Review: Brad Gooch’s ‘Smash Cut’

Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art in the '70s & the '80s. Brad Gooch. Harper. 256 pages. $27.99
Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art in the '70s & the '80s. Brad Gooch. Harper. 256 pages. $27.99

With heartbreaking precision, poet, novelist and noted biographer Brad Gooch revisits his youth in Manhattan in an era of dizzying change. Smash Cut is by no means a memoir of the plague years, although we know the drum is already beating. The real-life party in downtown Manhattan may have gone on 24/7, but in the giddy era of drink and drug-fueled dancing and hasty hookups, real things really happened. As the freewheeling ’70s flowed into the ’80s, artists like Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe, Gooch’s friends, famous and not-so famous alike, began dying of AIDS.

Gooch says he started out to write a sparkling, star-studded account of gay life and art in the ’70s and ’80s. He was, he writes, “trying to recall the past, as if it were a dream that I was recording, like a novel, with these characters Brad and Howard, and some other more famous characters like Andy or Bill or Madonna, names that felt italicized as I typed them out.”

But Howard Brookner, his handsome, mercurial lover, is long dead.

Grief caught up with Gooch, and it makes the book. Smash Cut is an eloquent, deeply felt exploration of love and ambition in dangerous times.

Drawing on memory, on his extensive notes, on Howard’s papers and on his own, Gooch confronts the old grief head on. A snapshot of Brad and Howard laughing over the kitchen stove commands the book jacket. “He was very sexy and very sexual and very intelligent about his sexiness so that its force was subliminal.”

And the “smash cut” of the title? Think of a filmmaker choosing to cut from the Ninth Circle in the West Village that first night to Howard’s deathbed 1989, or to the office where Brad wrote this book. He’s a professor now, a writer whose titles range from a bestselling biography of Flannery O’Connor to Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America. He was always going to be this person. He just didn’t know it back then.

The Brad and Howard story begins in a club in the West Village in the post-Stonewall ’70s, before anybody knew what was coming. A struggling writer, Brad is drawn to the dynamic student filmmaker, who prints his name on a chopstick wrapper, in hopes they’ll hook up: HOWARD BROOKNER.

Smitten, Brad keeps this scrap. It’s in the book.

Among the 30 black-and-white photos are shots from the modeling career that took Gooch from Manhattan to Paris and Milan, a surprising trajectory, given his by-the-way mentions of grad school classes and later — yes — his dissertation. He drops significant details just as casually. He flirted with religion back then. Sister Mary Margaret, his therapist, was an Episcopal nun. Even in his 20s and 30s, the hedonistic, liberated male model is a lot more complicated than he admits.

A graceful writer, Gooch draws a straight line through the years when he follows his heart, which doesn’t always stop in the same place. Like many gay men in that era, he proceeded on the assumption that a kid can do anything and everybody he wants. Brad’s first sleepover at Howard’s ends with friends turning up at Howard’s loft for a party followed by a Gay Pride celebration, followed by the next and the next, as though it will never end.

Brad and Howard fight and make up again and again, confessing all their hopes and personal insecurities, with every scene played out in the context of newfound freedom: “I think for the gay people, at least of that generation, the adolescent spring of first love, the pang often described in short stories, was invariably arrested. I suppose we were still recovering from fifties’ childhoods in a repressive society, where there was no such thing as ‘gay’or ‘coming out.’ Most of us experienced our first love in our mid-twenties, in the seventies. And even though the smell and pitch of fast sex was palpable on every street downtown, so, too, were aching hearts and love-tossed looks. The seventies had a romantic aura of so much first love among grown men.”

Then there is the promiscuity: “At sunset there would be fireworks over the Hudson River, by the dilapidated wooden piers, several stories high, where cruising went on all day and all night, and where boys and men disappeared with one another into little rooms pungent with the sweet smell of poppers and the bitter smell of urine...”

Although they think of themselves as monogamous, Howard and Brad are sleeping around. They’re deeply, unhappily in love. Meanwhile, their careers take off: Brad’s short story collection wins a prize, Howard’s film about William Burroughs makes his name. They’re running hard, but the plague catches up with them, and in his grief, Gooch is unsparing and frank.

His gifts as a writer, coupled with his willingness to spell out the the horrors and delights of the couple’s star-studded lives make Smash Cut a moving, memorable and important book.

Kit Reed is the author of the novel “Where.”