color tones

Samuel R. Delany
NYU Press 1999

Word on the inside track is that in the collapsing mountain of publishing there is a decent vein flowing at the moment for novella-length nonfiction. Coates’s BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME showed off the form as a platform for public intellectuals. There was also The Atavist, a post-internet journal of long nonfiction pieces, reporter-at-large or historical narratives, but I think it’s folded and is now a service for slick professionals.

“Extended essay” is the more elegant term Delany uses. His book is about the times square of the seventies and eighties, when it was a place NYC tourists warned you not to visit. The porn theaters which served as cruising grounds for sex play, the small groceries and restaurants around them, the gay bars, the jazz bars, the hustler beats — in Delany’s analysis these were sub-institutions, diverse collections of humanity, which promoted interactions across class boundaries, a source of “intertwined commercial and residential variety to create a vital and lively street life.” All of this was cleared away: Times Square is Disneyfied. Business moves in after vice, but Delany points out that in this case business came long after vice had peaked: there is a risk that these gentrifying forces, without that variety quoted above, will move on to other historically rich urban locales, leaving an art-deco graveyard, a “postmodern superslum.”

The two “Times Squares” are different approaches to this subject matter. “Blue,” which this post will focus on, is a memoir, while “Red” was given as a lecture, is invested in theory and high rhetoric. Delany’s body of critical and creative nonfiction is some of the best post-war literature, and the theorizations of urban spaces in this book and DHALGREN have definitely left a mark in postmodern literary studies.

But that sort of writing is richly juxtaposed with the first extended essay, in which Delany narrates his walking around on Times Square in the present day (the late 90s) meeting some characters, and cueing flashbacks to memorable encounters in the theaters through the prior decades.

He’s a lover of epigraphs, topped only by Vollmann, and here he brings out Nietzsche: “The great epochs of our life are where we win the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.” It’s a gratifying quote in light of queer existence and “family value” rhetoric, and it also primes us in a way for the first figure in the narrative:

Against the subway kiosk around the corner on Forty-second Street and Eight Avenue, Ben still sets up his shoeshine stand, his bottles of polish and cans of stain, his brushes and cloths. Ben’s come-on is much what it was when I first noticed him in the late seventies. For every third or fourth woman in the passing bustle, with or without a boyfriend, it’s “Hey, therebeautiful!” or “Mmmm! Hi, sweetheart!”  (3)

There’s a boundary being tread upon here. “Ben didn’t put it there. But does his witty and always slightly disorienting performance help erase it? Or does that performance inscribe it more deeply?” (5)

Ben, like Bobby, Hoke, Joe “the Mad Masturbator,” are part of a cast of colorful working class folk, the stuff of urban realist fiction from Dickens. It’s this sociological bent within that particular prose form that Delany is tapping into for this memoir.

And what lovely narration it is. There’s Bobby, who doesn’t know his real name, homeless, collecting cans, and an occasional lay for the narrator.

The last time I saw him, sometime in ’87 or ’88, sitting on the island in the middle of Broadway, with his green plastic garbage bag of empty beer and soda cans against his knee, without shoes and wearing a pair of dress pants so tight he could not close the zipper, Bobby — like the soldier of Arete — avowed with as much sincerity as he had the second, the fourth, the sixth time we’d met, and indeed, all three times he’d come to my house, that he had no memory of me whatsoever. (49)

The descriptions above don’t look cluttered at all; an interruptive clause with an allusion separates the subject and main verb “Bobby avowed” otherwise close together, while more language delays the final clincher. Involved, but not precious or overbaked. Whether it’s scenes with various interesting individuals or discussing the actors in the porn films, the prose is pretty much always at this level of quality. It’s like if Evelyn Waugh wrote erotica.



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