Review: Insomniac City, Bill Hayes

I don’t often love memoirs, but this one was stunning.  Gorgeous, tender, heartbreaking, joyful. Bill Hayes moved to New York City at the age of forty-eight, shortly after the death of his partner of sixteen years. In this memoir, he recounts falling in love with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who was seventy-five at the time. They were together until Sacks died seven years later. But Insomniac City is not only a moving memoir about a surprising and life-changing relationship, or an intimate portrait of a famous writer. It is also about the experience of moving to a new place in middle age, and about falling in love with New York City.

Part of what I loved so much about this book was its structure. Vignettes about life in New York—riding the train and walking the streets and talking to strangers—alternate with snippets from Hayes’s journal. The two main characters (so to speak), Oliver Sacks and New York City, appear in both the vignettes and the journal entires, but Sacks is more often present in the journal sections, whereas in each vignette, it is the city itself that takes center stage.

This structure lent a complexity to the memoir. It refused to be just one thing. Here was a man who fell in love, utterly unexpectedly, after going through a devastating loss, with an extraordinary and famous person. But Hayes’s experience of New York City—and his relationship with the city—was clearly just as meaningful and transformative, albeit in a different way.

Hayes writes about both the city and his relationship with Sacks with palpable tenderness. I loved this. I loved the weight it gave to the story. We are not one dimensional creatures. Our lives are rarely linear; our emotions and desires are almost always multi-faceted. Rarely do we live through a story that is simply one thing: a love story, a coming of age story, a story about death. The stories we live through are complicated. They are about many things. This book was not only a love story. It was about renewal, reinvention, mess, loss, dependence and independence, aging, sickness, grief, wonder.

I also loved the smallness of the things Hayes chooses to write about. He writes about ordinary life with sparse, exact language: cooking dinner, drinking wine on the roof, swimming laps, getting high. The shapes and colors of trees and clouds, the items on Sacks’s desk, the expressions of people on a subway. Woven together, all of these little moments told a deeply moving story.

There is big joy and deep grief in this book. Hayes and Sacks found each other at a completely unexpected time in their lives. The wonder of that, their pure happiness in each other, shimmers on the page. But Hayes does not shy away from the difficult, either: loosing his partner suddenly and uprooting his life, the realities of aging, Sacks’s death from cancer less than ten years after they met. The extraordinary thing is how he uses such minute and ordinary details to weave those big themes into such a moving, funny, readable story.

Everything about life is messy. This book celebrated that messiness. In a scene where Hayes and Sacks are discussing the sensation of pleasure while high, they decide that pleasure and happiness are not the same because “happiness is more complex”. With this love letter of a book, in spare and haunting prose, Hayes asserts that this is so, and that, even in the midst of grief, it is possible to find worth in wildness of our lives.

Hayes gifts his readers with too many verbatim bits of of Oliver Sacks’s wisdom, humor, profundity, and wonder to write them all down here. Here’s the one I copied onto a post-it which now lives on my desk: “The most we can do is write—intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively—about what it is like living in the world at this time.”

This is the most succinct and beautiful meditation on the work of a writer that I’ve ever heard. It is exactly what Hayes has done in Insomniac City.

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