File It Under Secular Neglect
James McCourt. Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985. W. W. Norton. November 2003.
There was once an entire opera community in this town that did not merely read the novels of James McCourt, but believed in them. We quoted joyfully from Mawrdew Czgowchwz or Kaye Wayfaring in “Avenged”—his sublime yet irreverent comedies of New York City and Hollywood, movies and opera—applying lines from the books to the events of our lives. “There was some fainting, but it was controlled,” Mawrdew reads, and a friend reiterated it viz a Met Mirella Freni Manon Lescaut I missed. “That woman gives herself airs!” one McCourt character snaps about another; it was repeated to me in the middle of an ACT UP demonstration about (of all people) Nancy Reagan. I bring this up because many of McCourt’s original readership, his true believers, will not be able to savor Queer Street: every member of my own opera circle (for example), aside from myself and maybe one other, missing-in-action devotee, has died.
My old friends are also missing something of a McCourt renaissance after years of neglect. The cover of Queer Street reproduces a 1956 map of lower Manhattan preening and swelling more like a penis than ever. Inside, the memoir / scrapbook / polemic / fantasia, McCourt’s first book of nonfiction, shows a great writer doing what he must when facing problems of perception and recognition: blasting away with every atom in his lexicon. The sheer gall of the thing (and Norton’s right-behind-you presentation of it) awes even this veteran McCourtian. And yet Queer Street is receiving the extended, intelligent, serious treatment hitherto denied this writer, and has already gone into a second printing. Mawrdew Czgowchwz is back (New York Review Books, with a smashing cover and a graceful Wayne Koestenbaum intro); rumors of additional reprints are about. What has changed?
First, what hasn’t: McCourt. He has not become any less difficult: his work is abundant, digressive, non-linear, satirical, incendiary—and more demanding than that of any living American fiction writer except Pynchon. (Cormac McCarthy seems nearly accessible by comparison.) One needs help just to pronounce the title of his first novel (repeat after me: “Mardu Gorgeous”). That book appeared in 1975. Through the years and books since—Kaye Wayfaring in “Avenged” (1985), Time Remaining (1993), Delancey’s Way (2000), and Wayfaring at Waverly in Silverlake (2002)—he has given us some of the busiest talkers in American letters, industrious beings who live to create or to follow those who do. Gossip is manna and menace to all of them, including Mawrdew’s Archbishop of New York City (“His Scarlet Eminence”), who, upstaged by a mysterious opera diva at his own Saint Patrick’s Day parade, “drafty in taffeta on the steps of the Cathedral at Fiftieth Street, that day learned a lesson in humility. (He filed it under ‘Secular Neglect.’)”
In McCourt’s sentences—densely constructed, bristling with imagistic and sonic virtuosity—the fantastic, even the miraculous, might appear like parade floats mocked by wisecracks. (“The Pope saw Christ come and go.”) In none of McCourt will the more demanding passages be preceded and followed by slower, simply cadenced catch-ups (as in Toni Morrison). His great themes are the heroic conduct of life and the saving grace of inspiration and expression—aspects of existence that once mattered to many gay men as much as their sexual desires did.
His characters are outsiders who create their own communities. And they aren’t waiting for mainstream admission; they don’t have time. More than any other writer, McCourt preserves the intense, racy, hidden headiness of gay existence. “Apocryphal tea-room story,” he writes in Queer Street:
In a late-night cop raid, after the opera, the ballet and the theater crowd had long gone home, as the pursued felons dispersed, haring down platforms, leaping over turnstiles, jumping down onto the tracks and disappearing in the tunnels full of sewer rats, where they hoped to be spared death by oncoming local trains, one voice calling wildly, “Stay alive—I’ll find you!”
Fascinating, all of it, but there must be a way to access The Life upstairs in the open air.
The immersion is so quick some readers can sail with it; others need a sextant. A “tea-room story” is one about casual, often public sex, conducted anyplace it’s momentarily private and dark enough to be intimate with someone you’ve perhaps neither met nor spoken to (nor would ever want to) but desperately want to feel. Yet there is more than a history lesson at hand: note the over-the-top “Stay alive—I’ll find you!”—an example of Hollywood recasting the actual, dramatizing it, at a time when gay people felt not real (as in “normal”) but unreal (as in “abnormal”) and so took daily refuge in imitation, dissemblance, and covert sex. Then the narrator mocks the story itself (“Fascinating,” a useful gay putdown, then and now), switching to a near-pleading inference that there is more to these absurd lives, more than being disguised and hunted, more than loving in the dark.
For over thirty years McCourt has been writing of people considered outside the mainstream, whether for what they do sexually, or what they love (opera), or for their politics. (In Delancey’s Way, the only McCourt work to stray from his holy cities of New York and Los Angeles, the title character applies his speed-of-light wit and temper to Washington D.C.’s capital gang living it up during the Clinton Wars.) His writing is not apologetic but impertinent, fearless; he doesn’t resort to the accommodating gravitas of a Michael Cunningham or David Leavitt, the continental dash of an Edmund White. He is, instead, gloriously, all-knowingly out there, never more so than when he exhibits a community fundamental we were Not To Give Away: that unrepentant reveling in what we can really say and do when unfettered, that way we could, sometimes inappropriately, rouse ourselves to fight opponents into a corner and then rear back with an “And I don’t care what you think!” panache. Gays aren’t supposed to shove their indignation and abilities into straight people’s faces—in bed or in literature. Sass, back talk, queer lip—as McCourt demonstrates in Queer Street, these are a license to get locked up:
One had to be cautious whom one cruised on the street as well, as certain grinning souls, eyes merry, would slip the cuffs on (and this not fetish but vocation) at the first hint of suggestion . . . even if, wary from some sixth or seventh sense, one had neither suggested nor hinted . . . . The young don’t believe it, but so it was: you risked a night in stir, a record ever stained, by smiling on the street, especially toward the end of the month when the boys had a quota to fill. It was not ever pleasant. The fear cannot be designated tang.
That much, at least, has changed. When Mawrdew Czgowchwz was published, few noticed its scarcity of out gay characters, or even the very word. That book was aimed for a readership more than likely to be in on its jokes, decipher its lingo, live to a sympathetic rhythm. Although well reviewed, it and later books vanished, partially because few journalists and critics covered them: gay-by-association was until recently a potent weapon—just ask Magic Johnson.
But there is more to this neglect of McCourt. Writers from an excluded group who demonstrate how much better they can write than their alleged superiors are hardly appreciated. Nor has McCourt ingratiated himself to standard-bearers with a compulsively punning, jabbing, wisecracking wit he wields so flawlessly that his edgier passages swish like rapiers. McCourt champions are out there (Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag), but rare. Queer Street’s reviews suggest more of us find homosexuality less threatening these days; so it may be no coincidence that McCourt has produced a new work so candid and comprehensive the rest of his canon may have to be positioned in relation to it.
Aware there is much at stake, the author goes for broke. Like Milton revving up before the Almighty in Paradise Lost, McCourt commences with an Argument: we get the dates, we get the scene, and then are told: “Other voices in other rooms (and often other doorways, other park benches, other lobbies, other cafeterias) constitute the Whitmanian New York topos.” Certain cultural and religious icons are invoked, from Alfred Hitchcock and Leonard Bernstein to Dorothy Day. (“Dorothy, who has the patience of Job fused to the temperament of Medea, does not hate faggots. It is merely that they exasperate her.”) There are also lesser-knowns, like Father Bernard Lynch, who risked Vatican opprobrium to say Mass to unashamedly gay Catholics and people with AIDS, and who was “a gorgeous Irish priest. When cruised in Central Park he would stop, smile and say ‘I’m booked.’ He meant, of course, by the Lord.” Speaking of God, there is the sacred status of Bette Davis and her movies, and constant quotes and poses from both; near book’s end the beatific one puts in an appearance. Divinity equals creative authority in McCourt’s world, and those who invent and have fun with words and actions and art are its initiates.
But for any gay writer, authority must always wrestle with safety, the acquired habit of what Joyce termed silence, exile (from heterosexuality and its discontents, in this case), and cunning. Widening tolerance or no, gay people still conceal themselves to survive. Before, we had to take cover completely, sometimes entering into marriage (or the priesthood) as part of the act, but also by getting out there as if to prove we had nothing to hide: hence the old excuses, “he’s so theatrical” or “she’s a madcap.” Today, the mask is of assimilation, the lengths to which we’ll assure heterosexuals of our unthreatening ordinariness—anything to forestall awareness of fundamental and essential difference, recognition we do things with our bodies the majority doesn’t, or does but finds unholy.
Masks remain the creative vehicle of gay artists. Proust’s Albertine in real life wore a mustache and flew an airplane (crashing, drowning, and emerging from the waves with a sex change once Proust felt the need of a great love). (Maybe Albertine’s discarded penis drifted across the Atlantic into New York waters to wind up on the cover of Queer Street.) The tone of a gay writer’s prose must also bear disguise: whether your readers can handle the truth about how you live and must write bedevils gay writers to this day, spurring all sorts of morbid symptoms. (Consider Dale Peck as a gay Jekyll and Hyde, his fiction assuming the innocent, abused position, the criticism—for want of a better term—the punishing, guilty one.) In McCourt we are hyperconscious of masks: he dons and describes them, fools you into thinking his narrator is not wearing one when he is (or is when he isn’t), doffs and goes eye-to-eye with masks, like Hamlet scrutinizing Yorick’s skull.
Suffering identity loss to find a truer one is a characteristic McCourt destiny. In Mawrdew Czgowchwz, the heroine collapses while singing an opening-night Isolde at the Met, and the book plunges into a dizzying, poignant scherzo of lost identities and attempts at truth (recognition scene parodies included) from which Czgowchwz emerges with “a life as distinct from a career.” Our masks, McCourt believes, needn’t be worn for life—unless it’s through them that we most truly live.
New York has not so much doffed its own masks of sophistication and grace as had them ripped off and replaced by newer yet gaudier façades. Queer Street began as a collection of previously published pieces, but its author soon developed a strategy that seems part Speak, Memory, and part Beckett. Nabokov fled murdered Russia and strangled Europe to America (rewriting himself into English); Beckett emerged first from revolutionary Ireland, then from postwar France (and rewrote himself into French); McCourt hasn’t gone anywhere—but his world also resembles one crumbling, and his language reflects this fall. When his books were new, much of Old New York still set the tone for the city; several years and an orgy of redevelopment and gentrification later, Gotham is a phantom. To resurrect it, at least on the page, McCourt poofs a doppelganger, “QT,” for “Queer Temperament,” a particularly savvy consciousness. (“QT” is also a pun. Judging by the photos in collages deployed throughout the book—designed by Vincent Virga, McCourt’s companion and author of the classic gothic Gaywyck—it’s accurate.)
QT guides us through his five-borough kingdom in his terse but rich voice—“A salon, dear, in Purgatory,” he writes of the baths, “with partitions more palpable than masks. You could pretend you didn’t know who was doing what. You could pretend you knew. Everyone knew.” But there is too much to get in, too many moments, and not enough time; with so much to say QT sometimes resorts to lists, and other voices swirl amid his own in a mediumistic flood. These are true and moving even though in most cases we never know anything about them but their words.
The language of these people whom American literature has seldom bothered to register is so precise and vivid that we read and hear them: the eager young cultural acolyte, the mensch whose hyperbole has been corrupted by advertising lingo (it happened even back then), the cultural encyclopedist who cannot get to revelation without passing citation and quotation, and the simple, unaffected voices of men (women are less frequent) who can stop us dead in the middle of the page with their convincingness. In opera, voice bares the soul; so does McCourt’s writing. This dazzling fluency can swell into a discordant yet exultant community speech: wildly funny, gradually disquieting, yet increasingly beautiful, an auditory resuscitation of the silenced.
For all we have left are these invocation-voices. Maybe you need to have lived through the AIDS epidemic, making daily phone calls to friends or fellow AIDS workers to ask, “Who died last night?” or throwing out another address book freighted with too many dead names, to feel the ache shadowing McCourt’s testimonies. Gay life defies standard memoir protocol: fear of detection and punishment created this life of abbreviated, shrouded relationships with people we cherished even if they were only a face on the opera standing-room line, or a voice (or body) in the dark. McCourt’s composition strategy renders the kind of world this was with uncanny power.
And now it’s over. With the promise of better times, gay people have fled their own culture as if all that was left of it was a charnel house, as if centuries of accumulated identity also perished from AIDS. But however visible we become, we’ll always be an other—and it’s in works of art that this otherness has been articulated most persuasively and permanently. As Proust knew, it’s in art we rescue, confront, resolve whatever escapes or hides from our own lives; and in works like McCourt’s Time Remaining, the life goes on alongside the awareness of its end. Passages on the recent past contend with the accelerating dirge of the falling, and the abandonment of the culture that contained but also supported its denizens. “The whistle of the Train to Hell would sound in the night,” begins a passage near the end of the book, and then proceeds:
Oblivion is not a stop on thought’s train; it can’t be called out. Or, if it is, and can, it’s a terminus you always seem to sleep through—the way I used to sometimes ride back and forth passed out on the F between Delancey Street and 179th in Jamaica. Nor are the Eleven Against Heaven gone anywhere like Oblivion. It still gets me how when I think back, I can think them not yet dead, and if I write this down—although they are dead, as I’ve said right at the beginning—that there will be in the telling a point at which they will not yet have been dead.
Literature is the transfiguring of that telling point, the demonstration that there is more to come after the end of the line. There is a way, after all, to make those voices and jokes and old tunes and times sound again, to keep their defiant gracefulness stirring the night air, and to invoke them not solely for the sake of memory, but for imaginations that otherwise would never know and be enriched by them. Who would have thought the truest American affirmation of Proust’s literary theology would come not from some canonized straight writer but a Broadway baby taught to love on the sly, from an intelligence born in Jackson Heights and raised not only on Dante, Bruno, Vico, and Joyce but the Stonewall Inn (home of the riot), the inside of a paddy wagon (the first mobile tea-room), Douglas Sirk’s spotlit irony, Stephen Sondheim’s astringent harmony, and Bette Davis’s Dark Victory?
Mainstream culture will never be the same—or shouldn’t be: out of the death and oppression only just now in retreat, American literature has on its hands a remarkable and indispensable figure. Whether that literature deserves McCourt—can find a place for a writer this authentic, demanding and rewarding—is another question, one the authority and generosity of even this author cannot turn into a pun or a gag.