A Reading List on New York’s Gritty Past
Adam Smyer, author of Knucklehead, on the dark side of the city
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My debut novel Knucklehead is about a black law student who struggles, sometimes unsuccessfully, with the impulse to confront everyday bad behavior with swift and antisocial action. Knucklehead ends in San Francisco but, like me, it starts in New York. I was born in the South Bronx and grew up in midtown Manhattan before going to California in the ’90s. I spent the ’70s and ’80s moving through many of the realms that made up New York. Daring each other into burned-out tenements uptown. Drinking 40s with homeless punks in Alphabet City squats. A prom at the Playboy Club, followed by dancing at Xenon. Getting shaken down in Times Square. A toga party at the Waldorf.
That’s all gone now, in spirit if not in fact. The wilds in which we had our adventures have been paved over and sterilized and repopulated with clean-cut young people staring at phones. My generation bemoaning this as “New York sucking now” is unfortunate, as well as false. Doubtless, people said that about us too.
For my own peace of mind, I have decided that New York is not only countless social strata superimposed on one another, it is also countless eras. My era is still here. New York is still here. These eight books, about as varied as they can be, all share the timeless essence of the city.
The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian
A love letter to the Lower East Side, The Fuck-Up chronicles the semi-adventures of a proto-slacker in 1982. There were an unlimited number of ways to get into trouble back then, and this novel covers a lot of them.
Hunting in Harlem by Mat Johnson
“Three ex-cons came to Harlem looking to become something more.” Thus begins Mat Johnson’s clever, funny, and eminently readable story of one approach to urban blight and gentrification in upper Manhattan. If Dickens were a nerdy brother from Philly, he might have written this.
The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah
An escapist read in more ways than one, Sister Souljah’s classic street saga takes us from Brooklyn to Long Island and beyond with the straight-shooting credibility the author is known for.
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress by Susan Jane Gilman
This fantastic memoir of the ’70s and ’80s in Manhattan is spot on. If you were there, you remember the small town that existed amid world-class glamour. When genuine (if often tense) diversity prepared us for life on Earth. When everything was dangerous but almost no one died. It was awful and magic and it is all in this book.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
A brutally accurate account of Manhattan in the late ’80s. Skip the over-the-top violence, if you like. What’s left is even more disturbing: an overclass of identical white boys fueled by nothing but coke, greed, ego, and, to varying degrees, an unquenchable thirst for blood.
Live Nude Elf by Jen Miller
“The Lower East Side is a small town, one that’s full of slutty bisexual people who’ve all slept with each other.” This memoir, which covers the sexperiments Revered Jen conducted for Nerve.com’s column “I Did It for Science”, is full of insights such as this one, as well as a lot of honesty and fun.
Serpico by Peter Maas
The New York of the ’70s is almost completely built over over now, but nothing is more New York than the story of Frank Serpico, an NYPD officer who, despite having no high-ranked “rabbis” in the department to protect him, resisted and ultimately opposed the corruption that ran the city.
Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee and Lisa Jones
No film captured ’80s New York life like Do The Right Thing. This companion book to the film provides a rare and thorough look behind the scenes — most interestingly, almost a year’s worth of journal entries by Spike Lee. A must for those who felt, and feel, the authenticity and truth of Spike’s masterpiece.