Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

For Keeps

Tom Carson revisits a great critic's sprawling career decades after the two of them came up together in the creative world of late seventies New York.

Tom Carson


It would be a considerable exaggeration—and possibly misleading in other ways as well—to say that James Wolcott and I were ever friends. But we did get thrown into each other’s company a lot for a while there in the late ’70s. I was struggling to make a splash in the Village Voice’s pool of juvenile freelance rock critics, and he was the paper’s foremost young Turk—one soon to be Christianized, you might say, by Harper’s and then Vanity Fair. Even though he’d graduated from riffing it up in Bob Christgau’s music section to a slot as the Voice’s attention-catching TV columnist, he still went to a lot of punk shows.

Anyone who was there can tell you that nothing on God’s black-velvet earth was duller than waiting for the headliners to show up. Johnny Thunders obeyed no clock except heroin’s, and his coevals weren’t exactly goaded by the spirit of Chuck Berry’s “Ring, ring, goes the bell.” Since we had to kill time somehow, Jim and I fell into the habit of chatting about our other shared interests, mainly writing (lots of Mailer) and movies (lots of Peckinpah). I learned to steer clear of venting my disenchantment with New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once I found out, seemingly later than everyone else in New York, that Wolcott was her star protégé.

Came a night when a woman we both knew sailed past us at Irving Plaza and then reversed course to veer harbor ward. “You two must be such great pals,” she keened at us. “I always see you gabbing away a mile a minute at these things.”

I was feeling gaudy on one beer. “Oh, no!” I said cheerfully. “We really don’t like each other at all. We just don’t have anyone else to talk to.”

The pause was, well, interesting. Then Jim nodded. “That’s true,” he said, as if a perception of mine had finally impressed him—and walked away. We never exchanged another word. So much for my bit part in Wolcott: The Early Years.

At some other show before then—CBGB maybe?—I remember him dismissively mentioning that publishers were already sounding him out about collecting his pieces. I have no idea why he apparently thought that was ridiculous; the green river of envy coursing through me had already knocked down houses and drowned cows. He wasn’t even thirty yet! If you want a measure of how quickly (and deservedly) Wolcott went electric, all I can say is that, when I succeeded him as the Voice’s TV reviewer—neither the first nor last time I’ve had to vacuum his pixie dust out of my five-and-dime peruke—nobody battered down the door for an anthology of my nuggets.

So, yes: This is a splendidly objective review of Critical Mass. Then and since, Wolcott and I have often written about the same subjects, though he usually got there first, from punk (he was the New York scene’s wittiest and most acute early booster) to TV (people forget how rare it was in the ’70s for a first-rate mind to relish what was still called the boob tube). These days, munching Condé Nast hay in my own paddock of magazine-land, I’ve long since abandoned any delusion that we’re rivals. It’s no fun when only one party conceives of the relationship that way. But if any book could stir up my moldering competitive instincts, Critical Mass is the one.

And after all these years, it just blows to finally acknowledge there’s no contest. Never was. Back in those long-gone Voice days, not a few of us cockily fancied that we were—or were going to be—pretty good. Jim was better.

Since no critic nowadays rates more than one collection—and the few who get even that are usually posh meringue peddlers like Anthony Lane, the world’s most cosmopolitan philistine—it takes some effrontery for Wolcott to kick off the banquet with something he wrote during his abbreviated stint in college. Because the piece in question concerns Norman Mailer’s fabled waterloo on The Dick Cavett Show opposite Gore Vidal in 1971, readers of Wolcott’s 2011 memoir, Lucking Out, can divine its significance for him. It led to the correspondence with Mailer that won him a letter of recommendation to the Voice, all he needed to bail on Frostburg State University for good.

But as the work of a nineteen- or twenty-year-old, “O.K. Corral Revisited” is also maddeningly—that is, impressively—Wolcottian. Maybe it’s a bit overinfluenced by Norman the Great’s tastes in japery, but calling David Frost “analingual” is a pretty bold announcement of a take-no-prisoners agenda. Though Critical Mass’s structure blurs any sense of Wolcott’s development as a critic—the book is organized by topic, not chronologically, leaving Voice throwdowns from the ’70s bumping elbows with Vanity Fair or New Yorker essays dated decades later—the usual “Who do I want to be, really?” apprenticeship wasn’t for him. Wolcott glittered from the start.

The Voice TV column that was the making of him gets short shrift, however. Any critic eyeing whatever passes for posterity has to weigh interest in the bull versus interest in the matador, and Wolcott comes down solidly on el toro’s side with essays on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (hailing a prescient forerunner to today’s meta-TV) and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (deflating Bergman’s not-so-secular sainthood). Yet what the compilation’s readers will never know is how much fun Wolcott was in weeks when nothing consequential was airing; he could be acidulously frivolous about people like the now-forgotten talk-show maunderer David Susskind. No dummy about how to make waves, he attracted the New York Establishment’s interest by ridiculing its sachems.

Wolcott’s Voice coverage of Ye Great Punk-Rock Revolution rates more space in Critical Mass—and rightly so if having an early grip on cultural history’s left buttock, as Mailer might say, is his yardstick for hindsight-worthy inclusion. When relatively few rock crits had stuck their noses inside CBGB, he more or less discovered the Ramones—a claim I’d be happy to retire on in his place—and led the pack in championing Patti Smith.

True, some of his early guesses sound odd. It will be news to Ramones fans that the band’s cartoon attack had no use for “irony or ambiguity,” and the incredible assertion that “the music of the Velvet Underground was in no way formally innovative” just proves that Jim could talk out of his ass as fluently as most of us ex–English majors. Both pieces are landmarks anyway. The latter, “Lou Reed Rising,” pegged the Velvets’ posthumous godhead status at a time when everyone not named Lester Bangs still thought they were a cult band.

You can still catch Wolcott combing the Mailerisms out of his prose. “The heat had perspiration glissading down the curve of one’s back, yeah”—a bit of scene setting in a 1975 take on CBGB’s finest—gave me a smile. But the retrospective New Yorker pieces on punk showcase Wolcott’s own distinctive phrasing in full effect. His recollection of the Sex Pistols as “a loutish crew that looked like a box of bloody Kleenexes” brings back 1977 in all its dank glory (note dual meaning of “bloody”), and his characterization of punk’s attitude to nostalgia—“the soft palm of the dead hand of history”—is bloody beautiful. Still, the pieces collected here display a preference for cultural yesteryears that grows more pronounced as the dates appended to each selection cross over to the new millennium.

Wolcott is a deft, droll guide to TV’s talk-show wars in the ’90s. Gaining acumen with each dissolve, his evolving take on master of the format Johnny Carson creeps fascinatingly from 1979’s standard bohemian disdain, mixed with reluctant respect, to 1992’s sharper, only mildly hipper-than-thou appreciation: “Carson is comedy’s last practitioner of white jazz.” Then comes candid awe at how suavely the “Absent Father” managed his affairs once grumpy Dave, oleaginous Jay, and “herky-jerky jackanapes”—isn’t that perfect?—Conan O’Brien started vying for the throne Johnny mischievously whisked from sight in his final Great Carsoni magic trick.

You get one guess which epigone rates the most affection. When Wolcott calls out Letterman’s “bemused, sarcastic-older-brother side . . . probably about as far as he can be drawn into the family of man,” that may be the closest he comes to openly identifying with one of his subjects. But even by then, he might as well be paraphrasing Edmond O’Brien’s cantankerous line in The Wild Bunch: “It ain’t like it used to be—but it’ll do.”

That brings us to movies, which rate their own section. In the introduction, marveling at his own youthful brio—and why shouldn’t he?—Wolcott singles out his film reviews for Texas Monthly in the ’80s as an early peak: “Those reviews really bammed along, a testament to Pauline’s close-by influence and my own leaning into the windshield as everything came rushing forward.” But he’s hardly the first writer to misjudge what he did best, and Kael’s “close-by influence” strikes me as more Norma Desmond than Glinda. Speaking of “Pauline,” however, Wolcott is at his most human when he cops to one treat he’s denying us. The 1997 Vanity Fair article that triggered his rupture with Kael—without dissing her directly, he went after her (other) acolytes like a gleeful Ishmael mocking the Pequod’s drowned crew—is absent from Critical Mass. As Wolcott explains, it’s “too awful an episode for me to fold into the collection unless I never intended to open the book.” What he doesn’t say and may not know is that he unquestionably improved as a movie critic once he was outside Kael’s shadow.

By April 2002—just months after her passing—he’s confessing his preference for Dirty Harry, a movie she hated, over Taxi Driver,one of her raptures. He’s kiss-kiss-bang-bang right if you ask me, but such heresy would have gotten him booted from the Algonquin PDQ back when Kael used to hold court there. He also parts company with Pauline’s swinging diktats in his extended and astute Vanity Fair reappraisals of Alfred Hitchcock, 1964’s The Americanization of Emily, 1957’s A Face in the Crowd, and (the best one) Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

Then again, those subjects don’t exactly reflect a jagged, broken-bottle engagement with the present tense. If you’ll forgive me for using the green word again, I honestly envy the latitude Vanity Fair gives its star culture columnist to revisit the past when the whim seizes him. But Lord, does it seize him often.

It would be excessive to say that VF has ended up subsidizing Wolcott’s return to midcentury’s cultural womb, not least because the magazine itself exists in no small part to define the contemporary limits of nostalgia chic. (How many more revisits to Camelot can its subscribers take before launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund a statue of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza?) Unlike some aging culture critics, Wolcott hasn’t taken to reanimating the giants whose fee-fi-fo-fums coincided with his own emergence. No She Was a Wild Horse: Patti Smith Reconsidered for him. Instead, he keeps circling back to the midcentury figures whose now-desiccated glory days formed his own notions of glory, not to mention glamour.

Eight aperçu-crammed pages on Warhol hanger-on Edie Sedgwick, anybody? You’ll care if you’re a dweeb over fifty—which I am, but as hobbies go, I don’t get sticky about it. On his blog, Wolcott has been known to boast about how he doesn’t get out much anymore. But maybe he should, going by the one fully reportorial piece here—a sensationally acerbic 1980 Village Voice story on an academic conference featuring, among others, Leslie Fiedler and Dwight Macdonald. (That he treated such lions of midcentury lit crit as prizeworthy figures of fun ends up retrospectively defining his latter-day frame of reference.) For that matter, a few excerpts from Wolcott’s blog work might have added useful leavening to Critical Mass. He can’t avoid the present tense there, and without it, we’re left staring at a book by the preeminent TV critic of his time that barely mentions The Sopranos or Mad Men.

Once we get to Critical Mass’s coverage of literature, I can feel my own bygone youth flash before my now-weary eyes. With the exceptions of Richard Ford, who’s no spring chicken, and Martin Amis, who isn’t either, every writer Wolcott sees fit to go deep on would have been on a circa-1966 list of the usual suspects: Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, Anaïs Nin, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis (Martin’s dad), Johns Updike and Cheever, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac. The Cheever piece is a gem, starting with the top paragraph’s wonderful benediction—“Light a bug candle on the patio in his honor”—and getting better and thornier from there on.

It would benefit from company more varied than Wolcott’s concluding triad of pieces on Mailer, Gore Vidal—a pairing that gives Wolcott back-to-back opportunities to dredge up their face-off on The Dick Cavett Show, clearly his Rosebud if not theirs—and William Styron. Lumpy old Mr. Bill, really? At least Mailer and Vidal have their bravura as public figures going for them to retain some decaying twenty-first-century interest.

In Jim’s shoes, I’d sooner have garroted myself than wrap things up with William Styron. Then again, that’s partly because, for my money, Wolcott is the more valuable writer of the two. To be honest, I’m not sure he and I would like each other any better today than we did in 1979. But I wouldn’t mind waving at him one of these days from our opposite subway platforms, unless I just have.

Tom Carson is GQ magazine's movie reviewer and the author of the novels Gilligan's Wake (Picador, 2003) and Daisy Buchanan's Daughter (Paycock Press, 2011).

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