Lucking Out, by James Wolcott (Doubleday)
Boy from the sticks (in this case, Frostburg State University) makes good in literary New York. Wolcott’s terrifically titled chronicle of his often down-and-out life in the Manhattan of the grungy 1970s sparkles like dry champagne, because it’s really an encomium to the thrilling possibilities of criticism. Wolcott was among the very last in a long line of striving provincials—George Jean Nathan, Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, and much of the Partisan Review crowd—who came to New York with a burning ambition to be critics. That this goal seems quaint attests to the foreignness of the place and time he recalls—a time when crime was endemic, rents cheap, and late-shifters took their breaks at the Belmore Cafeteria, “hunched over cups of coffee and heavy carbs while flipping through night owl editions of the New York Post and Daily News.” Lucking Out revolves around Wolcott’s friendships with a knot of dazzling critics: Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs, and Arlene Croce. They wrote about disparate subjects—movies, rock, and ballet—but Wolcott, a man of great, though not unerring, judgment and taste, knew brilliant criticism when he read it. His portraits of them all are acute and generous (Croce’s essay- reviews “radiated a fine chill of infallibility, which could have its own perfect-martini invigoration in the untucked seventies”), but he’s at his sweetest and most unguarded in his superbly wrought reminiscence of Kael, which forms the cynosure of this engaging book. Kael didn’t make Wolcott a critic, but she did make him what every great critic must be: a civilized person (to use her term of praise). This non-fiction bildungsroman testifies to his appropriate and everlasting gratitude.