McCourt's Queer Street a circuitous trip down memory lane
February 20 2004 1:00 AM ET
Reviewers have hailed James McCourt's new book Queer Street as a Joycean, erudite, and entertaining, if dizzying, postwar cultural history of gay life, though readers don't seem so sure. The opus is the first nonfiction work by the author of Delancey's Way and Time Remaining and uses film as a primary frame of reference. The treatise, which covers the postwar years to the apocalyptic onset of AIDS, is ambitious, sprawling, multilayered, disjointed, and often maddeningly discursive. The New York Times called Queer Street "an imaginative, ludic cartography of queer metropolitan culture" animated by "a fierce critical intelligence." The Washington Post lauded it as "a lively, engaging hodgepodge" that is "genuinely moving." But the effusive critical praise beats a retreat on Amazon.com, where the book has drawn unhappy reader comment. Blasting their own purchase as "a big mistake," some complain that "reading became a chore rather than a pleasure" or call Queer Street "infuriating because it is willfully solipsistic." But a dissenter implored, "Ignore the naysayers," proclaiming that "James McCourt is a literary god."
McCourt remains philosophical. "All I can do is cross my fingers and hope for the best," he said in a recent interview. And he has a suggestion for those who find his book, an overstuffed cornucopia of information and commentary that veers into foreign tongues, blank verse, interview transcripts, and spiraling tangents just a bit daunting: Start with the index. But even the index could set your mind reeling. Sophocles and Sontag to Spielberg and Sondheim. Colbert to Camus. Virgil, Moses, Lugosi, Mae West, Harold Bloom, and especially Bette Davis. It seems he's left no one out. "Oh, yeah, that's a great way to do it," McCourt, known to just about everyone in his life as Jimmy, enthused. "Skip around, look at the [book's] pictures in the bookstore," he suggested. No highfalutin intellectual scholarly pretense there!
And he's the first to admit that many have been put off by his book and the disjointed writing. McCourt, whose conversation mirrors his writing--fast-paced and freewheeling, careening about like some kind of crazily articulate pinball machine--acknowledged he had fears about tackling the book, which carries the subtitle Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985. "I had some trepidation," he said, anticipating reactions such as "Oh, he just emptied his files" into the manuscript. "'He downloaded everything.' But that hasn't happened. There's something there that pulls it together." That something is a literary device called "QT," for Queer Temperament, a sort of alter ego or stand-in for the narrator, which allows McCourt to serve as tour guide without falling into the trap of training the spotlight on himself. "I don't like 'I, I, I, me, me, me' books. Except for Marcel Proust, that's fine," he notes, only a little wryly.
Queer Street got its start a decade ago when an editor-historian acquaintance told McCourt it was time he did a collection of nonfiction. "But I really didn't have a clue how to organize it," he said. After a 400-page project hit a brick wall with publisher Alfred A. Knopf, the project was taken up by W.W. Norton editor Robert Weil. "He'd never read anything I'd written," McCourt said. "But he said, 'I love this writing.' Bob said, 'I want everything.' I said, 'Oh, Bob, come on, everything? It'll be a mess.' But I gave it to him and said I wanted structure. I wanted the memoirs attached to something"--enter QT. But even with that device, McCourt shoots for the moon. It starts with the very first sentence: "Who, what, when, where (there's no why but why, because)" and blasts off from there. McCourt says it's just "plain New York English."
Despite the book's focus on generations of gay men well past their prime, McCourt said one of the most fulfilling aftereffects has been the response from Generation Y-ers, who could be expected to be left in the cultural dark by the stream of references to Hollywood's bygone royalty. "I can't get over the fact that they've been so interested," he said. But can they possibly appreciate all the arcane references? "They don't mind finding out, I'll tell you," he said, recalling the young interviewer who told him, "You guys had it great--why don't we have all this now?" Still, there's the common bond that defies age, he mused. "There's something very unusual about being a homosexual," he said, which creates "a kind of tension and need to explain things. It makes one introspective. You know there's something intrinsically strange about you. It's called being queer, but in a funny kind of way, you want to ask God, 'What did you have in mind, dear?' "