The New York Times
City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70sby Edmund White
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In the New Y ork of the 1970s, in the wake of Stonewall and in the midst of economic collapse, you might find the likes of Jasper Johns and William Burroughs at the next cocktail party, and you were as likely to be caught arguing Marx at the New York City Ballet as cruising for sex in the warehouses and parked trucks along the Hudson. This is the New York that Edmund White portrays in City Boy: a place of enormous intrigue and artistic tumult. Combining the no-holds-barred confession and yearning of A Boy's Own Story with the easy erudition and sense of place of The Flaneur, this is the story of White's years in 1970s New York, bouncing from intellectual encounters with Susan Sontag and Harold Brodkey to erotic entanglements downtown to the burgeoning gay scene of artists and writers. I t's a moving, candid, brilliant portrait of a time and place, full of encounters with famous names and cultural icons.
The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review
“[A] moving chronicle…that peacock’s tail, those stag’s antlersthey’re here, to be sure, but so are vulnerability, doubt, failure and long years toiling at the sort of cruddy day jobs that most literary writers know all too well…In City Boy, White is amusing and raucous as ever but he also lets the mask slip…his losses and struggles, as consequence, seems less sculpted, but more real….Some stories don’t need to be embellished to glow.” New York Times Book Review
“An open-throttled tour of New York City during the bad old days of the 1960s and early '70s… it's all here in exacting and eye-popping detail… There is a great deal of sex and gossip in City Boy, but it is also a minor-key account of Mr. White's coming of age as a writer… City Boy is Mr. White's second memoir in three years, and a great deal of his fiction has been autobiographical. You get the sense of a writer slowly peeling his life like an artichoke, letting only a few stray leaves go at a time… This one is salty and buttery, for sure. Mr. White's ''Oh, come on, guys'' meekness has vanished into thin air.” New York Times
“White's reflections on what it meant to be an out 'gay' writer at a time when there was no such thing are valuable and illuminating... We're lucky for [his] pioneering work... White's latest reflection offers a valuable glimpse into the mind of an indispensable writer and critic.” Buffalo News
“Edmund White is no one-trick pony. The prolific novelist, critic, memoirist, gay activist, professor and social aspirant has waded into countless literary and intellectual pools and sent visible ripples through each. White's latest book, a ruminative and rambling memoir of his time in New York City in the 1970s, takes readers on a dime tour through the writer's initiation into circles that spun with such blinding talents as Susan Sontag, Richard Howard, John Ashbery, Michel Foucault, even Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess… City Boy presents an exhilarating sketch of the grizzled, untamed and dangerous way of life that was New York in the 1960s and '70s… His New York was …a place where high and low collided in an irreproducible frisson of ecstatic creativity… White's reflections on what it meant to be an out ‘gay' writer at a time when there was no such thing are valuable and illuminating… We're lucky for [his] pioneering work… White's latest reflection offers a valuable glimpse into the mind of an indispensable writer and critic.” Buffalo News
“The 1960s and 70s were a pivotal time for gay men, a time when homosexuals made history by redefining their role in society at large by standing up for the basic human rights we enjoy today – and then there's all that rampant, unbridled sex on the Chelsea piers. Popular gay historian, novelist, memoirist and survivor Edmund White takes us there in style in City Boy…. In his own classy, restrained, inimitable style, Edmund White presents graceful ruminations on an ungraceful time as one forgotten decade casts a long shadow on the one that followed. Simply put, this book is a gem, and if time travel were indeed a possibility, White would make the ultimate tour guide.” Bay Area Reporter
“Chronicl[es] Gotham's cultural highs and lows during those two heady and iconic decades... fleshing out our notion of how vital a period the '60s and '70s were... Since White is a born raconteur, his gimlet-eyed anecdotes about celebrities of the era are as tangy as blood orange sorbet served after lobster Thermidor... [he] matches his talent for journalism with brilliant imagistic prose.” Gay City News
“A colorfully detailed remembrance…with his novelist's brilliance in turns of phrase in evoking these places, [White] also recalls the many celebrated writers he encountered over the years in his slow climb to writerly success. A special invitation to a world gone by.” Booklist
“Novelist and critic White weaves erotic encounters and long-ago literati into a vast tapestry of Manhattan memories… How he overcame setbacks and confronted his insecurities to eventually write 23 books makes for fascinating reading…White writes with a simple, fluid style, and beneath his patina of pain, a refreshing honesty emerges. This is a brilliant recreation of an era, rich in revels, revolutions and ‘leather boys leading the human tidal wave.'” Publishers Weekly
“A graceful memoir of a decidedly ungraceful time in the life of New York City... A welcome portrait of a time and place long past, and much yearned for.” Kirkus Reviews
“[An] exuberant, thoughtful memoir. ...Ambition, amphetamines, neurosis and an era when New York vibrated with desire combined for heady times in his young life... Sparkling cameo appearances by the likes of Truman Capote, Robert Mapplethorpe and Fran Lebowitz expand the feeling that artistic Manhattan then was a very different place than it is today... White's vivid analysis of his artistic struggles and literary progress during these years is like a master class for other writers... [His] memoir ... has charm to burn.” Shelf Awareness
“City Boy vividly brings to life the sheer squalor of life in 1970s New York... A wonderful raconteur with a well-stocked fund of anecdotes and observations, White's writings reveal much about alliances, alignments, and personalities from a vanished world that still echo strongly in our own.” This Week in New York
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City BoyMy Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s
By Edmund White
BloomsburyCopyright © 2009 Edmund White
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon.
It was a grungy, dangerous, bankrupt city without normal services most of the time. The garbage piled up and stank during long strikes of the sanitation workers. A major blackout led to days and days of looting. We gay guys wore whistles around our necks so we could summon help from other gay men when we were attacked on the streets by gangs living in the projects between Greenwich Village and the West Side leather bars.
The upside was that the city was inexpensive, and Manhattan, especially the part of it below Fourteenth Street, was full of young actors-singers-dancers-waiters who made enough money working their restaurant shifts three nights a week to pay for their acting lessons and their cheap rents. Unlike our hometowns back in the Midwest, where the sidewalk was rolled up at six p.m., the delis and coffee shops were open all night and the bars till four in the morning. That whole army of actor-waiters saw their restaurant jobs as just another opportunity for "scene study" ("Who am I tonight? An Austrian aristocrat who's fallen on bad times? A runaway from an incestuous family in the Tennessee Hills? A Swedish gymnast?"). No matter how big their tips were, they managed todrink them away in a bar after the restaurants closed as they talked excitedly about their art and their loves. Everyone smoked all the time, and when you French-kissed someone, it was like rubbing one ashtray against another.
New York seemed either frightening or risible to the rest of the nation. To us, however, it represented the only free port on the entire continent. Only in New York could we walk hand in hand with a member of the same sex. Only in New York could we ignore a rat galloping across our path and head out for a midnight play reading. Artists on the Lower East Side were recycling the most primitive and worthless materials-junk, really.
But there was also a mandarin New York, a place where painters and choreographers and novelists and poets strove to produce serious art of the highest order. This was an elite group of people, scattered throughout the Village and the emerging neighborhood of Chelsea and the comfortable, kicked-out Upper West Side; in this mandarinate artists and intellectuals still felt connected to the supreme artists of the past, still thought that their work would be the latest installment in a quasi-divine legacy.
I had constant daydreams of meeting Susan Sontag and Paul Goodman. I don't know why I focused on them-maybe because they were so often mentioned in the Village Voice and the Partisan Review but even by Time. He'd written Growing Up Absurd, the bible of the sixties, now largely forgotten (I never read it in any event). How could I have worshipped a man whose work I didn't know? I guess because I'd heard that he was bisexual, that he was a brilliant therapist, and that he was somehow for the young and the liberated. I read his astonishing journal, Five Years, published in 1966, a groundbreaking book in which he openly discussed paying men for sex and enjoying anonymous sex in the meatpacking district. Today that would seem unremarkable, perhaps, but for a husband and a father back then to be so confiding, so shameless, was unprecedented, especially since the sex passages were mixed in with remarks on culture and poetry and a hundred other subjects.
Sontag was someone I read more faithfully, especially Against Interpretation and even individual essays as they were published.
New York, in short, in the seventies was a junkyard with serious artistic aspirations. I remember that one of our friends, the poet Brad Gooch, wanted to introduce us to his lover, who'd become an up-and-coming Hollywood director, but Brad begged him not to tell us that he worked as a director since Hollywood had such low prestige among us. That sort of reticence would be unthinkable today in a New York that has become enslaved by wealth and glitz, but back then people still embraced Ezra Pound's motto, "Beauty is difficult."
We kept asking in 1972 and 1973 when the seventies were going to begin ...
Then again we had to admit the sixties hadn't really begun until the Beatles came over to the States in 1964, but after that the decade took on a real, definite personality-protest movements, long hair, love, drugs, a euphoria that turned sour only toward the end of 1969. Of course for Leftists the decade began with the Brown v. Board of Education decision and ended with Nixon's resignation in 1974.
I suppose people hadn't really thought each decade should have its own character and be different from the others till the 1920s, although I remember in a nineteenth-century Russian novel someone remarked that a character was a typical man of the 1830s-progressive and an atheist. But at that time it seemed more a question of generations-one belonged to the generation of "superfluous men," for instance, or one was a frivolous, self-indulgent product of the Belle Époque. But certainly in the 1920s, as the idea of the modern became current, every amateur sociologist began to seek out the personality of the dawning decade.
In retrospect we could see that the 1950s had been a reactionary period in America of Eisenhower blandness, of virulent anticommunism, of the Feminine Mystique. I lived through the fifties in the Midwest when everything that was happening-the repression of homosexuality, for instance, the demonization of the Left, the giggly, soporific ordinariness of adolescence, the stone deafness to the social injustice all around us-seemed not only unobjectionable but also nonexistent. Somehow we'd all been led to think that the order of things in the fifties was "natural," eternal and unchanging. The cult books of that epoch were The Lonely Crowd and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
The great triumph of the sixties was to dramatize just how arbitrary and constructed the seeming normality of the fifties had been. We rose up from our maple-wood twin beds and fell onto the great squishy, heated water bed of the sixties.
At the end of the 1970s I wrote, "There was no style for the decade, no flair, no slogans. The mistake we made was that we were all looking for something as startling as the Beatles, acid, Pop Art, hippies and radical politics. What actually set in was a painful and unexpected working out of the terms the Sixties had so blithely tossed off."
Excerpted from City Boy by Edmund White Copyright © 2009 by Edmund White. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
An esteemed novelist and cultural critic, Edmund White is the author of many books, including the autobiographical novel A Boy's Own Story; a previous memoir, My Lives; and most recently a biography of poet Arthur Rimbaud. White lives in New York City and teaches writing at Princeton University.
Edmund White (b. Ohio, USA, 1940) is the author of many critically acclaimed books, the most recent being The Flaneur. He was made an officer in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and won a literary prize from the Festival of Deauville. He now teaches at Princeton University. His acclaimed autobiography, My Lives, was published by Bloomsbury in 2006, while his play, Terre Haute, was published by Methuen Drama in 2007.
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Reviews of books which give it five stars are not very helpful when it is clear that the "reviewer" didn't read the book. But I did read it. It's full of interesting anecdotes from New York's literary and gay history. I enjoyed it a lot. White does not shy from criticizing himself. His experiences provide a window on a scene that most of us could never have experienced.
For openers to readers who opt to add another book by Edmund White to their library comes this quotation from John Irving: 'Edmund White, a master of the erotic confession, is our most accomplished triathlete of prose - a novelist, biographer, and memoirist. Truly, no other American writer of my generation manages to be all three with such personal passion and veracity.' Strong praise from one of the country's finest writers, but in this reader's opinion, well earned. CITY BOY contains every aspect of what we have grown to expect - and yet be consistently surprised at his constancy - from White. His novels - 'A Boy's Own Story', 'The Farewell Symphony', 'The Beautiful Room is Empty', 'The Married Man', 'Hotel de Dream' etc - his well researched, highly regarded biographies - 'Genet', 'Marcel Proust', 'Rimbaud', etc - and his essays and thoughtful meanderings - 'The Darker Proof', 'The Flâneur', 'My Lives', etc - are always delivered with some of the most elegant prose being written today. And the same goes of CITY BOY. Edmund White shares life in that pointedly transitional period of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the country and especially New York City grappled with the unpopular war in Vietnam and the equally unpopular rise of the gay liberation movement. White was present for Stonewall and relates the atmosphere of the streets and the population both before and after. And as if this weren't enough history to essay he adds the changes that were happening in the fields of the arts and of literature. Using a bit of reality as a clever way to focus on the transformation of New York, White shares his experiences with his travels abroad to Italy: his commentary on the rich and famous of Venice, especially the strange creature that was Peggy Guggenheim, is peppered with incidents and alterations of the influences of world events on the people who chronicled them. As part of this memoirization of the times he includes his own frustrations of having his first novel published and the subsequent growth in stature as a writer that he enjoyed. New York changed during this time, for better and for worse, and at the end of the book Edmund White touches on the plague of AIDS that would once again metamorphose the his city and his world. White's gift is to find the balance between sharing information, relate rollicking tales, and find both sides of the masks of comedy and tragedy and present the entire picture for the audience's musing. He is a classy writer, one that never lets the reader down. Grady Harp
By Frank Pizzoli I had the pleasure of interviewing Edmund White in his Chelsea apartment for Lambda Book Report, Summer 2007. Besides reviewing his "Chaos, A Novella and Stories," he vigorously answered questions about 1970s NYC, pre- and post-AIDS, the subject of his newest book "City Boy". Friendly and down to earth (he made us a pot of his favorite tea and served it himself with dried fruit), he is sleepless in his enthusism for his many projects. I felt immediately comfortable in his living room and I'm sure readers, whether from the 1970s era or younger, will feel that same accessibilty. Edmund White Interview available upon request from email@example.com