Luc Sante's New Collection Takes A Bite Out Of America's Cultural Past
Eighty pages into Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 (Yeti/Verse Chorus Press), Luc Sante begins an inquiry into the history of the word "dope," in all its multifarious meanings, with these words: "You have to keep your eye on the past. Not only is it not dead yet, but it can sometimes jump up and bite you in the ankle." Good advice, and for their author a manifesto: Sante is the kind of historian and critic who never appears to force anything. When a subject jumps up and bites him in the ankle, then he'll move.
Sante gets bitten often, and from all over. Two of his prior books, 1991's Low Life and 1992's Evidence, marked him as our premier chronicler of past underworlds; he's consulted for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and edited a reissue book line on con artistry. But the Sante on display in Kill All Your Darlings is the cultural critic; even the first-person essays that lead it off are much about the role society played into the author's early history.
Take "The Injection Mold," a memoir of six months working for a tiny sweatshop in Passaic, N.J., which culminates with the teenaged Sante discovering, at his high school, a career-guidance booklet on the job he's ready to leave behind: "I tried to imagine a student, shopping around for a way to live after being released from school, picking the booklet out of all the ones on offer and deciding that this was the job for him. Nothing in the booklet was false, even in its implications, and yet it made as little sense as if an equivalent booklet had been entitled Prison Inmate."
The book really takes off, though, when Sante turns his eye toward the works of others: visual artists, musicians, novelists, and poets come under the microscope here. It's as hard to imagine any of them being treated so rigorously (and entertainingly) by another writer as it is to think of another writer who could cover so wide a swathe so convincingly. (A solitary objection to the selections here is that Sante left out "Rogue's Gallery," his extraordinary tribute to B-movie character actors; then again, the book it first appeared in, OK You Mugs, was co-edited by Sante and his wife, Melissa Holbrook Pierson--probably didn't want to divert the funds too much, understandably enough.)
His review of the four-CD Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the Original Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, issued by Rhino in 1998, is both a peak and utterly typical of Sante's approach. He gets at it from both inside and outside, from the vantages of a suburban teenager in the 1960s and the far worldlier adult--and neither side gets any more weight than the other. There's endless affection as well as eye-rolling "oh yeah, that, God" in his summary of the box's contents (edited slightly): "[T]here's zit-cream metaphysics (the Electric Prunes), brain-pan alley (the Elevators), Napoleon XIV babble (Kim Fowley), Stan Freberg parody (the Magic Mushrooms), slick studio contrivance (the Strawberry Alarm Clock), slick contrivance with outsized guitar heroics (the Amboy Dukes), insufferable la-la twaddle (Fenwyck), and bobbing for meatballs (the Bees)." No idea what "bobbing for meatballs" means, precisely, but the phrase, once introduced, makes the entire thing hum.
This isn't a crime book, per se, though it comes close at times--not only the infernal conditions of the plastics factory of "The Injection Mold," but the horrifying sight of Woodstock '99, much of whose horror Sante manages to catch in just over four hours' attendance. The subsequent fires and looting hardly came as a surprise: "Kids are always angry...[and] society over the past thirty years has become ever more effective at telling them...to shut up and spend, shut up and watch, shut up and join the workforce."
There are mysteries, too. "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say" (originally from 2004's The Rose and the Briar, an anthology about American ballads) investigates an old New Orleans tune ("Funky butt, funky butt, take it away") as the beginning of the entire principle of funk. Maybe the most extraordinary piece in the book, "The Invention of the Blues" is about precisely what the title says. In it, Sante suggests--insists--that the blues form didn't gradually drift into place from a number of sources, the way sociology suggests it might have, but was created, by a specific person, in a specific place, at a specific time: "If the blues materialized so recently, suddenly, and specifically, it seems at best sentimental to attribute it broadly to `the people.'"
Populist, not sentimentalist, is Sante's calling card. It's how he approaches Robert Mapplethorpe, in an extraordinary overview. After casting a critical eye on three biographies ("If Mapplethorpe were alive and on trial, [Arthur] Danto would be an expert witness for the defense, [Patricia] Morrisroe a journalist covering the case for a glossy if sensational publication, and [Jack] Fritscher an opinionated acquaintance holding forth on the courthouse steps day after day for anyone who would listen"), Sante hones in with an extremely careful hand on Mapplethorpe's more extreme S&M works.
Near the essay's end, he discusses possible routes the photographer's legacy might take: "There will always be people who claim that morals are somehow at stake, as well as advocates of bland tolerance and solemn universality, all of them in their diverse ways trying to hose down art, but they will inevitably be bested in this task by the culture's boundless capacity for indifferent absorption." Luc Sante absorbs nothing indifferently, and that's why he's such a pleasure to read.