A Conversation with Critical Fave (and Fave Critic) Luc Sante


Luc Sante emerges from a slouching row of 19th-century buildings and squints at the sun through small, round glasses. You could mistake him for an architectural surveyor—which he is, sort of. The cultural critic, historian, and prose craftsman remains best known for Low Life, his ultra-vivid channeling of underclass New York City between 1840 and 1919. The book, published in 1991, defined Sante as one of the city’s great chroniclers, a role he reprises briefly in Kill All Your Darlings, a new volume published by indie press Yeti collecting work that appeared in various places (including the Voice) between 1990 and 2005.

The essays cover the waterfront—from the etymology of the word “dope” to Sante’s single-shooter theory on the birth of the blues. But it’s the New York pieces that set the tone. He reflects on his salad days on the Lower East Side during the ’70s and early ’80s, documents the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots, and—ever a connoisseur of con men—offers meditations on two quintessentially New York monsters: John Gotti and Rudolph Giuliani.

Today, however, Sante is in upstate Kingston, New York, where the author recently relocated to the Rondout neighborhood—an out-of-time huddle of dilapidated factory buildings, houses, and rock outcroppings (what he calls “ad-hoc urbanism”) near the banks of the Hudson. Over filter coffee in an apartment decorated with stills from Jacques Rivette’s Céline et Julie Vont en Bateau and a broken Ballantine Ale clock, Sante spoke about various projects, including his translation of Novels in Three Lines by French art critic/editor/anarchist Félix Fénéon and a forthcoming book on Paris. He also spoke about abandoning New York, despite the fact that, as he writes in Darlings, “I was changed forever by it, and my imagination is manacled to it, and I wear its mark the way you wear a scar.”

You write in Darlings about 1970s New York being “a ruin in the making, and my friends and I were camped out amid its potsherds and tumuli.” You also write specifically about the heroin scene, and suggest the steep fall in the price of a bag was possibly caused by real-estate speculation and the fact that it’s easier to evict tenants who are strung out. That’s a startling notion. It was a popular conspiracy theory at the time—I didn’t make it up. There was a Rand Corporation study done of the Lower East Side in the late ’60s that suggested how it could be re-carved into a more upscale district, and this involved the removal of a large number of citizens. This, in conjunction with the epidemic of landlord arson, made people think they were trying to clear the area. And everyone was reading Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, about the culpability of the U.S. in the heroin trade. I’m not going to name names, but let’s just say one of the most visible heroin dealers on the Lower East Side—someone people knew, who would come to your house—was the daughter of a former head of the CIA. Literally. So it may be strictly coincidence, but with the timing of this huge influx of heroin coming precisely when speculators were moving in and trying to buy buildings, everyone was convinced something was afoot.

The book has great essays on cigarettes and on the history of the word “dope.” Have drugs ever been a muse for you, or just a subject to write about? It’s interesting. I mean, they’ve been a fundamental part of my life, as they’ve been for nearly anyone my age—I’m 53—and probably everybody younger and older, too. With heroin, I had this rule with myself that I couldn’t do it more than once a week. Therefore, I never had the problem that a majority of my acquaintances did. I remain a nicotine addict, even though I haven’t smoked in years.

You attended Columbia in the mid-’70s, and moved downtown in ’78. Were you involved with the music scene much? Well, I tried to be a rock critic when I was in high school—I’d send things to Rolling Stone and they’d write me nice letters back, but they’d never print anything. So I gave up on that idea. I didn’t write about music until not that long ago, really. I first went to CBGB in February or March of 1975 to see Patti Smith and Television. And I practically lived there for a couple of years.

You also have a piece about Giuliani. What’s been your take on watching him as a presidential candidate? I have a lot of really rational reasons for not liking Giuliani, but I also have this visceral . . . I dunno, he just fucking enrages me. I keep thinking with a shudder of what I call the Ronald Reagan Principle: The most unlikely right-wing monsters do seem to get themselves elected. He’s a different kind of monster than the ones we’ve had lately. And that’s in part what’s scary about him—he’s a lot smarter than the last number of Republican presidents. I’m gonna make a little voodoo doll and stick it full of pins.

A big chunk of the book is about New York. But you no longer live there. I wrote a lot about New York at first because I wanted to, and then because those were the assignments I got. I still get people asking me to write about New York, which I basically don’t do anymore. For a while, I was consumed by this sort of angry nostalgia, remembering the New York I knew. But now it’s just gone. So I can marvel at what they’re doing to the Bowery and Little Italy, putting up these pocket skyscrapers on these blocks of six-story tenements. Fuck it—let ’em do it. The more they erase my New York, the further it’s emotionally removed from me, the better. Let them turn it into Beijing.

There seem to be fewer opportunities to write about the arts at any length in print media. What have you come across? Do you see good writing coming through the Internet or other places? Well, I don’t keep track the way I used to. And I don’t tend to read extended essays online. I do spend a lot of time on MP3 blogs. I love Moistworks []. These people have really interesting music and information, and they’re also real writers. I’m also devoted to this African-music blog out of Paris called Benn Loxo du Taccu []. And Wax Poetics is one of the few magazines I subscribe to nowadays. To me, it’s the gold standard for pop scholarship.

Tell me about the Paris book you’re working on. Some really crucial, formative experiences of mine occurred there: the first time I was completely taken over by art; the first time I fell in love. So it’s personal, and it’s historical. But I don’t feel a need to write a history, because there are like six million of them. In the same way as Low Life, I’m writing about the things that interest me. And I guess I’ll know a lot more about it when I finish it, because that’s the way I work—I kind of drive blind, and afterwards I figure out what the road map was.