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Where People Walk a Mile for a Chuckle

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

Tough materialism and existential frankness, an awareness of one’s mortality balanced by the refusal to talk bullshit: George Blecher selects three works of fiction that sum up the New York attitude.

New York isn’t the prettiest of cities. Next to the curves of Paris streets or the natural settings of Stockholm and Hong Kong, New York looks like a homely aunt. Manhattan skyscrapers tend to elbow each other out, and the best views of the city are over your shoulder as you leave it. Its signature skyscrapers were built 80 years ago, and the newer ones are more about money than originality; even with the tragedy of 9/11, there weren’t many New Yorkers who mourned the passing of the World Trade Towers themselves.

Yet people pour into the city with the same enthusiasm and longing that used to be lavished on Paris or Amsterdam. Part of the longing comes from the fact that for most of the TV and movie watching world, New York has been filmed and photographed so often that it’s become embedded in the world’s visual memory; coming here is like coming home. But another part relates to the future. In New York one can disappear and reinvent oneself into pretty much anyone one wants to be. Unlike London, Paris and Berlin, New York belongs to no class or race, not even to the US, which regards it as a separate city-state. The city doesn’t even care much about its own past. Except for the Statue of Liberty, there are hardly any monuments that New Yorkers can identify: yet it’s this deep anonymity that – if it doesn’t drive you crazy – long-time inhabitants and outsiders experience as liberation.

This may be why New York hasn’t produced a Balzac or a Dickens. If one wants word pictures of New York’s surface, reporters like the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell (Up in the Old Hotel, 1992) do a better job than novelists. Some fiction writers have captured the surface sparkle and grime pretty well – Edith Wharton (House of Mirth), Henry James (Washington Square), John Cheever’s short stories, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint – but they all spend too much time, it seems to me, stressing the “New York-ness” of the locale.

New York’s uniqueness is about attitude, not locale – a mixture of tough materialism and existential frankness, an awareness of one’s mortality balanced by the refusal to sound pretentious or talk bullshit: the rueful chuckle and shrugged shoulders of 1940s film stars like Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, both native New Yorkers, are physicalizations of the New York attitude.

It also involves talk. New Yorkers talk. And talk. To impress each other, to puff themselves up, to reassure each other that they’re on the same page. Maybe also to prove that they’re not dead. Yet. It’s no coincidence that Walt Whitman, the talkiest of poets, is another native son.

I want to offer three works in reverse chronological order – a movie, a kind of novel and a longish short story – as examples of this attitude. They’re weird choices, on no one’s list of literary New York but my own, but each seems to me to capture some of New York seen from the inside. Two are about talk, one about silence.

Sweet Smell of Success

Even if Sweet Smell of Success (1957) isn’t exactly literary, it’s one of the most written movies ever made. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have other things going for it. It’s shot in glorious black/white almost entirely at night by the great James Wong Howe, who manages to squeeze a hundred shades of black out of the city streets, and intersperse them with bursts of white light from car headlights and movie marquees. Most of the film takes place in Times Square at its sleaziest. The soundtrack is relentless – car horns, screeching wheels, sirens, all the background noise that outsiders call energy but which is more likely a mixture of nerves and indigestion. The casting is genius: two New York-born actors, Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, shed their gladiator costumes and get to play meaty roles – Lancaster as the gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker; Curtis as Sidney Falco, a baby-faced, conniving public relations shill whose mission in life is to get his clients mentioned in Hunsecker’s column.

The one-liners are as acerbic as Oscar Wilde on speed:

You’re a liar, Sidney. But that’s okay. I wouldn’t hire you if you weren’t a liar. Like most of the world, I’m bored. I’d walk a mile for a chuckle. I’d hate to take a bite out of you, Sidney. You’re a cookie filled with arsenic.

And this exchange between the two main characters:

Don’t remove the gangplank, Sidney. You might want to get back on board. J.J., it’s one thing to wear a dog collar. When it turns into a noose, I’d rather have my freedom. A man in jail always longs for freedom. Except if you’ll excuse me J.J., I’m not in jail. You’re in jail, Sidney. You’re a prisoner of your own greed, your own fears, your own ambition. You’re in jail.

Dialogue like this comes close to noir detective films; and with its hustlers, con men, hookers and corrupt cops, Sweet Smell of Success feels like a noir without the violence. But the words are written in blood – by Clifford Odets, a playwright who was the star of a coterie of writers and actors who in the 1930s formed New York’s famous Group Theater. After writing a few powerful plays, Odets reached for the gold ring and headed for Hollywood. After the War, when Congress started investigating writers’ Communist ties, Odets was one of the turncoats – and in Sweet Smell of Success he spews out his self-revulsion.

The line about greed, fear and ambition – and many others – has to come right out of Odets’s innards. In a sense the whole movie is self-referential, yet it also mines the dreams of every driven New Yorker. It is about the fascination with Sex, Money, and especially Power–and about the pride in admitting to those obsessions, even reveling in them. “I love this dirty town,” says Hunsecker as he looks out at a New York street, and what he – and Odets – mean by love elevates the film above a thousand other crappy films that came out of the same Hollywood mill.

We follow Curtis/Falco (as handsome as the young Bacchus!) through a long night trailing Lancaster/Hunsecker in and out of a succession of New York restaurants and nightclubs where everyone from maitre d.’s to Senators compete to lick Hunsecker’s boots. (Lancaster’s character is based on Walter Winchell, a Communist-hating columnist who wielded enormous influence in the 1950s.) Virtually all the shots are close-ups as claustrophobic as New York restaurants, where your neighbour’s elbow is likely to end up in your soup, and the smell of his girlfriend’s perfume wafts over your grilled tuna.

Hunsecker wants to break up a romance between his younger sister and a jazz guitarist whose talent puts him above the fray (and makes him the least interesting character in the film). Falco manages to place a smear item about the boyfriend in a rival writer’s column, but when Hunsecker offers to clear his name in exchange for ending the relationship, the guitarist refuses, and now the gloves are off: Hunsecker must destroy him. A series of misunderstandings, plot turns and reversals ensue, where people either fight to claw their way up the ladder or guard their position at the top like savage dogs.

Despite their sliminess, you can’t help liking the characters in Sweet Smell. What they want, they want with their brains, balls and heart. Falco wants to reach a place where “the air is balmy […] to be in the big game with the big players”. Hunsecker wants absolute possession of the only thing – his sister – that raises him above the status of a slug. Falco’s hooker-girlfriend wants enough money to send her son to a decent school; the john whom Falco sets her up with only wants a “chuckle” – a moment of sexual fun to help him forget who he is. What they want they’ll never get – and they seem to know it, which is why they speak in terse, colourful epigrams; the language helps to keep away the ugliness of their lives.

No one gets killed in Sweet Smell of Success; decency is the only victim. Except for the guitarist, there are only bad guys. But interesting bad guys! Human bad guys, always teetering on the edge of their lusts, their longing, their weaknesses!


Henry Miller’s Sexus (1949), the first part of an autobiographical trilogy whimsically called “The Rosy Crucifixion”, wasn’t written many years before Sweet Smell, but the setting is New York of the late 1920s, a lazier, more forgiving time. On the surface, Sexus is the antithesis of Sweet Smell of Success. Instead of the frenetic drive for status, time stretches out and relaxes. Miller’s characters don’t work much, which leaves them plenty of time for bull sessions, drinking, trips to the beach, partying. Instead of Money and Power, the characters dream about Love and Creativity. Instead of the dark pessimism of Sweet Smell, Sexus is sunny – full of an easy-going Bohemianism not often seen in contemporary, over-commercialized culture.

These days Henry Miller is totally out of fashion. If he were alive today, his sexual antics and Song of Myself would probably get him castrated and lynched. Measured against Creative Writing School standards, he’s the worst Great Writer who ever lived. He doesn’t “show”; he “tells.” He doesn’t create scenes, describe characters or let us hear them speak. Only one character hogs the stage – Henry Miller and his wish to be a Writer, never the most original or interesting of ambitions. Sometimes his writing is awful – passages of rhetorical bombast or bad surrealism that can make even his most ardent supporters cringe.

Yet Sexus sings, drips, oozes with an immediacy and grittiness that make other books feel like they’re written through glass. Though Miller’s closest literary cousins are Rabelais and Céline, his smart-alecky, demotic New York swagger is his own. Here he melds mouth, mind, stomach and sex organs into a comic hymn to the Body:

The coffee was excellent, and I had just finished my second cup when I felt a bowel movement coming on. I excused myself and went to the bathroom. There I enjoyed the luxury of a thorough evacuation. I pulled the chain and sat there a few moments, a bit dreamy and a bit lecherous too, when suddenly I realized that I was getting a sitz bath. I pulled the chain again. The water started to overflow between my legs onto the floor. I jumped up, dried my ass with a towel, buttoned my trousers and looked frantically up at the toilet box. I tried everything I could think of but the water kept rising and flowing over – and with it came one or two healthy turds and a mess of toilet paper.

Passages like that in Miller’s books shook up American literature in a way that still makes it hold its nose in disdain.

What is Sexus about? Hard to say. It touches many of the same themes as Sweet Smell: how desires and appetites clash with each other; how Love and Sex diverge; how the dictates of the body trump everything else. But what Odets and his cohorts criticize, Miller celebrates.

On page 1 of Sexus Henry falls in love with Mona, a “taxi dancer” who earns her living in Times Square dance halls. A few pages later he announces to his wife that the marriage is over, and spends the next 600 pages describing the consequences of his decision. He takes us on a virtual tour of the city’s back alleys. “Henry” moves with Mona to a friend’s Bronx apartment that he dubs “Cockroach Hall”; visits his wife and child back in Brooklyn and engages in long, nostalgic fucks with her – and sometimes with the upstairs neighbour; and in Manhattan bars and cheap restaurants hangs out with friends and fellow-employees of the “Cosmodemonic Telegraph Co”, his name for the old “Western Union”: some of the funniest passages are about male bonding. The tour wanders not only geographically but back and forth in time, and along the way, Miller creates a picture of New York as a kind of bedrock reality, where almost in spite of themselves people live in the Absolute Present.

He likes everyone he encounters – or if not exactly likes them, accepts them on their own terms. He never judges, never condescends; only insincerity infuriates him. So, unrepentant egotist that he is, in the course of the book he manages to create a rogue’s gallery of vivid secondary characters: Kronski, the neurotic, hypersensitive medical intern; Ulric, the failed artist who is even lustier than Henry; Ghompal, the soft-spoken, saintly telegraph messenger; Tori Takekuchi, the Japanese boarder at Henry’s house with a taste for expensive hookers; and a host of others.

Listening to Miller gab on about his friends and lovers is like hanging out with a garrulous friend. Even if you tune out from time to time, he doesn’t mind: the flow of words is what counts. Here he’s describing a guy making a speech in a bar about his first wedding anniversary, but he could be describing himself:

He was so completely carried away by this idea that everybody should participate in their joy that he went on talking for twenty minutes or more, roaming from one thing to another like a man sitting at the piano and improvising. He hadn’t a doubt in the world that we were all his friends, that we would listen to him in peace until he had had his say. Nothing he said sounded ridiculous, however sentimental his words may have been. He was utterly sincere, utterly genuine, and utterly possessed by the realization that to be happy is the greatest boon on earth. It wasn’t courage which had made him get up and address us, for obviously the thought of getting up on his feet and delivering an extemporaneous speech was as much a surprise to him as it was to us. He was for the moment, and without knowing it, of course, on his way to becoming an Evangelist, that curious phenomenon of American life which has never been adequately explained.

Henry Miller – agnostic, sardonic, street-smart, drunk on words: maybe the only kind of evangelist that a cynical New York crowd could tolerate.

Bartleby the Scrivener

And then we come to the strange case of Bartleby, the “anti-hero” of a novella by Herman Melville called “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853).

Melville is of course better known as the author of Moby-Dick and a series of high seas adventures including Typee and Omoo. But he was born in the Bronx into a family that traced its roots to the city’s Dutch origins. After four years at sea, he settled for a while with his family in Massachusetts but ended up back in New York, where he worked for 19 years as a customs inspector on a street named after his mother’s family: native New Yorkers, it seems, can never quite leave the fold.

Melville’s mid-nineteenth century New York is an ambivalent (and prescient) arena. It’s a place where people are free to be as eccentric as they please, but where this freedom can lead to loneliness and isolation. The story’s physical setting, which takes the name “Wall” Street to its absurd conclusion, suggests these qualities: the office of Melville’s nameless narrator, a middle-aged, talkative lawyer, is bounded on one side by an “unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade,” and on the other by a “white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light” – a claustrophobic, closet-like space where city-dwellers, cut off from Nature, have to fend for themselves.

But Melville’s narrator – clearly a city person– makes the best of the situation: “I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest life is also the best.” His law firm employs three copyists right out of a Dickens novel – one who loses his temper in the morning, a second in the afternoon, and a third who believes that “the whole noble scope of the law was contained in a nutshell.” The comic balance between these wind-up figures and their boss allows them to work in uneventful harmony.

That is, until the narrator brings in a fourth clerk, Bartleby, “a motionless young man” who is given a desk in a space that “commanded […] no view at all.” After a few days, when Bartleby is asked to help his colleagues check some documents, he says the words on which the story pivots: “I prefer not to”.

“I prefer not to.” Not exactly a refusal, not exactly defiant, more a simple statement of individual will. The sentence becomes a refrain that collects many shadings of meaning in the course of the story. At first Bartleby prefers not to work with others, but then he prefers not to do his copying job at all, and then he prefers not to leave the office or the building. The narrator tries to cajole him, order him, reason with him, trick him. Annoyance turns to pity, pity to anger, anger to revulsion, and finally God is called in: “I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine […] had all been predestinated for eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom.” Yet even resignation doesn’t work: Bartleby won’t leave; Bartleby must go.

In one sense, Bartleby is utterly passive – Melville calls him a “ghost”– but in another completely willful. Is he depressed or rebellious – or do either of these terms apply? Whatever he is, his presence puts into question how far one human being can go in accepting the differences between himself and another. Should the narrator allow Bartleby his eccentricities and tolerate him the way city people have to tolerate each other? Or should he assert his rights, call the cops, and erase Bartleby from his life? But isn’t there another Bartleby waiting around the corner to test one’s humanity?

The “constables” take Bartleby away to the downtown New York prison aptly nicknamed the “Tombs”, where he “prefers” not to eat, and languishes away “all alone in the quietest of the yards, his face towards a high wall.” (Had the author of “The Hunger Artist” read “Bartleby”? I wonder.) When the jailer points him out to his ex-employer, he asks him, “Is that your friend?” And the narrator says an unexpected thing: “Yes.”

Like the writers of Sweet Smell of Success and Sexus, Melville doesn’t sentimentalize the connections between people. The responsibilities we have toward each other – if we feel them at all – can be frustrating, infuriating. According to all these narratives, people’s natural tendency is toward self-interest, even arrogance. But in each narrative, some of the characters manage to get beyond their solipsism some of the time. They do it reluctantly, with plenty of grumbling, but this reluctance serves to make their eventual capitulation that much more convincing. In a city like New York, where wave after wave of immigration changes the demographics almost daily, the connections between strangers are tenuous, provisional. But when they’re recognized, they’re as solid as anything gets in this complicated, imperfect life.

Additionally published in Host (Brno)

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