Books

Drugs and drag queens in New York’s vanished clubland

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

In 2014 Michael Alig, impresario, party promoter and drug provider, was released on parole after 17 years in prison for the manslaughter of Angel Melendez. Alig, leader of New York’s Club Kids during the 1980s and early 1990s, features as a minor character in Jarett Kobek’s breakneck, crazed ride through NYC’s nightlife from 1986 to 1996. Although the novel is set in the club and drug scene, filled with addicts, gays, trans, queens and freaked-out weirdos, its main themes are serious and compassionate. Repeated constantly is the mantra that history repeats itself; but most important is the theme of enduring friendship. Despite the decadence, Kobek is optimistic.

The two protagonists are ‘Baby’, a young hayseed from Wisconsin, and Adeline, a rich art and design student from Los Angeles. She is bankrolled by a mother she finds impossible to be with. Baby is gay; so he drifts ‘like a dandelion, crazy as a daisy’ in the city ‘queerer than a three dollar bill’. It is their friendship that is celebrated in the novel, and their involvement in the drug culture of the time is no impediment. Baby’s immersion in club life introduces him to people who you might think are entirely fictional but in fact were Alig’s associates: Kenny Kenny, Queen Rex, Armand, James St James, D.J. Keoki, Christopher Robin. Thus Baby meets gays, ‘girls’, drag queens and a whole crowd of druggy freaks.


Baby and Adeline are co-narrators of this book. Adeline talks idiosyncratically, confidentially, sometimes addressing readers as ‘darlings’ or ‘reader’; her expression can be quaintly English. Baby is directly American. After 100 pages there is a distinct hint of Bret Easton Ellis about the cityscape. Then, behold, a party takes place in BEE’s loft apartment at 114 East 13th, which is currently let for about $6,000 a month. Thereafter we hear, unsurprisingly, of Jay McInerney. We are reminded of the old master of literary porn ‘Uncle Bill Burroughs’. Other writers come into the frame, Mailer with a hand ‘like a withered claw’, ‘every inch the pompous ass’. Always multi-referential, Kobek tells of Quentin Crisp — whose ‘flower no longer blooms’, alas.

The novel is a festival of wit and, finally, wisdom. Amor vincit omnia. This is not for the fainthearted. Stewart Lee is comic inspiration; and Kobek reveals that Donald Trump was at the opening of Peter Gatien’s Club USA in 1992. Reader, judge from that.

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