I finally finished reading ‘Leaving New York: Writers Look Back’, a collection of essays edited by Kathleen Norris after buying the book over a year ago. Published in 1995, the book is broken into seven sections with over 30 essays, poems and excerpts about leaving New York City. Some of the passages were published decades earlier while others were written especially for this collection. Toni Morrison, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Bill Mckibben are among the writers included.
Most of the books I read are either hand-offs from friends or family, street finds or library books. For whatever reason, the library’s copy of this one doesn’t exist so I finally broke down and bought it used. My copy smells like the old musty corner of a library and if you’ve never been in the old musty corner of a library consider yourself lucky.
There’s a bitter tone to some of the essays that were first written in the 1980s when the city’s grit seemed to outweigh its charms. My favorite piece is Joan Didion’s classic ‘Goodbye to All That’ first published in her 1968 collection of essays ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’. In it she refers to the growing sense of despair she had about living in the city until her husband finally suggested a move to Los Angeles. Hers is one of the few essays that reveals where she went after. Finding out where people go after NYC is the whole reason I read the book so I was a bit disappointed overall.
Not all of the essays are negative, but most express the sense of urgency they had to leave. Bill McKibben‘s (moved to the Adirondacks in upstate New York) thoughts of the city rang a bell:
I was luckier than most: the young actors and painters and necessary misfits arriving in Manhattan had to work so hard waiting tables to pay their share of the rent on a crowded apartment they had no time left to recite the new lyrics over beers at the White Horse.
Reading these essays made me feel like I’m not crazy for leaving. The city is an exciting and strange and dark place to live in. When your time is up it hits you in the gut and there’s no sense in denying that it’s time to move on. I don’t know what I was looking for in this book, but I didn’t find it. The quality of writing is the highest it can be, but there’s a lack of coherency in the flow and overall selection. A few essays were only okay and didn’t really add any incite or memorable moments.
If a collection like this were put together today, I would hope the publishing house would stretch a little further than the fanciful writers of New York’s past. I want to read what contemporary musicians, painters, dancers and comedians have to say about hightailing it out of here, but most of all I really want to know where they all end up. Why don’t more people go North where the nature is wild and brutal, or did I just answer my own question? In any case, I need another book on this topic and it ought to smell better.