McCourt, James 1941-
McCourt, James 1941-
Born July 4, 1941, in New York, NY; son of James A. and Catherine (a teacher) McCourt. Education: Manhattan College, B.A., 1962; graduate study at New York University, 1962-64, and Yale University, School of Drama, 1964-65. Hobbies and other interests: Singing and directing opera, cooking, travel.
Home—New York, NY.
Writer. Has been employed as an actor in summer stock, 1962, and as a teacher of communication arts, 1968-69.
Mawrdew Czgowchwz (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1975, reprinted with introduction by Wayne Koestenbaum, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Kaye Wayfaring in "Avenged": Four Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
Time Remaining (stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
Delancey's Way (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake (stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985 (nonfiction), Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
(Author of afterword) James Schuyler, What's for Dinner?, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Now Voyagers: The Night Sea Journey: Some Divisions of the Saga of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, Oltrano, Authenticated by Persons Represented Therein, Book One, Turtle Point (New York, NY), 2007.
Also author of Panache, a play. Contributor of stories to New Yorker, Paris Review, Grand Street, and Yale Review. Author of introduction to James Schuyler's What's for Dinner?, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Regarding his first book, the 1975 Mawrdew Czgowchwz, James McCourt once told the New York Times Book Review: "Nowhere on the book does it say it's a novel. In a novel, something is wrapped up, it finishes. But my stories just stop. Sure, Mawrdew Czgowchwz is an extended fiction, but it never wraps up." McCourt went on: "A novel is something I don't get around to doing or don't want to do. I'm writing about this extended tribe of people, instead of writing about a family as J.D. Salinger does." In McCourt's next three "extended fictions," published over the following quarter century, this characterization of his own work holds true. McCourt's books return to the same overlapping and recurring cast of often bizarre characters and continue to explore their ongoing, unresolved adventures with one another and life.
The eponymous heroine of Mawrdew Czgowchwz is the ultimate operatic diva. She can sing any part from contralto to coloratura, and easily surpasses such real-life operatic icons as Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas, not only with her vocal skills but with regard to the mania of her fans, mostly gay, who pack the Metropoli- tan Opera to standing-room-only capacity to see her perform. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times characterized the book as "a hilarious high-camp, low-comedy romp through New York City's high-culture melange," while MacDonald Harris, writing in the New York Times Book Review credited Mawrdew Czgowchwz with being "complicated and erudite."
Nearly a decade later, McCourt produced Kaye Wayfaring in "Avenged": Four Stories. This extended fiction attempts to do for the world of movies what Mawrdew Czgowchwz did for opera. Kaye is described as an overweight actress, pushing forty, and a previous Oscar contender. As the story opens, she is playing the lead in a film version of "Avenged," a short story by eighteenth-century French writer François Diderot. The four stories in the book (two reprinted from the New Yorker) cover the filming of Avenged, both in Manhattan and Long Island, its premier at the Metropolitan Opera House, and a brief sojourn in Hollywood by way of Atlanta. MacDonald Harris of the New York Times Book Review commented: "As Kaye assumes the role in this book played by Mawrdew Czgowchwz in the earlier novel, she finds herself a kind of cinematographic reincarnation of that ‘ultimate diva’—moving in Mawrdew's old circles, hungry for her celebrity, falling in love with her son, even proposing to make a picture of her life." Mawrdew also appears in the novel, both to throw the I Ching for Kaye and later to join her in singing a tune from The Mikado. "McCourt is at his best," MacDonald Harris stated, "or most characteristic, in dialogue, and the voices are more or less interchangeable; the point is that they should be bright and brittle, heavy with allusions to chic matters, and they should attempt to titillate in every line." In sum, MacDonald Harris viewed Kaye Wayfaring in "Avenged" as a sequel to Mawrdew Czgowchwz, and noted: "It tends to fall into the same repetition, the same pallid fatigue, that all sequels do." New York Times contributor Lehmann-Haupt commented that in the second book McCourt makes more of an effort to include sentiment and drama, but he nevertheless believed the effort runs aground on the author's excessive use of humor. According to Lehmann-Haupt, "as readers should be able to tell by now, it is difficult for Mr. McCourt to resist the wisecrack. After a while, not only does this tendency interrupt the emotional flow of the novel, but it also begins to irritate."
McCourt's next offering, Time Remaining, was called the first of his "explicitly gay fictions" by New York Times Book Review contributor Bertha Harris. An admittedly serious fan of McCourt and his first two "novels," Bertha Harris was extravagant in her praise of his third. "On every page of Time Remaining," she wrote, "his highest-camp wit retains its cutting edge …; his madcap Jesuiticisms are still traveling over the limit; the Celtic ascendancy over English prose holds fast." The book is composed of two stories told by two different, if not always distinct, narrative voices. The crew of eccentric hangers-on that circulated around Mawrdew in McCourt's previous outings has been decimated by AIDS, contracted as a result of what the author refers to as "kamikaze sex." The only two survivors, Delancey and Odette, both gay transsexuals, narrate Time Remaining. Much of the story concerns reminiscences by the two characters concerning recent events and their friends who have passed away. Bertha Harris contended: "Nearly every page of Odette's talks, with asides by Delancey, is thick with scandal, jokes, gossip, inspired literary criticism, good politics, mots as well as moues…. You can let it fall open anywhere and, if you're so inclined, hear yourself laughing out loud." In a less partisan assessment, a contributor to Publishers Weekly found in Time Remaining "frothy, entertaining evocations of New York's gay subculture…. A tour de force of high camp, Manhattan-style, this collection proves McCourt is a dazzling practitioner of the lost language of queens."
Both Delancey and Odette also play primary roles in McCourt's Delancey's Way. Times have changed and Delancey has abandoned his life as a female impersonator to become a reporter for the East Hampton Star. Sent south to the nation's capital to do a story on environmental legislation, Delancey is accompanied by Odette. The events that follow comprise what Michele Leber of Booklist referred to as "a dizzying, outrageous view of the puzzle palaces on the Potomac, with politics as pornography and Washington, DC, as a city of nothingness." Robert E. Brown of the Library Journal deemed it a book "dense with allusion—political, literary, filmic, operatic, mythological, and more—uncommon in today's watery literary scene." Peter Donahue, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, observed that Delancey's Way "derives its energy from its carnivalesque language … [as characters discourse] to one another in lively harangues … wild and virtuoso verbal performances." Some of the players include a gay senator who was elected merely because his name is John Galt (the same as the protagonist of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged), a cross-dressing ballerina, and an Italian diva. The plot, less than essential to the substance of the book, ultimately concerns an attempt on the president's life. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer observed: "McCourt's colorful, if hardly three-dimensional, characters banter in continual conversations on everything from epistemology to opera to the mechanics of porn films." The critic noted: "Readers who care for political theory, for Washington melodrama and for high camp … will likely find McCourt's work a scream and a half." However, Bill Goldstein, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was less convinced of the book's merits. Noting that Delancey's Way bears a "superficial resemblance" to Mawrdew Czgowchwz, Goldstein went on to draw a significant distinction between the two works. Whereas McCourt's first novel "successfully created an alternate universe from the familiar world of opera it nominally depicted," Delancey's Way "is a Washington novel that could not exist if there weren't other Washington novels to call upon as touchstones." In that context, Goldstein found the book's "supposedly witty talk" to be "artificial and uninspired," and viewed its many allusions as "a dangerously high level of cultural debris littering its pages." Washington Post contributor Michael Dirda, on the other hand, found Delancey's Way "quite marvelous, or even mahvelous. Like McCourt's other books, it's the sort of excessive novel that readily inspires a cult following. And deservedly so."
In Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake, Mawrdew Czgowchwz reappears as a grandmother and stage-mom-in-law of Kaye Wayfaring. Kaye is the main character of these interconnected short stories, each one exploring one of the seven deadly sins. While mourning the death of her friend Marilyn Monroe, Kaye gains notoriety for her performance in a rock video and begins working on a role as an Irish pirate queen. Though the plots of these stories are loose, they all question the meaning of sin and the replacement of traditional religion with the adoration of Hollywood gossip. However, the plots play a secondary role to the fragmentary use of language and the conversations rich with pop culture references and meditations on religion. In the Lambda Book Report, Felice Picano remarked upon the book's "dreamlike rhythm and an equally hallucinatory refusal to become meaningful." Picano explained that the stories were composed of "hints of ideas, references, implications, connotations, insinuations, inklings, and suspicions."
Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985 is a history of gay culture in New York City from post-World War II to the 1980s. Comprising the book are varying styles, voices, and genres, through which "Author" (as McCourt calls himself) reflects on the development of gay culture. Through poetry, correspondence, movie reviews, gossip, and an extensive index, McCourt comments on his own experiences with influential people, places, and art. As is McCourt's style, the book can seem fragmented and disjointed, and McCourt describes the contents of Queer Street as "scribblings in [a] notebook." However, in Kirkus Reviews, a contributor acknowledged that "this is magpie history, highly selective and full of shiny objects, but it is remarkably coherent for all its strange turns."
McCourt's writing has been described as intensely reflective and metaphysical. In the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Irving Malin noted that Queer Street "is so reflexive that it is a series of mirrors (of mirrors)." This has become McCourt's signature style, which, according to Malin in a review of Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake, is so unique that a reader could turn to "any page and recognize his juxtaposition of ‘high’ and ‘low’ notes, his energetic, mannered turns of phrase, his arcane, riotous vocabulary."
McCourt's novel Now Voyagers: The Night Sea Journey: Some Divisions of the Saga of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, Oltrano, Authenticated by Persons Represented Therein, Book One is the first book in what the author plans to be a four-novel series. The author brings back many of his characters that appeared in his first novel, Mawrdew Czgowchwz. "The book touches on the Cold War, visits a pre-Stonewall gay bathhouse and riffs on an impressive range of philosophical heavyweights, from Aristotle to Mae West," noted Michael Miller in a review for Time Out New York.
The author once again focuses on the opera singer Mawrdew Czgowchwz from his first novel. The singer's adventures include meeting a wide range of characters, most notably a drunken Josef Stalin. In the process, the singer travels in Ireland and Italy and scours the streets of New York. As with McCourt's previous novels, Now Voyagers provides a plethora of intellectual discussions ranging from the works of Michelangelo to the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein. "The plot is as anarchic as a Marx Brothers film, and sometimes as funny, at least if you're a philosophy don or a connoisseur of gnomic utterances," noted a contributor to Kirkus Reviews. Likewise, Michael Shae wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "The range of insider reference, innuendo and quotation, from Aristotle to Liberace, is astonishing: those you know, those you don't know and those you don't know you don't know (likely most of them)."
Although the intricacies of the novel's intellectual ruminations and its popular culture references (such as numerous quotes from the 1940s Bette Davis movie Now Voyager) caught the attention of many reviewers, some focused on the author's way with words. For example, Lambda Book Report contributor Paul Russell commented that the author's "delirious prose can at times be awe-inspiring." A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "this novel is an astonishing piece of modernist legerdemain."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 5, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
McCourt, James, Time Remaining, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
McCourt, James, Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Booklist, February 15, 2000, Michele Leber, review of Delancey's Way, p. 1083; July, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake, p. 1822.
Gay & Lesbian Review, fall, 2000, Michael Schwartz, "Stand Still Talking," review of Delancey's Way, p. 43.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2003, review of Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985, p. 1211; August 15, 2007, review of Now Voyagers: The Night Sea Journey: Some Divisions of the Saga of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, Oltrano, Authenticated by Persons Represented Therein, Book One.
Lambda Book Report, July-August, 1993, Jim Marks, review of Time Remaining, p. 46; June, 2000, Reed V. Waller, "Deliciously Dishy," review of Delancey's Way, p. 17; November-December, 2002, Felice Picano, "Epicene Meringue," review of Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake, p. 26; August-September, 2004, R.A. Horne, "Tough Read," review of Queer Street, p. 21; fall, 2007, Paul Russell, review of Now Voyagers, p. 17.
Library Journal, May 1, 1993, review of Time Remaining, p. 120; January, 2000, Robert E. Brown, review of Delancey's Way, p. 161; August 1, 2007, Travis Fristoe, review of Now Voyagers, p. 71.
Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1993, William Moses Hoffman, "The Interior Landscape of James McCourt," review of Time Remaining, p. MAG30.
New Yorker, July 26, 1993, review of Time Remaining, p. 89.
New York Review of Books, June 15, 2000, Garry Wills, review of Delancey's Way, p. 66.
New York Times, June 15, 1984, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Kaye Wayfaring in "Avenged": Four Stories, section C, p. 24.
New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1984, MacDonald Harris, "Czgowchwz! Simply Czgowchwz!," p. 12; June 13, 1993, Bertha Harris, "In a Pink Sequined Straitjacket," p. 27; February 27, 2000, Bill Goldstein, "Inside Politics: A Novel That Explores the Whirligig That Passes for the Nation's Capital," review of Delancey's Way, p. 27; December 9, 2007, Michael Shae, "A Diva Cruises Again," review of Now Voyagers.
Partisan Review, winter, 1994, Pearl K. Bell, review of Time Remaining, p. 80.
Publishers Weekly, April 20, 1984, review of Kaye Wayfaring in "Avenged," p. 80; March 29, 1993, review of Time Remaining, p. 37; January 3, 2000, review of Delancey's Way, p. 56; August 6, 2007, review of Now Voyagers, p. 167.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 2000, Peter Donahue, review of Delancey's Way, p. 172; fall, 2002, Irving Malin, review of Wayfaring at Waverly in Silver Lake, p. 147; spring, 2004, Irving Malin, "Queer Street: Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985: Excursions in the Mind of the Life," review of Queer Street, p. 162.
Time Out New York, December 13-26, 2007, Michael Miller, review of Now Voyagers.
Washington Post, February 27, 2000, Michael Dirda, review of Delancey's Way, p. X15.
Yale Review, October, 1993, Walter Kendrick, review of Time Remaining, p. 124.
Publishers Weekly,http://www.publishersweekly.com/ (August 9, 2007), Roger Gathman, "Web-exclusive Author Interview: James McCourt's New Voyage."