by Tim Pfaff
A decade ago the film Chris and Don: A Love Story, about Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bacardy, shed a welcome light on the sheer possibility of an authentic relationship across a 30-year age gap. In Bill Hayes' new memoir Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me (Bloomsbury), the matter of a comparable age difference between writer/photographer Hayes and neurologist/author Oliver Sacks barely comes up. This is more than progress.
Shortly before he died of cancer at 82 in August 2015, Sacks – a writer people far outside his scientific specialty fields read "fan"atically, in books and The New Yorker – came out as gay, to general astonishment, in his memoir, On the Move . He further revealed that he had not had sex with another for the 35 years prior to meeting in late life his true love in the person of the merely early-50-something Hayes. The polar opposite of a kiss-and-tell, On the Move heralded that relationship with profound gratitude and the skillful drawing of the doctor's curtain, which, almost miraculously, shut no reader out. As a thing, age disparity didn't stand a chance.
In our celebrity-besotted age, there would be innumerable ways Hayes could have gotten his memoir wrong, and he has chosen none of them. Insomniac City tells the couple's story without flaunting or squandering the intimacy, reveals what is best shared – journal entry: "We are like two dogs rubbing our scents into one another." – is tender but not maudlin, and is uplifting on the grounds of the matter, not in sentimentalized retro-view. Not infrequently they drink wine from the bottle, but the token of intimacy the reader won't soon forget is an apple shared in big pieces bitten off by Sacks. It's a sacrament that could reverse the Eve-and-Adam curse, but that Hayes relates with reverential concreteness.
The writing sneaks up on you. Deliberate yet circumspect at first, it mirrors the author's striking out into a new life. As he "moves in," the writing opens up. Hayes' black-and-white photographs accompany the text and would be even more powerful if they were not on the book's matte paper stock. The color photo on the glossy hard cover, under the slip cover, is arresting. Insomniac City is as eloquent in its silences and visuals as it is in its telling of the secrets of the heart.
We meet Hayes as a recent transplant to Manhattan pursuing the thread of an intuitive life that had come to maturity in San Francisco, weathered the battering of the AIDS epidemic, and taken his long-term lover, Steve. (There are other loves in this deeply candid book.) Before finding fellow insomniac Sacks, Hayes falls heavy for his adoptive city, a 24-hour urban spectacle with arms open to the nightwalker. His vision ranges from its broken pavements to its ugly trees to its mating classic skyscrapers, all celebrated as a 21st-century Whitman might.
In a story that could have been fouled by name-dropping, the closest Hayes gets to it is an account of an outdoor Iceland fete-glacee with Bjork, and a madcap post-party drive through Lower Manhattan with Lauren Hutton. (Hayes was driving.) Writing in short chapters interleaved with journal pages, Hayes deftly realizes a skateboarder wannabe, a center-of-the-hood smoke-shop owner and a nonagenarian sketch artist who, in return for a pic he took of her, draws his eye – revealing, in perfect metonymy, the rest of him. Hayes' more "common" men step off the page; his women leap tall buildings with a single bound.
"I used to think that the only thing worse than having insomnia was having insomnia next to someone who falls fast asleep and stays soundlessly so till morning," Hayes begins his own, not unfamiliar story, like a sleep-deprived Scheherazade. Of Oliver, we learn, in the next chapter, "He wrote me a letter. That's how we met." The brilliance of Insomniac City is that almost Tolstoy-an directness and concretion of observation, both down-to-earth and downright visionary.
We learn that Sacks had no time for audio books but loved being read to. (Has this precious practice vanished into the ethernet?) Hayes reports Sacks' response to skateboarders in the park as: "It's a living geometry, isn't it? They may not have read Euclid, but they know it all." Without, somehow, being obsequious about it, Hayes gives Sacks the better lines and (until it's no longer possible) the last word in their conversations.
Still, I imagine myself as Sacks hearing Hayes read this, by Hayes, aloud: "I heard what sounded like the low rumble of snow plows. Sixth Avenue had been taken over by a brigade of boys on skateboards – dozens and dozens, maybe a hundred or two. The sound of their wheels on the streets was all but drowned out by their whoops and hollers and the barking of dogs made mad by these four-wheeled paw-level intruders. Some boys had their shirts off and waved them in the air like flags – the flags of an invading army, here to spread a message of freedom, fleetness, speed, wind, youth, grace, the anarchy of pure joy, and fuck you . I was not the only one on the sides left openmouthed and clapping spontaneously."