Leaving New York: Writers Look Back

Edited by Kathleen Norris
Hungry Mind Press, St. Paul, MN, 1995
313 pp., $25, cloth

Reviewed by Kendra Hurley

A woman who had lived in New York City fifteen years warned me to not make the same mistake and live in the city too long. She gave me a five-year limit, saying I must even count my summer six years ago when I lived in New York. "If you aren't from New York," she told me with a fixed and knowing eye, "it does something to you. It either spoils or defeats you."  She wasn't sure which.

Perhaps this is why I feel certain that my time in New York will inevitably run dry.  Even when I was living on the West Coast and contemplating the three-thousand mile move back east for graduate school, I was sure it would be a silly move to make. In California, I'd yearned for something more substantial than my life in hip, expensive, and transient San Francisco. How could New York, I wondered, be any different? In the end, I was too curious not to find out for myself. I moved to New York, started school and a part-time job, and soon became immersed in the city's hectic pace of random encounters. And though I've enjoyed myself so far, the nagging sense remains that I need a mighty good excuse to justify living in a city so fast, so crowded, and so expensive, for long.

It was with intense interest, then, that I read Leaving New York, edited by Kathleen Norris,  a book which more or less deals with this issue - the fear or actuality of luck and justifications running thin in New York City. In this collection of essays, poems, and songs, a motley crew of writers grapple with a question usually reserved for relationship self-help guides - when to leave, when to stay, and why. Only this book isn't about relationships between people. It's about the writers' relationships with a city. But how gloriously fine and confusing the city/persona line becomes as the writers in this anthology delve in and out of their own tangled and often ambivalent sentiments regarding New York.

Most of the pieces in Leaving New York are written outside of New York City - in L.A., Brooklyn, North Dakota, even San Francisco. Here, a safe distance removed, the authors rhapsodize about their New York days (numbered though they often were) in the city, while documenting the situations and sentiments leading them to where they live now - often more physically than emotionally outside New York.  "This may amount to nothing," Mona Simpson in L.A. concludes her essay, "The Things We Do for Love," "only we're here now and we miss our [New York] friends."  Then, as though to further justify her ambivalence regarding New York, Simpson adds, "Anyway, I hear on the grapevine that Joan Didion and her husband moved back."

Simpson is, of course, referring to Didion's famed New York essay "Goodbye to All That," which also appears in Leaving New York nestled between Bob Dylan's "Hard Times in New York Town" and David Frishberg's song "Do You Miss New York?" The chorus of Frishberg's song aptly describes the sentiment many of the anthology's essays embody: "While we sit around and take L.A. to task/there's a question someone's bound to ask/. . . Do you miss New York/The anger, the action?/Does this laid-back lifestyle lack a certain satisfaction?//. . . Do you miss the strain?/The traffic, the tension?/Do you view your new terrain with a certain condescension?"

Frishberg's and the entire anthology's question, "Do you miss New York?" is intriguing enough to warrant a book in itself, but even for those who are not as obsessed with that question as am I,  the anthology presents a wide range of some of the best writers the city has embraced. This long list includes Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Harold Brodkey, Jamaica Kincaid, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Lucie Brock-Broido, A.J. Liebling, Derek Walcott, and John Updike, to name a few. There are also the select token outsiders who add a refreshing breath and breadth to the collection with their detached, non-resident perspectives. As western writer Pam Houston documents her impressions of the city through a vignette of her long-distance, part-time New York lover, Utah-based Terry Tempest Williams somewhat haughtily marvels at the "nature" New Yorkers find in the midst of brick and cement.

As a whole, the collection deftly captures the many, often ambiguous and surprising faces of New York City and the writers it has moved to articulate those faces. But most striking to me is its illustration of how a city takes on a persona, or perhaps more accurately, the personas of its observers. And so, several months after finishing Leaving New York, when I ran into an acquaintance who confessed he had been trying to leave the city for several years but just couldn't bring himself to do it, I grinned greedily, happy to be of use, extended a warm pat on the back, and feeling like a cult recruiter, gushed, "Do I have the book for you!"

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