James Wolcott has a way with words. He can write about many things well. In Lucking Out he writes about his observations of life in New York City in the 1970s, when he was a young writer for the Village Voice and other important New York magazines.
It was a time when New York was changing in many ways. It was violent, vibrant, and buzzing with creative energy. Wolcott made it his job to observe the culture and write about it, generally remaining deliberately away from the center of the action.
The book is often sharp and witty, and some of Wolcott’s stories are fascinating. However, other parts of the book are uneven. Many of the names that he drops and stories he tells are about people who are so obscure now, particularly outside of New York City, that most readers will not find them especially interesting.
The first part of the book deals with Wolcott’s arrival in New York from Maryland at a very young age, landing a job at the Village Voice, and becoming part of the group that surrounded the film critic Pauline Kael, possibly the most influential critic of the ’70s. Through Kael, he meets characters such as Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. Nevertheless, this is the part which will probably fail to engage many readers.
The second part, about the punk scene, is unfortunately quite short, For most readers outside of New York City, or who were not old enough to experience ’70s culture, this will probably be the most consistently interesting part of the book, since Patti Smith, The Ramones, and other inhabitants of famed club CBGB’s who were changing the face of music then have kept their interest for many in subsequent generations.
After this foray into punk, Wolcott rather surprisingly spends the next part of his story talking about porn in New York at that time. It’s rather interesting, but since he was not writing reviews of porn movies, it seems a rather odd thing to focus on. Once again, Wolcott was merely an observer, on the fringes of the degenerate crowd at the porn theaters and avoiding the darker dens of iniquity in the city, so the whole section is interesting but unsettling for little apparent purpose.
Then things really get weird, because next Wolcott moves from porn to ballet. There’s no clear explanation for why.
And that is the core problem with this book. The parts don’t fit together and there’s no effort to try to provide continuity. Perhaps if Wolcott had told us more about himself and his life outside of film criticism, punk, porn, and ballet, more about his own personality and day-to-day existence, that would have helped weave these interests together. But as it is, the only thing they all have in common is that they took place in New York in the ’70s and Wolcott was there, and that is not quite enough.
It’s not a bad book. There is a lot to enjoy here, and some sentences are so well phrased that anyone who enjoys skilled writing will pause in admiration. But in the end, Lucking Out seems to fall short of what it could have been and to leave one with just the slightest sense of disappointment.