Book Review: My 1980s & Other Essays

My 1980s & Other Essaysmy 1980s coverby Wayne KoestenbaumFarrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013 Oh, the glittering gems in this little collection! My 1980s & Other Essays is the latest volume from Wayne Koestenbaum, the poet, critic, and novelist whose 1995 Jackie Under My Skin was so wonderfully thought-provoking and whose 1993 study of the passionate love homosexual men feel for opera, The Queen's Throat, is a contentious, incredibly insightful little masterpiece. My 1980s is an assembly of nearly 40 essays, reviews, and miscellaneous musings on subjects as varied as Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge (and the movie adaptation), Elizabeth Hardwick, Hart Crane, Brigitte Bardot, and Diane Arbus. This is a small-scale paperback book, but the sheer spread of knowledge and curiosity on display here is joyously staggering.Even a modest eon ago, when Koestenbaum was a charismatic and very good-looking Harvard undergraduate, he exhibited what a skilled handicapper might have called enormous rhetorical potential; he was always reading, always writing, always sharpening his mental claws on the stately cultural furniture of the day - and always weaving the personal into so much of what he wrote, a habit he retains in virtually all of these latest collected essays and that can surface anywhere in his beautiful, serpentine sentences, like in his classic essay "Debbie Harry at the Supermarket":

In the late 1970s, I listened to Blondie with a fanaticism founded on my belief that Debbie Harry's vocal delivery would give me tips on differentiating the genuine from the fake in the apocalyptic world of romantic love, where I was a befuddled amateur, working intermittently on my heterosexuality as if it were last Sunday's crossword puzzle, a confusing grid of boxes I'd not given up trying to fill.

Indeed, that inimitable personal voice sounds all through My 1980s, persistently, defiantly, as in "Why Art is Always Emotional" in which the whole of the artistic endeavor is parenthesized into a stroll through the Fens that only seems innocent:

Any sort of art enchants me, because it allows me to make friends with curators and artists, who are often sexy, introspective, and anarchic. Art is a pimp. It procures, and, like a duenna, sits in the room while the intercourse transpires.

There's provocation in these pages, certainly, and there's a determination to see things head-on that would do Robert Hughes proud. And even in the scattered instances where our author might just possibly be pursuing provocation a bit for its own sake, the results are never anything less than thought-provoking - and there's that arrestingly readable prose line redeeming even the weakest of over-reaching. Koestenbaum's love of the poetry of Frank O'Hara, for instance, is clear in the oddly poignant essay "":

Porn is Washington Street in Boston, where I bought a porn mag (Handyman) in 1981. Porn is the pair of blue shoes I also bought on Washington Street. Porn is the English professor I accidentally met on the subway (Red Line) when I was en route to Washington Street to buy a porn mag and blue shoes. Porn is not the exception to photography's rule. Porn is the ceiling toward which all photographs asymptotically climb.

The poetry pieces in this collection are almost without exception this best things here (the essay on James Schuyler, "Epitaph on Twenty-third Street," is exceptional even among these great bits), although Koestenbaum is also very good on the visual arts, as in his fantastic piece on the American painter Forrest Bess, "The Inner Life of the Palette Knife":

Bess's subject is time; he grants the viewer an expansive experience of duration. To receive that gift, you need to give the painting time. To receive that gift, you need to give the painting time. The painting can't communicate time unless you spend time on it. And thus his paintings engage in a complicated economic critique. They force the viewer to re-evaluate what it means to spend or waste time. The viewer must become, momentarily, a dweller in Bess's Texan oasis ... Bess's paintings force you to emigrate to Walden Pond: you must renounce speed, destination, and monumentality. You must become a duck or a worm or a pebble. And you must stop quantifying means and ends: you must waste time looking at a Bess painting, without the certainty that it will reward you with ecstasy, knowledge, or satisfaction. If you don't waste time on it, it won't reveal time's lastingness to you.

Those of us who've been admiring Koestenbaum's writing for a long time cannot fathom why he isn't better known to the general reading public, and My 1980s offers no enlightenment on the point: it's erudite and funny and moving and even in places (though its author might laugh) wise - it seems perverse that it should sit neglected on bookstore tables while Tucker Max becomes a multi-millionaire telling vomit stories. Inveterate readers, at the least, should embrace Koestenbaum like a long-lost brother - and buy his books while they're at it.