It’s not surprising that the most effective sections in James Wolcott’s memoir of the 70s are on Pauline Kael and the beginnings of CBGBs, almost all the attention the book got when it was released was in relation to the recent Kael biography. It’s easy to appreciate Wolcott’s intelligence and his way with a phrase, his constantly inventive and generally witty similes when they’re grounded in a specific narrative, with characters we feel we know (Kael, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, John Cale, David Byrne and Tina Weymouth, Tom Verlaine, Lester Bangs), the insights and stories well chosen to give us a sense of what it was like to be an insider in the creation of mythic cultural tropes (CBGB as the birthplace of the burgeoning American punk scene, Kael as film guru).
But there’s also an awful lot of padding in this book, whole sections in which Wolcott goes on (and on) in his elaborate, often funny, just as often frustrating style, sending out great waves of obfusticating prose in the service of…something, it’s not always clear what. It comes as no surprise late in the book when he owns up to a grudging admiration for John Leonard, a critic whose everything-including-the-kitchen-sink style was surely an inspiration for Wolcott’s. So we get a bizarre interlude about porn in the 70s which seems to be Wolcott’s coming out as a porn addict, but it’s so aestheticized and buried under layers of clever, allusionary prose, it’s impossible to decipher or even much care what he’s going on about.
His obsession with ballet comes off a bit better, though there’s such an air of abashment over it (Look at me, yes, goddammit, I love ballet and I don’t care what the rest of you spittle-covered punk rockers think), it grows tiresome, like that guest at a party trying to convince you of the magnificence (say) of a particular music video by going into over-elaborate detail about every aspect. There are other pleasures here as well, including Wolcott’s early years at the Village Voice and all the various characters moving in and out of his sight-lines, people like Ellen Willis (who he eviscerates both as a human being and an intellect), Robert Christgau (Willis’ boyfriend for a time, he comes off less poorly mostly because he seems such a vivid character, doing group editing from home in nothing but the briefest of underwear briefs, or sometimes completely in the buff, once prompting Lester Bangs to ponder why a specific writer gets Christgau in a speedo while he is forced to bear the man in the full monty) and later Bangs, who seems sad, insecure and terminally, almost inevitably doomed.
It’s towards the end of an unfocused riff on literary criticism (where he ponders what his life might’ve been like as a book critic and informs us of some 70s books he liked and a couple he did not) that he begins to regain his bearings, first delving into Kael’s 1979 foray to Hollywood and then moving on to the fall-out from Renata Adler’s infamous takedown of Kael’s collection of reviews, “When the Lights Go Down,” in The New York Review of Books (“…jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.”) This return to the world of Kael feels like a drink of cool, clear water, back to actual characters and focused prose, and less stylized Anthony Lane noodling in search of a subject.
Wolcott mostly holds his tongue here, though clearly he’s appalled by Adler’s attack, instead concentrating on the debris field, which included Kael’s confidence over her own writing (she complains that Adler is trying to make her overly self-conscious) and a galling realization that there had to have been an awful lot of explicit and implicit approval of Adler’s attack up and down the New York cultural scene, including many of her colleagues at The New Yorker. We acutely feel Wolcott and Kael’s sense of betrayal, but it also sets up a nagging question that hangs over the end of the book. The Pauline Kael Wolcott shows us is smart, vain, imperious, intellectually open and curious, sharp-witted, generous, occasionally vicious (and usually sorry about it later) but at her core a lovely human being; he simply shows us no part of her that might elicit the kind of reaction he details where even Wallace Shawn, the New Yorker editor at the time, is suspected of having given his tacit approval to Adler’s piece.
It is on this low that Wolcott and Kael stumble out of the 70s together. The two of them were in a cab on the night of Dec. 8, 1980 when they heard from the driver that John Lennon had been shot outside the Dakota, and coupled with Kael’s recent estrangement from Woody Allen (over her blistering attack on “Stardust Memories”) and the continued fallout from the Adler piece, Wolcott announces that his 70s are over. He ends the book on some half-hearted Christmas light imagery (“The Christmas lights in midtown looked incongruous, an irony we could have done without.”), a tepid finish to a book that could’ve been a lot sharper – more personal and emotionally involving, less glib – than it is.