What books best describe/approximate what it was like to be in New York City during the 1970s/80s?
June 30, 2010 7:13 AM   Subscribe

What books best describe/approximate what it was like to be in New York City during the 1970s/80s?

I'm looking for books - both fiction and non-fiction - that give a good idea of what it was like to be in New York City during the 1970s and 80s, the time long-term New Yorkers seem to refer to as the "real" New York. Clearly, I wasn't there, but am fascinated, and so this reading is for my own enjoyment rather than any sort of professional/academic interest.

I've read some of the more obvious choices - fiction like Bright Lights, Big City and The Bonfire of the Vanities - and I like movies like Taxi Driver. I've also searched on some library databases, but have found surprisingly little. I'm mainly just interested in books that show, through fiction or historical accounts, how seamy and interesting the place really was before my tenure here.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated - thanks, in advance!
posted by lxs to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
American Psycho describes the rich in a different sort of way than Bonfire of the Vanities, but I can't actually vouch for its accuracy. Certainly feels accurate from my experiences with the rich in this city.

Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude (and, to a lesser extent, Motherless Brooklyn) do a good job with 70s Brooklyn.
posted by griphus at 7:18 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just read Let The Great World Spin last month and it was described to me as "the story of life in the gritty realness of NY city as seen through the eyes of..."

And it was well written. Enjoy.
posted by FlamingBore at 7:20 AM on June 30, 2010

I was a kid during that time, but Laurie Colwin's novels definitely ring true to me.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:22 AM on June 30, 2010

Certain parts of American Psycho are accurate--the brands, clubs, and music.

There are lots of movies that fit this bill: Mean Streets, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Wall St, Working Girl, etc.

Books: Motherless Brooklyn, maybe?
posted by dfriedman at 7:24 AM on June 30, 2010

Oh! Hubert Selby Jr.'s Requiem for a Dream is also a great portrayal of southern Brooklyn in the late 70s.

This question may help you as well.
posted by griphus at 7:24 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and there's a Jim Jarmusch movie set on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, whose name I forget.
posted by dfriedman at 7:25 AM on June 30, 2010

Check out Richard Price's work. He's the man. I'd recommend starting with "Blood Brothers." It's about coming of age in Co-Op City and it broke my heart when I first read it.
posted by johnnybeggs at 7:27 AM on June 30, 2010

Sarah Schulman's People in Trouble is a good fictitious account of the early days of the AIDS crisis in NYC
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:27 AM on June 30, 2010

I just finished Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx", which was excellent and engaging and gives you a very clear picture of life in the Bronx in the 80s and through the 90s.
posted by millipede at 7:33 AM on June 30, 2010

I know you said books, but check out Do the Right Thing and Summer of Sam by Spike Lee.
posted by lukemeister at 7:44 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

The YA novel The Two Worlds of Jill has some good descriptions of the city, such as Soho. Also, Judy Blume's "Fudge" series has a lot of good tidbits. For example, in the first book "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" he describes the elevator man in his apartment building; then in a later book he talks about how they just got a new automatic elevator.
posted by Melismata at 7:49 AM on June 30, 2010

posted by elizardbits at 7:51 AM on June 30, 2010

"The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City" by Jonathan Mahler - Blackout, Son of Sam, Yankees. I don't usually enjoy non-fiction but this was very engaging.
posted by Wylie Kyoto at 8:10 AM on June 30, 2010

Slaves of New York
posted by lunasol at 8:16 AM on June 30, 2010

After Hours is almost the only Scorsese film I like and in its meandering and unserious way it manages to nail the feeling of downtown in the first half of the 80s, mostly by operating from the perspective of someone for whom it is terra incognito.

I thought the film of American Psycho was a good film but not very accurate in terms of the raw vibe of the city that it recreates, but I actually think that's not a mark against it considering the disassociated story it's telling. It's a little too shiny. Wall Street has a more accurate take on the maddening rich-people culture of the 1980s (unsurprising since it was current when it was made), particularly the risible romantic-pasta/sushi dinner.

Slaves of New York does a pretty good job at summing up the sense of a particular place and time in Manhattan.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 8:17 AM on June 30, 2010

Also, as long as you take it with a grain of salt, there is a lot right with Desperately Seeking Susan. The costuming is good, the downtown interiors and exteriors are right, Madonna had only a few years earlier had her breakthrough in the NY club scene so she had a reason for being in that movie, and the importance of the Voice personals to the plot reflected reality.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 8:26 AM on June 30, 2010

As a teenager in NYC in the 80s, I must say thatFortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem (who also wrote Motherless Brooklyn) is an accurate a portrayal of NYC as I remember it. It's also a great book.
posted by swngnmonk at 8:38 AM on June 30, 2010

While growing up, there was only one 'real' New York for me and that was the New York I knew from the TV-series Kojak. When I went to NYC in the early eighties for the 1st time, I wasn't disappointed. Years later I found the bizarro travel guide New York unexpurgated by Petronius. The ultimate guide for the sick and the depraved. Where to get your best porn, where to pick up single ladies, where to meet naked males, where to score you Mary Jane: it's all there. Written in the sixties, but it still describes the Kojak New York I learned to love. I still read it once in a while and it is still the most amazing description of New York I ever read. Easy to get on Ebay for a few bucks.
posted by ouke at 8:42 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

This essay by Luc Sante is a really good place to start.

It's an excerpt from Low Life, one of my favorite books about NYC.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:29 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Came to say Fortress of Solitude as well. Not always a fan of the semi-magic-realism, nostalgia novels by hip bklyn writers, but this one is a good one.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:24 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Story of My Life by Jay McInerney.

Sheila Levine is Dead and Living In New York by Gail Parent
posted by SisterHavana at 10:58 AM on June 30, 2010

Jim Carroll's Forced Entries covers New York's downtown arts (and drug) scene of the early '70s (plus an interlude in Northern California).
posted by scody at 1:01 PM on June 30, 2010

Seconding Let the Great World Spin (set in 1974). I love, love, love this book.

I also loved When You Reach Me by Rachel Stead, which is set in 1979.

Not books, but I am currently obsessed with these pictures.
posted by Violet Hour at 2:48 PM on June 30, 2010

there's a Jim Jarmusch movie set on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, whose name I forget
Stranger than Paradise?
posted by tallus at 2:51 PM on June 30, 2010

Yes, Stranger than Paradise. Thanks!
posted by dfriedman at 6:40 PM on June 30, 2010

Parts of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life. Norma Klein.
Paula Danziger's Remember Me to Harold Square.
Mary Rogers' Freaky Friday and sequels Summer Switch and A Billion for Boris.
posted by brujita at 11:40 PM on June 30, 2010

There's also this article Rememberance of an Art Scene in a Downtown Past.
posted by Violet Hour at 1:04 AM on July 1, 2010

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