New York Books

Urban Legends

"New York, the crude ground of experience repeating . . . " —Joseph McElroy, Actress in the House


And repeated and repeated in its literature—one full of coincidence, imbued with a collective memory that turns landmarks into metaphors and patois into histories. Maybe it's given us the wrong impression altogether. Maybe New York's become so laden with myth that we can't see it for what it is. But if so, it's a delicious delusion, promulgated by the authors who wrote it, perhaps, unaware of their roles in creating the city they ostensibly described. My dad once asked me, as I stood untrembling in my revolutionary youth, "Why?" "I've been corrupted by literature," I said. So has New York.

Take J.P. Donleavy's A Fairy Tale of New York (Atlantic Monthly, $12, 341 pp.), a hilarious account of an individual's (often successful) attempt to impose his will on the metropolis. You end up thinking you really should be getting laid more often, or wonder why your faux pas are treated so severely. Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West (New Directions, $9.95, 185 pp.), is a primer for Big Bad City disillusionment, unsparing in its portrayal of New York's debilitating entropy. Columbia graduate students who don't already suffer from paranoia may want to try Vendela Vida's And Now You Can Go (Knopf, $19.95, 208 pp.) or Siri Hustvedt's Auster-esque The Blindfold (Picador, $13, 224 pp.). For all questions on the sexes and a year's worth of reading, refer to Joseph McElroy's magnum opus Women and Men (Dalkey Archive, 427.50, 1191 pp.). Frequent fliers between Paris and New York should visit James Baldwin's Another Country (Vintage, $14, 448 pp.) and Henry Miller's surreal Black Spring (Grove, $13, 243 pp.). If you hate your apartment or find your neighborhood depressing, and your life is suddenly spiraling into unforeseen tragedy, try Bernard Malamud's The Tenants (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $13, 230 pp.) or Paula Fox's Desperate Characters (Norton, $12.95, 156 pp.).

Perhaps prefiguring the onset of postmodernism, William Gaddis's The Recognitions (Penguin, $24, 956 pp.) conjures a city both strange and familiar, and its true-to-life dialogue contains one of the first usages of the colloquial like. Find Times Square, like, depressing after its makeover? Contemplate Disneyfication in Nick Tosches's elegy for The Last Opium Den (Bloomsbury, $12.95, 74 pp.), which, according to Tosches, was located at 295 Broome Street (now the site of Amtech Systems). If you still like to think of New York as a great big den of iniquity there's no better trip than Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's punk-punch nonpareil, Please Kill Me (Penguin, $16, 512 pp.). For just the iniquity, try William S. Burrough's unromanticized Junky (Penguin, $14, 192 pp.). Commuters and corporate whores should pick up Something Happened by Joseph Heller (Simon and Schuster, $15, 576 pp.), in which a train-riding exec tragically discovers what's gnawing at him. Writers and friends of writers can learn from Dawn Powell's send-up of the literary set, Turn, Magic Wheel (Steerforth, $14.95, 230 pp.), which she described as "one woman's tragedy viewed through the chinks of a writer's book about her, newspaper clippings, café conversations, restaurant brawls, New York nightlife so that the story is tangled in the fritter of New York—it could not happen anywhere else."

Is the past a part of the present? Or is the present already history? Temporal conflation figures in Caitlin Macy's The Fundamentals of Play (Anchor, $13, 304 pp.) and Harry Mathews's non-Oulipian tale about couples, Cigarettes (Dalkey Archive, $13.50, 292 pp.). Nostalgic odes to the city are everywhere, but the best thing ever written on the subject is Delmore Schwartz's short story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" (In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories, New Directions, $12.95, 202 pp.), in which, long before Bellevue and the straitjackets, he perfectly captured that moment when one realizes that the past is infinitely crueler and more tragic than memory allows.

 
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