Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s, by Edmund White

By Eric Banks

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Eric Banks discusses autobiography finalist Edmund White's City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s (Bloomsbury)

If there were a prize for the best opening sentence in a book published in 2009, I’d give it to the one-line paragraph at the start of Edmund White’s City Boy: “In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon.” A sly turn on Swann’s Way’s “For a long time, I went to bed early,” City Boy’s lede is a masterpiece of misdirection–White packed an awful lot of living into the waking hours (you begin to suspect that everyone slept till noon because they didn’t nod off until sunrise). In City Boy, he seems to have made the acquaintance of anybody who was anybody or was at least a quarter of the way to being so, from Mama Cass to Michel Foucault.

City Boy is a funny, gossipy scrapbook of White’s years in Manhattan from his arrival in 1962 up to 1983, when he left what was already a vanishing New York literary culture for Paris. A University of Michigan grad, he lands in Greenwich Village with an “imagination-killing office job” at Time-Life and a complex of a young, self-hating gay man hoping a shrink might set him straight. (“I was a living contradiction.”) Seven years later, he just happens to be on the scene of the cop riot at the Stonewall Inn, and he witnesses the liberation movements that follow. City Boy chronicles that frenetic feverish scene of the long ’70s, a moment roughly squared off by Boys in the Band and And the Band Played On.

In the 1970s in New York everyone also slept with one another, apparently, and when White describes creative Manhattan as a fuckfest, he doesn’t mean it figuratively. But his sketches of the little communities of friendship and love amid the Manhattan ruins are marvelous and moving. Among the shorter portraits of the likes of Harold Brodkey and Elizabeth Bishop, Joe Brainard and Robert Mapplethorpe, are lengthier treatments of two key protagonists of White’s story: his mentor Richard Howard (a picture of eccentric and deep generosity) and Susan Sontag, a bittersweet portrait of a difficult relationship (“She should have been given the Nobel Prize,” he writes. “It would have made her a nicer person.”)

City Boy is a breezy and candid and deeply entertaining memoir of the bankrupt and crime-mad Lindsay- and Beame-era New York and the insanely creative who peopled it. More than that, it’s a self-deprecatingly Proustian account (a weird combo, to be sure) of superserious literary ambition, his own and that of others. Genette famously wrote that the narrative of In Search of Lost Time could be summed up in four words: Marcel becomes a writer. City Boy updates that précis for the sucking-in-the-‘70s New York. Ed becomes a writer.

Click here to watch an interview with Edmund White, from Salon.

Click here for a profile of White by Gaby Wood in The Guardian and to read an excerpt from City Boy