My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages ($16 paperback original). Susan Sontag had a very real son – one who has long written and is now her legacy’s caretaker – David Rieff. If she’d had a flamboyant, wayward, purely literary and spiritual son, it might have been Wayne Koestenbaum, who has been front and center as one of the unexpected originals of American writing since “The Queen’s Throat” explained opera fandom among gays in a way that no one else had. He has continued to be a one-of-a-kind marvel as poet, essayist and critic, so radical and candid in subject matter, so hilarious and incisive as a result that he makes other writers seem like elementary school principals. (For proof, see his “Humiliation,” a set of variations on the subject whose uniqueness is, if anything, understatement.)
Koestenbaum is personal to the point of acute reader discomfort. He is also scholarly, erudite, profound and completely unorthodox as a matter of hopeless, helpless identity and not at all as a matter of nose-thumbing formal defiance. Here is the second paragraph/fragment of “My 1980s”: “I had little to do with art in the eighties. (After he told Princeton’s Joyce Carol Oates that Tama Janowitz was “West Village” and he was “East Village”) I saw Caravaggio in Rome and Carpaccio in Venice. I neglected the contemporary. For half the decade, I lived in New York City and yet I didn’t go to a single Andy Warhol opening. Missed opportunities? My mind was elsewhere.”
The cover of “My 1980s” is a fine period over-the-shoulder glamour shot of Debbie Harry, the diva of Blondie and of self-mutilation in Cronenberg’s “Videodrome.” Here is the first paragraph of Koestenbaum’s essay “Debbie Harry at the Supermarket”: “In the late 1990s I stood behind Debbie Harry in line at Sloan’s. We lived in the same apartment complex, a behemoth. Sloan’s, the unsavory supermarket around the block, was our common ground. One summer evening, a rat crawled past my flip-flop clad feet while I waited in the checkout line. I vowed never again to wear flip-flops while food shopping. If this essay is an allegory, I’m the rat scurrying along interpretive thoroughfares where my filth isn’t wanted.” On the contrary for this allegorical rodent.
– Jeff Simon