Have you ever seen educated middle class people who insist on living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, despite the dangers the kids are in? What about an educated middle-class couple who say “hey, let’s live in a housing project” because they don’t want to have to work hard enough to afford better? If you think I’m kidding, read these books, Honky and Lost Lustre. They’ll leave you wondering “are these parents for real?”
I knew Dalton Conley’s mother before I ever heard of his book, but didn’t realize until later. I used to go to her writer’s workshop at the Westbeth, and for those of you unfamiliar with the Westbeth, it’s kind of like a Mitchel-Lama building for artists, located in the old Bell Telephone factory. It opened in the 1970’s, and if my research is correct, actor Vin Diesel lived there as a kid. As for the Conley family, his mother lives there today by herself, and her husband stays somewhere upstate where he paints. At least he’s doing something with himself; in the book he spends his time looking at racing forms, not much else. They lived in a run down apartment building in the East Village, and as the title says, he was the lone white kid there (at least in terms of the white middle class, if you don’t count the white junkies who lived there too.) The other kids in the neighborhood are all aggressive and violent, abused and neglected by their parents. His wonderful, caring parents never think of leaving the neighborhood until Dalton’s best friend gets shot and becomes quadriplegic.
Josh Karlen’s Lost Lustre is somewhat darker. Like Honky, it takes place in the East Village, but unlike Conley’s mother, Karlen’s doesn’t get wise and move the family out. She’s an idiot who insists on living in the East Village, even though she can easily afford better. I’m sure you all love the East Village, I do too, it’s a beautiful neighborhood. But I don’t mean the East Village of today, with all those nice restaurants and pretty gardens; we’re talking about the 1970’s East Village, the one you saw in Taxi Driver and Heavy Traffic, the one you read about in Wags and Alphaville. It was the badlands of downtown Manhattan, and even the cops avoided it. For those of you familiar with the early punk movement and CBGB’s, you’re in luck, Karlen dives right in there headfirst, and drugs and alcohol come into play too.
This is not to say that Dalton Conley or Josh Karlen end up in jail. Conley is now a sociology professor (he knows plenty about poverty) and Karlen, I think, was a writer for a music magazine. Both of these books have at least some social value, because they’re written from the point of an outsider.
But I have to wonder, if both of these guys hadn’t been so well educated, would they have noticed how bad their neighborhood was? Would they have made these observations if they knew nothing to compare it too?