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James Wolcott: Lucking Out

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The ’70s New York memoir really has become its own literary category. James Wolcott was a staff writer for The Village Voice when it was a crucial publication, writer of the first cover story about the CBGB’s scene in 1975, and a golden boy of film-critic emeritus Pauline Kael, and therefore a prime witness to a lot of the action. Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down And Semi-Dirty In Seventies New York lays out its time vividly; the various milieus Wolcott describes are clear and memorable.

Wolcott went to New York with a recommendation letter from Norman Mailer, acquired in college, for a position at the Voice that didn’t exist for him. But Wolcott persisted and eventually became a staff writer (and, for a while, a receptionist). He describes the office’s many characters with a warm eye (“Nat Hentoff… always enjoyed having a First Amendment case to warm his hands over”), but when Kael sweeps him under her wing, the book hits its most romantic pitch. (That, and when he discovers ballet late in the decade.) Wolcott’s life as a Paulette risks being overripe, which is how it can be with stories of being younger and ruder: Kael was notoriously not gun-shy, and she favored aggressive young men, such as director James Toback, who led the pack in talking back to the movies during screenings. By comparison, Wolcott insists, he was the quiet one. For him, the ’70s died when Renata Adler’s infamous dismissal of Kael as “worthless” in the New York Review Of Books appeared in August 1980.


Wolcott’s punk recollections stick less for his musical insights than their mundane comedy: “Bottles would be dropped from the Palace Hotel men’s shelter above CBGB’s, their green and clear glass smashing on the sidewalk, some of them exploding with pee, the contents recycled from the beer or Thunderbird that the bottles formerly contained. It wasn’t a nightly occurrence, but it happened often enough to keep you limber.” Even better is when he compares the city’s two great scuzz industries: “Punk was rooted in its opposition to pretension, whereas porn adopted pretension as soon as it broke out of the basement and sought respectability, pursuing the fine cultural cachet of the art-house film where ennui hung heavy from the false eyelashes.” Wolcott’s book, though, remains limber even when the sentences are stuffed like cigars.