I first visited New York City in the mid-eighties, but it has lived in my imagination much longer, as long as I can remember. A person’s first impressions of a place, however fantastical and inaccurate, never quite go away, and the New York I love to this day is a blend of the real and the imagined. My novels have all been set in a version of the city made up partly of the factual concrete place – there are chapters you can use as guidebooks! – and partly of the assorted variations which formed in my head at six years old, ten, fifteen, from art and entertainment: music, films, telly, comics.
New York was a distant, exhilarating place where life was edgy and exciting and exotic. Everything about New York was extreme. The buildings were extremely tall. The restaurants, where in corners pianists played ebony grand pianos, were extremely plush. The subways were extremely dark. The subway trains were extremely clattery. The cabs were extremely yellow. The cab drivers took extreme risks to get you places fast. Black people were extremely cool. Private Eyes were extremely laconic. The police were extremely trigger-happy.
New York was believed to be the most violent, shadowy, dangerous place on earth. (For a while, this was statistically true.) It was full of glittery rich people and angry poor people. All the glittery rich people were white and all the angry poor people were black. Being poor and angry, as packaged by pop culture, was hip, full of gritty energy. Truth was, it was hipper than being rich, though less comfortable. Neither Hispanic people beyond West Side Story nor, beyond the miniaturized ‘mysterious east’ of Chinatown, Asian people, were heard about much.
When Quentin Crisp, an Englishman in New York, said he adored America what he really meant was that he adored New York. In fact, that he adored Greenwich Village. When as a boy I thought of New York I thought of Manhattan. I had only the vaguest sense that there were other boroughs. Manhattan was America. All US TV programmes that were any good seemed to be set in New York, even if they weren’t. All comic books were set in New York. The blue skies of Manhattan were streaked by the multi-coloured costumes of countless superheroes. I remember wondering why, with all these superheroes around, the super-villains didn’t move to Chicago or LA, where they could rule the roost unchallenged. (Chicago, it must be said, had gangsters.) My favourite comic, The Fantastic Four, in its Jack Kirby golden age, was pretty cosmic, but New York was the centre of its universe. When the Silver Surfer or Galactus came to Earth it was always to New York. Doctor Doom was the ruler of a minor Eastern European nation called Latveria, inhabited exclusively by peasants, but he spent all his time flying to New York.
New York was drowning in music. The Greenwich Village folk scene of the sixties was thrilling in its way but the music that really mattered was jazz: Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington. The Apollo theatre. Louis Armstrong at Town Hall. Bird and Dizzy and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk playing bop at the Royal Roost. Nearly every jazz musician recorded a live album at the Village Vanguard. “Live at the Village Vanguard” remains an evocative phrase. Strangely, Broadway music, unless reworked into jazz, didn’t do much for me, being too direct, lacking mystery. The city’s legendary small club cabaret scene appealed to me more in the abstract than in practice, maybe because, for me, cabaret benefited from a European accent. But pop singers and groups based in the city – Lou Reed, Blondie – were evocative of it, as if the place itself was stewed into the sound of the records. Pop songs which mentioned New York had an extra piquancy: most famously Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, though the song that gave me butterflies was called Native New Yorker by a group called Odyssey, about which I knew nothing else. It made me wish I was a native New Yorker. I still love it when I hear it. It makes me think of seventies Harlem, black people with afros, rather like the pictures on Miles Davis album sleeves of the time.
A lot of Europeans got their most vivid impressions of New York from the films of Woody Allen, who was to us a great film-maker, and most important, a great New York film-maker. We understood that he had lived in New York all his life and was in a way the ultimate New Yorker. He even sometimes wrote for the New Yorker magazine. His chunk of the city, populated by artistic white people at the upper end of middle class (or at least free of money worries,) who read literary novels, attended art gallery opening nights, queued at art-house cinemas, went to chi-chi parties where there was airy chat about these subjects, was a long way from Harlem, but the soundtracks were smeared with jazz.
New York after midnight made for a different cinematic and literary experience. With its tall buildings which cast shadows broken only by pools of light from street lamps, its cramped rooming houses, its brownstones, and perhaps because it rained a lot, three a.m.
New York was the ultimate noir city. I loved the books of Cornell Woolrich who was credited with inventing the genre. He spent most of his life living in New York hotels, first with his mother and after her death alone, becoming more isolated and strange as time passed, and describing, or inventing, a paranoid underbelly of existentialist terror. Woolrich’s books were so intense they made you sweat. In a breath-taking novel called Deadline at Dawn, a couple are hunted through the “night-scarred city”. The chapter headings are clockfaces so the reader can viscerally feel how far away the safety of dawn is.
The most intense New York noir vision was to be found in the Harlem novels of Chester Himes, who was one of the greatest of all American writers. In the forties and fifties he wrote a number of serious, damning, complex novels about American racism. Like most black American writers of the time he lived for many years in France, where, desperate for money, he took up a publisher’s invitation to try his hand at detective fiction. The result, A Rage in Harlem, was the first of what became nine increasingly surreal crime novels, brief and sharp as gunshot, featuring two black cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. Funny and violent and tragic; hot and dark and full of hurt. (The first volume of Himes’ autobiography was called The Quality of Hurt.) Himes had lived in Harlem and knew it well but these novels were much more than a report. They presented a kaleidoscopic, cinematic vision of the district: like the London of Dickens and the London of Hogarth, they were absolutely truthful and yet more unforgettably vivid, wilder, than life. Written in the late fifties and sixties, they were nominally set in the present, but ‘the present’ was a flexible concept. When a character put on a record, it was likely to be Bessie Smith. And yet, as has been observed, some of the imagery and feel of rap and hip-hop can be found in these books. That’s how far ahead of his time Himes was. He didn’t so much transcend the genre as blow it apart. He was a genius.
There were photographs too, of course, preferably black and white. New York has always been incredibly photogenic. Shots of the lights of Broadway, bright but blurry, Times Square, shots of the famous sky-line, shots of the village. Exteriors of music venues, the Vanguard, the Gaslight, the Bitter End. The faces of beat poets. The faces of ex-pats: Auden, Crisp. Shots of people on boiling hot summer days, sitting on fire escapes and in open windows, shirtless, cigarettes in mouths, the radio (one imagined) playing in the background.
Strangely, though the summers were notoriously hot, the city’s other weather extreme was rarely touched on: it never snowed in any of these assorted New Yorks. It was a shock to find when I began living nearby that there was snow on the ground three months of the year.
All these variations connected to each other only at the edges, like Venn diagrams, but the resulting impressions amounted to both a series of fractures and an oddly convincing whole, only parts of which can be visited bodily but which add up to the ultimate mythic American city.