Coming Out Soon: A Wild Gay Opera of a Book

James McCourt doesn’t see New York the way the rest of us do. You think the Frick Collection is just a place to go on a Sunday afternoon to soak up some culture? To Mr. McCourt, it’s 1950’s gay-pickup central, particularly, for some reason, among the Fragonards. Greenwich Avenue isn’t just a diagonal Village street lined with midlevel boutiques and mediocre Chinese restaurants; in Mr. McCourt’s memory, it’s the gay promenade, so flamboyant and memorable that the author counseled the founders of the first mainstream gay magazine to name their publication after it instead of Christopher Street. (“You’re really dating yourself, darling,” he says they told him.) And don’t get him started on one particular building at 28th and Broadway that now houses dozens of Korean-owned knockoff handbags and housewares shops: That was the scene of the legendary Everard baths, and a walk through it with Mr. McCourt unleashes a million powerful and very colorful memories of the scenes that took place there.

I’m finding all this out, in fact, on an afternoon spent with the 62-year-old author to discuss his enormous, Joycean cultural history, Queer Street , which is just about to be published by W.W. Norton. We begin at the Monkey Bar in the Hotel Ely´see, which to you and me might seem like a sometime publishing hangout serving overpriced Caesar salads. Doubtless, most visitors get upon entering that there’s a pop-celebrity history here-there are photos of movie stars like Gregory Peck on the walls-but I need Mr. McCourt to fill me in on the real story: In the pre-Stonewall, homosexuality-is-a-crime 1940’s and 50’s, the “easy lay” hotel boasted one of the few restaurants where “queers could go and feel comfortable,” he says. And yes, the ultra-straight Peck was a regular patron-but so were, according to Mr. McCourt, such louche luminaries as Montgomery Clift and Tennessee Williams, who died mysteriously in a room upstairs, from whence fled a young man who was never seen or heard from again.

In fact, spending the afternoon with Mr. McCourt (whom everyone affectionately refers to as “Jimmy”), while a whole lot of fun, is only slightly less exhilarating than reading these and many other scenes in his book. Subtitled “The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985,” Queer Street lovingly takes its readers on a tour of a New York where drag queens and female impersonators co-exist with movie stars and cops, a New York where gay culture as we know it was born and flourished, albeit sub rosa.

Which is somehow fitting, since books like this-ribald, rollicking, loopy, erudite, high-low narratives (think Angels In America without the slow parts)-rarely exist any more, at least within mainstream publishing. While there are plenty of novels and memoirs about gay life-Michael Cunningham and Edmund White, to name but two, have built careers on the topic-true overviews of the culture are surprisingly rare. In 1997, Houghton Mifflin published Charles Kaiser’s The Gay Metropolis , 1940-1996 , but invoking that chronicle’s linear and, well, straight tone is like comparing a closeted accountant to one of Mr. McCourt’s fearless drag queens. “It’s like a brilliant experimental opera,” said the agent Ira Silverberg, who knows Mr. McCourt but does not represent him.

And like experimental operas-a particularly fitting description, since Mr. McCourt is best known as the author of a novel with the unpronounceable name Mawrdew Czgowchwz (say: “Mar-dew Gorgeous”), a satire about the opera-big, fat, wild books on controversial topics rarely have easy comings-out.

Queer Street , in fact, was originally submitted as a series of unconnected essays to Mr. McCourt’s longtime Knopf editor Vicky Wilson, who declined to publish it, saying-reported Mr. McCourt with typical discretion-that the house would rather just stick with his fiction. It wasn’t until Norton executive editor Bob Weil saw those essays that Queer Street -with major connective tissue still to be constructed-was born.

How it will fare, of course, is anyone’s guess. Norton executives, while apparently wildly enthusiastic about the title, decline to reveal how many copies they’re printing, and though Mr. McCourt has had some powerful friends in the media-the late New York culture mavens Veronica Geng and Leo Lerman, as well as departing New York Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath, for example-the book is far from an easy sell.

Which is too bad: Queer Street ‘s author comes off like the N.Y.U.– and Yale School of Drama–educated version of Dennis Miller, boldly making cultural references and connections that no man has done before, and his book may be one of the bravest, most enlightening literary and cultural histories to appear in a long time.

It’s enough to make you think that some publishers, at least, may not be so tentative and timid and compromised after all.