Lore Segal, Rudy Wurlitzer, and Luc Sante (Re)visit Those Dazed ’70s


“Lucinella is my name. I wear glasses.” This is how the eponymous protagonist of Lore Segal’s 1976 novella introduces herself, when we meet her upstate at Yaddo. “It’s my first visit here and I’m in love with all five poets, four men, one woman, and an obese dog called Winifred.” In turn, we are in love with Lucinella. She is a poet, “twentyish going on forty.” She likes parties. Clean white bedspreads, men who understand her, and Pulitzers turn her on. Turn-offs include skinny necks, the full moon, and lovers who leave their towels “scrumpled” on the rack. She files her correspondence in a comical array of folders, variously labeled “Friends,” “Acquaintances,” “People I Have Never Met,” “Business,” and “Enemies.” Consequently, the letters she receives move around frequently, and are inevitably lost. Almost always, you can put an exclamation mark at the end of her sentences.

Reissued last month from Melville House, Lucinella is most overtly a literary satire, with a suitably pompous cast that includes Winterneet (the éminence grise, his head, “bald and noble”), Meyers (he of the Pulitzer, inclined to mod tights, “the kind tapestry courtiers wear to hunt the unicorn”), and Betterwheatling (a critic, who else?). As such, the drama is largely the kind that takes place at the New York cocktail hour: Lucinella searches for love, apt metaphors for poems, invitations to still more parties, and the Platonic shelf for her bottle of bourbon.

She’s not presidential material, but our narrator is a congenital optimist—she’s even kind to young Lucinella and old Lucinella, less-polished social entities who hang around a lot and who may or may not be ontologically distinct from plain old Lucinella herself. In this, she’s a lot like her creator, whose lovely apologia for writing a novel about writers comes on the book’s second page. “Pity her, Maurie,” Segal’s heroine says to a magazine editor friend who’s just been immortalized in an ex-lover’s poem. “She’d prefer to write about sorcerers, ghosts, gods, heroes, but all she knows is you.”

At the earlier end of the ’70s stands Rudolph Wurlitzer, the organ heir and novelist and Two-Lane Blacktop screenwriter whose Flats (1970) and Quake (1972) are now being brought back out in a single edition by Two Dollar Radio. Nog, the writer’s 1968 debut—a book that moved Thomas Pynchon to declare “The Novel of Bullshit is dead”—opens with Wurlitzer’s unnamed protagonist hauling an octopus up and down the Oregon coast. Flats has no recognizable milieu at all. In a wracked open area, the horizon “hazed with chemical waste,” characters sporting borrowed names—Memphis, Omaha, Flagstaff, Halifax, Abilene—dully behold whatever objects (e.g., “a small, soft-backed turtle”) happen to wander into sight. Overhead somewhere, a blue light blinks. The sound of an unknown engine comes in and out of range.

“There is no telling,” Wurlitzer writes. “I have no intentions.” Vladimir and Estragon would find Flats‘ terrain a familiar place indeed. So would Robbe-Grillet, whose cycling, mutely descriptive prose and nouveau roman austerity surely formed part of the model for Wurlitzer’s work. Flats is basically one long recursive riff on identity—”Omaha keeps sinking into the first person like warm mud,” complains the writer; there are also moments when that same character “threatens to swing into omniscience.” Who is even talking is anyone’s guess—the book’s narration vacillates between the first and third person, taking up and abruptly chopping different characters, with the occasional detour for a bizarre, contextless monologue: “Bones will save you. Wild onions and mice. Anyone can build a lean-to.” The reader, the writer, and the denizens of this novel all get taken for a ride here, then are set down, slightly more cracked than they were before.

Quake is a comparative breeze. An earthquake, 7.6 on the Richter scale, hits Los Angeles. A survivor stumbles out of the Tropicana hotel. On the pool’s diving board, he makes love to an 18-year-old girl. Next door, a family kicks off an impromptu and incestuous hotel-wide orgy. This is Wurlitzer at his most Pynchonian—groupies, sandals, dudes who play bass guitar and know about “mushrooms and Kundalini.”

Until bloody chaos breaks out, anyway, as all of Los Angeles bands into rival militias that rape, murder, and take captives, among them Quake‘s protagonist, who along the way picks up first a taste for violence and then a mortal wound. The frontier—alluded to in Flats, deconstructed in Wurlitzer’s 1973 screenplay for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and played for laughs in last year’s Drop Edge of Yonder—is again the subject here, posited this time as the place where humans turn back into whatever they turn back into when the marijuana and Social Security run out.

“You have to keep your eye on the past,” Luc Sante once wrote. “Not only is it not dead yet, but it can sometimes jump up and bite you in the ankle.” So give the man some credit for printing up a few hundred copies—if in fleeting, chapbook (read: zine) form—of My Life in Poetry: 1970-1981. Certainly, the author didn’t need to give what amounts to a good part of his youth another shot at disrupting his sleep today.

Juvenilia, sure, but that’s hardly a pejorative. Sante’s My Life—”twenty-four pages, ten poems, profusely illustrated”—includes early verses about being 16 years old and going to the museum, and runs right through the 1981 drug poem “The Holy Ghost.” 1981—that’d put Sante in the New York Review of Books mailroom. And is the excerpt from something called Creation, reprinted here from 1972, influenced by the time Sante spent working at a plastics plant that same year? (“This drumming like tires in an iliad./No free hands forming a human chain.”) Sante, author of the New York vice history Low Life, is very good on the past, not least his own—Kill All Your Darlings, the author’s 2007 essay collection, was, among other things, an ode to Sante’s own checkered back pages.

So the really nice thing about My Life is its concise invocation of 11 years in one downtown guy’s hustle. Contained within are reproductions of old Columbia Review covers, yellowing advertisements for joint readings by Sante and present NYRB star Darryl Pinckney, stray Jim Jarmusch photographs, bygone zines that never got sucked into the Google matrix, a single romantic poem from, yes, 1977, and one from 1980 that tells you all you need to know about that year for the writer, called “I Was Spanking and Freaking at a Disco Place.” Back then, who wasn’t?