spears and Mandy Moore only affirms Wolcott's thesis two decades later that "pornography’s popularity has mainstreamed out of its once mole-like existence."
Looking back at his decade scratching away in his own personal mole tunnel, Wolcott is frank about his youthful fears: "For someone like myself, a bookworm with bulging lobes who drew most of his vainglorious ideas about sex, conquest, and the mercurial enigma of Woman from novels written by men who really knew how to grill up a hot paragraph, the actual act itself loomed like a parachute drop into existential night, where the chute might not open." When it comes to opposite sex, Wolcott sometimes sounds like Charlie Brown pining over The Little Red-Haired Girl, so innocent and moony are his 70s era crushes. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the objects of those crushes are each so deserving and so entirely out of Wolcott's league, like Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth ("My crush on Tina was instantaneous. It was the only correct way to respond."); Dominique Browning, then an editor at Esquire ("Everyone had a crush on Dominique. There was a secret society of Dominique infatuees who stroked her name aloud as if it had dove wings."); or New Yorker writer Veronica Geng ("scarily, sexily talented and thinky, an electrical storm waiting to happen").
When he does actually get the girl, it's kind of a disaster. In a sex scene a less honest memoirist might have left out, Wolcott writes:
I horse-whispered to myself that I was Norman Mailer before the Ravel Boléro lovemaking soundtrack started, putting my hips into command mode and getting a pretty good locomotive head of steam going, indeed began feeling so devilish that I thought I might sprout a pair of warlock horns and a swishing tail, but then a strand of her hair got caught in my wristband and extricating it brought me back to reality, where I was at a distinct disadvantage.
To the charge that this might fall short of being confessional, Wolcott would likely not blanch. He once derided a rash of popular confessional novels, declaring them the provenance of "navel gazers," and concluding, "Never have so many shared so much of so little."
And by eschewing the sticky, over-sharing stuff in Lucking Out, Wolcott wisely sidesteps his own criticism. That doesn't mean the book's publication won't open him up to the criticism of others. If history's any guide, Wolcott knows how to outsmart even his most obstreperous detractors.
In 2001, when Wolcott published his first (and so far only) novel, The Catsitters, there was a cohort of writers eager to see the magazine world's equivalent of Comic Book Guy fall flat on his smug face with the release of The Worst. Novel. Ever. How disappointed they were to find themselves reading a slight, gentle male take on chick lit, not the scorching literati version of Truman Capote's Answered Prayers they'd braced themselves for since Wolcott first took up his poisoned pen at the Voice.
Even Esquire, which allowed McInerney to call Wolcott's work "a sleazy pleasure at best—like watching a kid in school get a wedgie" a decade earlier, ran a small excerpt under the penitent headline Best Prose in a Book We'd Love to Hate But Really Can't.
With Lucking Out, Wolcott again confounds them. The book ends with a coda so gentle in its illustration of the ways pop culture infiltrates the lives of each of us—big, bad culture critics especially—it would feel like a gooey Hollywood ending if it hadn't actually happened. And if some Hollywood producer reads Lucking Out and gets it in his head to make an East Coast, punk-rock version of Almost Famous, the first call he should make is to Jonah Hill.
Wolcott better hope Hill forgot that he wrote, "Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill drag too much sag-ass inertia" and takes the call.
But Wolcott, sweetheart he's become, would probably just say he's sorry.