“Lucking Out”: James Wolcott memoir revisits ’70s New York

It’s the quiet ones you got to watch out for. In the party, they’re in the back, watching. He may even have a notebook in which he’ll slink off to scribble a few lines. History is not made by the main actors; they’re too busy doing the things that the quiet ones write about.

Which must be how “Lucking Out” was written. The James Wolcott memoir covers his time in New York of the ’70s — particularly that area of the arts that gave birth to the New Journalism of New York and the Village Voice (for whom Wolcott wrote), the punk of the Ramones, Richard Hell and the Damned, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Television, the film criticism of Pauline Kael, the early days of the porn industry and the New York City Ballet, set against the background of the gritty-shitty city that hadn’t been priced out of nearly everyone’s range and its trash-dump living recalled in fondness by anyone who wasn’t there at the time.

james wolcott memoir

Left: James Wolcott, circa 1975. Right: Norman Mailer and Dan Wolf in the Village Voice offices, 1969.

I found my way to the book by a negative book review, of all things. In The Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein termed it “a firsthand account of the second-rate,” and kicked it in the nuts for its overblown sentences (sample: “I had too much altar boy in me to seize the bitch goddess of success by her ponytail and bugger the Zeitgeist with my throbbing baguette”).

Sure enough, there are sentences like that, but not many. At some point, Wolcott tells the stories, describes the scene, and the effect is more of a you-are-there than what-the-hell-just-happened.

Wolcott came to New York City in 1972, a college dropout with an itch to write. He lands a job at the Village Voice, where he rose from clerking to writing. That’s the structure, the rest is a book of small moments — what he saw at CBGB’s a gruesome pit that spawned punk; following Kael to movie previews and his conversations with her (she was particularly interested in the mating rituals of her acolytes); seeing Balanchine’s PAMTGG (for the ad slogan, “Pan Am Makes the Going Great,” his shot at modernizing ballet that Wolcott describes as “the first ‘Star Trek’ ballet, a galactic greeting card from some planet a-go-go”; and watching Patti Smith signing a copy of her poetry collection to a fan:

“What’s your first name?” He told her. “Like in New Jersey?” Patti asked, and he said no — with a z. “Well, I’ll draw you a map of Jersey,” and so on the inside page Patti scratched its intestinal boundaries, in the middle labeled it Neo Jersey, signed her name, and passed the copy of Witt to Jerzy Kosinski.

And so it goes. “Lucking Out” is a book of images and impressions that acts like a yearbook of an era that now-rare specimen of a scene that, once distilled, spread itself through American society.

Do we even have this anymore, when the Internet finds basement-dwellers and creates micro-scenes that are seized on and exploited? Recently, we’ve had “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a self-published bondage novel hit the best-seller lists; Jonathan Coulton building a career with his geeky love songs rising almost spontaneously out of the humus of nerdy science-fiction fandom; and Hollywood more and more building movie franchises by recycling past hits and near misses and products of the target market’s childhood. Is it possible to have a scene accessible on foot or by cab?

Compare that to the names in Wolcott’s book, where he intersected with punk bands, film criticism, porn, literary New York (compare and contrast Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal with Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Ames and Paul Auster — who would you rather talk shop with?).

No, Wolcott’s time spent at the back of the room didn’t go to waste. Open the damn book anywhere, and prepare to get lost in the times. Yes, he unleashes his sentences, but sometimes you get tired of measured doses of adrenalin; you want a lick of the pineal gland that Hunter S. Thompson loved. “Lucking Out” is a reflective, mature memory of a weird time in the culture, preserved fresh and relentlessly entertaining. The boy with the notebook done good.

EXCERPT: Wolcott writes, in an excerpt from the book, about coming to New York in 1972 and joining the Village Voice in ”Norman Mailer Sent Me.”