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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.