sábado, 7 de noviembre de 2009

New York Days, New York Nights by Stephen Brook

I have just done another tour of New York. It’s a city whose streets I have walked, whose life I have encountered, whose people I have known. But I have never been there. New York, Like Paris and London, is a city where writers switch on their professional noticing and recording. A good proportion of novelists seem to want to live there. It’s a city where journalists apparently never have to travel far for a story and where social commentators uncover endless lines of interest. And in the early 1980s Stephen Brook, an English visitor, took his turn at plodding the streets, buttonholing the affluent and dabbling with low life in order to generate his book, New York Days, New York Nights.

It was a task he took seriously. His mission covered the city’s politics, food, shopping, sexuality, power, social structure, ethnic relations, commerce, crime and apparently every other aspect of its existence, but with only scant regard for its history. We learn how on Manhattan air space can be traded, how the city’s craving for constant change means that there is little sense of permanence. We visit late night bars and clubs, experience the gay-scene low-life at first hand, then at second hand and eventually at the level of the mutual anonymous grope. We visit jails, courts, police beats and other arresting areas. We talk to mayors, ex-mayors and would-be mayors. We feel debt and wealth in unequal measure. Stephen Brook appears not to want to leave any concrete block unturned.

But though Stephen Brook’s journey through New York’s unique experience is nothing less than encyclopedic, his experience seems to remain that of the outsider, the committed but still detached tourist. As each of the book’s many chapters runs to its close and another opens, we can almost hear the writer begin with, “And here’s another thing…” Well before the end we feel that the author is on a mission to collect in order to exhibit. In the end, we feel we have been on a city tour bus and listened to the commentary, but that we still have to walk the streets to begin the real experience.

But like all impressionistic descriptions of contemporary life, it becomes both less relevant and more interesting as it ages. It becomes irrelevant because its original concept is superseded, rendered mere whimsy by the passing of time. Its intention is to be contemporary, after all, and that quality is soon lost. But twenty-five years on, having been reminded that the city remains eager for constant change, it becomes fascinating to reflect on what has or might have changed. In 2009, we have a financial crisis, rich man’s crime, an economy laden with unemployment and debt, recession and portent of doom and gloom. We also have celebrity, overt riches and conspicuous consumption alongside poverty, near-destitution, drug addiction and poor man’s crime. So what’s new?

One major change is that during Stephen Brook’s journey, the existence of AIDS deserves mention, but little more. During visits to bath houses, the author experiences at first hand the workings, insertions, thrusts and suspended machinations of gay promiscuity – sorry, there is no other word – and the scenes he describes seem better fitted to a fantasy porn movie than any reality. A dimension we don’t feel in all of this is the contrast with attitudes that one would expect to be prevalent in middle America. Surely it is that contrast that illustrates the difference between New York and the rest of the country?

But New York Days, New York nights remains a rich and rewarding trip. (The city’s drug scene, but the way, is such an aspect of daily life that it deserves frequent but only passing comment.) Though the reader may occasionally tire of Stephen Brook’s lengthy trek through the city, it is an account that has endured and that still interests, perhaps because the place itself and its people remain interesting.

View this book on amazon
New York Days, New York Nights (Picador Books)

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