Friday, July 25, 2008

Luc Sante, "Kill All Your Darlings" (2007).

I first became aware of writer Luc Sante when I stumbled on a used copy of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991). His grasp of late-1800-era Manhattan led me to believe he was a perpetual scholar of that time and location. Low Life is chock-a-bloc full of stories of political corruption, gambling, boozing, and the entire milieu of a now vanished sporting life. As a relatively uncommitted student of 19th Century American history, I found it refreshing to find an unsanitized version or urban existence in our nation's most important cultural center. I resolved to track down some of Sante's other works on the subject. I was surprised to discover that there was nothing else along these lines by the author.

Anyway, when I saw an opportunity to pick up another one of his titles cheap, I did so without even paging through it. Such an impulse buy is not my normal modus operandi, but in the case of Sante I felt it was justified. Fortunately I wasn't at all disappointed. Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 is a collection of essays Sante wrote for such notable publications as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and The Nation. His erudition has been praised by such writers as Greil Marcus (who wrote the introduction) and William Gibson. He has been awarded the prestigious Whiting Writer's Award (1989), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1992-23), and a Grammy for album notes for a re-issue of a folk music anthology.

Simply put, Luc Sante comes across as absolutely brilliant. I was continually astonished to find his immense expertise in a wide variety of subjects. I kept wondering how a fifty-something, Belgian-born college professor could possibly have his range of knowledge. Whether writing about riots at Tompkins Square Park, or famous contemporary criminals like John Gotti and Rudy Giuliani, his NYC bonafides are clearly evident. But get him on the subject of smoking cigarettes, or worldwide New Year traditions, and his eloquence turns into poetry. Paging through Kill All Your Darlings is a satisfying adventure. His engagement with his subjects is absolute.

While there is very little possibility that any single reader will be interested in each and every one of his topics, it's easy to appreciate his rigorous approach to background research. If you let yourself go, you could end up taking numerous digressions of independent study inspired by each and every piece. When he gets on the subject of Bob Dylan's career, or the history of the American Blues, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the details. But still you won't be able to stop yourself from marveling at his cultural lexicon. And while you might be tempted to skip ahead to an essay about something you are already drawn to, you'll likely find yourself scouring every paragraph for the next vital anecdote he intersperses quite liberally.

For where else are you going to hear the story of how an obscure juke-joint musician named Buddy Bolden made an inspired exclamation that led to the musical definition of the term "funk"? In what other book can you turn the page from a humorous critical analysis of the transgressive art of Robert Mapplethorpe, only to find an in-depth analysis of Walker Evan's photographic work for the Farm Security Administration of the Depression-era 30's? What other author is going to outline his personal histories with such figures as Arthur Rimbaud, Allan Ginsberg and Tintin? Sante has packed an education into this 299-page volume, and delivered it with an elegant precision of prose.

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