“Too many teeth / In this city / Are bared /
What I want is to sleep / inside a strange language […]”
—Jim Carroll, “Fear of Dreaming”
I started the 1990s in junior high and ended them off in college. I started as a Catholic school kid in his Thom McAn shoes and clip-on tie deep in Southern Brooklyn and ended as an atheist with a regular stool at his favorite dive in a small Hudson Valley hippie town. I started at a friend’s basement party with Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” on repeat and ended in that whirlpoolish hippie town watching fireworks over the Shawangunk Ridge and laughing about Y2K while slugging from a bottle of MD 20/20. It was a decade of transitions for me. It was also a deeply formative time in terms of what I was reading and watching and listening to. My newest novel, City of Margins, is set in Southern Brooklyn between 1991 and 1994. It was the time when my neighborhood was most alive to me, when I was involved most intimately in its machinations, and I wanted to go back there, back to the real place and back to the place as it exists in my imagination, but—more than anything—back to the time.
I hate to sound like an old timer, but pre-Internet—coming from a family that had no use to speak of for the arts and didn’t get cable until I moved away to college—I marvel at how I lucked into discovering things. It was a good time for the radio, thank god. That first exposure to Nirvana in ’91 swept me away forever from the hair metal that had occupied my grade school years (thanks to my stepbrother, whose jean jackets and band T-shirts and mullet I envied). I also depended on network TV, especially rare life-changers like Twin Peaks, Homicide: Life on the Street, and My So-Called Life. And there were, of course, the libraries and video stores where my real education took place. In school, the nuns assigned books I didn’t care about; I loved to read but—up to that point—mostly only about baseball and mob hits. I can’t thank my father for much—he split when I was one and his visits were inconsistent—but unlike my mom and grandparents, he was a big reader. I haven’t seen him in twenty-five years, but one of the main things I remember about him is that he read while he was driving, the book open in his lap, stealing glances between maneuvers, which seemed insane then but looks ahead of its time now. In his attic in Jersey he had shelves full of Stephen King and Ed McBain. I started there, snagging books and smuggling them home to Brooklyn. And then the library—the Ulmer Park and New Utrecht branches—did the rest. Because I loved films and would see everything as it was released on VHS, I sought out the authors whose books some of my favorite films were based on. That’s how I started reading Jim Thompson and Barry Gifford around then—The Grifters and Wild at Heart introduced a new, strange world to me.
Since no one was guiding my hand, I was open to anything. It was an age of discovery. I lucked into finding and falling in love with crime fiction, sure, but there was so much more. And when you have no one telling you what to like and what not to like, what fits and what doesn’t, it’s a beautiful thing. So I’d just feed it all into my internal hard drive: Nirvana; Singles; Tori Amos; Gas Food Lodging; Dogfight; Robert Altman; Alan Rudolph; Digable Planets; Charles Willeford; My Own Private Idaho; Point Break; Deep Cover; Walter Mosley; Elmore Leonard; the Coen Brothers; The Afghan Whigs; Lauryn Hill; John Sayles; Nora Ephron; Martin Scorsese; Beastie Boys; Angie; Thelma and Louise; Frankie & Johnny; Batman Returns; David Lynch; Paul Verhoeven; Abel Ferrara; Quentin Tarantino; Hal Hartley; The Silence of the Lambs; Soundgarden; Spike Lee; What About Bob?; Smoke; Quick Change; Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.; Screaming Trees; Paul Westerberg; Liz Phair; Daniel Johnston; The Fisher King; Terminator 2: Judgment Day; Boyz N the Hood; New Jack City; The Last Boy Scout (the novelization too); JFK; My Girl; James Ellroy; Bruce Springsteen; Patti Smith; Slacker; The Thing Called Love; John Carpenter; Madonna; Sonic Youth; the Ramones; Lou Reed; Sinéad O’Connor . . . I could just keep listing artists and works that had some significant impact on me in these formative years, but I’ll quit there. What would come from this was a new way of seeing, of being. I was hungry to interact with art. I’m not sure how exactly that hunger blossomed, but I’m damn glad it did. In any case, I think this new novel of mine, more than anything, is the result of how this information was processed, a direct development of uninhibited discovery, of a love affair with books, cinema, and music, particularly from this time.
* * *
When I started writing City of Margins, I wasn’t thinking about it as a period piece. But it is, of course. It blows my mind to realize that 1991 is as distant to us now as 1962 was in 1991. I returned to the time out of necessity, in some ways. Gravesend was set in 2010, and The Lonely Witness was set in 2017. While I’m back home in my neighborhood very often, I haven’t lived there full-time since the late ’90s. What I realized while writing A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself (set in the long ago year of 2006) is that I wanted to get out of this century and go back to the time that shaped me most profoundly. When I write, those are the streets I’m on in my mind. Those are the streets I know. I also love the things of that era: pay-phones; typewriters; the Walkman; VHS tapes; subway tokens; video game cartridges that you had to blow in. They serve as talismans to me; I think of them, and I’m there, taking six mile walks on cracked sidewalks, listening to songs I taped off the radio, stopping in Sam Goody or Zig Zag Records to make a list of cassettes I want for my birthday or Christmas. I’m typing stories on Saturday morning on my grandparents’ Royal; I’m touching the typewriter ribbon because it keeps slipping loose, my fingers black like my grandpa’s after he’s worked on an engine. I’m playing Galaga with the back door open, half-watching dirty doves flit around the fig tree in the yard, wondering what the Holy Spirit even is. I’m going up to Wolfman’s (my local video store—I think it was actually called International Video) and browsing the boxes, watching an old man disappear behind saloon doors into the porn room, eventually choosing movies because I liked the title or the cover art or they starred Lili Taylor or Samantha Mathis or Lori Petty or Jennifer Jason Leigh or someone else I was in love with. Three tapes for four bucks—what a deal.
Everywhere I looked I saw divisions, borders, differences, anger, fear, narrowness, dark systems in place. People were corrupt or corruptible.
This era was formative for me in other ways, too. My early obsession with the work of David Lynch no doubt stemmed from the fact that he was focusing on the dark beneath the surface. I was beginning to see that darkness, to be aware of evil in a way I hadn’t previously been. In the summer of 1989, Yusuf Hawkins had been murdered in Bensonhurst by a bunch of Italian kids—I didn’t know them but they were just like boys I did know. Everywhere I looked I saw divisions, borders, differences, anger, fear, narrowness, dark systems in place. People were corrupt or corruptible. Nuns, teachers, priests, cops. Didn’t matter. Religion got taken and twisted up. All that had previously made sense was crumbling to ash. The city was boiling, alive with tension. I hated the crowded buses and subways. I was in end-of-the-line Brooklyn, and I felt isolated. I thirsted for open roads, clean air, a college town with bars and trees and young people living, where you could walk outside at night and see the sky fat with stars. I wanted to live in the movies. Eighth grade was when I faced my first real bouts of depression (before I knew to name it that). It started slow—melancholy, gloom, a heaviness in my chest. It got worse in high school, culminating in a year that seems blacked out in my memory. I recovered slightly, enough to function in the world. But in college a few years later, I started to mix the melancholy with booze. In 1998 and 1999, I cut my wrists and stabbed myself in the forearm and tried pretty hard to die; I didn’t, thankfully. This sense of melancholy too pervades City of Margins. The characters are my attempt to make sense of how and why I felt trapped and empty, of how I felt hobbled by the things I’d never be or have, of what it means to be a kid and then suddenly an adult and then, maybe, an adult who has lost everything that matters.
* * *
I’ve been describing City of Margins as a Technicolor noir melodrama. Noir and melodrama are two genres that walk side by side—for me, they meet most profoundly in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, the films of Nicholas Ray and Alan Rudolph and David Lynch, and Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. They’re both genres I go to for something I can’t find elsewhere: truth dressed up in style. This is something I aspired to in City of Margins, but it might be more accurate to say that the book is truly in line with a certain kind of character-driven ’90s New York City indie film. A little washed out and infused with a sense of place. There were a bunch of these, and—as I’ve rewatched some over the past few months—I’ve realized just how much they rubbed off on me. I’m thinking of Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup, Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity, and pretty much everything by Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch. These films are filled with actors like Steve Buscemi and Edie Falco, saints of my imagination, and what I love in part about them is how they use interconnected lives to make sense of the city. That’s something I was after in this book that focuses so much on how chance and consequence thread us together, on the intimacy of decay, and on the terror and turmoil of living a small life in dangerous proximity to other terrified souls. A few days ago I discovered a film from 1994 that I’d somehow missed called Hand Gun. Directed by Whitney Ransick, it stars Treat Williams, Paul Schulze, Seymour Cassel, Frank Vincent, and lots of other familiar faces in a claustrophobic New York City crime drama dosed with a good bit of black comedy. It’s a little gem of a film, totally forgotten as far as I can tell, and one of the things that struck me most about it is how I responded to its aesthetics, as if they’d been encoded in me though I’d never ever seen the picture. It’s a good feeling to be on the wavelength of art you respond so viscerally to. I felt the same thing a couple of nights ago watching Brandon Cole’s OK Garage from ’98 (recommended by my pal Jedidiah Ayres) for the first time, as if Lili Taylor, John Turturro, and Richard Bright’s performances were written in my blood somehow.
Some people feel like they’re born in the wrong time; occasionally, I can empathize with that point of view, but I’m such a full-blown Gen Xer, such a product of the ’90s, that I can’t imagine who I’d be removed from the era that made me. City of Margins is, amongst other things, a love (and pain) song to the ’90s, to this age of discovery and decay, to the lostness that I felt, to how big the world seemed, how scary and full of wonder, to the connections I didn’t yet see, to the art—transmitted through buzzy boombox speakers and on flickering TVs and in the pages of battered library hardbacks—that wrecked me and filled me up and switched my brain.