Lasting City – James McCourt. Review by Dale Boyer
Note, a version of this review appeared previously in the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review
If Marcel Proust and James Joyce had had a gay love child, he might very well have resembled James McCourt. McCourt, the author of a number of well-received works, including Mawrdew Czgowchwz (pronounced "Mardu Gorgeous") and Time Remaining, combines Proust's sensitivity and obsession with the past with Joyce's delight in verbal wordplay and stream of consciousness technique. The result, however, is something distinctly his own: a kind of high literary sensibility filtered through camp.
Lasting City takes its impetus from one of the author's strongest early childhood memories: the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Playing in the sand on the beach where he is making a version of the Flatiron Building (what self-respecting gay child, after all would build a mere "sand castle" when he could be so much more creative?), the author's work is soon trampled by bullies. Right on the heels of this comes the news of the dropping of the bomb:
"Yes, I know – but a whole city, to disappear just like that one morning."
(A whole city – Who? Where? New York? Just like that?)
The two events become conflated in the author's mind, and the effect is enhanced by the assertion that the author's grandfather had helped to build the Flatiron Building (one of the running gags in the book is that his grandfather seems to have been responsible for building every famous building in the city). Thus, effortlessly and poignantly, the author establishes a theme of personal loss set against the reality of the loss of entire cities. And it is not just Hiroshima: later, Dresden and London make their appearances as well. Still later, with the appearance of Sputnik in the skies above him, the possibility of all life being wiped out by bombs becomes another all-too frightening reality for the author to contemplate. It is this impending sense of loss that gives Lasting City its Proustian resonance and pathos: the effect is somewhat like that of someone remembering as fast as he can, before the city of his memories is wiped out by time ("Einstein says time bends." "It certainly bends you over, I can tell you that much.").
One of the other chief impulses of the book derives from the author's mother (a colorful, early film actress) whose death at the age of 94, as well as her entreaty to him to "Tell everything," prompts the author to begin his memoir. What follows is the author's wildly playful, allusive, non-sequential and highly digressive account of his life as a gay man in New York City in the second half of twentieth century (although, playfully, the author's stated intent is only to write about his life up to the age of seven!). The effect is very much like Lawrence Stern in Tristram Shandy. Indeed, our author similarly is not born until page 123, then dropped in favor of other subjects (such as opera, loving remembrances and recreations of his Jackson Heights neighborhood, fragments of his mother and father's history, etc.), then born again many pages later. If the mode is Shandean, however, its tone is more like that of the late poet John Berryman. The effect throughout is of a story glancingly told, a kind of mad, sad, funny history that – much like the author's mother, apparently – can turn on a dime to become alternately touching or infuriating, depending upon your level of patience.
And patience, it must be said, is definitely required for an appreciation of the book. Despite the richness of the author's imagination, his verbal wit and literary acumen (literary allusions fill the pages of the book; it will be a delight former English Majors), it may leave non-literary types and younger readers scratching their heads. Or merely out in the cold. For one of the problems of Lasting City, whose subtitle is The Anatomy of Nostalgia (the subtitle itself is a reference to Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy), is that, if the nostalgia is not comprised of YOUR particular era, the lengthy lists of product brands, radio shows, commercials, opera recordings and live theatrical performances, etc., do not have much resonance. Nor does McCourt spend much time attempting to make one familiar with his particular touchstones: one either has the same ones, or one doesn’t. Thus, unfortunately, a kind of weariness sets in about 2/3 of the way through Lasting City, a weariness which – unless one is a reader of a certain age - is unlikely to be dispelled.
Certainly, even given its intended discursiveness, the book could have used a bit more of a through line. The early scenes of a cab ride and interactions with a Hindu cabdriver named Pramit Banarjee show much promise, but then are abandoned. Similarly, the author's early hints at his mother's complex character are only partially satisfying. And yet, Lasting City is a joy. There is hardly a page that does not contain some verbal delight, and not a sentence that isn't playful, thoughtful and inventive. Thus, although it may not ultimately wind up being the lasting masterpiece the author so obviously intended, Lasting City (and its author), nonetheless, are undeniably brilliant.