File It Under Secular Neglect

James McCourt. Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985. W. W. Norton. November 2003.

There was once an entire opera community in this town that did not merely read the novels of James McCourt, but believed in them. We quoted joyfully from Mawrdew Czgowchwz or Kaye Wayfaring in “Avenged”—his sublime yet irreverent comedies of New York City and Hollywood, movies and opera—applying lines from the books to the events of our lives. “There was some fainting, but it was controlled,” Mawrdew reads, and a friend reiterated it viz a Met Mirella Freni Manon Lescaut I missed. “That woman gives herself airs!” one McCourt character snaps about another; it was repeated to me in the middle of an ACT UP demonstration about (of all people) Nancy Reagan. I bring this up because many of McCourt’s original readership, his true believers, will not be able to savor Queer Street: every member of my own opera circle (for example), aside from myself and maybe one other, missing-in-action devotee, has died.

My old friends are also missing something of a McCourt renaissance after years of neglect. The cover of Queer Street reproduces a 1956 map of lower Manhattan preening and swelling more like a penis than ever. Inside, the memoir / scrapbook / polemic / fantasia, McCourt’s first book of nonfiction, shows a great writer doing what he must when facing problems of perception and recognition: blasting away with every atom in his lexicon. The sheer gall of the thing (and Norton’s right-behind-you presentation of it) awes even this veteran McCourtian. And yet Queer Street is receiving the extended, intelligent, serious treatment hitherto denied this writer, and has already gone into a second printing. Mawrdew Czgowchwz is back (New York Review Books, with a smashing cover and a graceful Wayne Koestenbaum intro); rumors of additional reprints are about. What has changed?

First, what hasn’t: McCourt. He has not become any less difficult: his work is abundant, digressive, non-linear, satirical, incendiary—and more demanding than that of any living American fiction writer except Pynchon. (Cormac McCarthy seems nearly accessible by comparison.) One needs help just to pronounce the title of his first novel (repeat after me: “Mardu Gorgeous”). That book appeared in 1975. Through the years and books since—Kaye Wayfaring in “Avenged” (1985), Time Remaining (1993), Delancey’s Way (2000), and Wayfaring at Waverly in Silverlake (2002)—he has given us some of the busiest talkers in American letters, industrious beings who live to create or to follow those who do. Gossip is manna and menace to all of them, including Mawrdew’s Archbishop of New York City (“His Scarlet Eminence”), who, upstaged by a mysterious opera diva at his own Saint Patrick’s Day parade, “drafty in taffeta on the steps of the Cathedral at Fiftieth Street, that day learned a lesson in humility. (He filed it under ‘Secular Neglect.’)”

In McCourt’s sentences—densely constructed, bristling with imagistic and sonic virtuosity—the fantastic, even the miraculous, might appear like parade floats mocked by wisecracks. (“The Pope saw Christ come and go.”) In none of McCourt will the more demanding passages be preceded and followed by slower, simply cadenced catch-ups (as in Toni Morrison). His great themes are the heroic conduct of life and the saving grace of inspiration and expression—aspects of existence that once mattered to many gay men as much as their sexual desires did.

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