January 29-February 4, 2004
James McCourt's multi-syllabic verbiage and hyper-hyphenated references have, since his first operatic novel, Mawrdew Czgowchwz (whose spirit haunts each work after, from Delancey's Way to Time Remaining to Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake), made him a literary hero of the histrionic semantics of gay existence. Being an acting teacher, film critic and opera aficionado made his wild-eyed texts akin to Melville and Joyce at the corner of Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy while standing underneath Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow -- all with a touch of Ruth Draper for salt. For his first truly nonfiction book on the boundlessness of gay history, Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985 (Norton), McCourt continues his running commentary on lives, like his, so dramatically lived.
City Paper: So where is the author now?
James McCourt: Now, as always, at the turning point in his career. At his editor's desk at W. W. Norton, New York. A little bit over the moon.
CP: The book's name: What significance does it hold in regard to the notion of being punch-drunk?
JM: Perfect question. Although the title was chosen in advance from Arthur Conan Doyle as the result of one of two uproars caused in high-school English class in 1957: "I believe he's on Queer Street," meant to signify being in monetary difficulties (generally as a result of irresolution or mischance in his profession, usually spoken of as "doing something in the city"). The other uproar: Enter Watson to Holmes' bedchamber. "Sorry to knock you up at this hour, Holmes, but Mrs. Hudson has only just knocked me up." It fairly sums up the author's feeling when confronted with the completed assembled manuscript. So, punch-drunk from shadow boxing is the deal.
CP: How does Mawrdew Czgowchwz figure into Queer Street? There seems to be a direct line: the fans, the gossip, the divas …
JM: Mawrdew is everywhere in everything I do. I have been writing about her for well over four decades, starting as an adjunct to my "life" as a standee at the old Metropolitan Opera House to my real-life friendship with Victoria de los Angeles, who is as unlike Mawrdew as can be, but they are very close friends.
CP: Time Remaining -- that group of celebratory, mournful gay men. How does it feel to you in retrospect? That was quite a forceful book, an equal in my mind to Angels in America. Do you think it got lost at all in the AIDS lit rush?
JM: No, not at all. It seems to be the one AIDS book that has had a wider appeal in the literary community -- which is to say of course, statistics being the same for that sample group as for the general population, preponderantly among heterosexual readers. And please don't bring up the meaningless word "crossover."
CP: Any opinion at all on the proliferation of the Queer Eye-ing of America? Is it good or bad for gay culture, or straight culture?
JM: While on a Thanksgiving visit to see my nephew-godson, his wife and their new baby, I did sit down in front of a huge plasma television screen. I watched one or two episodes of West Wing and Queer Eye. Agreeable enough fantasies both, and in the latter case, a keen reminder of the power of television to make "real life" seem real for half an hour, when we know, or used to know, how ambivalent all feelings between men -- heterosexual, homosexual, homo-social, militaristic, sporting, paternal, filial and fraternal -- always have been and always will be.
CP: Do you miss film writing? I loved your Film Comment stuff. Is it my imagination or does so much criticism today ape Pauline Kael?
JM: As I don't read it, I can't say. … I certainly knew more than Pauline Kael -- although not nearly as much as Susan Sontag, Elliot Stein, Donald Lyons or Jim Hoberman. But that really was long ago and in another country, and anyway that bench is all dead wood. Besides, would you be willing to sit through hour after hour of the crap coming out of Hollywood these days?
CP: Was there ever a notion to use a more linear fashion to tell Queer Street's story, or perhaps the better question is, how did this style develop in Queer Street?
JM: No, never. This is the only way I know to tell the story as it happened to me -- although the method was definitely learned, at the Yale School of Drama in the school year 1964-65, by fusing the previous six or seven years of literary study with the Stanislavski acting method.
CP: You've lived between N.Y.C., L.A., D.C. and Ireland. Why is "queer street" different in Manhattan than anywhere else? I'm playing devil's advocate here, but wouldn't a queer street be available to towns, as would a Grover's Corners or a Coney Island of the mind, so to speak?
JM: No, not in Grover's Corners, no more than the Chrysler Building could have been built in Mudville. In the Coney Island of the mind, of course, yes, provided you had at least once been to Coney Island.
CP: Why does anywhere but New York so intrigue you now? Everything I've read makes you seem surprisingly settled in, say, L.A. of all places?
JM: A native New Yorker who accepts the legacy and responsibilities attached to it never really leaves. He carries the concrete slab with him. But on an artistic level, I'm grateful for your response, because it means I have succeeded in establishing for you the milieu in which the story takes place. I used to tell my students nearly anybody can make something seem to happen in a story. This is what is called "indicating" in acting; it's what Vanessa Redgrave did on Broadway for Long Day's Journey into Night, as Meryl Streep has done for 30 years. The art of fiction at its best is analogous to what Philip Seymour Hoffman did -- with a genius I had not encountered on the New York stage since the days of Geraldine Page, Uta Hagen and three or four of their male counterparts -- [when he played] Jamie Tyrone in the above-mentioned revival. [It] is the art of situating the action, making it take place.
CP: How do you see your generation of gay men looking upon queer history, as opposed to that of the younger generation or those much older than yourself, the pioneers like the Charles Pierces you mention in Queer Street?
JM: I haven't any idea. I really don't. Adapting Bette Davis' famous statement, "Look, if this goes wrong it's me that's the 40-foot horse's ass up there on that screen!" That means I'm the performer -- even of "criticism" -- and cannot possibly assess the "audience" reaction properly. This is the difference between an amateur historian -- me -- and George Chauncey.
CP: I found it refreshing to see you've included the Jack/Neal Beat era within the Hollywood/Broadway/Grand Opera hoo-ha. I think a lot of people miss Kerouac in the gay stakes. Explain your take, if you please?
JM: I was hung up on Kerouac, on his looks, his fatal (to him) combination of choirboy and rough-trade looks, his always-apparent sexual ambiguity.
CP: In Czgowchwz you mentioned that the best of the opera life was derived from hanging on the sidelines: Now that you're in the middle of the artist's life, do you still think that's true?
JM: For me the middle of the artist's life is the sidelines -- or as French painters say, sur le motif. The artist is in the middle of his life while working. Otherwise she/he is something with a French provincial office and a box full of clippings.
CP: Tell me a great delicious secret about writing Queer Street.
JM: For the first and only time in my kaleidoscope writing career, I completely suspended my own disbelief.
James McCourt reads and signs Queer Street, Mon., Feb. 2, 6:30 p.m., free, Independence Branch of the Free Library, 18 S. Seventh St., 215-685-1633.