Compared with James Wolcott, most literary journalists write like Amish farmers, their sentences plain as bib overalls. Not so this longtime columnist for Vanity Fair. Wolcott’s prose is high maintenance, bangled with astonishing similes and metaphors, oiled to a high gloss. This is language on parade, as restless as the hopped-up patter of a carnival pitchman, as zingy as H.L. Mencken mocking a revivalist tent show. Admittedly, some slower readers might be overwhelmed by all the action on the page, and yearn for the more sedate pace and gentler irony of what Wolcott calls “the E.B. White elf academy.” But if you can surrender to the rush of this swooping carnival ride of a book, you’ll have a wonderful time with “Lucking Out.” Memoirs don’t come more entertaining than this.
Others — not I — may have known that Wolcott, this pillar of snappy journalism, grew up in working-class Maryland and attended Frostburg State, before dropping out to take the Greyhound ride to New York, where he planned to become the next Norman Mailer. Such back stories seldom lead to Hollywood endings — and yet. After much wheedling, Mailer’s fanboy did land a job doing scut work for the Village Voice, which gradually led to the occasional assignment and then a regular gig.
In those days, Wolcott covered the arts, pop culture, the youth scene. No niche journalist, he reviewed rock albums and punk concerts, wrote about television shows and downtown plays, even became something of an expert on what the humorless Susan Sontag called “the pornographic imagination.” In whatever he published, Wolcott shrewdly reasoned that it was “better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat.” What mattered was to “find a focal point for your nervous energy, assume a forward offensive stance, and drive to the finish line. . . . No matter how short a piece there has to be a sense of momentum and travel, rather than just allotted space being texted in.”
Before long, the Voice writer’s chutzpah and verbal snare drum attracted the attention of none other than New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. For many readers, Wolcott’s portrait of Kael will be the high point of “Lucking Out.” He’s affectionate, utterly admiring, a bit wistful and very, very funny, especially when recalling visits to the New Yorker, then notable for the crotchets of its staffers and a distinct high-table seriousness:
“Ostentation was considered poor form and vulgar taste, with noise the rudest intruder of all, the sound of unmoderated laughter a breach of monastic protocol that would have the church mice poking their heads out doors and then retreating to add another link or two to the paper-clip necklace they were assembling.”
The brash Kael, however, eschewed the magazine’s “evenly smoothed embalmed non-reflective-surface perfection. She sanded down the jagged edges of her reviews to piercing effect. She was slangy the way New Yorker writers were slangy in the thirties, before excess propriety and hallowed obeisance to the fine-toned points of craft outfitted writers with clerical collars.”
Note those clerical collars. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to recognize how often Wolcott draws on his Catholic upbringing for his best and cruelest put-downs. William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative ephebes are said to “roll out the full regalia of his rococo tics — the tongue flicks, eyebrow lifts, purring vowels, pencil-eraser nibblings, and Oxbridge stammerings that often preceded a tart retort — as if they were conducting Latin mass on Mars.” A friend’s snobbery, Wolcott recalls, “Came across as brattiness, not the pinched anality of someone awaiting Susan Sontag’s next encyclical.” The film “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” — based on the premise that the wages of a casual pickup is death — was “directed by Richard Brooks as if he were carrying a wooden cross and crying ‘Repent ! ’ ”
Really, Wolcott seems incapable of writing a tired sentence. Summing up the vibe and intensity of CBGB’s — the gritty punk-music showcase — he insists that it wasn’t at all the sort of “dive where posh debutantes or downtown gamines in black leggings could find ravishment at the seam-ripping hands of a sensitive brute who worked at the Strand Bookstore by day, club-hunted by night, and knew how to weld.”
Isn’t that great? Yet Wolcott in praise-mode can be just as good. Of the ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, he rhapsodizes, “Petite, precise and imperishably young, she appeared enveloped in a personal quiet so profound that she seemed to dance under a glass bell, like an enchanted cricket.” This star of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, he goes on, “spun pure silk out of herself, so becalmed and mission-borne that she seemed to be erasing the connecting dots of the choreography in a continuous breath of movement, in thrall to a higher calling and a guidance system she had personally installed.”
Hold on a second: Does this mean that the habitue of CBGB’s and champion of Patti Smith and the Talking Heads is also a balletomane? Yep. As Wolcott confesses, Balanchine “awakened the sensitive feminine side of me that had been lying dormant under all that Mailer and Peckinpah, an admission that I have usefully learned over the years can bring any conversation to a dead halt.”
While he may admire pirouettes and grand jetes, Wolcott never grows froufrou: “I was once sitting with Pauline in the last row of a literary panel discussion downtown starring Cynthia Ozick and Joyce Carol Oates, who were trading honeydew compliments back and forth as if they expected Eudora Welty to show up with a wide-brimmed hat and a watering can.” Small wonder that Wolcott knows so well why novelists hate members of his profession. “The Critic is the undermining inner voice maliciously put on the intercom to tell the whole world (or at least the tiny portion of it that still cares), You’re no good, you were never any good; your mother and I tried to warn you this novel was a mistake, but, no, you wouldn’t listen, Mister-Insists-He-Has-Something-to-Say.”
In multiple ways, Wolcott’s memoir is a celebration of youthful flesh. Punk musicians and performance artists, drug addicts and sex addicts, Rabelaisian critics and exquisite dancers — all gloried in the body as a source of artistic energy and pleasure, of fun. The ’70s came to an end, as does “Lucking Out,” with the advent of AIDS and the assassination of John Lennon.
At one point, the critic John Leonard summed up a memoir by another, older critic: “It’s an old story, and even my own, so let’s be brief. Once upon a time you were a Wunderkind, and now, oh so suddenly, you’re an old fart.” Wolcott says simply, “A hard fact of life,” before concluding with a phrase that illuminates his own wonderful book, “which is why it’s best not to linger on what awaits at the last depot and relish the memory of when we were young farts, and free.”
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” has just been published.
My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York
By James Wolcott
Doubleday. 258 pp. $25.95