On January 15, James McCourt read from his latest book, “Queer Street, Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985,” at the Barnes and Noble bookstore on 21 Street and Sixth Avenue, a short walk from Eighth Avenue in Chelsea, perhaps the city’s most prominent “queer street.”
The evening brought back memories of places that sit easily within that “pink triangle” of space connecting Max’s Kansas City and Andy Warhol’s Factory, which figured prominently in McCourt’s reading that night, with Chelsea’s Eighth Avenue, as well as numerous other iconic queer sites such as Julius’ in the Village, and even “standing-room-only” at the Metropolitan Opera.
The Barnes and Noble is close to the former Max’s Kansas City, which was located at 17 Street and Park Avenue South, just across from the Factory.
Later on, at a post-reading fete, McCourt described Max’s “as the birthing room of pop culture in the 60s and 70s. It was the replacement for the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, a major gathering place for the earlier generation of abstract expressionists. Both were celebrated as sites where emerging trends began and where drugs and homosexuals passed.”
A congratulatory mood characterized McCourt’s gathering, where gay people celebrated a literary achievement in a fashion at sharp contrast to the earlier eras the author describes in “Queer Street.”
McCourt sat down for an interview a few days later in the East 22nd Street apartment he shares with his long time partner, Vincent Virga. The strength and beauty of their deeply committed relationship is, for me, one of the most memorable stories in “Queer Street.”
Virga is the author of, among other books, “Gaywyck,” the first queer gothic romance.
McCourt mentioned his literary influences, discussing John Rechy’s “City of Night,” the landmark gay novel from 1963 “whose tight knit and rough spun prose marks the beginning of the new queer literary age.” It was savagely reviewed, McCourt said, for The New York Review of Books “by Arthur Chester, a vermilion, weird sister washout and ideal representation of the way high culture intellectuals on the Upper West Side in the 60s required its queers to behave in public.”
McCourt is now at an enviable point in his career, one which young writers would do well to study for guideposts on how to succeed. His accomplishments are reflected by the number of gay-themed books he has written and the immense publicity they have generated, and also in part by the intellectuals who endorse his work.
Rarely, does a book such as “Queer Street,” written by a homosexual about homosexuality, garner the lead review in The New York Times Book Review, as well as a column in the newspaper’s daily edition, within a two-week period. Nor, are many such books listed on so many notable book lists, including Vanity Fair’s.
In 2002 McCourt published “Wayfaring at Waverly In Silver Lake Stories” and a new edition of “MawrdewCzgowchwz” with an introduction by Wayne Koestenbaum. In 1993, “Time Remaining” appeared, a book, he described at the reading “as the back-story of ‘Queer Street,’ about love and life in the AIDS crisis, the defining event of queerdom over the last 25 years.”
Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, and the poet James Schuyler endorsed ‘Time Remaining.” Gary Wills, John Lahr, and J. D. McClatchy, poet and editor of the Yale Review, have endorsed his other books.
“‘Queer Street’ documents what is possible for a clever young man consumed with ambition from Queens,” McCourt explained. “It is about mentorship across age and class. I enjoyed older men. I sought them out. Many were well-read academics and in publishing. They enhanced my liberal arts education, flourishing then, and, incidentally, my connections. Probably, for one, this relates to Harold Bloom’s endorsement, who is not homosexual.”
At the reading, McCourt defined his book as “an excursion into a very busy mind, one which twists and turns in every which way, brimming with details, names, places, all embellished with copious adjectives. It is about the constantly shifting apprehension of the world impinging on us at all times, more than we can grasp.”
Of all his endorsements, McCourt feels that “J. D. McClatchy’s use of the word breviary is especially apt, as is his overall description of ‘Queer Street’ as part screenplay, part scrapbook, a diorama of gay culture, a gay soul’s encyclopedia.”
For this reason, McCourt recommends that readers tackle “Queer Street” by going to its index, picking out names, and then following the threads through the pages cited.
Navigating a book that replaces a linear narrative with a collection of anecdotes, historical entries, conversations and monologues, does require some strategy.
I started by looking up Susan Sontag. The entries about her made clear her major contribution to the intellectual credibility of the concept of queer life. In addition, McCourt argues, Sontag’s notion of “radical chic” was a code name for a queer-inspired movement.
We also learn that when McCourt asked himself early on whom he needed to meet to get published, Sontag’s name came to mind. A few pages later, we learn that Virga was a production editor at The New York Review of Books where he worked with Sontag who brought McCourt’s manuscript to her publisher. That manuscript was accepted.
“Queer Street” is that rare work of art that explains just exactly how it got built into a major work of historical importance.
James McCourt explores an era in danger of being lost.