Essays

Writing the City

By posted at 12:00 pm on January 10, 2012 6

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I arrived in New York in 1979, without a literary blueprint. I was a Southern boy, from rural Middle Tennessee (okay, by way of Princeton, I admit). My favorite writers at that time were Dostoevsky and Harry Crews. I didn’t know that a contemporary urban fiction existed. I saw New York at first through my own eyes. It was like Columbus “discovering” America: New York City was a wealth of material, ripe to be exploited, and as far as I knew, nobody else ever had.

cover cover Unemployed and impecunious, I spent a lot of time sitting around Washington Square Park, observing people and events which became fodder for my first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble. My agent, devotedly but quixotically, was determined to get an excerpt into the New Yorker, although, as one of my friends explained, the New Yorker publishes stories about people who live around the edges of Washington Square. To wit, Henry James, whose Washington Square is one of his least difficult works; here James is still operating in the nineteenth century and still writes like Trollope, though with a keener, doubled edge. Aside from the very Jamesian story line, there was something exhilarating in reading about Manhattan still mostly empty, but for wildlife and domestic cattle: “the small but promising capital which clustered about the Battery and overlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated by the grassy waysides of Canal Street.”

A hundred years later when I showed up, Bernard Goetz was shopping for electronics parts on “the grassy waysides of Canal Street,” Manhattan was full up to the neck (not counting the wide swaths of real estate vacated by insurance arson), and dangerous in a way Henry James could not have imagined in the 1880s, when Second Avenue was still the frontier. Threat was the pulse of the whole city; some neighborhoods were safer than others, but nowhere was altogether safe, and I was young and testosterone-poisoned enough in those days to find the situation more exciting than not. They say fiction requires conflict; well, when New York was a war of all against all, you had all the conflict you could handle any time you put your feet on the street.

I was going to write street life, not that that was the only possibility. I wasn’t so interested in “uptown” writers, heirs to James like Louis Auchincloss (admirable as his opus is, and I have since enjoyed it). Thomas Caplan would prove, in Parallelogram, that you could write about New York’s patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book, but that was later, and anyway I was specifically not looking for New York writer influences; I wanted to preserve my illusion that the thing would not be done until I did it.

cover In 1979, I moved over the bridge to the Williamsburg waterfront, a good 25 years before gentrification. The pedestrian walkway had not been caged in, and anyone foolhardy enough to go up there had it entirely to himself, with its astonishing vistas of Manhattan. I worked those views into so many books a friend told me, “that bridge is your white whale.”  In my bed (a foam mat on the floor, that was) I had Cormac McCarthy’s early novel Suttree, set not in New York but in Knoxville, and yet it was the most rich and vivid urban novel I had ever read (over and over for over a year). I cannibalized its style and attitude for my own second novel of the New York understrata, Waiting for the End of the World.

cover By then I felt like I had got out from under the anxiety of influence problem and was secure enough in my own writing that I could afford to look around and see what other people were doing and had done. The vogue at the time was for super-skinny minimalist fiction, heavily influenced by what was later discovered to be a full-on collaboration between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. I tried to care about Carver but couldn’t, just as I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon, and somehow I wanted to read something with more depth and dimension, with red meat on the bone.

cover cover Then, Shazam, there was Mary Gaitskill and her first collection Bad Behavior. These stories were everything the other stuff wasn’t; a mirror of life (for people like me even) in New York in the eighties that captured and reflected everything, with a marvelous, sculptural realism, down to the gum wrapper stuck in a crack on the sidewalk. Gaitskill is a writer to stay with; her masterpiece novel Veronica is much more deeply internalized than those early stories, and still it gives you glimpses of New York City you won’t find anywhere else.

coverBut who was doing the real nitty-gritty? I was beginning to wonder. Hugh Selby for one. Just last week I took Last Exit to Brooklyn on a ride to Fort Greene; the book’s as startling and horrifying as I remembered it, and the writing more sophisticated and just plain better than I remembered it, though at the end of the day the Freudian mechanism driving all that sheer brutality strikes me as a little too much… I like better a couple of other books from the boroughs: Bloodbrothers by the pre-Clockers Richard Price, a novel mostly set in the Bronx, but including some dizzying tours of the Manhattan I was exploring around the same time. This novel reaches the same scary heights of violence as Selby’s, but Price really loves his characters, and his story evokes a sympathetic compassion for them, in the place of Selby’s disgust.

Down in Brooklyn, I discovered Jay Neugeboren in the Williamsburg branch of the Public Library, a curious oasis in what was then a very broad desert of urban blight — and a good shelf’s worth too, Neugeboren being perceived as a local boy. From these books, and especially Sam’s Legacy, I began to learn what kind of civilization had once existed in territory which now looked to me like something out of Mad Max. Sam’s Legacy gives you the old Brooklyn neighborhoods as they begin to crumble, and also this extraordinary lagniappe: an embedded novel with a completely different voice, called My Life and Death in the Negro Baseball League: A Slave Narrative.

cover Robert Stone, a New Yorker born and bred, writes about New York very obliquely (as he wrote about the Vietnam War so elliptically in the classic Dog Soldiers). One doesn’t necessarily think of his solo-sailing extravaganza, Outerbridge Reach, as a New York City novel, and yet the city is vividly present in more than half of the scenes, in most of its variations and many of its different social strata — from the toniest suburbs to the price of a parking place in Manhattan. The book probes the city, embraces it, and surrounds it all at the same time; one of the most memorable bits involves a microcosmic circumnavigation, when the hero Browne sails his catamaran down the Arthur Kill by night, exploring one of the city’s cloaca:

…the hulks lay scattered in a geometry of shadows. The busy sheer and curve of their shapes and the perfect stillness of the water made them appear held fast in some phantom disaster. Across the Kill, bulbous storage tanks, generators and floodlit power lines stretched to the end of darkness.

The richness of this place, and its myriad stories! In the end, one can’t just take them from the city on the cheap. Outerbridge Reach contains another home truth for all writers (though Stone slips it into a filmmaker’s offhand remark). “She told me her stories,” Strickland said. “I had to trade for them with mine.”

Image source: NYC – First Ave & 83, 1983





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6 Responses to “Writing the City”

  1. paula
    at 3:41 pm on January 10, 2012

    Great call about Bad Behavior. I read that book after I moved to New York in 1990- I forget exactly when it came out- 93? Anyway- it was a life changer for me and her other collections and novels are all brilliant in my mind.

  2. Amanda
    at 1:49 pm on January 11, 2012

    Lord have mercy, praise be to Google Alerts. How else would I have found The Millions and you, Ms. Bell? Parallel-ogram is right. I hit NYC in ’77 out of the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC by way of Yale (Left there in ’91, ended up in CA). (BTW, lots of Bells where I was from, Montreat NC. I’m just saying’…)

    I read “Bernard Goetz” above and had to shake myself out of a flashback. Mr. McCarthy also ranks for me as one of those so admired that it’s taken awhile to move him off my page enough for my own stuff to come through. Really nice to absorb your article, nodding as I went. Just popped “Boy with a Coin” on my iPad and looking forward to more.

    My latest blogpost: http://amctigue.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/on-tolerance-and-toleration/

  3. Amanda
    at 2:00 pm on January 11, 2012

    Sorry. Typo above. Typing too fast. I know you’re not a Ms.

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