A native Belgian, Sante has become a quintessentially New York literary talent, lending his voice to the Village and indelibly incorporating the Village in his voice. Now a professor at Bard College, he’s also a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and many other publications. For those of us who missed out on Downtown’s late-’70s heyday, Sante provides a vivid, vicarious experience. Interspersed with nostalgic memories of moving furniture on subways in the dead of night and listening to middle-aged transvestites sing perfect four-part harmonies outside his window are clear-eyed observations of a Lower East Side where “businesses seemed to remain open solely to give their owners shelter from the elements” and “large fires a few blocks away every night…just became weather.”
In another essay, Sante ruefully recalls Baudelaire’s warning “that the city changes faster than the human heart,” and jumps to the rediscovered New York of the decadent mid ’80s. In “The Ruins of New York,” an imaginative, playful piece, Sante presents a 1985 metropolis that has been enveloped in volcanic magma and perfectly preserved, Pompeii-like, for 500 years. Utilizing a perfect mock-scholarly tone, he takes us into the Palladium, a massively popular nightclub, describing the various debates regarding moving the preserved cadavers to explore, since the club is so crowded that archeologists can’t get through the rooms. “Even the toilet stalls, intended for one person, were each crowded with as many as four or five, participating in sex acts, ingesting drugs, or both at once.”
New York is never far from Sante’s cultural essays, either. Indeed, one of the only common threads throughout these pieces (aside from Sante’s intelligent, whimsical narrative voice) is their adherence to recognizable New York standards of hipness. And although he offers the self-conscious admonition that defining hipness “might as well be the subject’s obituary,” his meditation on its mutable nature is specific enough to be accurate and vague enough to withstand the test of time.
Sante is a great historian of our era, and the best professor one could ask for in a crashcourse on popular culture. Despite his preoccupation with all things hip, he rarely affects the carefully cultured, world-weary tone so rampant among New York hipsters today. His attitude of interested delight, even exuberance, splashes colorfully across his descriptions of musicians, politicians, criminals, artists, and himself. During the crescendos of his extended verbal riffs, his prose takes on a joyful tone reminiscent of the Beat era. His essay on Allen Ginsberg (my personal favorite in the collection) is a passionate piece on a passionate subject. “Howl,” writes Sante, took up “the ragged flag of an entire generation of confused questers groping for something they can’t begin to name, and in the process of recounting the story manages to incarnate the nameless thing sought.” Within the equally hypnotic spell of Sante’s own narratives, trends, movements, and people are resurrected, examined, and appreciated, both for their own sake as well as their reverberations throughout our culture.