*Check out my blog post for Carve Magazine about the Disabilities Panel at AWP 2015!*
Recently I became a book tour host. Here’s how it works: I tell the fine people at TLC Book Tours what types of books I like, and they send me free ones. I read the books and review them on my blog. It’s a win-win situation: I get books; the authors get publicity. And, unlike a paying book review situation I did a few years ago (which shall remain nameless), I’m not required to give positive reviews. I can say whatever I want. Which means you know you can trust the following review of my latest TLC book…
Smash Cut by Brad Gooch is many things. At first I thought it a slightly pretentious, name-dropping memoir. Or perhaps a nostalgia-soaked literary ode to artsy-gay New York in the ’70s and ’80s. But as I got deeper into the book, I realized it’s something more. It’s a love story.
When I started reading Smash Cut, I didn’t know who Howard Brookner was, but a quick look on Wikipedia reveals that his life, especially the latter half of it, reads like a tear-jerker movie. He was a young director who gained fame for his documentary on William Burroughs (from whom he picked up a pesky heroin habit). His first feature film, The Bloodhounds of Broadway (starring Madonna, Matt Dillion, Jennifer Grey, and Rutger Haur), turned out to be his last. He was secretly battling with AIDS during the filming and died shortly before the movie was released, at the age of thirty-five.
In Smash Cut, the story of Howard comes packaged in the story of Brad, Howard’s long-time lover and best friend. In fact, Smash Cut is really Brad’s story, and perhaps that’s its downfall for me. The scenes without Howard — when Brad goes to Europe to pursue male modeling, for example — feel superfluous and indulgent, despite the fact that they are rather fascinating. It isn’t until Howard gets sick and the story turns its focus to him that I felt the true power of the book and the heart-breaking emotion behind Howard and Brad’s relationship.
The thing is, I’m a person who wants a story. I want a building of tension and a climax, and although that is certainly what happens in the second half of the book, memoirs can’t always have the arc of fictional stories. The first half of Smash Cut is more descriptive: of the clubs the men went to, of the eccentric/witty people they knew, as well as episodic: that time they went home to meet Brad’s parents, those nights when they hung out with Andy Warhol. There is a trajectory of sorts to be found in Brad and Howard’s relationship, but for a long time they are on-again, off-again and the story feels rather random…much like life, I suppose.
Let me be clear: there are people who will love this book. If you were a gay man or an artist/model/literary type in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, you’ll love Smash Cut. If you wish you had been an artist/model/literary type in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, you’ll love Smash Cut. If you’ve fantasized about hanging out with people like William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Madonna, or Sean Penn, you’ll love Smash Cut.
And there were times that I loved this book, too. It’s sophisticated and elegantly written, and besides, who doesn’t want to read juicy tidbits about Sean Penn? But sometimes I felt that instead of welcoming me into this fascinating world, Gooch’s references and his endless parade of “who’s who in New York” friends made me feel like I wasn’t quite cool or smart enough to join his private party. At one point Gooch describes being in love with Howard, “in a cool fashion that didn’t exclude others” (66), but this memoir, especially at the beginning, alienated me at times with its name-dropping, its tangents, its references to things I didn’t quite grasp. (Describing someone as having a Mark Spitz mustache, for example, doesn’t help when I don’ t know who Mark Spitz is.)
On the other hand, there are also parts of Smash Cut that speak universal truths and hit emotional chords. Strip away all the celebrities and witty dinner parties, and what you have left is the story of two people trying to figure out love and death. As morbid as it sounds, I was most engaged when Howard got sick. Brad had no choice but to grow up; to care for his dying partner and face his own mortality as well. This is something everyone can relate to, and it’s what ultimately makes this book an ode — not to artsy-gay New York in the ’70s and ’80s — but to the love and friendship between Howard Brookner and Brad Gooch.