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Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies Hardcover – October 25, 2011

4.0 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Lucking Out is one of Slate's Best Books of 2011!

Praise for Lucking Out:

"Compared with James Wolcott, most literary journalists write like Amish farmers, their sentences plain as bib overalls.... [S]urrender to rush of this swooping carnival ride of a book [and] you'll have a wonderful time with Lucking Out. Memoirs don't come more entertaining than this.... Really, Wolcott seems incapable of writing a tired sentence."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post

"Very sharp and very funny."—David Kelly, New York Times

"The subject matter was enough to suck me into these pages: The Village Voice in the 1970s, Patti Smith and the punk scene, porno theaters in Times Square, Pauline Kael and her acolytes—New York City journalism at its gossipy best. But Wolcott’s sometimes almost crazy style is what kept me reading."—David Haglund, Slate

"Wolcott's memories of CBGB, while free of nostalgia...are suffused with elegiac ardency.... As critic-stylists go, Wolcott is up there with John Leonard and Wilfrid Sheed.... [But] what ultimately makes this book so vital is its documentation of one writer's beginnings. Beneath the scrapbook of memories lies a sneaky defense of a scrappy literary life that is in danger of fading into the same oblivion as Mohawk haircuts and black leather jackets adorned with safety pins."—Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times

"Wolcott captures the sense of outlaw possibility and physical menace in a city that has 'gone to hell,' [but] his book is also something else: a tale of survival in one of the city’s more peculiar tribes.... [He] is a heavyweight sketch artist, dropping metaphors that pin a fellow writer, a downtown celebrity, or an institution such as The Village Voice. His memoir also has the sweetness and occasional awe of an outsider to the city. All that separated the young Wolcott from an inglorious return to Frostburg State in western Maryland was the whim of an editor on the telephone. Though today’s New York is outwardly more generic, much hasn’t changed, especially how most of us are still lucking out."—Michael Aggar, The New Yorker's Book Bench

"Longtime Vanity Fair cultural critic Wolcott (Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants, 2004, etc.) celebrates the Big Apple as a haven for the writers, artists, musicians and eccentrics who thrived at its core in the 1970s. Of the many sentences in Wolcott’s memoir that will have contemporary Manhattan-philes gnashing their teeth in envy is this one recounting how the author dealt with losing his on-site staff job at the Village Voice: “From that point onward I never worked a regular office job again, solely writing for a living, something that would have been impossible if New York hadn’t been a city of low rents and crappy expectations that didn’t require a trust fund or a six-figure income for the privilege of watching everything fall apart before your eyes.” Actually, the entire book is not only a bittersweet valentine to a much-maligned era but a model of exemplary prose that any writer would do well to study. Wolcott’s talent for choosing words, shaping sentences, constructing paragraphs and crafting each of the five sections into an essay that stands on its own reveals an architectonic approach lacking in many current memoirs. The author also understands how to apply his individual experiences to the larger context of the zeitgeist. For example, the section entitled “Bodily Contact” weaves personal encounters into a critique of “Me Decade” sexual mores, drawing on Bob Fosse films, the seedy atmosphere of pre–tourist friendly Times Square, the emerging gay-rights movement and concerns about the dark side of the pick-up culture prevalent at both straight and gay bars. Wolcott also rubbed shoulders with the luminaries of the day, including his mentor, the rabble-rousing author Norman Mailer, punk songstress Patti Smith and legendary movie critic Pauline Kael. His poignant reminiscences of Kael pave the way for the book’s plaintive conclusion. Gives the lie to the belief that the ’70s contained nothing but disco decadence and self-help solipsism."
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"No fan of memoirs, Vanity Fair cultural critic Wolcott has nonetheless written one about his wonder years in New York City in the 1970s. Given his role as tastemaker in writing about music, movies, television, and books, Wolcott presents both a self-portrait as a novice arts journalist and a portrait gallery of the scene makers during the heyday of consequences-be-damned criticism. With some offhand encouragement from Norman Mailer, Wolcott quixotically quit college, moved to New York, and badgered his way into a job at the then enormously influential Village Voice. His hilarious account of his trial by fire at this veritable “gladiator school” for journalism is acidly revealing of the dynamics at work in crisis-riddled New York, a crucible for gutsy creativity. Wolcott incisively celebrates such key figures as Patti Smith and David Byrne, caustically annihilates prominent writers, and praises to the skies his guiding light, film critic extraordinaire Pauline Kael. A work of mettlesome personal remembrance and piercing cultural history, Wolcott’s electrifying tale of the forging of a writer can also serve as a course on writing laser-precise and propulsive prose."

"Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down And Semi-Dirty In Seventies New York lays out its time vividly; the various milieus Wolcott describes are clear and memorable."—Onion A.V. Club

"Superb."—Wall Street Journal

“An adventurous intellectual spy report from the trenches of Manhattan in the 70’s. From Pauline Kael’s opinion of hetero porn movies to the gay ‘trucks’, from the New York City Ballet to CBGB’s, Wolcott delightfully proves that critics have feelings too.”
—John Waters

“The birth of punk, the apex of ballet, intellectual jousting in dingy joints, the glory holes of cultural ambition, here is a young writer’s journey through that shitty, wonderful New York of yore, the one that’s been marketed and re-enacted and curated almost out of actuality, but really did exist. James Wolcott’s tough, stylish and genuine criticism has always been indispensable, but even so this book is revelatory in its intimacy, its sharpness and humor, and its grim good cheer. To experience this era through Wolcott’s worldview and prose is a true pleasure.”
—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask

"Grunge, glitz, and gossip decorate this lively...memoir....Wolcott cameos celebrities from Bob Dylan and Gore Vidal--he doesn't so much drop names as spike them like a running back in the end zone--to the glamorous, squalid city itself, with its crime and crazies and open-air gay trysting....Wolcott's take on New York culture itself, from schlubby porn impresarios to diaphanous ballerinas, is entertaining and evocative."Publishers Weekly

“Who better to guide us through one of our most irresistible moments—New York in the Seventies—than one of our most irresistible critics, James Wolcott? Here is an intimate, delicious chronicle of America’s greatest city in full cultural bloom and total municipal decay. It’s Rome Before the Fall, and Wolcott, a hilarious and penetrating writer, captures it in all of its seedy, seductive glamour.”
—Jonathan Mahler, author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning

Lucking Out is a superb eyewitness account of New York in the raw. James Wolcott scrapes the barnacles off the 1970s and reveals a gem—a decadent time that somehow seems innocent today. His joyride vividly captures the circus of druggies, punks and geniuses with their driving needs to express themselves.”
Ivan Kral, co-filmmaker of The Blank Generation and guitarist for the Patti Smith Group

Lucking Out is a sleek, funny memoir of James Wolcott’s adventures as a freelance writer in the seventies. Wolcott and I shared that decade and those deadlines, so I can attest to the veracity of his tone and tempo, to the gaga adrenaline rush of writing about everything all the time: Stiv Bators in the morning, Balanchine that afternoon, Mailer from midnight to dawn, then a nap before David Hockney—all alone we were, up in the treetops, floating from limb to limb like flying squirrels with tigers down below. This rough joy is borne out in Wolcott’s bubbling pace, in his invariable preference for amusing modesty over mythological grandeur, and, most admirably, in the delicate candor with which he treats the cruelty and competitive savagery of that decade in New York—vicious but fair would be my characterization. For myself I am happy to be reminded that, once upon a time, we were not only quick and funny but kind of brave as well.”—Dave Hickey, author of Air Guitar

“So Vladimir Horowitz and Jascha Heifitz go to Daniel Barenboim’s Carnegie Hall debut. Barenboim rips into Chopin and Horowitz says to Heifitz, ‘It’s kind of hot in here.’ Heifitz says, ‘Not for violinists.’ This is how any writer honest with himself has to feel when reading Lucking Out.  And any book that includes Milt Kamen, Patti Smith, the New York City Ballet, and Ugly George has already proven its worth as the record of a cultural moment.  But I’d rather recommend it for th...

About the Author

JAMES WOLCOTT is the longtime culture critic for Vanity Fair and a blogger for the magazine. He is the author of a novel, The Catsitters, and the non­fiction work Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants. He lives in New York.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (October 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385527780
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385527781
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,250,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the second book I have read by someone from the Appalachian hinterland where much of my family has lived for some time, the first being Henry Gates' "Colored People" about growing up as an African-American across the state line around Keyser, WV. For me, growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC and attending the University of Maryland in the 70s, I was well aware of Frostburg State College which one of my cousins attended. Later on in the 90s the older generation of my family retired to this area. Thus it was a pleasant surprise to see a piece in Vanity Fair about someone with these humble roots who had risen to some success in feature journalism.

Unlike Gates' work, however, this book is a disappointment. After the first chapter, the book veers off from its autobiographical chronology upon the author's being fired by the Village Voice, a job he had obtained based on a long-shot letter he wrote to Norman Mailer with which he included his review for the college newspaper, State to Date, of a televised joust Mailer had with Gore Vidal and others on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971. Armed with Mailer's introduction, Wolcott has the pluck and determination to go to New York and tough it out until he gets hired by the Voice, initially in a clerical position.

After being fired and going to the unemployment line, we are parachuted into Wolcott's suddenly becoming one of Pauline Kael's young proteges accompanying her to private reviewer showings of mainstream films; although a less kind, but more accurate characterization inferred from the text, is that of one who was a groupie or "hanger on". Later, after a narrow take on the punk rock scene, the book meanders through first-inexplicably-a discussion of pornography and then ballet.
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Format: Hardcover
In 1972, dropping out of college on the strength of an encouraging letter from Norman Mailer, Wolcott moves to Manhattan. He comes of age in a dramatic decade, and this brisk, sharp narrative conveys his story in fresh language and enjoyable style. Working his way up from the slush pile and circulation desk to a byline at the Village Voice, moving into the coterie around Pauline Kael, watching the rise of punk, risking his life at the fringes of "adult" entertainment before exposing himself to ballet, and finally reflecting on his arc as a reviewer and journalist, Wolcott's worthwhile.

Despite his patrician name, his humble background didn't nurture high expectations "in my neck of nowhere back then; children weren't fawned over from an early age as 'gifted' and groomed for a prizewinning future; self-esteem was considered something you had to pluck from the garden yourself." (6) Always cautious due to perhaps this upbringing but bent on breaking in to the circle of New York intellects and characters he idolized, he sums up its limits once he entered their liberal arena. "Everybody seemed to be staring at the same targets through the same pair of binoculars." (24)

He realizes his luck. Fired from the Voice for daring to display a clean desk twenty minutes before closing time, he writes for a living, "something that would have been impossible if New York had not been a city of low rents and crappy expectations that didn't require a trust fund or a six-figure income for the privilege of watching everything fall apart before your eyes." (47)

The New Yorker gains its evocative place, with its ramshackle airs and many characters, back when (a few) writers had offices and editors met with journalists face to face, to dissect their submissions.
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Format: Hardcover
Wolcott is a talented writer who knew Mailer and Kael and was in the middle of the mid-'70s CBGBs scene, yet his book is a snooze. Wolcott is fond of long sentences put together in long paragraphs for page after long page; when a bit of dialog appears in this stuffy construction, it's to be savored like a brief breeze in an airless room. The attitude is somewhat witty, but mostly dry. Reading it is like listening to a guy who's not that passionate about what he's saying, yet who can't stop talking.

I get the feeling that if Wolcott got only semi-dirty in the Seventies, it's because he was only semi-involved--always looking on, noting names and eager to get back to where he really wanted to be, at his typewriter.
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By She Who Reads on December 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Having been an admirer of Wolcott's writing since his Voice days, I looked forward to reading this memoir. What a disillusion. Since he lived as a self-described solitary during this period who spent his time on the fringes of things (always standing or sitting at the back of the room), observing, it's a tough slog of a read.

Just can't imagine many general readers caring about office politics at the Village Voice, fringe critic Lester Bangs, punk rock at CBGSs, why ballet makes him woozy, the seamy 70s porn scene, etc. Wolcott forged a relationship with movie critic Pauline Kael. Dare I call it a friendship? He comes off as her lapdog who accompanied her to screenings and undoubtedly nodded assent to everything that came out of her mouth.

Wolcott is watcher, not a doer. Nothing wrong with that as his brilliant columns and shrewd observations attest, but he clearly makes the case that, away from an object to be evaluated, there is nothing more for him to write about.
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