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Book review: James Wolcott's 'Lucking Out'

The critic and sharp-tongued raconteur writes a memoir about the experimental '70s New York, the Village Voice and friendship with Pauline Kael.

December 01, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • With its dingy streets and "semi-dirty" porn houses, New York in the 1970s could be a seedy place. But for James Wolcott, there was opportunity.
With its dingy streets and "semi-dirty" porn houses, New York… (Sachs / Hulton Archive /…)

Lucking Out

My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York

James Wolcott

Doubleday: 260 pp., $25.95

James Wolcott, takedown artist extraordinaire, is a byline that sends shivers of schadenfreude up the spines of fellow writers — at least when he's writing about someone else. A literary journalist who blows raspberries at mandarins, he's a mainstay of Vanity Fair's luxurious editorial lineup, his flashy prose outshining those gleaming, Mephistophelean ads peddling fantasies of the lucky one-percenters, his crap-cutting manner adding a bracing machete-whoosh to the magazine's day-spa elevator music.

How did Wolcott, a college dropout from Maryland with a pedigree about as fancy as a can of tuna fish, grow into the figure that he is today, a corpulent eminence who gobbles the zeitgeist like a pop cultural Dr. Johnson, digesting it for us into a stream of acerbic wit and peppery common sense that is still one of the reliable highs of high-end journalism? His memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York," offers a kind of travelogue of his formative years, surveying the education of a critical sensibility much in the way that Patti Smith (who makes an extended cameo) gives an account of her transformation from a New Jersey nobody to a rock-poet goddess in her sensational memory-ramble, "Just Kids."

Wolcott, it goes without saying, is no Smith. The forces that shaped him weren't the French Symbolist poets doomed to an early grave or the guitar-strumming countercultural bards but the pugnaciously egomaniacal Norman Mailer and the queen bee of screening rooms, Pauline Kael. He was incubated at the insurrectionist Village Voice and baptized at the skanky-chic punk club CBGB. Movie theaters ("semi-dirty" porn houses included) were his early classrooms and the New York City Ballet became his finishing school. He lived in dingy, dynamic neighborhoods in darkened studios where mice ignored his cat, but the trade-off was that he could cocoon with books or tinker all day over a review ("It was like a sewing room for words"), then open his door and rejoin the urban circus outside.

New York, mugger-ridden and garbage-strewn, was falling apart around him. A Daily News headline would have President Ford telling the city to "Drop Dead" — a plea for mercy killing, some gallows humorist might say. The squalid ferment, however, proved to be a cultural elixir. New voices were declaring themselves, shouting above the mangy din, and Wolcott had a front-row seat as a rock and TV critic at the Voice, where Mailer, one of the paper's founders, had recommended him for a job after approving of a college newspaper article Wolcott had written on Mailer's infamous contretemps with Gore Vidal on Dick Cavett's talk show.

Dan Wolf, the Voice's editor, initially gave Wolcott the friendly brushoff, but Wolcott wasn't eager to buy a return bus ticket and finish his degree at Frostburg State. His persistence paid off. He was eventually given a job answering phones in the circulation department, and he began casing the editorial joint for opportunities to land in print.

Wolcott appears to have been a meteorically quick study. Here's some of what he learned about getting published by sifting through the slush pile: "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 …."

Editors, in the days when they had time, mental space and confrontational temperaments, blue-penciled him, flagging word repetitions, insipid phrases and broken logic, cut-and-pasting his efforts in face-to-face standoff that predated the ubiquity of word processing. The competition, always ready with a castrating remark, toughened him up.

For his rapid flourishing, Wolcott received an unexpected reward — an overture of friendship from the New Yorker's one and only Kael, who invited him to accompany her to movie screenings and afterward hung out with him at the Algonquin Hotel, where Wolcott sipped soda and traded bons mots with film criticism's reigning trump card. Clearly, Kael saw a reflection of herself in this shambling twentysomething, a lyrical slinger of vernacular who understood that the death of criticism is the desire to be liked. Like her, Wolcott wasn't afraid to prefer good junk to pretentious drivel. Better still, he was (to an extent far greater than she) scrupulously nonideological about likes and dislikes.

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