When I first arrived in New York in the closing weeks of 1979 with the grandiose notion of writing the great American novel, conventional wisdom suggested that I was about 20 years too late — that the city and the novel were both on their last legs. New York had nearly gone bankrupt a couple of years before and it showed. The city looked like hell, especially around the edges — the graffiti-ridden, garbage-strewn neighborhoods where marginally employed seekers like myself were able to find affordable shelter, neighborhoods where muggings and break-ins were rites of passage, thanks to the heroin epidemic. The recently completed Twin Towers were half empty and the subway system was barely functional. Eventually, if you were lucky, a train would shudder into the station, riddled with graffiti like some great wounded beast enervated by parasites. Catching the train was only half the battle. The other half was surviving the ride between your crummy neighborhood and the offices of a publishing house in midtown, where you had a lunch appointment with your old college friend, with your life and your wallet intact. I was 24 years old and I loved it all.
Maybe it was a function of my youth to believe that anything could happen here, yet somehow miraculous encounters did happen, as when an old college buddy introduced me to a legendary editor and publisher and the guy invited me out to lunch. I wasn’t necessarily discouraged when, over my very first-ever thimbleful of caviar, he explained to me that the novel was dead, that my own generation didn’t read books anymore, certainly not fiction. And anyway, he said — because he knew my novel-in-progress was set in Manhattan — there had never really been a great New York novel, and no one elsewhere in the country wanted to read about the city. I listened to the great man’s tales of doctrinal fights among the Partisan Review crowd, and literary fistfights in the Norman Mailer-era West Village and felt connected to a grand New York literary tradition. I managed to land a gig as a fact-checker at The New Yorker, which in its pre-Condé Nast days was still a wonderful dingy, spooky place (Charles Addams must have been inspired by the surroundings), a refuge of eccentrics and talented misfits holed up in tiny little rabbit hutches. And I crashed soirees at George Plimpton’s house on East 72nd Street (which also housed the offices of his Paris Review), cocktail parties that were always the perfect mix of beautiful young girls from Smith with trust funds and literary lions like Truman Capote, William Styron, and Gay Talese.
But I was also drawn to a marginal, underground culture that was self-consciously new, iconoclastic, and ephemeral. While Studio 54 was breathing its last gasps in midtown, a far less polished and, to my mind, more vital scene had sprung into existence downtown, on the Lower East Side and the unpopulated wasteland south of Canal — in those crummy fringe neighborhoods where the rents were cheap. Punk music, and the funky/arty rock of Television, Talking Heads, and Blondie, drew me to a nasty little bar called CBGB’s, where it was still possible some nights to hear the Ramones, and Television’s Tom Verlaine, and Richard Lloyd.