Opinion

James Wolcott, wise dildo

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker

“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.

The best chapter in “Lucking Out” is the one on punk rock. It is a tour de force of observation, reportage and cultural analysis. Wolcott’s most pumping valentine is for the punk poet and singer Patti Smith, who comes across as a genuine star and nice person. But it’s clear Wolcott loves most of these people (he does seem a bit stingy is his assessment of Lester Bangs, but it is with good reason if Bangs was half as annoying as Wolcott makes him out to be). Wolcott entered CBGB right as the famous punk and new wave club was lifting off, hosting young and then-unknown acts like Talking Heads, Blondie, Television and The Ramones. When he saw what was going on there, Wolcott became a fan and a booster. He explains it in one of my favorite sentences from the book: “One thing I learned from Pauline [Kael] was that when something hits you high and hard, you have to be able to travel wherever the point of impact takes you and be willing to go to the wall with your enthusiasm and over it if need be, even if you look foolish or ‘carried away,’ because your first shot at writing about it may be the only chance to make people care.” These days rock writers, muted with their own self-importance, never let go like this — which is why most are unreadable.

What makes “Lucking Out” difficult to square is that Wolcott has a sensitive radar to cant, even if it is liberal cant, yet is himself a knee-jerker outside the pages of his memoir. In “Lucking Out,” Wolcott describes the humorless “political correctos” who have taken over The Village Voice. Wolcott notes that they “found the light touch suspect” and “were grunting out copy as if handcuffed to a rowing machine.” Elsewhere he laments that niche journalism has made too many writers “dildos for rent.” Yet read Wolcott’s Vanity Fair blog, or watch some of his TV appearances on YouTube. (My personal favorite is where his dismisses the tea party as a passing fad — “I don’t think the tea parties are going to catch fire.”) It’s all the usual suspects: lame jabs at Herman Cain, shots at Fox, snot-rockets at The Daily Caller (he bashed us on day one), pitches for Stalinist hacks like Alexander Cockburn (a buddy from The Voice days). Didn’t Wolcott read his own book? Is he really the soul behind so much of its wisdom and joy? Perhaps like so many New York liberals, Wolcott has never met or actually talked to a conservative. William F. Buckley makes a couple brief appearances in “Lucking Out.” Perhaps Wolcott should have visited him once or twice. Because these days he himself seems like a dildo for rent — to tiresome lefty hairdo Graydon Carter.

This brings us to an absolutely breathtaking passage in “Lucking Out.” It comes in the book’s chapter about porn. Wolcott once went to a sex show in the bad old Times Square of the ’70s, and the part where he describes the darkness of it is worthy of Richard John Neuhaus, or even Augustine. “The human wastage of Times Square [in the ’70s] weighs too heavily against slumming nostalgia,” he observes. When Wolcott goes into a live sex show, he is assaulted by a “booming distorted intercom voice” repeating the name of the show: “The Pimppp and the Whorrre…” Wolcott: “It was a better Brechtian alienation effect than anything I’ve ever seen in Brecht, the sense of dehumanization compounded by the knowledge of the performers of this sketch were repeating it four, five times a day, like the last damned dregs of vaudeville. Forget Sartre and No Exit, this is what hell must really be like: an endless reenactment performed by dummies for dummies, and you’re one of the dummies.” With such insight, maybe Wolcott should be writing for The Daily Caller.

Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.