Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Down And In: Life In The Underground By Ronald Sukenick

Down And In: Life In The Underground by Ronald Sukenick. 288 pp. Collier Books.

This memoir of la vie boheme starts with the author's disenchantment with life in 1950s middle class Brooklyn. The late Ronald Sukenick took himself across the East River, first to Greenwich Village and then to the edgier East Village. After he crosses the Brooklyn Bridge, the narrative becomes less autobiographical and more oriented toward the "subterranean" movements and artists who opposed mass culture, starting with the decade known for gray flannel suits and sexual repression. Sukenick takes us on a animated pub and cafe crawl, as most of the "action" takes place indoors at the White Horse Tavern, the Cedar Street Tavern, the San Remo Coffee House, Max's Kansas City and the Mudd Club.

Sukenick seems to have observed or spoken to almost every legendary artistic figure from the 50s into the 70s: Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Willem de Kooning, Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol and many others. He moves from the Beats to the Hippies to the Punks, and by the time the scene centers around Max's Kansas City, uptown meets downtown and the lines between monied art patrons and artists blur. Sukenick devotes much of the last chapter trying to reconcile the devotion to one's art with the desire for success, and he ponders whether a balance can be struck between the two. These considerations become at times too theoretical in an otherwise lively book. His reflections on economic realities, however, have continued relevance as every area of New York City formerly known as an artistic haven–the Village, Soho, Tribeca, Williamsburg–has eventually become gentrified and too expensive for younger artists. Down and In looks back at a culturally significant era when it was still possible for those who haven't yet made it to live in the midst of an artistic and literary ferment.

Related work: New York In The 50s by Dan Wakefield.


Michael The Molar Maven said...

When do you have time to real all these books. I'm rather envious.

Jeff Tone said...

Thanks, but I actually don't think I read enough books. You just have to make the time.