Please! Hold Off on That Novel Coronavirus Novel!

Got some bad news for you, on the off chance your bad news supply chain is breaking down. American publishers have gone on a spending spree in hopes of snagging breakout books spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. “Three months into the biggest public health and economic crisis of our era,” The New York Times reports, “authors and publishers are racing to produce timely accounts of the coronavirus outbreak, with works that range from reported narratives about the science of pandemics and autobiographical accounts of being quarantined, to spiritual guides on coping with grief and loss, to a book about the ethical and philosophical quandaries raised by the pandemic, written by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.”

The operative words in that sentence are racing and timely because they point to an irony that can be viewed as an axiom: writing that’s forged in the cauldron of a crisis almost always winds up being undercooked. A writer racing to be timely is, by definition, not pausing to digest, muse, rethink, revise. Some of the forthcoming writing about the pandemic might throb with immediacy, but the bulk of it will likely be solipsistic and slapdash, especially the fiction and diaries and, ugh, those autobiographical accounts of being quarantined. In this case, writing that’s timely is likely to be ephemeral, destined to fade soon after the virus runs its course or gets vanquished by a vaccine. Remember the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all those proclamations that irony was dead? Irony didn’t merely rise from the ashes of the Twin Towers; it went on to become the gyroscope of much contemporary fiction, sometimes for better, mostly for worse, and by now it has become a universal mechanism for coping with day-to-day life in a rattled world. And that was before this pandemic descended.

Some of the forthcoming plague books might prove me wrong, especially the nonfiction titles about the economic fallout of the pandemic, frontline accounts from overwhelmed hospitals, forensic studies of how the virus took root in human hosts, and a forthcoming collection of case studies of how Covid-19 and other infectious diseases spread. (The question must be asked: who’s racing to write the books about cooking, binge TV watching, pet grooming, and Donald Trump’s golf scores during this pandemic?)

Far less promising is the coming glut of personal accounts, whether they’re fiction, poetry, diaries, or journals. Exhibit A: the ongoing “Pandemic Journal” series in The New York Review of Books, which features writers all over the world sending in personal dispatches. These accounts blur after a while because they swim in a soup of sameness and lack the specificity that brings writing to life. When everybody in the world is doing the same thing, just how unique or interesting can it be? For instance, we learn that there are chronic toilet paper shortages in both London and Sydney (and, I’m guessing, in every other hamlet on the planet). Ali Bhutto writes from Karachi that the usual hum of traffic coming through the bedroom window “has been replaced by silence” (Ditto here in downtown Manhattan). Liza Batkin writes from Rhinebeck, N.Y., that she had to pause to ask her mother if she should dry the dishes with a dish towel or a paper one (I know the feeling). Christopher Robbins writes from New York that “a playground writhing with children in 60-degree weather feels downright sinister” (Got that right). If I know these feelings, do I benefit from knowing that millions of other people know them, too?

Exhibit B: a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, which features a roster of writers relating “What We’ve Learned in Quarantine.” Among the predictable lessons are that many people liken quarantine to being in prison or at war, yet there are salutary rewards to be found in such solitary activities as braiding your own hair, learning to play the piano, watching birds, and photographing your daughters. Most of these accounts barely rise to the level of tepid uplift, and they’re further proof just how difficult it is to say something wise, or even original, about a pandemic. If you doubt this, I present Exhibit C: a recent essay in The New York Times Book Review by Michiko Kakutani, who was struck by the eerie silence and emptiness of the streets in New York, which, she reminds us, used to be known as “the city that never sleeps.” When the high priestess of American lit crit is reduced to borrowing clichés from Ol’ Blue Eyes, you know you’re in trouble. Kakutani then reminds us just how primitive life was in 17th-century London when the bubonic plague descended: “There was no Purell back then, no Clorox wipes or Lysol spray, no grocery deliveries from Fresh Direct and Whole Foods, no Netflix or Roku to help pass the time.” Thanks for the heads-up, Michiko!

Now I’d be the last person to knock writers who have the good sense and the good luck to get paid for their work. So on one hand, I say bravo to all the writers with freshly inked contracts for pandemic books. On the other hand, I would like to make a simple plea, especially to the writers of poetry and fiction: don’t rush, take your time, let the current horrors seep in deep before you try to make art out of this nightmare we’re all living through. For inspiration, novelists and poets and short story writers should look at the examples set by two writers, one from the 18th century, the other working today.

Daniel Defoe took his time before writing about his era’s horrific calamity, publishing A Journal of the Plague Year almost 50 years after the bubonic plague ravaged London in 1665. The book purports to be a first-person account of that grim year, and its rich detail and plausibility led many readers to regard it as a work of nonfiction rather than what it was—a deeply researched work of imaginative historical fiction. (Defoe was five years old during the plague.) The Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has spent the past four years researching and writing an historical novel called Nights of Plague about an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions in Asia in 1901, more than a century ago. Before putting pen to paper, Defoe and Pamuk had the good sense to let time do its work of giving traumas context and perspective.

Back on April 8, Edan Lepucki, a gifted novelist and one very funny mother of three, imagined the “least anticipated” fiction that might come out of the pandemic that was then beginning to unleash its ghastly fury. If ever there was a time that demanded a good laugh, this was it. And Lepucki delivered, imagining novels with such titles as Social Distance Warrior, The Spread and my personal favorite, Stay-at-Home Mom. This last, in Lepucki’s overheated imagining, is the story of a woman named Hannah who’s cooped up in her tiny Brooklyn apartment with her husband and daughter and feels her sanity slipping. Slipping so badly, in fact, that “sometimes she imagines cutting off her own arms and legs and hoisting her bleeding torso into her rollaway suitcase and zipping it up (with her teeth) and rotting there forever.” (After being cooped up in my tiny apartment for 11 weeks, I know the feeling.) “And,” Hannah muses, “how all this is better than her old publishing job where she was regularly expected to kiss the egomaniacal asses of Bookstagrammers who never read the novels they posed next to succulents and mugs of bone broth.” Now there’s a novel coronavirus novel I would pay good money to read.

Image Credit: health.mil.

Bonus Link:
On Pandemic and Literature

Does Robert Towne’s ‘Chinatown’ Oscar Need an Asterisk?

The advance obituary is an odd little literary mongrel. If it involves an interview, there is a tacit understanding between the interviewer and the subject that the substance of the interview, like the story of the subject’s life, won’t see print until the subject has had the decency to drop dead.

Most subjects take this in stride, part of the price of being a noteworthy person. For instance, when I interviewed Keith Botsford, a longtime friend and collaborator of Saul Bellow’s, for a planned New York Times obit, he was cordial, forthcoming, witty. The man was a born storyteller, and he was obviously delighted to be given one last chance to tell the story of his life in his own way. Four years after that interview, Botsford died at 90, and the obituary ran last summer.

I had a very different experience when I got assigned to write the advance obit of Robert Towne, now 85, the screenwriter who won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Chinatown in 1975. When I called Towne’s agent in Los Angeles to ask if he could arrange a telephone interview, the man was aghast. “That’s so morbid!” he said. “I would never ask Robert to agree to be interviewed for his own obituary. What are you thinking?” As I hung up the phone, I was thinking that people in Lala Land are all soft in the head. I wrote the obit without ever talking to Towne.

Towne also declined to be interviewed for Sam Wasson’s absorbing new book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. The book is built on the premise that Chinatown is more than one of the greatest American movies ever made; it was the pinnacle of an era that was about to vanish, the so-called New Hollywood, when directors took over the industry and put out a blizzard of brilliant, idiosyncratic movies before the suits regained control and started cooking up the tedious blockbusters, franchises, and special-effects comic book yarns that audiences are still being fed today.

To make his case, Wasson gets into the minds of the four men who shaped Chinatown: director Roman Polanski, still reeling from the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson gang; male lead Jack Nicholson, stepping into his first starring role; legendary producer Robert Evans; and Towne, whose Oscar win for Chinatown was sandwiched between nominations for his scripts of The Last Detail and Shampoo. Nicholson also declined to be interviewed by Wasson, as did the female lead, Faye Dunaway, after asking how much “participation”—money—was in it for her and learning the answer was zero.

These rebuffs didn’t derail Wasson. He interviewed Polanski and Evans extensively, along with a small army of friends, lovers, enemies, collaborators, ex-wives, and children of his four principals. He freely dipped into the seemingly bottomless well of Hollywood biographies, memoirs, and celebrity interviews. The result is a rich, knowing portrait of the making of a single movie that manages to pull back and give a wide-focus view of an entire industry at a peak moment, just before the deluge. Wasson writes beautiful sentences (along with a few purplish ones), and he is an astute chronicler of Los Angeles and its weather and flora, its social strata and geography and history and light. While struggling with his Chinatown script, Towne revisits his boyhood hometown, the blue-collar fishing port of San Pedro, and finds it largely unchanged. Wasson writes:
The brick buildings of Beacon Street, Whispering Joe’s and Shanghai Red’s, the tattoo parlors, the ferry to Terminal Island. He stood listening at the waterfront, where as a boy he’d watched the tuna fishermen set off to sea and, as a young man one summer, set off with them. He watched his childhood home on Sixth Street and revisited his earliest memory, sitting in the backyard by the paint-splattered Philco radio, listening to Seabiscuit win yet another race.
Yes, when it comes to portraying the textures of Los Angeles and its major industry, Wasson is in a league with Nathanael West, Bruce Weber, David Thomson, and Joan Didion.

Much as I loved Wasson’s portraits and his accounts of the battles on both sides of the camera during the making of Chinatown, the book’s most startling revelation was about what happened before the cameras started to roll. My earlier research of Towne’s life for that advance obituary had alerted me to the extensive rewriting Polanski contributed to the script, most notably the ending. As written by Towne, the femme fatale, played by Dunaway, shoots her incestuous father, played by John Huston, and regains custody of their daughter. A happy ending, sort of, as evil is punished. Polanski, a survivor of the Holocaust with fresh memories of his wife’s horrific murder, needed something darker. After director and screenwriter fought like a couple of tomcats over the proposed revisions, Polanski’s version wound up on the screen: on a night street in Chinatown, a cop shoots Dunaway through the head as she tries to flee with her daughter, and the father makes off with the fruit of his incest. Evil goes unpunished. Much darker, and much better.

Wasson tops that story with the stunning revelation that Edward Taylor, a former college roommate and frequent collaborator of Towne’s, contributed extensively to the Chinatown script long before Polanski started putting his fingerprints on it. “Towne referred to Taylor as ‘my editor,’” Wasson writes, “but rarely spoke of his existence to anyone in Hollywood.”

Then this:
As in any partnership, the attribution of creative input remains an inexact science…and considering that most creative partnerships, like (Ben) Hecht’s and (Charles) Lederer’s, are properly credited on screen, there is rarely any need to investigate the question of authorship. It is openly shared. But in the case of Edward Taylor, whose intimate and ongoing involvement in the conceptualization and production of Towne’s screenplays, whose cache of Chinatown notes—stacks of legal pads filled with Taylor’s original scenes, plans for restructuring subsequent drafts, long swaths of dialogue, character sketches, synopses of projected material, and more—and whose in-person and on-phone discussions with Towne on a sometimes daily basis reveal him to be a generative intelligence, invited not merely to respond to the work as an editor would, but to participate in the creation and evolution of a script moment by moment from the project’s inception, reveal Taylor’s influence to be no different from that of any other co-creator—save for one thing: Towne held the veto power.
This open secret among the people close to Towne and Taylor led many of them to ask the inevitable question: why didn’t Taylor insist on a screenwriting credit, and the money that would flow with it? When Taylor’s stepdaughter implored him, “What are you doing? You can’t not get credit. It’s not fair and it’s not accurate,” he replied: “That’s not important. What’s important is my friendship with Robert.”

Wasson is left to speculate what was behind Taylor’s selfless, undying allegiance to his friend. Was it because Towne had rushed Taylor to the hospital when Taylor’s appendix burst, probably saving his life? Was it because Towne helped him through the aftermath of a former girlfriend’s suicide? Or because Towne arranged an abortion for another girlfriend? Or was it that fame and fortune simply didn’t matter to bookish Edward Taylor?

If there was an answer, it went to the grave with Taylor, who died on Feb. 12, 2013. For his part, Polanski had no interest in fighting Towne for a credit for his contributions to the screenplay. “Not my style,” Polanski told Wasson.

Though Wasson was unable to locate the motivation behind his book’s big reveal, The Big Goodbye yields abundant pleasures. Wasson takes us inside the minds of people as they struggle and fight and cooperate to make a movie masterpiece. We watch Chinatown’s production designer, Richard Sylbert, as he scouts locations, trying to find echoes of vanished 1930s Los Angeles, before the big migration and the freeways and the smog. Like Polanski, Sylbert is a perfectionist, no detail too small to merit his attention. We learn that Sylbert, who won an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, hand-selected every book on George’s shelves for that movie. Such care produced a seamless visual structure in all of his work, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge.

Sylbert’s sister-in-law Anthea Sylbert, Chinatown’s costume designer, was equally obsessive. And it didn’t stop with how she dressed the cast. “I used to even think about what was in their pockets,” she said. “There are those people who have one key. There are those people who have three keys. There are those people who have five keys. They’re different and they come from different places.”

“To Polanski,” Wasson writes, “there were no minutiae.” And so we watch him trying to coax an ant across supine Jack Nicholson’s face, and yanking an unruly hair out of Faye Dunaway’s scalp (shrieking ensued), and obsessing over camera movements and lighting.

Some of this has been told before, notably in Peter Biskind’s superb Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Biskind posits that the New Hollywood began with 1969’s Easy Rider and ended with 1980’s Raging Bull, which puts his chronology modestly at odds with Wasson’s. “In retrospect,” Wasson writes, “1974 represents the final flowering of a film garden passionately tended by liberated studio executives and an unspoken agreement between audiences and filmmakers.” No matter. Both writers agree on Biskind’s obituary of that scorching golden age: “The fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed. The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free. But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.”

And now, 45 years after the slaughter, we learn that Robert Towne’s Oscar needs an asterisk.

Those Who Left Us: Select Literary Obituaries of 2019

Death didn’t discriminate in 2019—it took down the acclaimed, the obscure, and a little bit of everything in between.

Here, in more or less chronological order, is a highly selective list of literary lights that were extinguished in the past year.

The Giants

Someone needs to buy a granite mountain and get out the chisels and jackhammers and start carving a monument to the three literary giants who left us this year: the decorated poet laureate W.S. Merwin, on March 15 at 91; the beloved Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, on Aug. 5 at 88; and the empyrean critic Harold Bloom, on Oct. 14 at 89. This monument will put Mount Rushmore in the shade.

The Two-Bit Publisher

Elizabeth Norah Jones was born in 1919 in India, where her British father worked as an agent in the lucrative opium trade. After marrying an American named Ian Ballantine and changing her name to Betty, she sailed with her husband from London to New York in 1939 to escape the looming war and undertake a daring mission: to establish an American beachhead of Penguin books, the British publisher that had hit upon the novel idea of reprinting quality literature between paper covers at the irresistible price of 25 cents.

Betty Ballantine, who died on Feb. 12 at 99, faced daunting challenges. There were just 1,500 bookstores in America at the time, so Betty and Ian started displaying their books—by H.G. Wells, P.G. Wodehouse and other British writers—in drugstores, newsstands, train stations, and department stores. In 1952, when the Ballantines opened their own eponymous line of both original and reprinted paperbacks, Betty demonstrated that she was no genre snob. She scoured the pulps for promising science fiction stories and worked to turn their authors into novelists, among them Samuel R. Delany, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury. She also published fantasy, westerns, mysteries, even romance. The Ballantines democratized literature by literally bringing it to the streets. Writing in 1989, on the 50th anniversary of their arrival in New York, Betty wrote that Ian and she were “the only surviving father and mother of the paperback revolution.”

The Biographer

Edmund Morris has posthumously published another magisterial biography. His Edison belongs on the same shelf with his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, the first of which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Edison, published five months after Morris died on May 24 at 78, opens with the great inventor’s death in 1931—an event of national importance—and it then moves backward in time to his birth in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. This narrative ploy is jarring at first, but eventually it coheres, unlike Morris’s decision to inject a fictional character named Edmund Morris into his nonfiction book Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. That book got mixed reviews, including charges that it was “dishonorable” and “bizarre” and “a loony hodgepodge.” Morris, who got a $3 million advance, was unfazed. He claimed he was not a historian and was less interested in politics and government than in “character, narrative, the strangeness of reality.” And in Ronald Reagan he might have found his ideal subject. “He was,” Morris said, “truly one of the strangest men who ever lived.”

The Queen of Poolside Reading

Judith Krantz understood that people will buy your books by the tens of millions, no matter how they’re written, as long as they’re packed with those most seductive and timeless of human pursuits: money, sex, and shopping. Known as the Queen of Poolside Reading, Krantz, who died on June 22 at 91, reigned atop the bestseller lists for two decades, beginning with Scruples in 1978. I was an apprentice writer at the time, and I read the novel in the hopes of understanding what it takes to send a book to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. The answer was in the opening paragraphs: money. The titular boutique is described as “the world’s most lavish specialty store, a virtual club for the floating principality of the very, very rich and the truly famous.” The floating rich? I thought the very, very rich traveled in private Leer jets. Scruples was nestled on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, “the most staggering display of luxury in the whole world.”

In a single sentence, Krantz mentions the fashion houses of Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Nina Ricci, Balmain, Givenchy, and Chanel. I had never heard of Balmain, but I remember being impressed by the brazenness of Krantz’s brand name-dropping. And then, of course, there was the sex. Here’s our heroine seducing her pilot after he has taken her aloft so she can scatter her late husband’s ashes: “Now her lips and tongue were working together around the almost erect penis, which, though fairly short, was thick, as sturdily built as the rest of him. As he grew thick and then thicker still, she shifted her mouth slightly and worked only the swelling tip, treating it with strong, unfaltering suction, while the fingers of bother her hands now slid up and down his wet, straining shaft.” After taking a cold shower, I realized I had learned an invaluable lesson. Though I had no interest in reading or writing such prose, I had genuine admiration for someone who could pull it off without a hint of apology or shame. Krantz claimed she wrote “Horatio Alger stories for women.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that she sold more than 85 million books and made many millions of dollars. You can’t take it with you, but during her long productive life Judith Krantz raked in a whole lot of it by sticking to an unbeatable formula: She gave her readers exactly what they wanted.

The Immigrants’ Daughter

Paule Marshall was born and raised in Brooklyn by parents who had emigrated from Barbados. Throughout her five novels and various short story collections and novellas, Marshall used the rhythms of West Indian speech to paint pictures of resolute black women who had tasted loss but refused to become acquainted with defeat. Her breakout novel was 1959’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, about a couple from Barbados living in a Brooklyn brownstone that is riven by a conflict: As told by their daughter Selina, “a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore,” the mother dreams of buying the brownstone, while the father dreams of returning home to Barbados. The pungent, richly atmospheric novel was championed by Langston Hughes and was, in the words of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, “the beginning of contemporary African-American women’s writings.”

Paule (the “e” was silent) Marshall, who died on Aug. 12 at 90, said that her life as a writer began at her family’s kitchen table. She came to regard the West Indian women who gathered around that table as poets. These women spent their days scrubbing floors to earn “a few raw-mouth pennies,” and they had come to understand that language was their only weapon in America, a forbidding place they called “this man world.” As in: “In this man world, you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun!” Language was also therapy, a refuge, a homeland, an outlet for their rumbustious creative energy. To be pregnant was to be “tumbling big,” which inspired: “Guess who I butt up on in the market the other day tumbling big again!” The young girl doing her homework in the corner drank in every word, and a writer was born.

“They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art,” Marshall wrote in The New York Times in 1983. “They trained my ear.” She also noted that other early influences included Austen, Thackeray, Fielding, and Dickens—and then, belatedly, Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poetry and fiction taught her that her own experience, including the stories told by those strong women at her family’s kitchen table, could become the stuff of literature. When Brown Girl was reissued in 1983, Darryl Pinckney wrote in an introduction: “Paule Marshall does not let the black women in her fiction lose.”

The Bartender’s Son

There are three things I remember about the day in 2000 when I interviewed Nick Tosches at his go-to lunch spot, the celebrity hangout Da Silvano restaurant in Greenwich Village. The first was his black fedora, the second was the cloud of cigarette that seemed to wreath his head for hours, and the third was what happened when the magazine magnate S.I. Newhouse passed our table. Tosches said, “Hi, Si, how’s it going?” To which Newhouse replied, “Not bad, Nick. You?” I was stunned—this slash-and-burn writer, this street-rat son of a Newark bartender, was on a first-name basis with power and money!

Just as memorable about that day was Tosches’s excited talk about the novel he was working on, which would become 2002’s In the Hand of Dante. Tosches, who died on Oct. 20 at 69, predicted that the novel was going to be his “big book,” the one that would overshadow his celebrated rock ’n’ roll journalism and his bestselling biographies of Dean Martin and Jerry Lee Lewis. I enjoyed the book, but I’ll let the critics judge if he was right. Eventually that day at Da Silvano, Tosches and I got around to talking about the thing I had come there to talk about: his weird little new book, The Devil and Sonny Liston, which was not quite a biography, not quite a memoir, more a riff on the journey of a man who came from nowhere, rose to the pinnacle of the boxing world, then crashed and abruptly returned to oblivion. The story of the man who dethroned Liston, Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), did not interest a writer with Tosches’s deliciously skewed sensibilities. Sonny Liston’s life, on the other hand, was Tosches’s idea of the perfect parable about the killing cost of fame in America. Like everything else he produced, it was a book only Nick Tosches could have written.

The Sharecroppers’ Son

Ernest J. Gaines, the son of Louisiana sharecroppers, will be best remembered for creating a 110-year-old black character named Jane Pittman who was born a slave on a Louisiana plantation and lived long enough to fight for civil rights in the 1960s. Gaines’s 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was a critical hit, a bestseller, and fodder for a TV movie starring Cicely Tyson that won nine Emmy Awards. The novel, told in Jane Pittman’s distinctive vernacular, is an act of ventriloquism in a league with Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, and anything Mark Twain ever wrote. Gaines, who died on Nov. 5 at 86, followed his breakthrough with A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying. Gaines was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama, and in 1993 he received a MacArthur “genius” grant. Quite a journey for someone who grew up on the River Lake Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, La., where he attended school five months of the year because he had to spend the other seven months working.

The Pit Bull

Stephen Dixon came to fiction writing after studying international relations and dentistry, but once he found his voice, there was no stopping him. In prose that was “knotty” and “challenging”—these are words used by his devoted fans—Dixon poured out 18 novels and some 600 stories, pounding away on a portable typewriter like a pit bull on steroids. His subjects included random spasms of violence in suburbia, a drive-by shooting on an interstate highway, a bar owner’s battle against corrupt garbage collectors—in short, the undertow of unease in modern urban life. Two of his novels, Frog and Interstate, were finalists for the National Book Award, but his writing never sold well. His paragraphs had no desire to end, sometimes running for pages, veering from marital bickering to tender depictions of friendship, love, and the writing life, and many of his stories entertain possible alternate futures. His most memorable creation may have been his compulsively randy alter-ego, the writer Gould Bookbinder, whose overheated libido inspires one of his seduction targets to tell him: “You’re not only a big schmo, but a pathetic jerk.” A complicated, fascinating, pathetic jerk.

Dixon taught at Johns Hopkins University for many years, where he gave his students a copy of his guide to pitching stories to magazines, which included dozens of publications, the names of editors, rates, and insider tips on what to try to sell them. As one of his students, David Dudley, put it: “Dixon seemed to approach the whole Art of Fiction thing with a refreshing absence of pretense; writing was more like steam-fitting or hanging drywall, a craft performed by hand, every day, until you got halfway good at it and could get paid.” Stephen Dixon, who died on Nov. 6 at 83, understood that writing was work, it was a job, it was something you do every day because you have to do it and because it’s worth doing and it’s worth doing well as you possibly can.

The Polymath

Clive James succeeded in marrying that oddest of couples: erudition and television. James, who died Nov. 24 at 80, was a polymath who wrote novels, poems, memoirs, translations, song lyrics, journalism, and criticism. He seemed to be interested in everything, from Dante to tango to Formula One racing. He was a serious writer—and wit—who became a television star in England, where he settled after leaving his native Australia. He called his television column in The Observer “the real backbone of my career as a writer,” and its popularity—along with his ubiquitous appearances on the small screen—probably lowered critical opinion of the rest of his writing. Life can be as unfair as death. As if to rehabilitate his reputation as a serious critic, James published Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts in 2007, an alphabetical compendium of everyone he considered worth knowing in the 20th century. A giddy, wide-ranging mash-up of high and low, the book was 40 years in the making, and it’s a delight to read. Here’s how James described his approach: “The writer represents all the expressive people to whom he has ever paid attention, even if he disapproved of what they expressed.” Thus he gives us sparkling sketches of Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher, as well as Albert Camus and Dick Cavett (the closest any American has come to being a Clive James), W.C. Fields and Gustave Flaubert. How did Tacitus make the cut? Don’t ask, just enjoy. Who ever decreed that food that’s good for you brain shouldn’t be fun to read?

James has been called a comic public intellectual, but he had the mashed face of a pub brawler or, as he put it, a bank robber who forgot to take the stocking off his head. Looks can be a blessing in disguise. With James, as with all writers, the work is all that matters. And this polymath’s work was built on solid rock. As he was dying from leukemia and emphysema, he said that if a plaque were ever erected in his honor, he would like it to read: He loved the written word, and told the young.

The Sidekick

This last one is personal. Keith Botsford, a versatile man of letters who was a friend and collaborator of Saul Bellow’s, died in London the summer before last, on Aug. 19, 2018, at 90. His death went largely unnoticed until this past summer, when The New York Times obituary desk was updating a prepared obituary of Botsford and learned, belatedly, of his death. I was the writer of that advance obituary, and it ran in The Times on June 14 of this year, nearly 10 months after Botsford’s death. It was the delayed realization of a lifelong dream for me—to publish an obituary in The New York Times.

The obituary noted that Botsford met Bellow when both were teaching at Bard College in the early 1950s. At a cocktail party one night, Botsford, then a budding novelist in his mid-20s, looked across the room and saw a colleague in distress. “It was Saul Bellow, and he was pinned against the wall by a dreadful man from Winnipeg,” Botsford told me when I interviewed him by phone for the obituary. “I had just read The Adventures of Augie March, so I walked up and started talking to him.”

A friendship blossomed, and the two men wound up collaborating on several literary magazines, including The Noble Savage, ANON, and News From the Republic of Letters. Bellow, who died in 2005 at 89, called this last effort “a tabloid for literates,” and he described himself and Botsford as “a pair of utopian codgers who feel we have a duty to literature.”

In his long life, Botsford wore many hats—novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher and translator. He was also a composer of chamber works, choral music, and a ballet, and was fluent in half a dozen languages. He said he helped Bellow write his acceptance speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. “We had an intellectual love for each other,” Botsford said of his long-time friend. “He liked to call me his sidekick. I found the title perfectly honorable.” I get the feeling that after living such a long, rich life, Keith Botsford died a happy man.

A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

The highlight of my reading life this year was, no contest, the new novel from the Irish volcano Kevin Barry. His Night Boat to Tangier was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and it provides all the pleasures his fans have come to expect, including pyrotechnical language, a delicious stew of high lit and low slang, lovable bunged-up characters, rapturous storytelling, and a fair bit of the old U(ltra) V(iolence), in the form of a knife to a knee, a gouged-out eye, and heart-crushing betrayal. The setup—two aging Irish gangsters waiting for a woman at the ferry terminal in the seedy Spanish port of Algeciras—has obvious echoes of Beckett. But Barry told me in an interview that while writing the book he was actually much more under the sway of Harold Pinter’s early plays from the 1960s, especially The Caretaker and The Birthday Party, with their sneaky undertows of menace. Don’t bother trying to parse the influences. Do yourself a favor and read Night Boat to Tangier, then go to Barry’s earlier, equally brilliant work.

While writing an essay on the great comedian and Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore—occasioned by Eddie Murphy’s comeback role as Moore in the new movie Dolemite Is My Name—I happened upon an insightful book by Jim Dawson called The Compleat Motherfucker: A History of the Mother of All Dirty Words. The book places trash-talkin’, kung-fu-kickin’, full-time-pimpin’ Moore in a context of other broad and bawdy black comedians, from Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham through Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. Dawson makes the valuable point that Moore’s cult status among black audiences was based on his authenticity, which in turn was built on his decision to “stay on the fringes, below white society’s radar.” Smart move. The man was a sui generis genius.

As research for a nonfiction book I’m writing, I read a pair of books that explore the origins and contours of America’s class system. The first was the classic The Mind of the South by a North Carolina newspaperman named W.J. Cash, who committed suicide five months after the book’s publication. Its cold appraisal of the Southern class system, from the loftiest aristocrats down to the lowliest trash, led C. Vann Woodward to call it “the perfect foil” for Margaret Mitchell’s magnolia-scented fantasy Gone with the Wind, published two years earlier. The second book was Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, which generated an unexpected flash of insight: Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson are actually the same person! Isenberg must have been thinking of Trump when she wrote this about Jackson: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself.” She adds that the presidential personality “was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance.” I grew suspicious that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Trump, but I realized that was unlikely because the book was published five months before the 2016 election. And some people still doubt that history repeats itself.

I got my first taste of Edwidge Danticat’s fiction through her terrific new collection of short stories, Everything Inside, deft explorations of the small moments of joy available to the Haitians who populate these tales, set mostly in Haiti and Miami. And finally, on the occasion of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday, on March 24, I read his new memoir, Little Boy, an ebullient summing up of a century of life richly lived.

The Private Life of Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry shot to international stardom in the late 1970s as the lead singer of the new wave band Blondie. Now, at age 74, Harry has produced a candid, harrowing, and humorous memoir, Face It, that looks back at her eventful life—as a child put up for adoption, as a dreamer scuffling in New York, through Blondie’s rise and dissolution and reunion, and her solo career as a singer and actress. Along the way, Harry introduces readers to a sizable chunk of the pop pantheon, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and John Waters.

The Millions: You say in your book that you’re a private person. Why did you take on the challenge of writing your memoir at this point in your life?

Debbie Harry: I sort of got persuaded to do it by my manager, but after I got started, I enjoyed the process. I think in a way what it’s done for me is just to clear away a lot of the debris and be done with it. I’m really looking forward to making some new music and possibly writing some more stories.

TM: You mention in the book that memory is subjective.

DH: I’ve done a lot of interviews with Chris [Stein], my partner, and inevitably we remember different things. Fortunately, together we sometimes create a better understanding of what we’re talking about. But, yes, memory is subjective.

TM: You say you were influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale. Were there other memoirs, maybe music memoirs, that resonated with you when you were writing this book?

DH: For a long time I was really, really interested in autobiography and biography, and I’ve read quite a few. And they’re fascinating, but I sort of got out of the habit. Recently I picked up Chronicles, Bob Dylan’s memoir, and he’s quite a good writer. And I’ve read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, and some of her sentences are just mind-blowing, so good.

TM: You say in your book that you still love New York, even though it’s unrecognizable from when you were making your way here in the 1960s and ’70s and even the ’80s. What do you miss most?

DH: I don’t know that I miss any building or restaurant or anything like that because that’s always in flux in New York. I discovered that after being out on the road. I’d go out on a tour for a couple of months and come back—and something would be completely gone, and there would be something new in its place. That kind of transition and change in New York City is normal. The things I miss a lot are the enchantment and the drive of the ’70s when I was just getting started with Blondie. That was a really special time, getting all that going and me and Chris having this wonderful relationship and the excitement of the scene and the other bands. It really was a privilege to be a part of that.

TM: Are there things you don’t miss about the good old days?

DH: The problem for us was survival. We weren’t making any money and we were scratching to get by, but I guess what helped somehow was our youthful enthusiasm—and optimism, basically. Day-to-day would seem like, “Oh, this is hard! What’s gonna happen?” Sometimes it was almost deliciously scary that you would be fighting against these odds. The reward of having a creative enterprise and having it be accepted is kind of amazing. It’s not like anything else. You’re at your wits’ end, and when you make the slightest little bit of a gain, it’s like, “Oh, man, it’s unbelievable!” You really do get a great feeling.

TM: You mention that Marilyn Monroe was a big influence. You describe her as “a woman playing a man’s idea of a woman”—with a lot of smarts behind her. That’s Debbie Harry in Blondie, too, isn’t it?

DH: To some degree, yeah. I actually don’t think I was as smart as Marilyn. She was playing with the big boys, you know. The music world is not quite as cutthroat as the movie business. The more money that’s being spent to produce a project, the more intense and tense and crazy it gets. The movie business is definitely in that league.

TM: Is your own movie career something you prize a lot?

DH: It really is. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great directors, but I’ve never been in a position to be a producer or a writer or a director on a film. I’ve always been hired to play a part or make a cameo, so the responsibility hasn’t been on my shoulders. But it’s a tremendous enterprise. Look at John Waters. He started out from such an underground position and was so controversial. Much the same as David Cronenberg—again, a very controversial, independent director who slowly built to a point where he was making very commercial pictures.

TM: Have you read any of John Waters’s books? He’s a fine writer.

DH: Yes, and he’s an artist who has exhibited in galleries. And he gives lectures—I love his lectures, they’re fabulous. He’s so knowledgeable and so entertaining about B movies.

TM: In your book, you write that “success quickly started to feel anticlimactic.” Do you still feel that way?

DH: I think I understand the nature of the business a lot better, and my own nature. I think I’ve come to an easy resolve about it. But for a person like me who was not familiar with showbiz, it was a bit of an eye-opener. You know, I was kind of idealistic and foolish—and I’m still kind of a fool, but at least I have a little bit more experience.

TM: Climate strikes are taking place all over the world today. There’s a picture in the book of you onstage in Argentina last year with the words “STOP FUCKING THE PLANET” on your back. Are you optimistic or gloomy about the future of the planet?

DH: Unless we act very quickly and very seriously, I think we’re in a lot of jeopardy. I’m not optimistic unless people get on it right away and start appreciating how beautiful the planet is and how desperate the situation is. Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s population is busy with their own day-to-day survival. If every single person on the planet took an hour or two out of their week and did some serious environmental work—cleaning water, cleaning rivers—it would really be important. If you talk to Vivienne Westwood, she’s much more up on the science. And many scientists are saying we’re beyond the pale.

TM: You mention in the book that you’re making some new music. What are you working on?

DH: Just writing snippets, little bits and bobs of ideas for lyrics and themes. I’ve been parsing out some of the instrumental tracks, and I’m trying to learn about new artists I really haven’t been paying attention to. All the little pieces are filtering into my brain. Hopefully in the New Year, I’ll get in the studio to do some solo work.

TM: Who are the musicians you’re listening to?

DH: One is Aldous Harding. She has this great video on YouTube called “The Barrel.” The song is very interesting and quirky, and she comes more from being a poet. There’s some great stuff out there. Let’s face it, rock ’n’ roll has come a long way; it’s very sophisticated and it encompasses a lot of attitudes and instrumentation.

TM: Do you think you’ll have a new record next year?

DH: Oh, God no, I don’t think it’ll be out that soon. Thinking positively, we could possibly get an EP out.

TM: Are you going on a tour to promote your book?

DH: I am. I have about five or six dates around the country, and then I go over to the U.K. and Germany. I’ll be at the Miami Book Fair.

TM: Good luck with the book. I hope it sells like Krispy Kremes.

DH: Oh, thanks [Laughs.] But not as fattening!

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

Small Moments of Joy: The Millions Interviews Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1969. At the age of 12, she moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where her mother worked in a factory and her father drove a taxi. Danticat’s 16 works of fiction and nonfiction have won numerous awards. She now lives in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, and she will be at the Miami Book Fair with her new collection of short stories, Everything Inside. We caught up with the bestselling author and MacArthur Fellow to talk about her latest book, the Haitian-American experience, and small moments of joy.

The Millions: Haiti is a presence in all of these new stories. Tell me about the pull Haiti exerts on you and your writing.

Edwidge Danticat: Well, everything I’ve written is either about Haiti or about the Haitian-American experience. I still have a lot of family in Haiti, so it’s sort of what interests me as a subject. Also, migration to the U.S. and the Haitian-American community in New York and, in this book, in Miami. A lot of the book is set in the area where I live now.

TM: Do you return to Haiti often?

ED: Yeah, I go back a couple of times a year for weddings, funerals, family gatherings, and book-related things. They have one really famous book festival called Livres en Folie, so I go back for that and for conferences. But mostly for family things.

TM: A lot of the characters’ lives in these new stories have not worked out well. I’m thinking about the woman who’s swindled into paying ransom for the bogus kidnapping of her ex-husband’s wife; the woman with AIDS who gets placebos from a shady doctor; the woman who’s summoned to the bedside of the dying father she never knew, only to find he’s dead when she gets there. Yet these characters seem to find consolations.

ED: Some of the stories are based on the experiences of people I know. Not everybody comes out with a happy ending, you know? And that’s one of the things that interests me—how people deal with difficulties. Maybe I just happen to be a melancholy person. I think also, these days, the experience of poor immigrants is a lot more precarious and terrifying because the rules are always changing. But I hope there are consolations. I think people in very difficult circumstances figure out a way to have moments of joy, you know, moments of appreciation.

TM: In your memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, you talked about the “generational sacrifice” that a lot of immigrants make so that their children and grandchildren can thrive in a new country. Is that sacrifice still an influence on your work?

ED: Oh yeah, absolutely. When I was writing that memoir, my father had just died and my uncle who raised me had died in immigration custody. Both my parents, at the ends of their lives, got terminal diagnoses, so we had a lot of time to reflect. And for both my parents, the marker of success was how their children had done. And they felt a kind of consolation, like you were saying before, in the fact that we were doing okay because they had made these great sacrifices. If things hadn’t worked out, that would’ve been devastating to them. So the fact we were doing okay, we’ve done better financially, we’re in a relationship, we seem happy—that, to them, was proof that everything had been worthwhile.

There’s a sense of forward-looking about it. The people who are traveling with their small children, leaving places because they feel like their children will be in danger, the people arriving in Europe from Syria and other places—I think there’s an element to immigration that is so forward-looking. And then the younger person has the burden of dealing with it, figuring out what to do with it. I’ve spoken to young people who feel like it’s such a big responsibility.

TM: Do you feel that burden yourself as the child of immigrants?

ED: I felt that much more when I was younger. My mom worked in a sweatshop in Manhattan, my father was a taxi driver and also left in the dark and would come back exhausted. I could see the wear and tear on their bodies. And so I always felt like I had to do something to make all of this worthwhile. I wanted to help out as soon as I could, drop out of school. But my parents never allowed that. School was our job. They wanted me to be a doctor, and at times I felt like maybe I should be a doctor to please them. But that didn’t happen.

TM: Well, you turned out pretty well.

ED: Yeah, I did OK.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

True Fake Fact: Donald Trump Is Andrew Jackson

Sometimes we open a book hoping to learn one thing and wind up getting bushwhacked by something completely unrelated and unexpected. I’m having that unnerving experience right now with Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

I started reading the book as research for a nonfiction book I’m writing about a man who was born into a slave-owning family in Virginia during the Civil War and died at the age of 92 at the peak of the Cold War. I was looking for insights into the origins and evolution of Virginia’s (and America’s) class system and, specifically, for evidence supporting my long-held belief that the United States never was and never will be a classless society.

Though Isenberg has solid credentials—she wrote the well-received Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, coauthored Madison and Jefferson, and teaches American history at Louisiana State University—I’ll admit I approached White Trash with some trepidation. That “400-Year Untold History” claim in the subtitle smelled of over-reach, and the early chapters failed to convince me that my nose was malfunctioning. Then I came to chapter five, “Andrew Jackson’s Cracker Country: The Squatter as Common Man.” After a meandering description of the landless, uncouth “crackers and squatters” who led the young republic’s expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains, Isenberg comes to her central character: Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the raw-boned Tennessee scrapper and warrior who would become the seventh president of the United States. Isenberg’s sketch of Jackson opens hot and quickly catches fire: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself…Jackson’s personality was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance in comparison to his highly educated rivals…His supporters adored his rough edges…Using violent means if necessary, and acting without legal authority, Jackson was arguably the political heir of the cracker and squatter.”

That was when the gong went off. It was impossible to miss. Isenberg was not merely sketching Andrew Jackson; she was, chapter and verse, sketching the personal and political biography of…Donald Trump. As I continued reading, I found myself subconsciously substituting Trump’s name for Jackson’s, and other players in our contemporary political shitshow for the 19th-century actors in the Jacksonian soap opera. The parallels were so precise they were spooky. Here, with italics marking my mental edits, was what I read:

“Trump’s was a career built on sheer will and utter impulse…Controversy, large and small, seemed to follow the man. Because Trump had relatively little experience holding political offices, his run for the presidency drew even more than the normal amount of attention to his personal character. A biography written for campaign purposes…focused on his volatile emotions. He certainly lacked the education and polite breeding of his presidential predecessors.”

At this point, a suspicion sprang to life. Could it be that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Donald Trump? But I soon learned that this was nearly impossible because White Trash was published five months before the 2016 election, when just about no one, least of all Hillary Clinton and The New York Times, thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance of winning the presidency. So Isenberg was not writing in code. The uncanny parallels between our seventh and 45th presidents are the fruit of deep scholarly research. They are actual facts. Isenberg continues, again with my italics:
Prominent critics insisted on a congressional investigation. The powerful Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, demanded the president’s censure. Trump damned the established legal authorities…Confirmed rumors circulated that Trump had threatened to cut off the ears of some senators because they had dared to investigate—and humiliate—him on the national stage.
Of course, both besieged presidents had their defenders:
Trump’s nomination provoked “sneers and derision from the myrmidons of power at Washington,” wrote one avid Trump man, who decried “the degeneracy of American feeling in that swamp.” Trump wasn’t a government minion or a pampered courtier, and thus his unpolished and un-statesmanlike ways were an advantage. In 2019, in a speech before Congress, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky used this kind of language to reproach members of the House for investigating Trump’s activities…The men and women censuring Trump, whom the Kentucky senator mocked as the “young sweet-smelling and powdered beau of the town,” were out of their league. With this clever turn of phrase, McConnell recast Trump’s foes as coastal elites, the classic enemies of flyover country.
Just when I started thinking it was time to get some sex into this parallel-universe narrative, Isenberg obliged: “The candidate’s private life came under equal scrutiny. His irregular marriage became scandalous fodder during the election of 2016…In the ever-expanding script detailing Trump’s misdeeds, adultery was just one more example of his uncontrolled passions. Having affairs with porn stars and then paying them hush money belonged to the standard profile of the backwoods aggressor who refused to believe the law applied to him…He simply took what he wanted, and was even willing to, by his own admission, ‘grab them by the pussy.’”

Even staggering ignorance of international affairs was seen as a virtue by these presidents’ supporters, as Isenberg notes: “If his lack of diplomatic experience made him ‘homebred,’ this meant he was less contaminated than former ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch by foreign ideas or courtly pomp. The class comparison could not be ignored: Hillary Clinton had been a first lady and a secretary of state, while Trump was ‘sprung from a common family,’ and had written nothing to brag about. Instinctive action was privileged over unproductive thought.”

That “common family” claim required a little more massaging in Trump’s case than in Jackson’s, and Trump’s minions have been happy to oblige. “Partisans of Trump claimed that he was from backwoods stock,” Isenberg writes. “This was untrue. Trump was born into an elite New York real-estate family, and though he had briefly been a resident of Queens, that five-bedroom Tudor had been abandoned long ago in favor of Trump Tower.”

It’s likely that Trump, like Jackson before him, has brought lasting changes to the American scene. As Isenberg puts it: “Trump’s candidacy changed the nature of democratic politics. One political commentator noted that Trump’s reign ushered in the ‘game of brag.’ Another observer concluded that a new kind of ‘tweeting country politician’ had arisen, who could tweet for hours before having finally ‘exhausted the fountain of his panegyric on President Trump.’”

As I reached the end of chapter five in White Trash, I dimly remembered hearing that Donald Trump is a big fan of Old Hickory. A little digging reminded me that early in his presidency, in March 2017, Trump had visited Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, near Nashville to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jackson’s birth. In one of his keener readings of history, Trump declared, “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” Hard to fact-check that whopper because Jackson died 16 years before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. No matter. Trump added that he admires Jackson—and he has Jackson’s portrait on the wall in the Oval Office—because he was “a very tough person” with a “big heart.” Tell that to the 150 human beings Jackson owned at the time of his death, some of whom he hunted down personally when they tried to escape from bondage. Or tell that to the thousands of Native Americans and black slaves who perished during Jackson’s enforced relocation known as the Trail of Tears, an act of genocide by any other name.

But let’s not get bogged down with true facts when the world is bursting with so many fake facts. And let’s not lose sight of the completely unexpected lesson in Isenberg’s book. The republic survived Andrew Jackson—and Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Surely it will survive Donald Trump? We might get the answer to that question sooner than anyone expected, shortly before the swearing in of President Pence.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I’m a Stained-Glass Guy: The Millions Interviews Kevin Barry

The Irish writer Kevin Barry is no stranger to literary laurels. His debut novel, City of Bohane (2011), won the European Union Prize for Literature and the IMPAC Dublin Award. His two collections of short stories have been awarded the Rooney Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His second novel, Beatlebone (2015), won the Goldsmiths Prize. Now Barry is out with a wicked little rabbit-punch of a novel, Night Boat to Tangier, that’s on the longlist for this year’s prestigious Booker Prize. From his home in County Sligo, Ireland, Barry spoke by phone recently with The Millions staff writer Bill Morris.

The Millions: The last time we spoke, you were in New York flogging your novel Beatlebone. Remember?

Kevin Barry: Yes, of course, in Washington Square Park. October of 2015 it would have been.

TM: I remember a couple of things about that day, Kevin. First of all, we talked about places, and you said your books come from the reverberations given off by a place, and a specific place is the beginning of all your books. In Night Boat to Tangier, the most prominent place is the Spanish port of Algeciras, where our Irish drug-runner buddies Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are waiting for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly. Have you been to Algeciras?

KB: I have, I have. The first time I passed through was 1991 en route to Tangier, for largely William Burroughs-related reasons. I would have been 20, 21, and big into the whole Burroughs thing at that age. So I went to Tangier and stayed in the hotel where he wrote Naked Lunch, and all that. Afterwards I had a much stronger memory of Algeciras, which is a gloriously seedy kind of town. Something about the place just seemed to offer itself up to fiction. I’ve been back many times; I go to Spain a lot. I go during the winter here. January and February, the west of Ireland is just a fucken swamp and it’s gray and dark and creative energy goes down. Since the winter of 1999 I’ve been escaping for however long I can afford, for a few days, a few weeks, even a coupla months to the south of Spain, just kind of mooching about these little cities.

TM: What was it about Algeciras, though? The seediness of it? The history? The bones in the ground?

KB: Like with all novelists, it was two things combining. I had these two characters in my mind that kept showing up, Maurice and Charlie, and I knew that having gone to Spain so often for so many years, I wanted to write a Spain book, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it—until I had a blinding flash of inspiration one day: what if I just put those two Cork gangsters down there? So I just sent them down there. It’s weird, you only figure out stuff about a novel after you’ve finished it and start talking about it. It strikes me that the movement of this book is directly the reverse of my earlier novels, City of Bohane and Beatlebone. Both of those books started out offering a kind of realism but then very quickly went into fantastical territory. This one is the opposite. It starts out with this highly theatrical premise, but it kind of moves toward realism as we go through the book. You become kinder to your characters as you get older. This is a very different treatment of this story than I would have written 10 years ago. I guess that’s the start of any long story or novel or script or whatever, what you’re doing really, as a writer, is you’re giving yourself a problem and asking yourself if you can fix this problem in 220 pages, or whatever it is. And the problem I gave myself at the start here was, I have to make the reader not just vaguely sympathize with these two guys, but I want to make the reader love them and buy into their world. As desperate and as dangerous and as dark a pair of individuals as they are, I want to see if I can sell their soul and their spirit to the reader.

TM: Another thing I remember from our conversation in Washington Square Park was that I asked you that obligatory, ridiculous question: What are you working on next? And you told me you thought you were going to head back to the fictional City of Bohane. And yet here you wind up in Algeciras, Cork, Cadiz, Malaga, Barcelona, London. Why the detour?

KB: I gave a reading from City of Bohane last year for the first time in eight or nine years. The reading was at the university in Athens, Ga.

TM: My father’s hometown!

KB: It’s a great town. I saw Michael Stipe on the street when I was there. But as I was reading from the novel I thought, wow, there’s great vitality in the language here, but it’s hard to go back. It felt to me very much like a first novel, in terms of the way it was structured. What you have to figure out as a writer often is what projects should be on your desk at a particular time in your life. I had thought vaguely of going back to the City of Bohane, but I thought, no, let’s do other things. Somebody said once that the great enemy of a good idea is another good idea. I get that a lot. Notions pile up for stories and books and I kind of jump around. I’m not ruling out going back to Bohane. I’ve talked to people about developing it for TV, but I don’t know that I’d have access to the same language that I had when I was writing that book. It’s quite a young man’s book [laughs]. As fond as I am of it, you change as a writer.

TM: You mentioned the vitality of the language when you were giving the reading in Athens. Night Boat to Tangier certainly has its own vitality. I’d like to read you a couple of short sentences from the novel and then ask you a question.

KB: Okay.

TM: A character walks into a bar here: “The barman is as stoned-looking as a fucking koala.” Here’s a woman: “She had a smile like a home-made explosive device.” And here are two lovers: “They fought like drunk gorillas.” So here’s my question: is there a little workshop at the back of Kevin Barry’s writing studio where he has little tiny precision tools that he uses to carve out these crazy fucking similes?

KB: You did manage to pick one of my favorites in the book, and that’s the home-made explosive device. I think I might have given myself an afternoon off after that one [laughs]. If there’s any writer I sometimes go to for that kind of thing, it’s the very late V.S. Pritchett, who comes up with these really unexpected images all the time. I remain a devotee of his. You know that overused expression, being “on the nose”? And I probably err in the opposite direction because I try to go as off the nose as possible. The reader has to say, “Okay, I can see a smile that could go off like a home-made explosive device.”

TM: You mention Pritchett. As I was reading the book I was thinking of Samuel Beckett, of course.

KB: Sure, Irishmen waiting.

TM: Tell me some other influences on this book.

KB: The playwright I was thinking about mostly wasn’t Beckett, believe it or not, it was Harold Pinter. I really like those early Pinter plays from the early ’60s, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. They’re really funny, but they’ve got great menace like a thread going through them. Those books were close to my desk as I was writing. I was also reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, his Lee Harvey Oswald novel.

TM: I remember we talked about that before—how the Jack Ruby character spoke to you.

KB: Exactly right. Sometimes as a writer you have books that you use like tuning forks. You come across favorite books by favorite writers where you know that the writer’s ear is just completely in. I often go back and read those Jack Ruby sections from Libra because there’s beautiful unexpected comedy in them, and great characterization, and just brilliant dialogue. Sometimes when you’re feeling flat or kind of slow you want to pick up some of the good stuff and remind yourself what the mountain looks like.

TM: You also mentioned that Elmore Leonard is another writer whose dialogue speaks to you.

KB: Oh, for sure. I love Elmore Leonard’s golden period, I’d say from the early ’70s to the early ’80s where he was just on fire, beautiful economy of storytelling and killer dialogue. I’ve always been a reader of crime fiction. I had a long period in my 20s of reading nothing but James Ellroy, which isn’t recommended [laughs]. The problem with reading a writer like Ellroy when you’re starting out as a writer is that the style is so strong and pronounced that you can’t help but ape it on the page. It’s funny, Night Boat to Tangier has elements of a crime novel. My U.S. editor describes it as a book with criminals in it rather than a crime book, and I think that’s kind of right. Especially in the title I was thinking about stuff like Graham Greene’s entertainments, things like Stamboul Train, that vaguely noirish, thrillerish atmosphere rather than plot. I was happy when I came up with the title Night Boat to Tangier. That’s Graham Greene-ish.

TM: Speaking of Graham Greene, I’ve got a question about Catholicism. There’s this description of a bartender in your novel: “He looked as if it were all turning out just as he’d been warned. A Catholic, in other words.” Having been raised Catholic, I can attest that you nailed it there. Were you raised Catholic?

KB: I was, of course. When I was growing up here in the ’70s and ’80s, Ireland was still almost a Catholic monolith. It’s very different now in lots of ways. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but if there’s any Catholicism left in me it’s in my prose style. I’ve got a stained-glass-window of a prose style. I would sometimes love to have a lean, austere, stripped-back Protestant style, but it’s just fucken not in me, man [laughs]. I’m a stained-glass guy.

TM: Your novel’s protagonists, Charlie and Maurice, these guys are a load, and they carry the book on their beat-up backs. But I really fell for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, when she said she’s been listening to the reggae singer Lee Scratch Perry. That man’s a genius. Are you a fan, by any chance?

KB: Absolutely. I would argue strongly that one of the great cultural acts of the 20th century was when Lee Scratch Perry burned his Black Ark Studio (in Kingston, Jamaica) to the ground on the basis that it was possessed by duppies, by evil spirits. And he said, “Okay, I’m going to burn this thing to the ground and move to Switzerland.” I think that’s one of the greatest artistic gestures of our time. I listen to Scratch Perry all the time. But I’ve gotten quite jazzy with age. I listen to a lot more jazz than I used to, one of the reasons being I finally got a nice new record player, so I’ve been buying vinyl a lot and the jazz stuff sounds so good on vinyl. And it’s something I can listen to when I’m working without the distraction of lyrics.

TM: I went to see Scratch Perry perform in New York a few years ago, and I was afraid he was going to be gaga—but he was great! The band was tight, he was coherent, he was on his game.

KB: Yeah, he’s sober. He got off the weed.

TM: Let’s talk briefly about your novel’s form. You mentioned that is starts off in a kind of fantastical way and then becomes more realistic. Throughout, the paragraphs are short, very little punctuation, no quotation marks or dashes to denote dialog. Tell me about these decisions.

KB: This often, for me, is the fun of it and the enjoyment of it. I hate the first draft, it’s really slow and laborious, dragging the stuff out of your darkest recesses. What I tend to do is write long in the first draft so I have a lot of material to start playing with. For me, the fun of it is seeing how much scaffolding I can take away. At least that’s the way I am now as a writer. I probably had more of a maximalist approach when I was writing my first novel. Now I like to see how much of the traditional scenery of a novel I can remove and still keep the heart of the thing beating. I’m moving more toward subtraction than addition at this stage. Which isn’t to say that the next novel won’t be a big and baggy monster. You change all the time.

TM: How old are you now?

KB: I just turned 50. I had that significant birthday in June, and the novel is all about these two guys in their early 50s. It’s about one of those weird constellations that as you age you start to realize that the past isn’t a fixed entity. It keeps moving and shifting and rearranging itself back there. And this is the realization Maurice and Charlie have in the book—that things you thought meant one thing in your life meant something else. And it’s all going to keep moving. In a weird curious way, that’s one of the consolations of age. And also the book is about male friendship, which is written about weirdly rarely. It’s a really interesting subject, and when you’re doing two male friends talking a lot to each other, if you listen to what’s going on just beneath the surface, there are all these power battles.

It became clear to me after a while that what I was really writing was this portrait of a very strange extended family. When these two characters first showed up, they kept trying to get into short stories and they would immediately destroy the story because they’re too big. They were annoying me. I eventually realized I have to give these two fuckers their own thing and figure out who they are. I started off writing a play script but very quickly realized, no, it needed the kind of space a novel allows.

TM: The novel is on the longlist for the Booker Prize, and the shortlist comes out Sept. 3. I’m wondering, are you having kittens or is this just another day in the life of Kevin Barry?

KB: It’s a big prize, and when I was put on the longlist there was a lot more noise around it, much more so than with other book prizes I’ve been involved with. I’ve been mostly managing to distract myself and not think about it too much, but it certainly does creep into one’s thoughts. But it’s really cool for the book. It gives it a good push.

Bonus Link: Bill Morris’s 2015 interview with Kevin Barry that appeared in The Daily Beast.

Fairfield Porter: Artist, Writer, Heretic

In the early 1950s, during the high noon of Abstract Expressionism, the painter Willem de Kooning did something heretical. He started incorporating the recognizable figures of women in his lush, muscular pictures. One fine boozy evening, Clement Greenberg, the don of New York art critics, walked up to de Kooning in the Cedar Tavern and issued what amounted to a fatwa. “You’re dead,” Greenberg told de Kooning. “You can’t paint this way nowadays.”

This decree from on high had an unintended effect on one of de Kooning’s friends and early champions, the figurative painter Fairfield Porter. “I thought, ‘Who the hell is he to say that?’” Porter wrote later. “He said, ‘You can’t paint figuratively today.’ I thought, ‘If that’s what he says, I think I will do just exactly what he says I can’t do! That’s all I will do.’ I might have become an abstract painter except for that.”

Porter did not become an abstract painter. In fact, he never painted an abstract picture, choosing to avoid the revolving fashions of his age—Abstract Expressionism, Pop, color field painting, Minimalism, Conceptualism—and produce figurative paintings with a rigor and single-mindedness that now make him look nearly heroic. As one critic put it, “Porter was not only a maverick, deliberately out of step with his time, but a heretic, who dissented from the central tenet of the credo of his age.” Rather than tapping into the ferment inside him, Porter painted the world around him as he found it—landscapes, houses, the ocean, people, domestic scenes. Rackstraw Downes, a fellow figurative painter and a sharply perceptive writer on art (and a 2009 MacArthur fellow), describes Porter’s still lifes as “the art of painting whatever was left on the table after breakfast, just as it is.” Porter had a maxim that explains this approach: “When you arrange, you fail.” He added, “An artist who seeks subject matter is like a person who cannot get up in the morning until he understands the meaning of life.” Porter’s concerns, as Downes put it, were “informality and the everyday,” not the formal, the composed, the spectacular. Downes notes that Porter admired Boris Pasternak’s poetry, which spoke to “The endless repetition/Of unrepeatable days.” And so, Porter painted what was in front of him, producing a body of work that amounted to an elegant rebuttal of Clement Greenberg’s claim that it was no longer possible for a figurative painter to say anything new. As Porter said of what motivated him: “When a critic suggests that something is not worth doing because it has been done before, he is in effect urging the artist toward one of the more exciting aspects of art, the attempt to achieve the impossible.”

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Porter’s artistic and literary output was merely a reaction to Clement Greenberg. Porter’s work was much more ambitious and organic than that. A telling glimpse of it is now on view (through May 24) at the Betty Cuningham Gallery in New York. This intimate show is most notable for eight smallish oil paintings on canvas board, never exhibited before, that Porter produced late in life while on a teaching assignment at Amherst College. One of the paintings, characteristically, is the unspectacular view out of Porter’s studio window—a snow-covered slope leading up to brick campus buildings fronted by naked trees. Another is a view across a parking lot to a plush carpet of fall foliage. Both are studies for large, major paintings, and as such they provide a window into Porter’s creative method, the way he worked up ideas.

They’re lovely pictures by themselves, but they’re made more lovely by the fact that they are in the act of becoming. The Amherst paintings include a couple of female nudes, plus landscapes and still lifes that verge on the abstract. Rounding out the show are some underworked drawings and a pair of richly worked late paintings—a forest, and a rambling house on a cold spring day—and a portrait of Porter’s son from 1955. The sitter does not look like he’s enjoying himself, but the portrait is a delight.

Porter died in 1975 at the age of 68, but it was not until 1984 that he received his first career retrospective, a massive show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts subtitled “Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction.” Though he may have been underappreciated during his lifetime, Porter was not exactly unknown. He began exhibiting in the early 1950s, and he was an avid museum- and gallery-goer, producing a large body of insightful writing for ARTnews and The Nation that was collected in the 1979 book Art in Its Own Terms, edited and introduced by Downes. In the estimation of curmudgeonly Hilton Kramer of The New York Times, the book placed Porter “among the most important critics of his time.” It’s hard to argue with the assessment. Reading the book is like hanging out with a tuned-in uncle who knows the score and delights in sharing it with you. Porter wrote effortlessly, voraciously, enthusiastically about artists who were then showing—de Kooning and his wife, Elaine; Jasper Johns; Alberto Giacometti; Jane Freilicher; Joseph Cornell; Isabel Bishop; Alex Katz—and he wrote with equal ease and authority about Cezanne, Rembrandt, Whistler, and his personal favorites, Vuillard and Bonnard. Porter exhibited none of the contempt for abstraction that Greenberg and Company exhibited for figurative art. Porter’s tastes were catholic, free of cant and snobbery. He loved making and looking at art, and his writing makes his love infectious. Here’s a typically clear-eye Porter sentence: “A genuine and ordinary reaction to paintings and sculpture, like one’s first impression of a new person, is usually very much to the point.” Here’s another: “The best criticism is simply the best description.” The clarity of his writing style may have come, in part, from the company he kept: among his close friends were the poets James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara. Porter’s wife, Anne, was a finalist for the 1994 National Book Award for poetry.

Betty Cuningham was kind enough to give me a tour of the current show when it opened, and we started off talking about Porter’s achievements as a writer. “His wife, Anne, told me that Fairfield thought he was a better writer than painter,” Cuningham said. Then she led me to the wall of pictures from Porter’s Amherst sojourn, and she said, “They’re slow paintings. I think it takes a long time to see him—the richness of the paint, the clarity, the way he works.” I mentioned the affinities between Downes and Porter—accomplished artists and writers, unapologetic iconoclasts—and she said, “They’re painters who know how to express themselves in words. They’re taking you on a trip through the painting—while trying to find their own way. They both go to a painting with tremendous humility.” Finally, I asked her if she thought Porter’s posthumous reputation has finally caught up with his achievements. “Yes, I do,” she said, “I think he is appreciated.”

I think—I hope—she’s right. The first signs of a reassessment of Porter were the publication of Art in Its Own Terms and the Boston retrospective. They were followed by a well-received biography by Justin Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, which revealed that Porter, despite his privileged upbringing, was no stranger to trauma and misfortune. He was also an avowed opponent of big government, nuclear power, the dehumanizing effects of technology, and, of course, the gospel according to Clement Greenberg. Then came a collection of Porter’s letters edited by Ted Leigh, with an illuminating introduction by David Lehman. And in 2010, the Parrish Museum in Southampton, N.Y., put up a show called “Fairfield Porter: Raw—The Creative Process of an American Master,” a mix of finished, unfinished and abandoned works that revealed how Porter worked. It all adds up to buttress Cuningham’s belief that Porter’s achievement is, at last, appreciated.

Late in the run of the current show, I sat in the gallery and watched people walk in off Rivington Street. They were all shapes and sizes and ages, but I noticed that they all took their time taking in the pictures on the walls. They’re slow pictures. They reward close attention. They’re the work of a heretic who dissented from the credo of is age and, in doing so, gave us art that will last because it is timeless.

Martha Cooper: A Reluctant Icon

1.
This year’s Tribeca Film Festival featured a new category called “This Used to Be New York.” One of the category’s three entries was the Australian filmmaker Selina Miles’s debut feature-length documentary, Martha: A Picture Story, about the renowned street photographer Martha Cooper. As I settled into the screening room, I was feeling anticipation tinged with dread. The anticipation came from my unquenchable hunger to time-travel back to the bunged-up, brawling, beautiful New York City of my youth; the dread came from my fear that this movie was going to be another work of misty-eyed nostalgia. The category title “This Used to Be New York” was the first red flag, and the description of the movie in the festival catalog was the clincher. It read:
Selina Miles’ film is a portrait of photographer Martha Cooper, who, with inimitable energy and a sharp eye, recorded images of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s—eras when the city’s vibrancy was deemed dangerous. Cooper’s images of graffiti and hip hop culture showcased a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.
Wow. I trust you’re beginning to understand my dread. The writer of the above paragraph claims that the city’s vibrancy of the ’70s and ’80s “was deemed dangerous.” Anyone who lived in the city in those years knows there was no deemed about it. The city was dangerous by any definition of the word, whether you define it by the murder rate, street crime, the onslaught of AIDS, the city’s teetering finances, or the countless abandoned and burning buildings. Of course there was an upside to that danger—an untethering of old sexual, social and artistic restraints, a sense that anything goes, a flowering of creativity that Martha Cooper chronicled and that continues to inspire artists today, from those who lived through it to those who were born after it had passed, from Patti Smith to Colum McCann, Will Hermes, Garth Risk Hallberg, and many others.

The writer of the paragraph in the catalog concludes that Martha Cooper’s photographs showcased “a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.” Now we’ve arrived at the true source of my dread: this movie was being offered up in service of the facile cliché that New York City used to be an interesting place but it got bled dry by big money, and all the artists got pushed out when the hedge-funders moved in. As someone who has been struggling to cover grand-larceny New York rents for most of my adult life, I can certainly corroborate that the city is—always has been, always will be—awash in real estate greed. As I write these words, I can look across the street at an ugly new 60-story glass condo tower and, next door to it, a construction site where another one is clawing its way into the sky. These abominations will never stop coming. There are more than 60,000 homeless people in the city today, and a hedge-fund gazillionaire just paid $240 million for a penthouse on Billionaires’ Row near Central Park. So, yes, there is real estate greed and there is obscene money and there is inequality in New York City today, and there is no denying that these forces have had a chilling effect on people struggling to make art. But to say that everyone is wearing a “frozen smile” is just lazy and wrong, and it feeds the blooming cottage industry of nostalgia, which I define as the yearning for a time that never existed, a time when everything was supposedly cheaper, freer, better.

This nostalgia is nothing new. It dates back at least to the 1920s, when Edmund Wilson lamented that rising rents were driving writers and artists out of Greenwich Village, and a much-loved cultural gathering spot called Frank Shay’s Bookshop closed down, possibly because rents were rising and demographics were shifting. The ür-text of disillusionment with New York might be Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” from her nonfiction masterpiece, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The essay was Didion’s take on an old story—how a young person’s infatuation with New York, “the shining and perishable dream itself,” slowly unravels. In 2010, Patti Smith declared, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling…New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find another city.” Three years later, the musician David Byrne wrote a widely read essay bemoaning the way great wealth in the hands of the few was making the city untenable for the many, especially creative people. “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore,” Byrne wrote, “so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.” He described the city as pockets of gated “pleasure domes for the rich” surrounded by the striving 99 percent of the rest of us.

That same year, Sari Botton edited a collection of essays by 28 women that borrowed its title from Didion’s essay (which was borrowed from Robert Graves’s memoir about his life through the First World War). Botton’s book, which carried the subtitle Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, was a string of bittersweet farewells in the Joan Didion mode. Perhaps a tick too bitter, because a year later Botton followed it with a more upbeat collection called Never Can Say Goodbye, which was a string of unabashed mash notes to the city, bearing the subtitle Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. I was particularly taken by Rosanne Cash’s essay, “New York, in the Mirror,” which catalogued the many downsides of New York life today—the crippling cost of living, of course, plus the demolition of cherished places to make way for franchise restaurants and nail salons and condos, the influx of obscene money, the hordes of tourists clogging the High Line. But in the end, Cash realizes she still loves living here. I agree with her conclusion about the recent changes: “It’s too bad, but it’s the way it is.” She might have added: It has been this way since forever, so quit whining and get on with it.

2.
When Martha: A Picture Story started rolling, my dread gave way to delight. Miles had wisely steered clear of the cockeyed nostalgia promised by the catalog notes and instead focused on her subject, a young woman with an unkillable dream of making it as a photographer in New York in the 1970s. There is home-movie footage of a young Martha Cooper in Japan with her husband, where she became fascinated by the subculture of tattooing, then more footage of her prowling the bunged-up and beautiful streets of New York’s Lower East Side and the Bronx in the 1970s, camera in hand. Eventually she got hired by the New York Post, which gave her a license (and a paycheck) to chronicle the life of the streets, from the slums to Central Park. She gained entrée to the crews of artists who were coating subway cars with their rococo, loopy dreams, most notably the underground star Dondi. This, in turn, led her into the nascent world of hip hop, the deejays, break dancers and b-boys who had such an implausibly large hand in shaping today’s global culture. Economic hardship was a constant for Cooper, but she had found her place in the city and you get the feeling she wouldn’t have given it up for anything. Interviewed on camera, Cooper, now white-haired, comes off as intrepid, self-deprecating, very funny, deeply private, and nearly monastic in her devotion to chronicling the life of the streets. “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or an icon,” she says at one point, though she has clearly become both, with fans all over the world. As for New York back in the day, yes, it was dangerous, she says, “but it was actually a great place to explore.” As for what drove her to turn street life into art, she says with a shrug: “I believed in it.” And the subject of her art? “It’s about people who are making New York City their own.”

3.
As it happened, both Miles and Cooper were on hand for the screening I attended, and after the credits finished rolling, they stood at the front of the theater to take questions. A man in the audience asked Cooper if she had visited Brooklyn recently and seen all the fabulous street art sprinkled between all the obscene new condo towers. To her credit, Cooper didn’t take the bait. She said, “I don’t like to look backward. Yes, this city is getting iffy, but there are still interesting things out there. I don’t think gentrification is all good or all bad. I just wish I had gone to Williamsburg and Bushwick and taken more pictures.”

This drew an appreciative laugh. The next questioner asked Cooper if she saw herself as an artist or as an historian and anthropologist. “Now that’s a good question,” Cooper said, clearly implying that the leading question about gentrification was not. Cooper, in her humble way, said she never considered herself an artist. She said she was always more interested in documenting and preserving subcultures that were destined to blaze and then vanish. If nobody documents them, they will not only vanish, they will also be forgotten. History can’t live on memory alone. Without a whiff of pretension, Cooper made her life’s work sound almost like a holy calling. And in doing so, she implied that nothing—not money, not gentrification, not the corporate ooze now overtaking New York—has the power to keep her and her kind from pursuing their calling. I had walked into the theater feeling anticipation tinged with dread. I walked out feeling recharged and reborn. Thank you, Selina Miles. And thank you, Martha Cooper.