Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me - Bill Hayes' remarkable memoir and hymn to life
by DREW ROWSOME-
It is very rare to come across a book as extraordinary and powerful as Insomniac City. My instinct is to just type that you should get a copy as soon as possible and immerse oneself in it. I had read some of author Bill Hayes' essays and enjoyed his wry sense of humour and insights, but Insomniac City is a work of art. I read the first two-thirds of the book in one sitting, utterly absorbed, and wanting to mark every page for re-reading and to remember. The final third I mistakenly read on the subway, only to be overcome and begin quietly sobbing, not out of any maudlin manipulation or sadness but at the sheer beauty of the prose expressing such optimism and faith amidst the unbearable. It was just overwhelming and cathartic.
Hayes is hitherto best known as the partner of Oliver Sacks whose brilliant memoir On the Move covers a similar period of time. As a portrait of Sacks, and of Hayes' life with Sacks, Insomniac City is full of quirky, idiosyncratic details that illuminate love, affection and a man whose process of life and thinking was unique. That Hayes makes this so entertaining and manages to let the reader have a glimpse into the way this process works, is breathtaking. The accumulation of details and incidents reveal one relationship in all its ups and downs while extrapolating into the possibilities of all relationships.
Time and again, Hayes will recount a statement or thought uttered by Sacks that is, initially, a non-sequitur or absurd. The humorous aspect is never discounted - Sacks was brilliant but also comically eccentric - but it is also pondered, discussed and usually quietly proves to be an insight, or an alternate way of thinking, that is not only revelatory of Sacks' genius but also of everyone's potential brilliance. The love between the two is quite remarkable, as is their realization of the futility of applying the scientific method, or even words, to fathom the wonders of gay sex. Insomniac City paints a lustrous partial portrayal of just how unusual and exceptional Sacks was.
However Hayes himself is full of insights, observations and an empathetic outlook. A photographer as well as a writer, Hayes intersperses the text with his photos. Hayes writes of his encounters and the people who fascinate him enough to immortalize them. As Hayes documents his experiences as he wanders, camera at hand, he also writes a vivid love letter to New York City and its inhabitants. And he manages to capture a flavour of that magnificent city that is familiar to those who love it, and will create envy in those who have yet to experience that singular metropolis.
At first the structure of Insomniac City seems ramshackle, meandering, but the individual morsels are so enticing that the journey becomes more important than the destination. Beginning as a memoir of an inability to deal with grief, then composed of short anecdotes and journal entries (he claims to have assembled scraps of paper and thoughts where he had jotted things down as they happened or occurred to him) interspersed with more narrated descriptions of his photography subjects and his love affair/partnership with Sacks, the cumulative fragments coalesce into an astonishing climax where all the threads pull together and, in my case, resulted in actual tears of joy, wonder and release.
The clever intricacy of the structure doesn't reveal itself until the very end, and by then one has been so seduced by what has preceded, that it doesn't matter how it was achieved, it is enough to just marvel that Hayes has given such a gift of celebration. A celebration of the good and bad of life, of individuality and the joy of the extraordinary, and the extraordinariness of the ordinary. There are moments of crystal clear description that are still lingering in my thoughts - the beauty of dropped cherry tomatoes, Sacks belief that the word "but" is the most important in the English language, Sacks' reliance on lists, Hayes' theories on photography and the ownership of art - but (that marvellous word) the final effect is more poetic, a gut emotion that haunts and inspires.