Thursday, January 18, 2018

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me -- Bill Hayes: review

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me -- Bill Hayes
--reviewed by Divya Dubey
294 pp
Rs 599

[Published in India Today mag.]

Bill Hayes

At its core Insomniac City by Bill Hayes is a love story – or rather two love affairs running on parallel tracks. The first focuses on the author and the distinguished neurologist, Oliver Sacks, the object of his affections, and the second is the love affair between him and New York City.

Hayes is almost fifty when the book begins – with the death of Steve, his partner. Steve died of a heart attack, ironically, on a day when the ‘insomniac’ Hayes was asleep.

Guilt-ridden and unable to bear the heartache Hayes moves from San Francisco to New York City where he meets Sacks, thirty years his senior and a man who asks ‘What is Michael Jackson?’, has ‘no knowledge of popular culture after 1955’ and ‘zero interest in celebrities or fame’, and falls in love with him.  

Sacks’s unique personality, in fact, comes across more emphatically through Hayes’s precise, simple descriptions and sometimes single lines. For instance, Sacks describes the sunset as ‘an attack of beauty’; voices his thoughts aloud, such as: ‘Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?’ or confesses to Hayes in a rare erotic moment, ‘I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins’.

Hayes’s musings on NYC that alternate with the other thread, emerge mostly from the random subjects of his photography – people he meets and interacts with on the streets: Ali, a neighbourhood shopkeeper, skateboarders on the road, an aged artist who just draws one of his eyes for him, etcetera.

The magic of Hayes’s writing lies in its surprising minimalism, yet brilliantly evocative images. The focus is so much on Sacks and his growing deafness, blindness, Cancer and approaching death in the later pages that one often overlooks the modest, self-effacing Hayes nursing his aging, dying love as he grapples with emotional upheaval for the second time in his life. Hayes himself leaves no scope for the reader to pity him. 

There is tenderness without sentimentality, acceptance of what cannot be altered and a strong positive attitude that embraces life in its entirety. This book is a fascinating ode not only to romantic love, but to Life. It is as much a celebration of Life as it is a reflection upon Death. The little ‘vignettes’ are meant to be enjoyed slowly and gradually as sips of fine wine rather than in a single gulp. 

Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal, the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle, and the author of Turtle Dove: A Collection of Bizarre Tales

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