Saturday, August 1, 2015

Brad Gooch, Smash Cut (HarperCollins, 2015)

I had to read Brad Gooch’s Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art & the ’70s & the ’80s over a period of about two months in gradual increments, stopping and starting, to give myself time to process what I was feeling. As excited as I was throughout the book, I knew from the beginning how emotionally demanding it would be for me, a memoir about a talented artist and filmmaker, Howard Brookner, a handsome young gay man in New York City, who died of AIDS and was buried on his 35th birthday. I was right on the edge of tears in every paragraph of the prologue, so I allowed myself a couple of weeks after that to feel prepared enough to continue reading.

Brad Gooch, a biographer, novelist, and poet, was Howard Brookner’s boyfriend for a decade, from the time they met at a gay bar called the Ninth Circle in 1978 — as Howard gazed directly at Brad from a pastel haze of flashing jukebox lights — until Howard’s death in 1989. The Dantesque allusion of the bar’s name carries a sharp resonance from the outset. By its end the book documents a hellish descent into illness and loss, but only after ascending in its first half through an intimate, lovingly troubled relationship and into the initial levels of bohemian artistic ambition. “If I were forced to choose one trait that defined us, and our generation, and those times,” Gooch recalls, “I’d have to say that we were romantics. It was a romantic time.”

Being a gay man myself and single at 41, I felt sure that the book’s romantic focus would present a steep but worthwhile challenge. Coincidentally, in the midst of my reading the book, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. When I first moved to Boston from Ohio in 1993, I thought for certain that by making such a move, I’d soon find a long-term boyfriend, someone not so different from the two young men depicted in this book. That’s not how things turned out for me. But something else the book makes clear is that even if two people find each other and commit themselves to staying together, the world may have very different plans.

Howard Brookner is about as likable a figure any memoirist (or reader) could hope for, and the author’s continued affection for him is apparent on every page. When the pair met in 1978, Howard was just starting work on a documentary about the Beat Generation fixture William Burroughs (the film was completed five years later in 1983), embedding himself in the downtown Manhattan art scene, along with his film school classmates like Jim Jarmusch. The middle son of a Jewish family from Long Island, Howard made an attractive fit for Brad, who had moved to New York from his WASPy roots in Pennsylvania. Remembering their first night spent together in Howard’s loft in the East Village, Brad describes “a sensation of being a mere composite of iron filings pulled in by the life-size magnet of Howard’s body.”

Smash Cut is equally a memoir of its era. As was standard for the age, casual sex and drug addictions underscore the surface action, tampering with the stability of our central couple. The segue from the days of glam rock into the harder edge of punk always lingers at the scene’s periphery, as does a figure like Andy Warhol, who appears in person halfway through the memoir, “with an intelligence that transcended gender and sexuality.” I worried that the pace might slow down when the author detours to Milan and Paris to try out a less than fulfilling stint in modeling, but Gooch’s storytelling and knack for detailing the characters he met in Europe keep the tempo of the book in line with the previous chapters in New York.

Upon his return to Manhattan, Brad relocated with Howard to share an apartment on the fifth floor of the legendary Chelsea Hotel, a building the author mentions that he still passes every day in his current neighborhood, bringing on a cascade of memories, which was the real catalyst for writing this book. Within a few pages of their move to the Chelsea, in early July of 1981, Brad reads the now infamous article from the New York Times, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” the ominous beginning of what would later become the AIDS epidemic. “A chasm opened up in front of me,” the author writes.

Gooch’s description of the overarching feeling throughout the early years of the AIDS epidemic is among the most powerful I’ve encountered. The passage is prompted by a hard rain on the streets of New York and worth quoting here in its entirety: “It was a dark afternoon in the spring of 1987. So many memories of those last few years of the eighties are like that: rainy, bleak. It’s not possible that the weather was dismal for years on end, the same throughout all four seasons. But those years, taken together, were like one of those mornings when you wake up, the clouds are dense, the barometric pressure low, and no one calls. You feel as if your legs are a little heavy because the weather is creating a low-level system of depression throughout the city. That years-long day just went on and on and on.”

While he was finishing his work as director of the feature film Bloodhounds of Broadway, a send-up of 1920s New York with a cast of Hollywood actors, including a young Madonna, Howard Brookner’s rapidly declining health landed him in St. Vincent’s hospital. During those years, even some medical professionals were still afraid to have physical contact with AIDS patients. Providing one reason why she’s historically been such an icon for the gay community, Madonna visits Howard at the hospital, climbs right onto the hospital bed with him, and kisses him on the lips. When Howard asks Brad why so many visitors are stopping by, Brad replies, “Because something about you makes people feel good when they come to see you ... because you give something to people.”

On the day of his funeral, Howard Brookner departed from Brad Gooch’s life in the same way he first appeared, in a hazy halo of light, “a very strong bright light in an oval shape that was suspended high in the skeletal branches of a nearby tree.” Smash Cut is a beautiful, generous tribute to Howard’s life and memory, as well as a loving recollection of the time in which he lived.