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.

Mama Was a Number Runner: On The World According to Fannie Davis

Louise Meriwether’s 1970 novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, is an unflinching portrait of life in Harlem in the starkest year of the Great Depression. Seen through the eyes of a remarkably buoyant 12-year-old girl named Francie Coffin, it’s a world of violence and tenderness, indignities and joys, where despair lives alongside the dream of a big score. In a foreword, James Baldwin, a son of Harlem, wrote that the black-owned daily numbers game that animates the novel “contains the possibility of making a ‘hit’—the American dream in blackface, Horatio Alger revealed, the American success story with the price tag showing!”

Weird words. Yet weirdly apt, I realized while reading Bridgett M. Davis’s scintillating new memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers. The book chronicles the journey of the author’s mother from the Jim Crow South to the industrial cauldron of Detroit, where she arrived in the mid-1950s with an ailing husband and an iron determination to figure out “how to make a way out of no way.” While her husband got erratic work in the city’s auto plants, including a hellish stint as a furnace tender at a General Motors factory, Fannie charted her own course. In 1958, after a harsh introduction to the frigid and unforgiving city, she borrowed $100 from her younger brother to start her own numbers operation, the underground three-digit daily lottery that had spread from Harlem to black communities nationwide, fueled by the Great Migration. That same year, a Detroiter named Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to start a record label that would become Motown.

The World According to Fannie Davis is partly a love letter to a larger-than-life woman and partly an explanation and defense of the “lucrative shadow economy” of the numbers game, which was an ingenious way for African Americans to circumvent the economic barriers white society had placed in their path. Black Detroiters were the last hired and the first fired from the city’s factories, and they were often forced into ratty housing with exorbitant rents. “It’s impossible to overstate the role of Numbers in black culture,” Davis writes, adding that the money generated by these black-controlled enterprises stayed in the black community to help launch “insurance companies, newspapers, loan offices, real estate firms, scholarships for college, and more.” Fannie Davis was known to her loyal customers not only for her honesty—she always paid winners, even when the hits were big—but also for her generosity. She was, in her daughter’s words, “consumer, lender, employer, philanthropist.” She was also a big believer in the importance of dreams, always a rich source of inspiration for players of the numbers.

But the numbers were illegal, and running an operation came with stress. There was the perpetual fear of big hits, of police raids, and, since it was an all-cash and no-tax business, the fear of robbery. Fannie owned two guns, and since secrecy was vital to survival, she drummed an edict into her children: “Keep your head up and your mouth shut. Be proud and be private.” Ultimately the biggest fear came to pass when the state of Michigan decided it wanted in on this lucrative action and, in 1972, created a legal lottery. It’s a testimony to the loyalty of Fannie Davis’s customers that they continued to bet numbers with her, and her operation survived this monster hit. It also offered Fannie an opportunity to philosophize: “Well, we already knew that when white folks want to do something bad enough, they can just create a law to get away with it.” Amen.

The proceeds from Fannie’s flourishing numbers operations allowed her family to live in a rambling house full of fine furnishings and friends and good times. Fannie and her husband John drove nice cars—Buicks, because flashy Cadillacs would have drawn the wrong kind of attention. Bridgett M. Davis describes herself as “a very privileged and spoiled little girl,” a member of what she calls “the blue-collar black-bourgeoisie.” Their west side neighborhood was solid. Diana Ross and her fellow Supremes owned houses just around the corner.

But trouble was in the air, and Davis doesn’t try to sugarcoat her hometown’s exhaustively documented ills. She witnessed the ravages of a declining population and job base, white flight, vandalism, arson, drugs, and violent crime. In the decade after the bloody rebellion of 1967, which left 43 people dead and much of the city in ruins, the murder rate quadrupled to more than 800 a year. The Motor City became known worldwide as Murder City. One of Davis’s brothers slid into heroin addiction, and the entire family felt the “pervasive sense of danger” pulsing in the streets.

This book, for all its abundant strengths, does have flaws. Davis writes that her mother drove a Pontiac Riviera, while GM’s Buick division produced the elegant Riviera. And she describes trips across the Ambassador Bridge to eat at Chinese restaurants in Quebec, while the Ambassador Bridge connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A competent copy editor would have caught such slips, but that doesn’t mitigate the damage they do to a writer’s authority. I’m speaking from experience. In my first novel, a work of realism, I placed the University of Notre Dame in Terre Haute, Indiana, while I’ve known since boyhood that the school is actually located in unincorporated Notre Dame, near South Bend. Nearly 30 years later, the gaffe still rankles.

Davis makes a more serious misstep when she describes “booster” shops, where Detroiters sold shoplifted clothing and accessories in makeshift stores in their basements. “In a city of hustlers,” Davis writes, “where the lines of legality and illegality stayed smudged, these boosters—all women—made good livings, with numbers folks as their key clients. (One booster named her store Jackie’s Finer Designs and she had guards watching customers, to make sure no one stole the merchandise that she had stolen.) I visited a booster’s shop with Mama at least once, but she preferred store-bought clothes.” This passage unsettled on several levels. Yes, Detroit is a city of hustlers where the line separating legality from illegality has always been smudged, but this story seems to elevate booster shops to the level of the numbers game, which fed its wealth back into the black community. Sorry, but boosters were petty thieves looking to line their own pockets. And Davis misses the opportunity to explain why her mother preferred store-bought clothes over boosters’ offerings. Was it a moral stand? Merely a matter of taste and class? Unfortunately, Davis doesn’t say.

But such slips do nothing to dull the luster of this important book. It’s worth noting that Davis’s achievement isn’t arriving in a vacuum. It’s part of a recent crescendo of inspired writing by African Americans about African-American life in Detroit, including Herb Boyd’s superb blend of memoir and reportage, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, Stephen Mack Jones’s bracing debut crime novel, August Snow, Angela Flournoy’s decorated debut novel, The Turner House, and the revelatory plays of recently minted MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau. With her new book, Bridgett M. Davis has started running with some very fast company.

Ferlinghetti at 100: An Appreciation

Yes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive. And yes, he’s still writing, superbly. On the eve of his 100th birthday—it arrives Sunday, March 24—the poet laureate of San Francisco has produced a delightful little mongrel of a book called Little Boy. It opens by lulling the reader into believing it’s going to be a conventional memoir and then–blammo!–it veers into a scintillating free-form riff on…on…on what, exactly? Youth and philosophy and aging and death? Kerouac and Cervantes and Ginsberg and Henry Miller? Yes and no and I can’t say for sure. Here’s a sample that will give you a taste of this autobiographical novel’s delicious heedlessness:
Jack Kerouac and his merry band and not so merry as all that in fact quite the opposite in their imagined quest for you name it an America that no longer existed even as he embarked to find it with his crazy crew oh and it wasn’t just America they were looking for driven as they were by testosterone and the rage of living personified by one Neal Cassady the driven driver of their beat jalopy…
Maybe the best way to appreciate this bawdy, ebullient book’s nearly punctuation-free river of prose is to dip into it at random. Here’s Ferlinghetti on Henry Miller, another writer who lived a very long life:
AND it’s our last Hurrah and keep your pecker up for if you outlive your pecker where does that leave you like Henry from Brooklyn with the great gift of gab who all his life kept it up and wrote great books with it but then kept writing when his pecker couldn’t write anymore like an old fountain pen run dry oh daddy call me a cab…
Here’s a confession: “I was never much of a rebel back then or now.” And here’s a lament: “Oh the time lost and no other memory of it…”

For all its verbal sparks and wordplay, the book provides solid documentation that Ferlinghetti’s was a rich and eventful life. His father died before he was born. His first language was French. “I thought I was Tom Sawyer catching crayfish in the Bronx River and imagining the Mississippi,” he writes, “I delivered the Woman’s Home Companion at five in the afternoon and the Herald Trib at five in the morning…I saw Lindbergh land…I chopped trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps and sat on them, I landed in Normandy in a row boat that turned over…” He also witnessed the devastation of Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb was dropped, an experience that turned him into a lifelong pacifist.

After surviving the Second World War he made his way to California, where he was reborn as a poet and publisher, translator and social activist, promoter of Beat writers but, he insisted, not one of them. “I was never a Beat poet,” he declared in a documentary. But he was certainly a fellow traveler. He was arrested, and later acquitted, on an obscenity charge for publishing a 75-cent paperback copy of Allen Ginsberg’s monumental Howl.

Ferlinghetti, founder of San Francisco’s revered City Lights bookstore, has written more than 50 volumes of poetry, fiction, art criticism, and translation. His best-known book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, has sold more than a million copies, a staggering number. Along the way, Ferlinghetti has become something much larger than a poet or a writer, a Beat or a Buddhist. He’s our longest-living ambassador of the written word, a relic from a time when a certain type of person treated books as sacred objects rather than as products that could be sold at a profit. I realized this way back in the early 1970s, when I was wandering up and down the coast of California, working odd jobs, traveling in a retrofitted pickup with my dog, trying to write an apprentice novel, living out my own Travels With Charley meets On the Road fantasy. Whenever I passed through San Francisco I went straight to City Lights, where I spent countless hours doing something that went way beyond any definition of browsing. I read entire books, in installments, but rarely spent any money because I was always broke. Yet I never once got a filthy look from a clerk when I exited the store empty-handed. It was that kind of place. Amazing to realize the store was already two decades old and that it’s still in business today, nearly half a century later. Only a true believer could create such a cathedral of the written word. Given the staff’s forbearance, it’s a miracle the place ever turned a profit.

That miracle is the doing of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for it. I’m also grateful for his wondrous new book Little Boy, a valediction, a summing up, a rosy exclamation point at the end of a life well lived.

Image credit: Flickr/Christopher Michel.

Literary Obituaries of 2018: Let Us Now Praise the Under-Sung

We’re all aware of the big fish of the literary world who died in 2018—Ursula K. Le Guin, V.S. Naipul, Philip Roth, Anthony Bourdain, Tom Wolfe, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Harlan Ellison and Amos Oz, to name a few. Let us now praise some of the under-sung literary figures who left us. They may have lacked the name recognition of the big fish, but they made rich contributions of their own and they deserve to find new generations of readers. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a highly selective list of a handful of these wonders, several of whom touched my life in deeply personal ways.

Nicholas von HoffmanWhile researching a nonfiction book about the 1970s, I became enamored of a now-forgotten media magazine called MORE, which was a showcase for the acidic journalism of Nicholas von Hoffman, who died on Feb. 1 at 88. The ’70s was a golden age of American journalism—and New Journalism—and von Hoffman was a sort of tarnished knight, always marching against the grain, always pissing people off, from his unlucky targets to his long-suffering bosses. He spent the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, where he insisted on wearing a suit to interview hippies who were zonked out of their skulls on acid. He went on to write for newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, he wrote books and plays, even a libretto. He was famously fired by 60 Minutes during the Watergate fiasco for describing President Richard Nixon as “a dead mouse on the American family kitchen floor. The question is: Who is going to pick it up by the tail and drop it in the trash?” A question worth asking again today! Yet for all the furor he caused, von Hoffman had a refreshingly modest view of what he did for a living. “I think you’re mad if you come into journalism with the idea that you’re going to change things for the better,” he told an interviewer late in life. “I write because I enjoy it.”

William ProchnauBefore writing a novel built around the coup in Saigon in 1963, I immersed myself in the work of a dedicated band of young war correspondents who were telling a very different story from the rosy fantasy the Pentagon and the White House were pedaling about the early progress of the Vietnam War. While doing this research, I got an unexpected gift: a magisterial book called Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles by William Prochnau, who died on March 28 at 80. Himself a war correspondent for the Seattle Times, Prochnau told the story of his colleagues who brought down the wrath of Washington—and, in some cases, the wrath of their own bosses—for daring to tell battlefield truths they were seeing with their own eyes. Prochnau’s book is a portrait of one of American journalism’s finest hours, when Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett, David Halberstam, Horst Faas, Charles Mohr, Neil Sheehan and other courageous correspondents were sounding the earliest alarms that the American misadventure was built on lies and doomed to fail. Their prescience and courage are worth remembering today, when Donald Trump repeatedly derides the press as “the enemy of the people.” As a New York Times reviewer said of Prochnau’s masterpiece: “When all was said and done, in Mr. Prochnau’s view, blaming the journalists was simply a case of shooting the messenger.”

Bobbie Louise HawkinsFor all their wild sad dramas in the spectral American night, the Beats were, with few exceptions, a great big moveable boys’ club. One woman who kicked down the club’s door was Carolyn Cassady, who was married to Jack Kerouac’s roadmate Neal Cassady and wrote about her life. Another was Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who died May 4 at 87. From an impoverished, book-drenched Texas childhood Hawkins joined the Beats’ orbit, spinning out more than 20 books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and monologues. In 1978, Allen Ginsberg recruited her to join the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., where she taught until her retirement in 2010. All along, Hawkins refused to sit in the back seat while the boys did the driving. “People are absolutely willing to let a woman be a muse,” she said, “and that has to be the worst job description in the world. Being a muse means you sit someplace and watch this other person have all the fun.” Among her other achievements was to walk away from an 18-year marriage to the venerable poet Robert Creeley, who dismissed her writerly ambitions. She claimed he tried to convince she was “too married, too old and too late” to make it as a writer on her own. “But,” she added triumphantly after the divorce and the flowering of her career, “he was wrong.”

Elaine MarksonFew writers forget their first literary agent. Elaine Markson, who died on May 21 at 87, was mine. She was the first person in New York to say she believed my writing had the potential to make money, the one thing every writer must hear if he or she is going to continue doing the work. Elaine’s belief meant the world to me—and, I have been told, to the rest of her clients. She was among the first women to own a literary agency, and she became known for promoting feminist authors, though her roster of clients was eclectic. At various times it included Grace Paley, Alice Hoffman, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, and her husband, the experimental novelist David Markson. After Elaine’s death, Hoffman wrote on LitHub: “I was Elaine’s second client. I was a nothing kid from New York, living a hippie student life in California, but to her I was a novelist. Considering Elaine’s faith and confidence, what choice did I have? I came to believe it, too.” And so, thanks to Elaine Markson, did I.

Tom ClarkOne of the unlikeliest pairings in the history of American literature had to be the collaboration between the high-minded poet Tom Clark and the Detroit Tigers’ eccentric pitcher Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, who worked together to produce a book about the pitcher’s sensational but short-lived career called No Big Deal. Then again, maybe it wasn’t all that unlikely. Clark, who died on Aug. 18 at 77, was a serious baseball fan who once said that “the best poems and the best baseball games share a dramatic tension you can’t find in very many other places.” And Fidrych was deliciously nuts. “I’m supposed to be writing a book,” he joked to Sports Illustrated, “and I can hardly read.

But that book was a small piece of Clark’s output. He wrote two dozen books of spare unfussy poetry; biographies of several poets, including Robert Creeley (see the Bobbie Louise Hawkins obit above); a biography of Jack Kerouac. Clark was also a revered teacher, and one of his own teachers, the poet Donald Hall (who died in June of 2018), called Clark “the best student I ever had.” To round out his résumé, Clark served as poetry editor of The Paris Review and once hitchhiked across England with Allen Ginsberg. Much can be gleaned from the admonitions in three spare lines of Clark’s poetry:

Be kind to animals no matter whatListen to the angelTry to look upon death as a friend

Thad MumfordAt a time when nearly all network television writers were white, Thad Mumford crossed the color barrier. Mumford, who died Sept. 6 at 67, started out as a page at NBC while in college, sold jokes on the side to Johnny Carson, and went on to become an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer for shows like M*A*S*H to The Cosby Show, Sesame Street, NYPD Blue, That’s My Mama! and Maude.

Mumford was also hired to write for the ABC mini-series Roots: The Next Generation, a follow-up to Alex Haley’s blockbuster book and TV series. Mumford hoped to work with his long-time collaborator, Don Wilcox, who is white. But the producers fretted, in Mumford’s telling, that having Wilcox on staff would be seen as politically incorrect. Wilcox was willing to forego the on-screen credit and split the money, but Mumford insisted that both writers’ names appear on the credits, and wound up carrying the day. In a later interview, Wilcox called Mumford’s insistence “the bravest thing I ever saw a human being do.” Mumford had a simpler word for it. He called it “decency.”

Ntozake ShangeShe was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, N.J., but when she died on Oct. 27 at 70 she was universally known by her adopted Zulu moniker, Ntozake Shange. She will be remembered primarily for her incendiary, earth-shaking play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, an astonishing performance for seven black female characters dressed in the colors of the rainbow as they deliver scorching monologues on trauma and abuse. The play started downtown before moving to the Public Theater, then Broadway, then PBS and finally became a star-studded film directed by Tyler Perry. No one who saw it will forget it; but not everyone loved it. As Shange said of the uproar surrounding the play’s original run: “I was truly dumbfounded that I was right then and there deemed the biggest threat to black men since cotton pickin’, and not all the women were in my corner, either.”

Shange was no one-hit wonder. She produced 15 plays, 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books and three essay collections. While all women were not in her corner, many were. Shange became an inspiration to a new generation of female African American playwrights, including the MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau, the Pulitzer Prize winners Lynn Nottage and Suzan Lori-Parks, and Anna Deveare Smith, who said of Shange: “She ran her mouth… And even if people thought it was an indictment of men or an indictment of white people, what she brought with her was an incredible love of human beings.”

Jerry ChesnutNo list of literary obituaries would be complete without at least one songwriter. Last year it was Gregg Allman, and this year it’s Jerry Chesnut, who grew up poor in the Kentucky coal fields and went on to write songs recorded by more than 100 artists, including both Elvii—Presley and Costello. Few writers in any genre of pop music have written more bitingly about heartache than Chesnut, who died Dec. 15 at 87. But he also wrote songs about other facets of blue-collar life, including factory workers and truck drivers and a bereft soul who feeds his last dime into a jukebox.

Chesnut’s greatest song might be “A
Good Year for the Roses,” a country hit for George Jones later covered by the
punk star Elvis Costello. It’s told by a man watching his love pack up and
leave:

I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtrayLyin’ cold like you left them,But at least your lips caressed them while you packed.Or the lip print on the half-filled cup of coffeeThat you poured and didn’t drink,At least your thought you wanted it,That’s so much more than I can say for me.

Late in life, Chesnut admitted that he had never heard of Elvis Costello before the song appeared on his Almost Blue album. But when a $60,000 royalty check arrived from the British Isles, Chesnut allowed, “Punk rock? That may be what I am!”

Rest in peace, all of you—the big,
the obscure, the brilliant and the under-sung. Through your words you will live
on.

It’s Time We Started Stressing: The Millions Interviews Earl Swift

With his seventh book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, Earl Swift has hit the trifecta sought by all writers of nonfiction but achieved by very few. The book is the fruit of deep-dive, immersive research; it is deftly written, and it raises questions that affect every person on the planet. Does the human race have the will, or the intelligence, to address the irrefutable fact of climate change? If so, which places should be saved and which should be written off? Who should decide? Who will pay for it?

Swift’s research included living for more than a year on tiny Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, one of the most remote, insular, eccentric—and vexed—places in the United States. During his stay, Swift watched rising sea levels nibble away the island at an alarming rate. Without major governmental intervention—a costly and politically fraught prospect—the island will probably be gone in a few decades. Yet the deeply religious people of Tangier Island, who have lived off the bounty of the bay for centuries, are now staunch supporters of Donald Trump and stubborn skeptics about the science of climate change. They believe their island is succumbing to erosion.

Swift, to his credit, doesn’t judge the 460 citizens of Tangier Island or take sides in the hot arguments over how to address climate change. His book manages to be both dispassionate and full of passion, a soulful portrait of a complicated, endangered slice of America.

Full disclosure: Swift and I worked as reporters at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk in the 1980s, and I’ve followed his career with growing admiration ever since. He spoke by telephone from his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

The Millions: You lived on Tangier Island for, what, a year or so?

Earl Swift: Fourteen months.

TM: So you were embedded, I guess you could say.

ES: Yeah, exactly.

TM: I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the Eastern Shore, and I know just how insular things are there. Tangier Island is the most insular of the insular. People have lived there for generations, everybody knows everybody, everybody’s related to everybody. Did you find a lot of resistance to you as an outsider when you first got there?

ES: This is a pretty media-savvy place. There’s been a steady stream of reporters visiting since the 1890s, and the people are accustomed to them visiting for a day or two and writing kind of the same story over and over again. So it took about a month and a half for me to figure out who my main characters were going to be and for them to figure out that I was not a tourist, that I was actually going to stick around and I was going to do something different. Once they made that turn, they were fully on board.

TM: What was your approach—were you sort of a fly on the wall, like Gay Talese? Were you invisible? Were you participating? I know you went out on the crab boats, but how would you describe your reporting?

ES: I would say it was fly on the wall, but if there was a conversation in the Situation Room (a popular meeting spot), I’d ask questions, and that’s reflected in the book. I wasn’t utterly silent and off to the side and refusing to participate. I lived in Tangier and lived as close to the Tangier lifestyle as I could, tried to insinuate myself into daily life. So I went to church a lot, I went to the Situation Room every weekday and shot the breeze with the old-timers, I went out crabbing and oystering as often as time would permit. I rode my bike around the island talking to people—and that was maybe the most important thing I did, because communication on Tangier is face to face. It’s a place where everybody gets around by golf cart or scooter or by walking, and so a lot of the communication that you participate in is in the form of conversations you have serendipitously when you’re on the road. It’s a society that lends itself to stopping go chat.

TM: And people opened up to you?

ES: Yeah, again it took that month and a half for them to be convinced that this wasn’t the same old same old. Once they became convinced of that, they treated me as a Tangierman. And that was pretty wonderful.

TM: You make a point that I find interesting, that Tangier Island is in effect a factory town, where disciplined people get up at three in the morning, they punch a clock, they produce a product that sells in the market. There’s a great deal of drudgery and physical danger involved, and I got the feeling you developed a lot of respect for the work these people do.

ES: Oh, absolutely. It’s a cross between a factory town and a farm town—maybe farming is just factory work when you get down to it. There’s physical prowess involved in what they do, and no shortage of courage is necessary as well. These guys are going out on big water in little boats, and the weather is not something that can stand in their way, or they don’t eat.

TM: You mentioned going to church a lot. Two things in the book surprised me. One was the deeply religious nature of the people, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me. They’re at the mercy of this tempestuous body of water, so it’s a natural that they would be religious. The other thing is their love for Donald Trump, which led to another surprise—the reaction of outsiders when CNN interviewed the mayor and several Tangier people and it came out that they love Trump and they’re climate-change deniers and they support Trump policies that contribute to climate change, and on and on. One typical reaction was, “They should learn to swim.”

ES: Hateful. Nothing short of hateful.

TM: Did that surprise you?

ES: It shocked me. And I think it shocked them. My politics differ from those of my neighbors on Tangier, but I was surprised by the ferocity, by the petty meanness of the comments. Considering that they were coming from folks who like to think of themselves as the enlightened side of the political divide, it was disappointing as hell.

TM: As I read the book, I sensed three threads. There’s a lot of history of the Chesapeake Bay—even history of the Ice Age, for that matter, and then there’s a snapshot of daily life on a remote, insular place. And the third thread, the elephant in the room, is the challenge of climate change and what’s going to happen. I think the reason the book’s catching on is because it’s raising these questions. I’d like to read a little quote from the book. As sea levels rise and the land sinks, and here’s the quote: “little Tangier is likely to be the first to go. That experience—and the uncomfortable questions it forces the country to confront—will inform what the rest of us on and near the coasts can expect in the decades to come. What makes a community worth saving? What, in short, is important to us?” Have you or anybody else worked out answers to those questions?

ES: I certainly haven’t. We’ve got an issue here that’s going to affect not only everyone in the United States, but virtually everyone in the world in the next 50 years. And there seem to be very few people stressing about it. It’s time we started stressing. The question of how we go about deciding which communities we save and which ones we surrender—and how we decide how to decide, because that’s the truly ugly decision—it’s something we should have tackled years ago. We need to tackle it pretty soon, otherwise it could lead to a great unraveling.

TM: Do you see people asking these questions?

ES: Not at all. And that makes me pretty damn worried.

TM: What do you hope happens with Tangier? Do you think it’s savable?

ES: Sure, it’s savable—with the necessary political will and money. What makes this difficult is that you’ve got to be consistent when you develop a rubric. We don’t have the means to save every place. We’ve got hundreds if not of thousands of towns along the American coastline that are going to be threatened by climate change—not as soon as Tangier, possibly not to the same degree as Tangier, but it’s coming. So we’ve got to come up with a rubric to figure out what do we save, what do we surrender to the sea? We have to be consistent. If we save Tangier, that has to inform what we do in other places. Clearly, there are some places that have the population density that make them no-brainers, like Miami, New York, Norfolk. Then you’ve got other places that are key to who we are as Americans, that we consider sacred ground but don’t have that kind of population. Do we surrender them? Maybe so. Maybe head count is our sole criterion. If it is, it has to be applied uniformly, and we have to go into it knowing we’re going to kiss off a lot of places we hold dear.

TM: Do you put Tangier in the category of sacred ground?

ES: I put Tangier in a category of a place that’s so much an outlier in the American experience that it helps define the limits of what it means to be American. And therefore it’s of great value to us. It’s out there on the edge, the frontier, and because it’s so far out, America’s a more interesting place, more inclusive. It’s part of the spice of the national dish.

TM: There isn’t much time left for Tangier, is there?

ES: I’m guessing by 2038, 2040 it’s going to be a very difficult place to live—if nothing’s done.

Is Baseball What’s Wrong with America?

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I managed to vanish unnoticed from my day job in an office in midtown Manhattan and materialize in the lovely little ballpark on Staten Island, where a minor-league affiliate of the New York Yankees was taking on the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team. Beyond the outfield wall, the Statue of Liberty rose green and glorious out of the harbor and, in the distance, the glass forest of downtown Manhattan shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. The outfield grass sparkled, the foul lines glowed. This was heaven—or at least a major upgrade from my 9-to-5.

The crowd that afternoon was thin. It was, after all, a workday. The box score would claim the attendance was 1,664, which struck me as optimistic, and as I scanned my fellow diehards, I noticed something peculiar: Nearly every fan, myself included, was white. Among the wannabe Yankees and Red Sox down on the field, about half were white and half were Latino. There was only one black player on the field that day.

Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this imbalance if I hadn’t recently read a column in the New York Times under the headline “With a Loud Ovation, Baseball Shows Its Whiteness.” The column told an unsettling story. During this summer’s All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., it had come to light that one of the participants, a 24-year-old white pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers named Josh Hader, has a Twitter account laced with ugly statements written when he was 17 and 18, including “White Power, lol” with a clenched-fist emoji, “KKK,” “I hate gay people,” and repeated use of the N-word. Confronted with the tweets immediately after the game, Hader sort of apologized: “I was 17 years old, and as a child I was immature, and obviously I said some things that were inexcusable.”

The Times columnist, Michael Powell, rightly pointed out that no 17-year-old qualifies as a child. Then Powell delivered his kicker: When Hader strode to the pitcher’s mound in Milwaukee in his first appearance after the All-Star Game, thousands of white fans rose to give him a standing ovation. Powell went on to point out some facts that seemed to jibe with what I was seeing in the Staten Island ballpark. Baseball has fewer and fewer black players, few people of color in its executive offices, and it has the oldest and whitest fan base of America’s three major sports. Black and Latino players are routinely excoriated for wearing a cap backward during practice or flipping a bat in celebration after hitting a home run, while a white player receives a standing ovation after making racist and homophobic remarks. “For far too long,” Powell concluded, “too many baseball controversies have centered around older, white baseball men complaining about so-called insults to the game.” And, by extension, too few baseball controversies have centered around insults like Josh Hader’s—and fans’ reaction to them.

The problem, of course, is that so many of those fans are white and, more to the point, so willing to excuse an offense like Hader’s. Powell quotes Curtis Granderson, a gifted black outfielder now with the Toronto Blue Jays, who sees on a daily basis what I saw that Wednesday afternoon in the Staten Island ballpark: “We play this game, me and other black players, counting the black people in the stands who weren’t working at the game. ‘I see one! No, he’s Latino.’ You’re panning, panning, and sometimes it would take us seven innings to count ten.” With the jury stacked like that, what kind of verdict do you expect for infractions, large or small?

At the time I was learning about Josh Hader, I came upon a book called Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, which provided unexpected context for my uneasy thoughts about baseball’s whiteness. One of the book’s contributors is Ayana Mathis, author of the acclaimed novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. In an essay called “Against Unreality,” Mathis revisits her first encounter with the writing of James Baldwin—the long essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” from Baldwin’s incendiary 1963 masterpiece, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin asserts that the only fact humans have is the fact of death, and that humans should rejoice in the fact of death, should earn their death “by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” Then, stunningly, he adds: “One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return… But white Americans do not believe in death.”

Mathis points out that Baldwin is using white America’s denial of death as a metaphor for a larger and more complex denial: “the denial of reality, racial and otherwise.” And this denial leads to deaths of an even worse sort than physical death because these deaths continue to afflict the living: “political death, spiritual death, psychic death.” This larger denial, Mathis posits, leaves white America prone to nostalgia, which I define as the misguided yearning for a time that never existed. We’ve come, unexpectedly, back to baseball. “The country is prey to nostalgia,” Mathis writes, “which is the ultimate, backward-looking unreality. And also prey to a kind of preservation of a status quo that is also based on a fantasy of the past: a moment in time in which you could keep your factory job forever, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks. Well, that was never the reality of America, certainly never for all Americans. But we move forward, politically and psychically, as though that nostalgic reality was in fact real.”

Yes, that’s precisely how we move forward. This was brought home to me during the seventh-inning stretch at the ballgame on Staten Island. After the fans stood and belted out that harmless bit of doggerel, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the announcer asked everyone to remain standing and remove their hats. Everyone, players included, turned toward center field, where an image of Old Glory started fluttering on the Jumbotron above the outfield wall. Suddenly we were being bombarded by that blast of jingoism, Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” This sent me over the edge. I left my hat on and bolted for the nearest beer stand and stayed gone until the game had resumed. I couldn’t stop the nonsense, but at least I could refuse to participate in it.

As I rode the ferry back across the harbor after the game, I performed an autopsy on my day, which had begun in high spirits and ended in something close to despair. It occurred to me that it was inevitable—and almost too easy—to see the day in the context of our national moment. The standing ovation for Josh Hader comes at a time when the president of the United States refuses to condemn murderous white nationalists—and urges the owners of NFL football teams to fire any player who kneels during the playing of the national anthem to protest police killings of unarmed black people. That president has declared that poverty no longer exists in America. The millions who lap up his exhortation to Make America Great Again are the people who yearn to preserve a status quo that is based on a fantasy that never existed, a time when “life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks.” I have loved the game of baseball all my life, and still do. I object to the uses the game is now being put to—as booster of patriotism, as a smokescreen for “traditionalists” to treat people unequally, as a safe haven for abhorrent behavior. Meanwhile, beyond the outfield wall, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the nation is mired in the two longest wars in its history.

So this is what we as a nation have come to, I told myself as the boat slid past the Statue of Liberty: a nation lost in dreamtime. James Baldwin and Ayana Mathis nailed it. Nostalgia is the ultimate unreality, and yes: The nostalgia-drenched game of baseball is definitely a symptom of what’s wrong with America. But it’s just the beginning of a much larger story.

Image: Flickr/Andrew Malone

A Day in the Life of an Indie Publisher: Akashic Books

At 4:45 a.m., Ibrahim Ahmad’s alarm clock began pouring out the first bars of Leonard Cohen’s “Lullaby”—“Sleep, baby, sleep. The day’s on the run. The wind in the trees is talking in tongues…” With this bit of counterintuitive programming, another long day in the life of an independent publisher had begun.

After a quick breakfast and an industrial-strength quadruple espresso, Ahmad and his wife, Cassie Carothers, left their home in exurban Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and boarded a train that would carry them from the northern fringe of Cheever country to Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan. For many of their fellow commuters, the next hour would be torture or drooling nap time, but for Ahmad, the editorial director at Akashic Books, it was a precious opportunity to focus on his twin passions without interruption: reading and editing. On this Friday morning, he was making a first pass through the manuscript of a debut novel that had landed on the Akashic slush pile.

Husband and wife parted ways at Grand Central—Carothers works for a nonprofit in downtown Manhattan, and Ahmad boarded a subway for Brooklyn. Another precious 45 minutes of reading. By 8 a.m. he was settled at his desk in the Akashic office, a largish room in a repurposed American Can factory, hard by that network of toxic sludge known as the Gowanus Canal. It was time for Ahmad to change hats. For the next eight hours, art would take a back seat to commerce. First, of course, there was the endless river of emails to wade through, which today yielded a pleasant surprise: two Akashic titles had been named finalists for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, which honor writers of color. That merited a full-throated blast on social media. There were also licensing contracts from publishers in Poland and Turkey, a translator’s contract to finalize, overdue invoices to chase down, promotional contacts to consider for the upcoming addition to Akashic’s eclectic, globe-spanning noir series: 90 titles that range from Atlanta Noir to Zagreb Noir. Coming this summer is Baghdad Noir, which has a special place in Ahmad’s heart because he has been nursing this new collection of Iraqi crime fiction toward publication for nearly a decade. There were no scheduled meetings on this particular Friday, but on other weekdays there are regular staff meetings to discuss current and imminent releases, editorial meetings to talk over recent submissions and map out the publishing calendar, and a monthly marketing meeting to plot publicity campaigns. Everyone on the small staff was busy—it’s not the sort of shop where people hang out talking about the World Cup or their weekend at the Hamptons.

When a reporter showed up to interview him, Ahmad happily fixed coffees and repaired to the comfortable chairs in the corner of the office. A person can answer only so many emails without taking a break. Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves that contain every book published by Akashic in its 21-year history, Ahmad talked, in rapid-fire bursts, about the perils, challenges and rewards of being a small independent in a publishing world dominated by a handful of conglomerates on the other side of the East River. In 2013, book publishing’s Big Six became the Big Five when the giants Penguin and Random House merged.

Akashic’s answer to this trend is spelled out on the cover of its current catalog: “Reverse-gentrification of the literary world.” That philosophy is amplified on the catalog’s first page: “Akashic Books is an award-winning independent company dedicated to publishing literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.”

As he sipped his coffee, Ahmad was thinking less grandiose thoughts. “Day to day in the office,” he said, “most of us are working to keep a small business running. Most of what we do is trying to get attention for our books. Should I call NPR for this title? The Wall Street Journal? I have to be thoughtful and selective, but the onus is on us to make sure we’re covering all the bases. The goal is to get the broadest coverage possible, but we have unique marketing plans tailored to every book. The noir series has overt markets, and they’re a great way for us to promote literature in translation that’s underrepresented. Right now for Baghdad Noir, for example, I’m putting together a list of Middle Eastern Studies departments at universities.”

This task was a natural one for Ahmad, the son a Pakistani father and Iranian mother who was born in England, moved to Washington, D.C., at the age of 5, then attended the University of Chicago, where he studied Near Eastern Languages. He already had contacts in mind, some forged during his college years, who might help promote Baghdad Noir.

As Ahmad spoke, the two summer interns, Rachel Page and Abigail Schott-Rosenfield, were doing the glamorous work of putting review copies in envelopes, taping them shut, affixing address labels. Susannah Lawrence and Alice Wertheimer were at their desks, working to expand the mailing list of reviewers, librarians, and booksellers. Impossible to say for sure what Johanna Ingalls, the foreign rights editor, was doing because she works out of her home in Ireland. Aaron Petrovich, the production manager, was at his computer noodling with layouts and cover art for a new children’s book, Party: A Mystery, by Jamaica Kincaid, with illustrations by Ricardo Cortés. Watching them work, Ahmad observed, “One of the distinguishing characteristics of Akashic is our stability as a staff. Our publisher Johnny Temple, Johanna, Aaron and I have all been here for upwards of 15 years. Susannah and Alice started out as interns. That’s so rare. One of the biggest challenges of independent publishing is keeping people for the long term and getting them invested in the company’s vision.” That cohesion and dedication go a long way toward explaining how a small staff can produce 40 quality books a year.

Just then the door opened and in walked Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher and co-founder, dressed in a Brooklyn Book Festival T-shirt, an event he helped establish a dozen years ago. Settling into one of the comfortable chairs, Temple ticked off three things—“irreverence, an attraction to dark themes, a passion for social justice”—that shape Akashic’s aesthetic and set it apart from the Big Five. He added that, growing up in Washington, D.C., he was attracted to African-American authors, including Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. Black writers, both from the U.S. and the Caribbean, remain a staple at Akashic, as do first novels and music-infused books. “We’re doing similar work [to the Big Five],” Temple went on, “but our values are different. With global corporations, it’s all about the bottom line. In the arts, you struggle to find a balance that doesn’t let culture get sublimated to the dollar bill. We want to make money, but I think the big corporations are out of whack. Most novels only sell a few thousand copies, and at a big house those writers wind up feeling like a failure. One of the advantages we have is that given our low overhead, it’s much easier for us to have a success. The money our authors earn is the money the book earns. It’s not a gambling model. We don’t throw things against the wall and hope something sticks.”

Yet Akashic has enjoyed some major successes—artistic and financial. The house’s very first release in 1997, The Fuck-Up, Arthur Nersesian’s grungy picaresque novel set on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, went through three printings. Other solid sellers include Amiri Baraka’s story collection Tales of the Out & the Gone, Nina Revoyr’s novel Southland, and Joe Meno’s punk novel Hairstyles of the Damned. But no Akashic title can touch the sales of Adam Mansbach’s twisted sympathy card to the exhausted parents of young children, Go the Fuck to Sleep. The book became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller in 2011, and promoting it consumed Ahmad’s life for two years. It’s still the house’s top perennial moneymaker, and the steady income gives the Akashic staff the breathing room to experiment and take chances. It also helps fund the fun stuff—annual trips by staffers to book festivals and conventions, including the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, the Winter Institute gathering of indie booksellers, and of course, the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Later, over a leisurely outdoor lunch at a Park Slope café, Ahmad expanded on the business model that sets Akashic apart from other publishers, including many independents. While Akashic author advances are predictably modest—usually under $5,000, rarely more than $10,000—once all project-related expenses are recouped, the author and publisher split profits 50-50, a sharp departure from most publishing contracts. This “profit-split” royalty model was used by Temple’s record label in the 1990s, when he was playing bass with the D.C.-based post-punk band Girls Against Boys (the band still plays occasional gigs). It was then that Temple and Ahmad first met, and soon afterward, Akashic was founded on that music-industry model. Taking the music analogy a step further, Temple said, “Being an independent publisher is like being a deejay spinning the records that people dance to.”

“If a book sells more than 5,000 copies,” Ahmad added, “you start to see the profit accelerate. We stay in business simply by selling books.” He made the point that the enduring success of Go the Fuck to Sleep will be forever cherished by the staff, but it was more a happy accident than the point of the enterprise.

Walking back to the office, Ahmad appeared to be feeling the effects of his post-lunch double espresso. “I have the best fucking job in the world,” he said. “I can do whatever I want, and I’m accountable only to my authors and the people in that office. That’s what it means to be an independent publisher—you’re free to make your own decisions.”

He was ready to spend the rest of the afternoon dealing with the commerce end of the business—emails and contracts and authors and publicity. Then it would be back on the subway with that manuscript from the slush pile, back on the Metro North train, and home to Cheever country, where Ahmad would spend the evening and the weekend doing what he loves most, reading and editing. Then, at precisely 4:45 on Monday morning, Leonard Cohen’s voice would start bubbling out of Ahmad’s alarm clock, and another long day in the life of an independent publisher would begin.

Snapshots of Detroit: The Millions Interviews Dominique Morisseau

The final piece of playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Trilogy, Paradise Blue, is now ending its extended run at Signature Theatre in New York. The trilogy’s earlier pieces, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew, dealt respectively with the city’s bloody summer of 1967 and, four decades later, with the death rattles of the once-mighty auto industry and the Motor City itself.

Paradise Blue unfolds in late 1949 at a nightclub called Paradise, located in the heart of Detroit’s thriving black entertainment district known as Paradise Valley. There’s a cloud hanging over the club and its denizens. The owner, a jazz trumpeter named Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson), is haunted by the ghost of his murderous father, and by something far more palpable. Race-baiting Albert Cobo has just been elected mayor on a promise to rid the city of “blight,” a code word for dilapidated—and vibrant and black—Paradise Valley. During Cobo’s tenure, the neighborhood will be razed to make way for the Chrysler Freeway.

Calamity is always hovering in Morisseau’s Detroit. It takes the form of rioting, a plant closing, the wrecking ball of urban “renewal.” The question in her work is how her Detroiters will retain their dignity and their humanity in the face of forces that yearn to crush them. The Millions spoke with Morisseau by phone from her current home in Los Angeles.

The Millions: As I was watching the play, I couldn’t help thinking that even though this is the third piece of the trilogy, in a way it was the source material. Here we are in 1949, Detroit’s population is at its peak of almost 2 million people, and it’s getting ready for the long slide that nobody knows is coming. It’s going to get a big boost from the newly elected, racist mayor, Albert Cobo. Is this the origin of these three plays?

Dominique Morisseau: Absolutely. I wrote this play at the same time I wrote Detroit ’67. Then Skeleton Crew, the third play in the cycle, was written a couple of years later. But I knew what I wanted to do with all three from the moment I began writing the first one. The order they in which they got produced in New York is its own journey [laughs]. Has nothing to do with the way I created the plays.

TM: All three of these plays spring from very specific moments in Detroit’s history. Detroit ’67, of course, was the bloody summer of 1967. Skeleton Crew was in 2008, when General Motors and the city were about to go bankrupt. And now Paradise Blue is set in 1949. When we talked before, you told me you’re not writing history, even though the city’s history is very much a part of your plays. What exactly are you writing?

DM: I think I’m writing about community, and about family, and about home. I would say maybe it’s taken me a while to embrace history, but that’s not what I started out to do. I was just interested in particular moments, but for me it wasn’t about trying to have a historical agenda. What I’m really writing about is people, and those people transcend the time period they’re in; they even transcend region. I’m writing about humanity, and that’s everybody’s entry point into the plays.

TM: The thing I love about your characters is that they’re very different; they’re very distinct; they’re three-dimensional; they’re not perfect. You said before you’re not writing from a point of judgment but from a point of love. I’m curious where these characters come from. Are they composites of people you’ve known? Are they bits of historical figures? Are they pure fictions? Some combination of all of the above?

DM: All of the above, for sure. I always start with what I know to find my way into someone’s humanity, no matter what their background is. I write some pretty hard-to-love characters.

TM: Blue is not exactly a fuzzy puppy.

DM: For me he is, in some ways. Obviously he’s got a dark side, and I wish we could feel what’s hurting him, because hurt people hurt people. I look at humanity that way. I do look at the hurt that Blue has faced and the abuse he has taken in his life and been a witness to as a black musician in the time period he’s living in. What the character Corn says is the absolute truth—to be brilliant and second-class, you will be insane for the rest of your life. When we were in rehearsal, I would bring up the James Baldwin quote that I love because it speaks to Blue in a lot of ways: “To be black and to be relatively conscious is to be in a constant state of rage.”

TM: And that’s Blue in a nutshell, isn’t it?

DM: Yeah.

TM: You mentioned that August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh cycle was an inspiration to you. Now, you’ve finished this trilogy, which to me is a perfect circle. Does this mean you’re finished with Detroit, or are you going to keep going back there?

DM: I’m never finished with Detroit, but I don’t necessarily need it to be part of a cycle. But there are more stories to tell in Detroit, and I definitely want to tell them. With these three plays I picked moments that really changed the landscape of the city. There are other moments that also did it. There’s one more big event that I didn’t include in the trilogy that I could maybe use.

TM: What’s the moment?

DM: I’m really interested in the newspaper strike that happened in the 1990s. I respect journalists who believe in balanced journalism. I also think journalism carries a huge burden—it can be helpful or harmful. People’s trades really inspire me. There’s something about the tactile-ness of people delivering newspapers, bringing the press to our doorstep. When I was a little girl I didn’t understand much about a strike, but I knew good and doggone well when that strike was happening that we better not have no newspaper. I come from a union family. My father-in-law lost his job at that time and never got it back. Something got severed. From his world and my memories as a little girl, I’m really interested in going back to that time.

TM: Do you think the city of Detroit is really coming back—or is there just a lot of hype about white hipsters moving in and a few pockets of prosperity?

DM: I just got back from Detroit yesterday. My family is all there and I’m dealing with some family health stuff. I’m there often because I’m on the board of the Detroit Public Theater. “Is Detroit coming back?” is a weird question. Coming back to what? I think everybody in the city, especially the people who’ve been there over the past 40 years, would like to see the city thrive. Anything that moves in that direction is exciting to everybody. But anything that disrupts or displaces the people who’ve been there through the turmoil—I think that’s going to feel really nasty. And that’s what it’s starting to feel like. I have about 300 family members in Detroit, and they run the gamut. There are different feelings. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit. There are born-and-raised Detroiters who feel they need to take ownership of their city. Here’s what I can really say. I know people who have moved to Detroit and started a business and they go on social media and say, “Hey, we’ve got this new restaurant, #NewDetroit.” And #NewDetroit really was pissing off #OldDetroit! There’s no bigger way to point out a blind spot over what it means to gentrify. Wait a minute, wait a minute, just wait a minute. If you really want to connect with a community and build within that community, you’ve got to deal with the people who are there. If you want to put a hashtag or a flag down, you’ve got to be really careful that you’re not planting that over somebody’s memories. It’s possible to have development without displacement, but I’m not sure that’s what’s happening in the city.

TM: I’m looking forward to the play about the newspaper strike. You got a title yet?

DM: No [laughs]. I don’t have anything yet. We’ll see if it happens.

The Cockroach Decade

They keep coming – novels, short stories, memoirs, journals, oral histories, documentaries and feature films that feed off the decade that goes by many names. Tom Wolfe called it the “Me Decade.” Martin Amis called it the “Joke Decade.” Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris called it a “Kidney Stone of a Decade.” I call it the “Cockroach Decade”; the 1970s have become an unkillable source of inspiration for writers and filmmakers, the scummy well that refuses to run dry. What is the secret of its durable appeal? The answer, I think, comes in three flavors. 

1. Primary Sources
These are first-person, boots-on-the-ground accounts of how lives were lived in the ’70s or, in some cases, how those lives are remembered from a distance of many years, after the fog of booze and ’ludes has drifted out to sea. There’s a scabrous new entry to this sub-genre called 20th-Century Boy: Notebooks on the Seventies, an eyewitness account by Duncan Hannah, an aspiring painter who arrived in New York from Minneapolis (by way of prep school and Bard College) in the early 1970s and proceeded to take a swan dive into the bubbling downtown scene of art and punk rock experimentation. He drank and drugged heroically, hit every club and party, fucked anything that walked upright (well, in Hannah’s case, anything female that walked upright, since he claims he was 100 percent hetero, to the chagrin of many of the guys.) 

Hannah had the good sense to write everything down “as it happened,” which gives the book its pungent, sometimes sick immediacy. Here, for instance, are Hannah’s thoughts after accompanying an acidophilic girlfriend to an abortion clinic: “After the fifty acid trips this girl had taken from eighth grade on, what would she have given birth to…a fish? Stan Laurel?”

Students of history and fans of Balzac will learn valuable things about how life was lived – and how much things cost – in New York City in the 1970s. It took just $60 to hire somebody to kill somebody. A loft rented for $350 a month. A double feature of foreign films at the Carnegie Hill Cinema cost $1.50. The World Trade Center loomed in the distance “like twin phosphorescent robots.” Fifty-third Street and Third Avenue was the gay hustlers’ corner. The twin lodestars of downtown nightlife were CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where Hannah was a fixture, and farther uptown it was Studio 54, “the elegant playground for the international jet set,” where Bianca Jagger famously rode a white horse onto the dance floor and where Hannah once spotted Truman Capote, pickled on booze and prescription drugs and looking like “a waxwork from Madame Tussauds. A zombie.”   

After a while you begin to realize that this was a small world, virtually a club, and Hannah was able to join it and live the dissolute boho life partly because he was pretty, partly because he had artistic dreams, and partly because he got regular checks from home. The name-dropping gets tiresome eventually, and Hannah comes across, more than once, as a rich-boy dilettante, a trust-fund punk. The club is so hermetically insulated from the outside world that the era’s searing traumas, Vietnam and Watergate, get glancing mention. And here is Hannah’s insight into his struggle to become a painter: “It’s hard.” Such remarks give new depth to the meaning of the word shallow. 

Despite all this, 20th-Century Boy will stand as valuable source material for anyone hoping to understand the 1970s. If it did nothing else, the book confirmed two of my long-held beliefs: that Iggy Pop is a genius, and Lou Reed was a five-star asshole. And it ends almost sweetly, with Hannah’s stubbornly conventional paintings winning him a solo gallery show, where he arrives sober, gets treated like a prince, and actually sells a bunch of pictures. Hannah has come to realize that the coolest thing of all is the courage to do what’s uncool. It’s a grace note of an ending to a long grubby harrowing wallow. Somehow, it feels perfect. 

Hannah, it turns out, is quoted frequently in another primary source from the era, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, first published in 1996, two decades after the facts. Absolutely everybody who was anybody is here, yakking away about the bands, the booze, the backbiting, the brawls, the record deals, the nihilism, the hard drugs, the sex, the joy of making it up as you went along, with no expectations, no limits, no rules. The punk movement, which was never a true movement, took all of five years to eat itself alive. But reading about the cannibalistic banquet is the equivalent of passing a ghastly car crash: you cannot look away.  

A far more expansive primary source is Will Hermes’s superb Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. Using a wider lens than McNeil and McCain, Hermes examines the hot house scenes in the mid-’70s that produced not only punk but also hip-hop, salsa, loft jazz, minimalist operas, superstar DJs. In a review of the book, David Gates echoes one of the lessons from 20th-Century Boy. “Of course we get the headline-news boilerplate: Son of Sam, the 1977 blackout, the opening of the World Trade Center,” Gates writes. “But more important, Hermes gives us a sense of what a small town New York used to be.” 

2. Embellished Experience
Then there are writers and artists who journey back in time, ransack their memories of the ’70s, and embellish them to create a sort of time-lapse portrait. Michael Zadoorian’s fourth book, the terrific Beautiful Music, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that is usually the stuff of first novels. A nerdy white teenager named Danny Yzemski is living with his unhinged widow mom in northwest Detroit in aftermath of the 1967 riot (or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion). It’s 1974 and Detroit has just elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, and racism and the related tensions on the city streets and in the hallways of Redford High School are prompting many white families to pack up and get out of town. Danny’s salvation is his discovery of rock ’n’ roll, which helps him survive tough times in a tough town. 

I called Zadoorian at his home in Detroit and asked him why he revisited the ’70s four decades after his 1975 graduation from Redford High. “I don’t know what drew me to write a coming-of-age story when I was in my late fifties,” he replied. “Maybe it’s a matter of trying to understand your path, this place, the way life was back then, including the toxic things like racism, anger, fear, white people moving out. There’s something fascinating about the ’70s, especially to people who weren’t alive then. Things were so outrageous and ugly that there was an audacity and a beauty to it. It was a time of ferment when the world went kind of crazy. It’s interesting to find those moments in time when things shift.” 

For Zadoorian, one of the most seductive shifts in the ’70s was the music. “I wanted to be unashamed about the music I loved then, including stuff that would be considered crap now – like Foghat,” he said. “Punk rock was a reaction to bloated stadium rock and all the excess.” Joey Ramone addressed this split in Please Kill Me when he compared the making of the first Ramones album with the working method of Fleetwood Mac, the richest band on the planet: 
We did the album in a week and we only spent sixty-four hundred dollars making it – everybody was amazed. At that time, people did not have that much regard for money. There was a lotta money around. Money circulating around for absurd things. Money wasn’t tight yet – some albums were costing half a million dollars to make and taking two or three years to record, like Fleetwood Mac and stuff. 
Another talking head in Please Kill Me is Patti Smith, the poet rocker whose 2010 memoir of the era, Just Kids, won the National Book Award. The book spins around her relationship with a fellow aspiring artist, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, as the two become soul mates, lovers, and each other’s muses. The book stops when they reach the crest of fame – a wave she’s still riding, one that snuffed him out in 1989 when he died of AIDS at 42. 

Spike Lee’s 1999 movie, Summer of Sam, is set in the incendiary summer of 1977, the poster-boy season of the decade, when New York City was bedeviled by a serial killer, arson fires, a blackout, riots, near bankruptcy, the discordant rise of punk and disco – a citywide fever that seemed like it would never break. Here’s how a young woman identified as Keelin remembered that summer for the New York Times: 
What with the heat, the fire hydrants fanning out big sprays across the streets full of sweaty people, the looting, no subways, little work, no elevators, no refrigerators, Son of Sam roaming around, boyfriend sick, and punk rock as sound track in my head, Blackout ’77 was a surreal, fun, scary holiday in New York City during its glorious nadir. 
While Lee’s movie is supposedly about the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, the thing about the movie that sticks with me is its evocation of the era – winking disco balls, easy sex and plentiful drugs, bad fashions, the racist clannishness in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, with Ben Gazzara perfectly cast as the white neighborhood’s Mob boss patriarch. The movie is both a snapshot of a moment in time and an indictment of a timeless American urge: the need to find a scapegoat, to pin blame on someone outside the clan. 

Full disclosure: I, too, got bitten by the Cockroach Decade. Last year I published a nonfiction book called American Berserk: A Cub Reporter, a Small-Town Daily, the Schizo ’70s, which chronicled my time working at a Gannett newspaper in a central Pennsylvania tank town during the Summer of Sam. When I started writing the book, I saw the decade as pure cheese, a grim jumble of water beds, Ford Pintos, shag carpets and shag haircuts, leisure suits made of petroleum-based fabrics, Peter Frampton’s talking guitar, disco, the Captain and Tenille. By the time I finished writing the book, however, my memories and research had helped me realize something Will Hermes and Michael Zadoorian understood from the start. The ’70s was a time of ferment and pushback, the era that gave us Earth Day and the Alaska pipeline, gay rights and women’s rights and Nixon’s call for “law and order,” the grime of CBGB and the glitz of Studio 54, a brief burst of brilliant auteur-driven movies, people scrambling to get on the last helicopter leaving Saigon while others drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown. “Amid the cheese and the kidney stones,” I concluded, “there was a staticy vibe, a disconnect, a dissonance that has proven strangely alluring. The times were anything but homogeneous; they were cracked, crazed, schizo. For some writers – myself included, as it turns out – bad times can be the best times.”  

3. Fruits of Research and Imagination
And then there are those artists who missed the party but are drawn to its irresistible afterglow. One of the most stunning recent examples was 2015’s City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions who was not yet born when many of the depicted events took place. This sprawling, 911-page novel is packed with detail about New York City in the ’70s, including squatters, punk bands, DIY zines, heroin, sexual experimentation, real-estate exploitation, trust-funders in the Duncan Hannah mold, all of it bubbling toward the cataclysmic night of the July 13, 1977, when the lights went out and New York burned. The novel is a stunner, a testament to the power of research fueled by a rich imagination. Reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote, “New York felt empty…and out of control. But, in part because of the collapse, the city also felt open, liberated, available. Anything seemed possible.” Including this magisterial novel, so many years later.    

Rachel Kushner, who was born in 1968, pulled off a similar feat with her 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers. A woman motorcycle racer from Nevada named Reno – “the fastest woman in the world” – lands in the downtown New York art scene of the ’70s and proceeds to paint a fly-on-the-wall portrait of all the hustlers, poseurs, talkers, minimalists, frauds and geniuses. Kushner takes the reader on side trips to World War I battlefields, South American rubber plantations, the gilded enclave of Lake Como, and the violent streets of Rome. There’s a rare fearlessness at work here. As I noted when the book was first published: “Kushner doesn’t just write what she knows; she writes what she knows and what she is able to learn and what she is able to imagine truthfully from all of it.”  

In his 2009 National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, Irish-born, New York-based Colum McCann used Philip Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 as his narrative glue. Around that magical moment McCann spins stories of the interlinked lives of an Irish monk, a Guatemalan nurse, socialites, artists, judges, hookers, the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Vietnam. We travel from the burnt-out Bronx to Park Avenue to downtown and, yes, to Max’s and Studio 54. We’re a long way from Duncan Hannah country; we’re in a time and place that has failed utterly to insulate itself against bankruptcy, crime, grime, racism, abandonment, grief – or the quivering possibility of redemption. The Irish monk might be the perfect emblem of why the ’70s continue to draw us back: “he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.”    

Bringing us right up to date, there were three 1970s-infused premiers at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Mapplethorpe, directed and co-written by Ondi Timoner, is an intriguing new biopic that flips the equation of Just Kids by pushing Patti Smith into the background and making the case that what actually killed Robert Mapplethorpe was his insatiable hunger for fame. The documentary Studio 54, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, attempts to bottle the exuberance and decadence of the famous disco, which led to the downfall of its two creators, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. (In his 2009 book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, Anthony Haden-Guest noted that the guests on the club’s frenzied opening night, April 26, 1977, included Donald Trump and his new wife, Ivana.) And Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, a concert documentary filmed in Los Angeles in 2016, draws its title from Smith’s 1975 album. The iconic photograph of svelte, mop-haired Smith on the album’s cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe. 

So the Cockroach Decade is still alive and very much with us. It was a time when everything was sucky and broken and therefore anything was possible. The stakes were so low that the potential was unlimited – and people were ready to get on and ride. As Ian Schrager said of those pre-AIDS days and nights: “We rode it for all it was worth.” It was this wide-open, anything-goes, more-more-more ethos that makes the ’70s simultaneously so appalling and so appealing. Nothing succeeds like excess; nothing fails like excess. That’s what the decade keeps telling us, and that’s why artists will keep going back for more, more, more.  

Image credit: Wikimedia