Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs
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James Wolcott’s career as a critic has been unmatched, from his early Seventies dispatches for The Village Voice to the literary coverage made him equally feared and famous to his must-read reports on the cultural weather for Vanity Fair. Bringing together his best work from across the decades, this collection shows Wolcott as connoisseur, intrepid reporter, memoirist, and necessary naysayer.
We begin with “O.K. Corral Revisited,” Wolcott’s career-launching account of the famed Norman Mailer–Gore Vidal dust-off on the original Dick Cavett Show. He goes on to consider (or reconsider) the towering figures of our culture, among them Lena Dunham Patti Smith, Johnny Carson, Woody Allen, and John Cheever. And we witness his legendary takedowns, which have entered into the literary lore of our time. In an age where a great deal of back scratching and softball pitching pass for criticism, Critical Mass offers a bracing taste of the real thing.
juxtaposed. Foreground and background appear scissored and pasted against each other to create a dynamic clash. As he told Bogdanovich, “You see, the point is that you are, first of all, in a two-dimensional medium. Mustn’t forget that. You have a rectangle to fill. Fill it. Compose it.” He objected to having “air space” around actors’ heads and bodies because it padded the screen with useless depth. The glamorous faces of Hitchcock’s stars are legendary façades set against other legendary
seven years old, I could remember going to the library and looking with positive lust at big fat books [laughter] which would last me.” “I mean, the weekly walk to the library—infinite riches in a little room—unbelievable.” Reading for him wasn’t a passive pastime but a passionate escape. “Because reading was great fun, it was extremely entertaining. It’s true that Nobody Loved Me [laughter]… I was All Alone … I was very unsocial, and so I read.” As a teacher he expects his students to read too.
fanaticism, the Thor-type upward thrust of the entire being, replacing pale, horizontal, mock-Christian love of fellow Christian love of fellow-creature; the man or woman who is High Inside, hummingly self-aware, the gunner and gunnerette in the turret of the aircraft that is Self, is watching out for number one with a hundred new-born eyes.” High Inside is where Krim aspired to be. He wanted success to massage him with a mink glove until he spurted gold. Crown me king, kiddo! But he was barely
because Marlow himself is the lying fink. The classroom inquisition is too drawn out, and the spinster conducting this terror looks like Monty Python’s Terry Jones in drag—she’s too campy. But the moment that Marlow breaks through the crust to spill his guilty guts to a shrink (Bill Paterson, the sane, genial D.J. in Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy) is truly cathartic. It has a primal crack of pity completely absent from most TV. No TV writer on this side of the Atlantic digs for the buried child
winning his praise, she coos, “Honey, you make me feel bigger than Janis Joplin … when she was alive, that is.” Loretta echoes the Gwen Wells character in Nashville—a novice so ebulliently eager to please that she’s simply not going to let a little thing like lack of talent get in her way. In her bowling-alley gig, she does her honky-tonk so spiritedly that she drowns out the sound of falling pins. The loopiness of the characters is treated with genial matter-of-factness—only Dody Goodman, doing