Years have vintages too: It doesn’t take a sommelier to recommend a 1776, an 1815, a 1989. Conversely, who’d want to lay in a year like, let us say, 1973? It’s the nadir of that supposed nadir of decades, the 1970’s. Watergate roiled the nation. Oil prices skyrocketed. Stagflation made a stumblebum of the economy. The year even fizzled celestially, courtesy of Comet Kohoutek. That’s the official version, anyway. Note, however, that Watergate may have roiled, but it also rocked, providing the most enthralling extended civics lesson in U.S. history. Gravity’s Rainbow was published. Mean Streets, Badlands and The Long Goodbye were released. Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs. So maybe 1973, if not a vintage year, is worth sampling.
Andreas Killen definitely thinks so. An assistant professor of history at the City College of New York, he has a good eye for detail, an impressive appetite for research and a weakness for overstatement. All come into play in 1973 Nervous Breakdown, which bears the presumably unique distinction of sharing a title with a Lester Bangs rock review (of the Rolling Stones’ Goat’s Head Soup). It’s not unique in making great claims for the 70’s: Bruce Schulman and David Frum, to name two, have published books doing so. And they’re absolutely right. The 60’s may get all the attention, but it’s that decade’s polyester-clad kid brother that saw the real transformation of American culture. One of the emblematic 60’s lines is Bob Dylan’s “But even the president of the United States / Sometimes must have / To stand naked” (the words don’t scan any better sung). With Watergate, it came to pass. However badly, the Vietnam War did end. Feminism came of age. And Hollywood demonstrated the wonders of trickle-down aesthetics.
Mr. Killen’s first chapter gives a good sense of his cannily associative method: He begins with the news on Jan. 1 of the plane crash that killed Roberto Clemente, the star Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder. This takes him to the opening later that year of Dallas/Forth Worth Airport. He then dwells on the growing dissatisfaction with air travel, also noting that 1973 saw the first female copilot in an airliner and the first male flight attendant. Skyjackings proliferated, which provides his next section. Finally, Mr. Killen ponders the year’s most-talked-about book, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying.
As an organizing principle, this is smart, stimulating and sometimes startling. (Who knew that DFW hired the pioneering earth artist Robert Smithson as a consultant? Smithson, by the way, died in a plane crash—and, yes, that was in 1973.) It can even be illuminating. There’s an eerie suggestiveness in the fact that the World Trade Center, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, opened four months before the final decision to level Pruitt-Igoe, the notorious St. Louis public-housing project, also designed by Yamasaki. Too often, though, Mr. Killen seems to be playing a critical-studies parlor game: six degrees of 1973 separation. (And it’s not always 1973. The first demolition at Pruitt-Igoe took place in 1972. Nixon didn’t resign, of course, until 1974. It was in 1969 that Andy Warhol founded Interview, whose status as the Almanach de Gotha of 70’s celebrity culture accounts for the artist’s presence in Mr. Killen’s alliterative subtitle.)
Furious, often incongruous juxtaposition is the engine that drives 1973 Nervous Breakdown. It’s not furious enough. For an enterprise like this to succeed, it needs a crazed sense of obsession, the centrality of 1973 as not just construct but compulsion, a calendrical equivalent to Rocket 00001 in Gravity’s Rainbow: A screaming comes across the sky, and that screaming needs to be 1973. Instead, Mr. Killen has hyperbole do the work of mania. “These days,” he tells us, “scarcely a week goes by without some further reminder [of the 70’s].” That depends on how scarce your definition of “scarcely” is. “Lance Loud’s coming out on television [as part of the PBS reality-TV series An American Family] would become one of the landmark events in the medium’s history.” Well, there are landmarks and there are landmarks. Blaxploitation movies were “immensely popular.” Yes, in the sense the New York Dolls enjoyed “wild popularity” (the better-selling of their two albums peaked on the U.S. charts at No. 116).
Andreas Killen hasn’t so much rehabilitated 1973 as overinflated it. Still, he demonstrates notable forbearance in at least one respect: This must be the only book on the 70’s that ignores disco—this despite the fact that the first disco record, Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” became a hit in (when else?) 1973.
Mark Feeney, the author of Nixon at the Movies: A Book About Belief, is on the staff of The Boston Globe.