There are two subtitles—marquees, really—on the cover of James McCourt’s alternately brilliant and painful new nonfiction study, Queer Street. One reads: “Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985.” And the other, displayed somewhat less prominently, is “Excursions in the Mind of the Life.” It is the mind—specifically, McCourt’s own—that is the real subject of Queer Street, which attempts to verbalize that most intangible life experience: the development of a sensibility. McCourt considers his sensibility unabashedly queer, by which he means he is more interested in the life and mind of men who, like hothouse flowers, pride themselves on existing apart from the rest of humanity. The problem with the book is that despite the force and wit of McCourt’s mind—he’s a polymath with a sense of humor—he does not transcend this relatively small area of human experience.
McCourt’s bookis a compendium of half-remembered conversations, diary entries, letters, memoir, literary and musical analysis spanning, arbitrarily, the years from 1947 to 1985. In order to pull together this impressionistic and fragmented material, McCourt has invented a unifying sensibility to guide us, like Virgil through, this subculture; he calls this narrator the “Queer Temperament” or “the Author.” Not surprisingly, there is no first person in this book; unlike many of the poets and fiction writers of his generation—Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and the like—McCourt has always been resistant to “I.” Like Oscar Wilde before him, McCourt believes that there is more to say from behind a mask.
From an early age, McCourt, who grew up in a lower-middle-class Catholic family in post-World War II Queens, found walking down Queer Street to be infinitely easier than trying to navigate Tobacco Road. In other words, McCourt was not, physically speaking, an Erskine Caldwell hero—he didn’t have the brawn to carry the real world on his shoulders. But Queer Street, for McCourt (as for many aesthetically inclined homosexuals of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s), was less a geographical place than a metaphor, a community and—there’s that word again—a state of mind that made aesthetic and intellectual and sexual development possible.
The world McCourt describes feels manufactured, synthetic: Throughout the book, the natural occurrence of feeling is looked on with suspicion, a kind of distaste. When feelings do arise in Queer Street—as when McCourt describes living abroad in the 1970s with his lover, writer, and editor Vincent Viga—he squelches tenderness with camp. As Susan Sontag famously noted, camp is the enemy of feeling, and McCourt has given us nearly 700 pages of feeling taking a back seat to style, camp, cultural insights, gossip, and superficial psychoanalysis—how thrilling it was to run into Samuel Beckett at Boots, how cute Jack Kerouac looked. When emotions do appear in the book, they are slips of the tongue, and all the more powerful for it.
You could say that here McCourt’s greatest success is as literary and social critic. Yet as he suggests, there’s not much of a difference between the two on Queer Street, where fairies love literary criticism best when it’s mixed with a little dish on the person holding the pen. In a remarkable section on the late poet James Merrill, McCourt describes Truman Capote, one of Queer Street’s most flamboyant stars. In a dialogue with his gossipy alter ego, “The Guttersnipe,” our Queer Temperament says: “Norman Mailer once referred to his infinitely superior contemporary, Truman Capote, as a ‘ballsy little guy.’ Of course he didn’t know—or did he?—that anatomically Capote was just that, freakishly so. ‘All potatoes and no meat,’ as the nastier boys at the Everard [Baths] used to say about gentlemen of a certain age they affected to disdain in the steam room.”
The lack of human feeling in Queer Street might be explained by the absence of women. Though McCourt’s fictional work remains, for me, some of the best “queer identified” literature published in the late 20th century (Kaye Wayfaring in “Avenged” in particular), Queer Street makes the reader inescapably aware that McCourt mines the same territory over and over again: the queer man’s perception of the woman as “other.” McCourt does not evince much interest in women except as gay icons—actresses and “fag hags”—that “unfortunate word,” he says at one point—such as the late, lamented Dorothy Dean. This raises a difficult question about what makes great art; despite my interest in “queerness”—my own and that of others—is it possible for a sensibility to be truly capacious when it limits itself to such narrow terrain? Man can love man, but man must love woman, too, the better to explore the inner recesses of the heart. As the queer novelist Carson McCullers once said: “I bless the Latin poet Terence for saying: ‘Nothing human is alien to me.’ ”
Of course, to suggest that most, if not all, gay literature would benefit from a less ironic or distanced approach to women would be foolhardy. But the books I grew up reading in the ‘80s—by Edmund White, Dale Peck, Dennis Cooper, etc.—seem less about exploring the world than about shutting out difference—blacks, women, and the like—in order to establish the white queer world as an exclusive empire of the senses. As such, these “queer” authors seem not too different from the straight male writers who bore me, like James Jones, and for the same reason: The gay writers embrace a male-centric view of things, in which women are reduced to bit parts. The exigencies of love, the complications posed by trying to connect to the world outside of cruising, are noticeably absent from the queer lit I’ve read.
Yet there is more to this book than gossip. McCourt’s deeper subject is the transformation of a subculture primarily concerned with aesthetics to one that was forced to become “politicized” with the advent of AIDS and the activist groups, such as Act-Up, that resulted. In the 1980s, he suggests, Queer Street lost its distinctive language and mores as fags pushed for “normalcy”—babies in strollers, country houses, all the markers of the straight life. Once a culture becomes absorbed into the mainstream, it ceases to shimmer with difference. And so perhaps the weaknesses of this book derive, from McCourt’s admirable need to reimagine and remember the metaphorical place that made the self that produced this ambitious though flawed work.