Opinion

James Wolcott, wise dildo

Photo of Mark Judge
Mark Judge
Author, A Tremor of Bliss

“Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York,” the new memoir by James Wolcott, is the best book I’ve read this year — perhaps the best book I’ve read in several years. Wolcott, a columnist for Vanity Fair, is a liberal who has a serious and hypocritical blind spot about politics and journalism. But before getting to that, I want to praise this penetrating, poetic and quite fantastic book. It will probably wind up on many college reading lists, and deserves to.

“Lucking Out” is being marketed as the gritty story of a writer in New York City during Gotham’s dirty and dangerous low ebb in the 1970s. In fact it’s the story of a soul on a religious pilgrimage who winds up finding heaven. Wolcott was born in Baltimore, the son of working-class parents. He was in high school one afternoon when he came across an article by Norman Mailer. It was a catalyst: “The warp drive in my brain accelerated, and I remember looking up from the magazine ten or fifteen minutes later and staring through the sun-bright parking lot of the supermarket across the way, as if making sure that everything was still where it was the last time I looked. I was imprinting into memory the time and place of the point of impact when Mailer’s writing first hit, the wow moment.” While a sophomore at Frostburg State, Wolcott wrote an article on Mailer and sent a copy to the famous author himself. Mailer responded, getting Wolcott a job at The Village Voice. It was the autumn of 1972. While Wolcott would be fired from The Voice, he would go on to become one of the most well-known writers in New York and the world.

Wolcott has a truly unique voice. Like H.L. Mencken, nobody else sounds like him. He does not waste words, using them with thrilling precision. Here he is describing why he preferred The Village Voice’s writers, with their ready-for-combat intensity, to the celebrity journalists of the time:

Reading The Voice, you could practically hear the clomping hooves of police horses as a protest threatened to get disorderly, tear gas canisters abut to hit the cobblestones. Since New York didn’t have that many cobblestone streets, my aural imagination must have been using its embellishing brush. By contrast, the phantasmal histrionics of Hunter S. Thompson in Rolling Stone never commandeered my cadet allegiance because I always found them something of a masquerade, a grown man with a cigarette holder playing outlaw dandy for his fan club. The jewel brocade of Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism bedazzled, popcorn kernels of laughter exploding alongside the typographical fireworks, but his tours de force were such feats of mind reading and magicianship that they and he didn’t seem quite human.

This is someone with talent and imagination to burn; sometimes it seems like Wolcott swallowed a Power Verbs book. After experiencing the charge of his prose, it’s almost impossible to go back to the gray stylings of lesser men — the weak Hunter Thompson imitation of Matt Taibbi, the hack righteousness of E.J. Dionne, the convoluted banshee wails of Andrew Sullivan.

Furthermore, and what makes “Lucking Out” such a joyful read, is the fact that Wolcott is not a cynic. Or rather, he uses his cynicism sparingly (except when it comes to conservatives, which we will get to shortly). “Lucking Out” has character sketches of journalists who were well-known in the 1970s, names like Lester Bangs, Renata Adler, Clay Felker, Nat Hentoff and The New Yorker’s William Shawn, but while Wolcott can effortlessly drill to their core (his depiction of Robert Cristgau, the “dean of rock critics,” is particularly wonderful), the tone of most of “Lucking Out” is one of love — love and wonder that Wolcott had stumbled into New York when it was becoming an electrifying communal space for dynamic artists (but then, the city has always been that). An entire chapter is dedicated to the film critic Pauline Kael, who became Wolcott’s closest friend and mentor.