Book review: James Wolcott's 'Lucking Out'

Lucking Out

My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York

James Wolcott

Doubleday: 260 pp., $25.95

James Wolcott, takedown artist extraordinaire, is a byline that sends shivers of schadenfreude up the spines of fellow writers — at least when he's writing about someone else. A literary journalist who blows raspberries at mandarins, he's a mainstay of Vanity Fair's luxurious editorial lineup, his flashy prose outshining those gleaming, Mephistophelean ads peddling fantasies of the lucky one-percenters, his crap-cutting manner adding a bracing machete-whoosh to the magazine's day-spa elevator music.

How did Wolcott, a college dropout from Maryland with a pedigree about as fancy as a can of tuna fish, grow into the figure that he is today, a corpulent eminence who gobbles the zeitgeist like a pop cultural Dr. Johnson, digesting it for us into a stream of acerbic wit and peppery common sense that is still one of the reliable highs of high-end journalism? His memoir, "Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York," offers a kind of travelogue of his formative years, surveying the education of a critical sensibility much in the way that Patti Smith (who makes an extended cameo) gives an account of her transformation from a New Jersey nobody to a rock-poet goddess in her sensational memory-ramble, "Just Kids."

Wolcott, it goes without saying, is no Smith. The forces that shaped him weren't the French Symbolist poets doomed to an early grave or the guitar-strumming countercultural bards but the pugnaciously egomaniacal Norman Mailer and the queen bee of screening rooms, Pauline Kael. He was incubated at the insurrectionist Village Voice and baptized at the skanky-chic punk club CBGB. Movie theaters ("semi-dirty" porn houses included) were his early classrooms and the New York City Ballet became his finishing school. He lived in dingy, dynamic neighborhoods in darkened studios where mice ignored his cat, but the trade-off was that he could cocoon with books or tinker all day over a review ("It was like a sewing room for words"), then open his door and rejoin the urban circus outside.

New York, mugger-ridden and garbage-strewn, was falling apart around him. A Daily News headline would have President Ford telling the city to "Drop Dead" — a plea for mercy killing, some gallows humorist might say. The squalid ferment, however, proved to be a cultural elixir. New voices were declaring themselves, shouting above the mangy din, and Wolcott had a front-row seat as a rock and TV critic at the Voice, where Mailer, one of the paper's founders, had recommended him for a job after approving of a college newspaper article Wolcott had written on Mailer's infamous contretemps with Gore Vidal on Dick Cavett's talk show.

Dan Wolf, the Voice's editor, initially gave Wolcott the friendly brushoff, but Wolcott wasn't eager to buy a return bus ticket and finish his degree at Frostburg State. His persistence paid off. He was eventually given a job answering phones in the circulation department, and he began casing the editorial joint for opportunities to land in print.

Wolcott appears to have been a meteorically quick study. Here's some of what he learned about getting published by sifting through the slush pile: "Avoid preamble — flip the on switch in the first sentence. Find a focal point for your nervous energy, assume a forward offensive stance, and drive to the finish line, even if it's only a five-hundred-word slot …."

Editors, in the days when they had time, mental space and confrontational temperaments, blue-penciled him, flagging word repetitions, insipid phrases and broken logic, cut-and-pasting his efforts in face-to-face standoff that predated the ubiquity of word processing. The competition, always ready with a castrating remark, toughened him up.

For his rapid flourishing, Wolcott received an unexpected reward — an overture of friendship from the New Yorker's one and only Kael, who invited him to accompany her to movie screenings and afterward hung out with him at the Algonquin Hotel, where Wolcott sipped soda and traded bons mots with film criticism's reigning trump card. Clearly, Kael saw a reflection of herself in this shambling twentysomething, a lyrical slinger of vernacular who understood that the death of criticism is the desire to be liked. Like her, Wolcott wasn't afraid to prefer good junk to pretentious drivel. Better still, he was (to an extent far greater than she) scrupulously nonideological about likes and dislikes.

"Lucking Out" will interest those who will want to know what it was like in the stretch of time when Smith, Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie were performing at the dive founded by Hilly Kristal on the Bowery. Wolcott's memories of CBGB, while free of nostalgia ("Lore is publicity that lasts long after there's nothing left to publicize"), are suffused with elegiac ardency. The bludgeoning curmudgeon does indeed have a tender heart and can even get misty when the conversation turns to his wife, writer and dance critic Laura Jacobs, or some miraculous Balanchine choreography.

Schadenfreude addicts, however, needn't worry: Wolcott has ample opportunity to reveal his talons. (Joan Didion, arch enemy of Kael, is a standby target.) Throughout he gets to have his uncensored say, though occasionally he resorts to some convenient ventriloquism, whereby Kael is brought back from the dead to take a swipe at the "boring intelligence" of David Denby's movie reviews or some other bête noire. Insults, no matter how well deserved, should probably stay buried with their owner, but then the dark side of Wolcott is inseparable from his luminosity.

As critic-stylists go, Wolcott is up there with John Leonard and Wilfrid Sheed, two heroes he pays passing homage to. True, the prose jams up in places with its relentless striving for effect, the makeshift verbs twisted into service to avoid any form of "to be," the careening metaphors causing neural short-circuiting, the sentences that just stubbornly refuse to terminate though long in death throes. Wolcott's style is better suited to journalistic sprints than cross-country ink spills. Yet there's something dependably remunerative about his logorrheic flow, an associative synthesis that is usually fresh and at times even startling.

As a cultural history of seedy '70s New York, "Lucking Out" paints a vivid portrait by someone who commuted regularly between the underground scene and the media world that concocted trend pieces about it. But what ultimately makes this book so vital is its documentation of one writer's beginnings. Beneath the scrapbook of memories lies a sneaky defense of a scrappy literary life that is in danger of fading into the same oblivion as Mohawk haircuts and black leather jackets adorned with safety pins.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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