Cover image for The last days of disco : with cocktails at Petrossian afterwards ; a novel
The last days of disco : with cocktails at Petrossian afterwards ; a novel
Stillman, Whit, 1952-
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First edition.
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New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
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339 pages ; 22 cm
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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Library

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Reviews 3

Booklist Review

When the movie The Last Days of Disco was released in 1998, it met with much critical acclaim. Now Stillman has transformed his film about the lives and loves of a group of twentysomethings in the early 1980s into a witty and engaging novel. The story opens with several of the main characters, including the narrator, Jimmy, worrying about whether or not they will get into one of New York's exclusive nightspots, known only as "the Club," where the bouncers handpick those they will let in each night, so as to create a kind of artificial population of their own making. The young frequenters, awkward but much-adored Alice and cruel but insecure Charlotte and their friends and lovers, try to adjust and thrive as their world shifts around them and one era jarringly gives way to the next. Stillman's characters are as alive on the page as they are on screen. Like the movie, this first novel is a small gem. --Kristine Huntley

Publisher's Weekly Review

Stillman, independent filmmaker (Metropolitan; Barcelona; The Last Days of Disco) and chronicler of the romantic trials of the upper-middle class, here adapts his own 1998 film, with poignant and hilarious results. The premise is preciously, playfully postmodern: chronically unemployed lounge-chair philosopher Jimmy Steinway is "commissioned" by Castle Rock Entertainment to do a novelization of the film, itself based on the activities of Steinway and his circle in the early 1980s. Steinway relates the events of the film from his own perspective, clueing readers in to the way things "really" happened. We are introduced to "the Club," an ultra-fashionable discotheque, and the characters who inhabit it, including Josh Neff, a clinically depressed, disco-mad assistant district attorney; Dan Powers, a publishing industry wonk whose fervent nightclubbing clashes with his avowed allegiance to the downtrodden; Charlotte Pingree, whose manipulative one-two punch of acidic "honesty" and Clintonian contrition places her at the center of the Club's social whirlwind; and Alice Kinnon, whose quiet intelligence and barely concealed vulnerability make her the focus of romantic attention. Tensions stir within the group when Alice appears to take up with noted womanizer Des McGrath. The growing general animosity is rendered beautifully; the feinting two-step of sexual competition is vividly represented in the halting, emotion-freighted rhythms of the dialogue. Stillman's characters are often praised for their wit and verbal agility, but to take their pronouncements at face value is to deny Stillman's undeniable mastery as a satirist. The most rewarding aspect of the novel is the psychological interplay between the smarmy, self-involved young Jimmy Steinway and the older, wiser, middle-aged Jimmy Steinway who narrates. In adapting The Last Days of Disco, Stillman can lampoon his characters' foibles from a perspective one step beyond, thus articulating a moral perspective while furthering his satire. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

With his first novel, the director of Metropolitan and Barcelona proves that he is as talented a writer as he is a filmmaker. Based on his most recent movie, this is not your usual cheesy quicky film novelization but a fresh and witty comedy of manners that stands on its own literary merits. Almost 20 years after the events depicted in the film occurred, narrator Jimmy Steinway, The Dancing Adman, has been hired by Castle Rock Entertainment to write the novelization. Claiming that the real story started at a party in the Hamptons (not depicted in the movie) where he met the lovely Alice Kinnon, Jimmy recalls how the subtle charms of the boyfriendless social failure stirred a rivalry among Jimmy and four of his Harvard classmates"and the bitter jealousy of her roommate, Charlotte. Set in Manhattan in the early 1980s at the end of the disco era, Stillman!s tale is a wry, perspective portrait of urban young people and their mating rituals. Both fans of the film and sophisticated readers will enjoy. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/00.]"Wilda Williams, Library Journal (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Sag Harbor "Opposites attract," they say--and it's true. Scoundrels are forever being smitten with angels, and vice versa, and if such terms are objectionable, replace them with the secular equivalent, but it's still true. Like so much that verges on the hackneyed, a wealth of human experience looks out from behind it. Opposites attract, unfortunately, and the cost, in terms of subsequent despair, ruinous legal actions divorce, fatherless--or motherless--families, cracks in the social welfare system and people falling through those cracks, even suicide and violence, is incalculably horrible. For that reason I pledged myself to oppose the whole sexy "opposites attract" dynamic any way I could.     If after all these years Des McGrath should still resent and hold that against me--well, I'm not sorry. * * *     That there has already been a movie on the same subject as this book is a fact too large to ignore or pretend objectivity about. Often the subjects of films--and books--nitpick about how they are portrayed, how the author got this or that wrong, etc., etc., ad infinitum. That was not our case. All of us, except Charlotte, loved the movie--not entirely surprising, since so did all good film critics the world over (i.e., not David Denby). Our stake in how the film was received was particularly direct in that we were the characters whom the Denbys of this world and the moron from the San Diego paper found so unlikable . That was not true. Except for Charlotte we were not unlikable in the least, especially back then. Des said later that the Denby piece read as if some sort of sexual jealousy were involved. Another friend who reviews movies, though he's primarily a novelist, commented that those of his film-critic colleagues who are always finding characters petty and unlikable tend to be that way themselves.     Why then turn a screen story, admittedly well told, into a book? Art. Self-expression. Taking a corner of our life and culture, and enriching it. Interpreting the times we have lived through and, if not making them one's own, at least preserving them in written memory. For me the events of the story are still fraught with emotion despite their having occurred nearly two decades ago. Watching the movie, I discovered much I had not known before, just as many things I considered important had, given running-time necessity, been left out. The abbreviating nature of film and nearly all audiovisual media is something I had come to understand and accept in a career spent almost entirely in the sphere of the fifteen- and thirty-second television advertising spot.     I come from the tail end of that generation in advertising when there was usually an unfinished novel in the lower desk drawer. It was still the glory days of the baby boomers. While we might have sought to fit into society in economically useful or at least minimally remunerative ways, we still refused, at least initially, to let go of our aspirations to accomplish something beyond that, be it artistic or otherwise. Unlike some other people, I do not think our generation was entirely selfish or bad.     As a fiction writer manqué who had never gotten beyond Chapter 3 of a novel, and then only once, I found the offer from Jess Wittenberg of Castle Rock Entertainment's business and legal affairs department to turn The Last Days of Disco into a novel an opportunity too compelling and rare to let pass, whatever problems and pitfalls might seem to go with it. That I was one of the participants in the original story would, I hoped, take it beyond what is normally thought of as a film "novelization," and to further underline the distinction, publication was not intended until long after the film had already passed through the traditional film distribution "chain." That this would coincide with the film's free television premiere on the well-regarded VH1 music channel--one of only three feature films to be so selected--was a fortuitous coincidence. * * *     Once, at a dinner during a return trip to New York I heard the novelist Tom Wolfe talk fascinatingly about what film could and could not do well in terms of narrative storytelling. I forget what he said film could do well, but as to what it could not do well, he cited as an example "shoes." In a novel, he said, if you wanted to discuss a character's shoes, you could describe not just the shoes' external appearance--the film or TV ad spot equivalent might be a tight close-up--but everything about them. Perhaps the shoes had been handmade at enormous expense at Lobb in London; maybe the character under study would not have known (or cared) about Lobb when he first came to New York from the South in the late 1950s, but over time and with increasing prosperity in a certain social milieu, perhaps he'd come to care about just that kind of thing. Was it to show off and keep up with his peers, or simply an enthusiasm for beautiful objects of craftsmanship, along with the resources to buy them?     Later when I read Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities , I admired how he used such sociological detail to weave a portrait of Manhattan in the 1980s that memorialized a world we all lived in, the way Thackeray and Trollope had theirs.     I remembered this "shoes" story at the screening of the first rough cut of The Last Days of Disco when, after the opening title cards set the scene as "Manhattan--The very early 1980s," the first striking pictorial image flashed on the screen and was, again footwear : in this case, a tight shot of a woman's shoe-clad feet (Alice's) striding along the sidewalk, keeping pace with another woman wearing a pair of modish low black boots (of course, Charlotte's). Then the camera tilts up and we see the cool actresses attached to these shoes and boots. In the movie it's the music (Carol Douglas's early disco hit "Doctor's Orders"), the sound of the actresses' voices, and their stylish body language that strike one so strongly--the shoes hardly register at all. It was another example of the enormous difference between a story told on film and one told in writing.     For the majority of us, the real story began not outside the Club that night but weeks earlier at Kate Preston's famous party in Sag Harbor Labor Day weekend.     Kate's father was the publisher and de facto editor of the magazine Futura and, as such, a big figure in our Harvard firmament. Maybe later those in our group moved on to careers in advertising, the law, or nightclub management, but that didn't mean we had given up our intellectual interests and aspirations--quite the contrary. There is a too-common assumption among professional intellectuals that the world of thought and ideas is in some way owned by them. In truth, some of the best minds have fled the mediocrity, jealousies, and low pay of the literary-intellectual ghetto.     Sag Harbor is one of the resort towns on the southeastern fork of Long Island, two or more hours from New York City, that are collectively referred to as "the Hamptons." It is the Hamptons town with the "literary" reputation--a reputation that is, frankly, deserved. Many writers, editors, and people active in the theater and the allied arts do tend to vacation or live there--and those who don't, often visit. Like the other Hamptons, Sag Harbor has a particularly intense summertime social whirl which it has long been fashionable to decry. This is one of those poses, fairly tiresome, that everyone seems compelled to adopt. But to be honest, I've always found the social life there pretty terrific--from that first party at Kate Preston's on.     Kate's Labor Day bash was a curious affair that started at about one in the afternoon and ended long after dark. We were all supposed to bring food and drink and help out. Tom Platt and I had been given responsibility for the condiments and hamburger buns (we found that moist and good-tasting brand of potato rolls--Martin's, I think--they sell on the Island). My turn on the grill came first, and it was in that context that Alice and I met. She claimed the burgers I was cooking were much too rare.     "That's disgusting," she said each time I took one off.     I accused her of being anti-meat, an unconfessed vegetarian.     "Not at all. I like hamburgers--properly cooked."     Before I moved to Europe, all the women I fell for liked their meat extremely well cooked, practically burnt, and' their favorite color was always blue. I don't know if there was any connection between these preferences. (Oddly, the French word for meat that's so rare it's essentially uncooked is, in fact, bleu .) Alice was the last and by far the greatest of these infatuations.     What kind of first impression did she make? A very strong one. In my opinion she did not greatly resemble the attractive blond actress Chloë Sevigny ( Kids ), who played her in the movie. She was more petite, her hair darker, her figure less sensational, though still perfectly fine. She was only twenty-one then and in some ways even younger-seeming than that. I should mention that not everyone found her attractive. To them, she was merely "normal-looking." Thank God for divergences in taste and aesthetic judgment--and other people's lack thereof!     For those sensible to such things, Alice had an extraordinarily sad and romantic look around her eyes--lovely light brown eyebrows, diagonals sloping downward, above warm, sincere, kind, dark eyes that promised the most interesting of companions to anyone lucky enough to become her friend. Through absolutely no fault of her own, she had an expression that could break one's heart--at least anyone sentient to such things. While normally such a look might portend a sad, poetic, romantic--and, often, unhumorous and quasi-depressive--personality. Alice was instead (and thank God) funny, charming, and cheerful--at least to the extent that she had any reason to be. (She was not "inanely cheerful," the way some very tiresome people are; in fact, I've been accused of that.) Of course, like anyone in her twenties, she got into funks and "depressions"--but hers tended to be for actual reasons, not trumped-up ones, and then she found ways out of them without making everyone else in Creation miserable, too.     An observation which might not be wholly true but which I'll risk proposing anyway: Most women who seem fascinatingly silent, romantic, and mysterious turn out to be just ... not so bright or communicative. Getting deeply involved with them can mean, at least in my experience, a one-way trip down the well of loneliness. Perhaps that sounds cruel, and they could probably say the same; granted that. All I mean is, what a loss, what a shame: if people were only as fascinating as they looked, how life might be. On the other hand, to be balanced about it, many people who don't look at all fascinating, mysterious, or interesting turn out to be. You tend to encounter this most often in working environments where there are so many opportunities to meet people who seem completely unattractive and uninteresting--but then turn out not to be. I think that's one reason I've always liked the working world so much.     Next it was Tom's turn to take over the grill. I sort of expected or just assumed that Alice would join me, drifting away to explore the rest of the party together. We had really hit it off. I thought a real connection had been made. Instead, she remained glued to the spot, leaning against the table where hamburger and hot-dog preparation was taking place, chatting with Tom and monitoring his grill technique. So I decided to hang around, too.     Evidently Tom was also one of those entirely susceptible to that heartbreakingly romantic-sad look in a young woman's eyes. It was pretty surprising to see. For years he had been romantically linked to a very attractive, extremely-sexy-for-the-cardigan-set Wheaton girl, Jennifer Robbins by name (not to be confused with all the other Jennifer Robbinses). In college they had been among the most visible couples, Saturday-evening drinks at the Hasty Pudding bar and all that. I think she was the first young woman I noticed drinking whiskey sours. They were one of those couples envied by both sexes, including me.     With Alice, Tom was completely different--much lighter and funnier than had been his mode in college. Maybe it was the Labor Day atmosphere and release of tension. Similarly, with him, Alice dropped the teasing tone she had taken with me, not harassing him about the "rareness" of his hamburgers at all.     When Tom stepped away to get another platter of hamburger patties, I asked her about the apparent inequity of this.     "It's just that his hamburgers are properly cooked," Alice said. "We're free to talk about other things."     "I thought you were just teasing me about my burgers being rare."     "No. Your hamburgers were too rare. It was a health hazard."     "Haven't you ever heard of steak tartare? People eat raw meat all the time. I love it."     "Yes," she said. "I noticed."     "I thought you were just saying that for effect."     "I don't say things for effect."     "Oh, you don't," I replied in that fairly obnoxious, skeptical tone it's all too easy to slip into, regretting it even while saying it. In situations of any kind of social tension at all, I tend to act in one of two ways: like a bit of a jerk, or like a total jerk.     "No, I don't," she said.     Alice was not, as it turned out, one of those people who make themselves interesting, or flirt, by teasing or criticizing someone of the opposite sex. She really did think the hamburgers I was cooking were much too rare, and our conversation, though it had seemed great from my point of view, in fact never got much off the barbecue level.     On the other hand, the way she and Tom communicated was like bursts of microwave transmission, with vast quantities of information, opinions, and insights almost instantly interchanged. Tom acted as if injected with sodium pentathol or some other alleged truth serum, spilling his guts out to Alice in a way I had never imagined before (though later it turned out that he was filtering out some things ).     I did not hold it against Tom personally, but it was intolerable being around him in the presence of girls. They collapsed in puddles before him, sometimes in the most abject way, and Alice, terrific as she was, seemed not entirely an exception in this case.     Despite firm resolutions to the contrary, I did let myself get bent out of shape by it and finally slipped away in a skulk, fortunately not attracting Alice's adverse attention. She had been pretty charitable in not noticing my querulousness while she devoted her concentration pretty much exclusively to Tom. As with any humiliating experience (and competing with Tom Platt was always going to be a humiliating experience), I immediately tried to put it out of my mind, and the girl with it. There are all kinds of things we do, against our own ultimate best interests, in order to immediately protect our egos and amour-propre . That the remarkable rapport between Alice and Tom did not have any immediate consequence or sequel is something I did not stick around to notice. An unobserved or unacted-upon romantic opportunity is the same as no romantic opportunity at all, at least in my experience.     None of this was directly portrayed in the movie. The filmmakers, seduced perhaps by the title they had come up with and the potent reference to "Disco" embedded within it, began their account instead on the south Manhattan streets outside the club where we coincided that night and often subsequently gathered.     The downtown section of Manhattan--specifically that nowhere land between Greenwich Village on the north and Wall Street or Chinatown on the south--had for most of a century been desolation personified at night. Until recently the area's only late-night patrons had been financial printers on the lobster shift and young corporate finance types pulling all-nighters proofreading their work, documents on which hundreds of millions of dollars of stock market financing could depend. Serving them were two taverns with greasy barbecue, several takeout places, and a couple of Italian restaurants which time and all but a few nostalgic mobsters--and their closest business associates--had forgotten. Then sometime in the 1970s, what would later be endlessly referred to as the "downtown club scene" was born. By the time of the story--the very early 1980s--Hudson and Varick Streets had begun their new roles as dual parallels of late-night beauty and romance.     Which brings us back to Charlotte and Alice and their search that night for love. They were walking up Hudson Street from the subway station in the direction of the legendary disco those of us who became regulars there made a point of referring to only as "the Club." It would be hard to explain today the promise of social and romantic magic the Club seemed to hold out (and often delivered) in those days. But first there was always the nightmare of getting in.     Alice had been worrying about it as they approached the corner with Van Dam Street.     "I heard you have a better chance of getting in if you come by cab," she decided to mention.     "You're really worried about getting in?" Charlotte asked.     "Yeah--I am."     "I thought you'd been here several times before."     "Not the front way. They were private parties. We came in the back."     Charlotte glanced at her. "We look really good tonight. I'm sure we're going to get in."     Rounding the corner, Alice and then Charlotte slowed to a stop. As they looked up the street, their expressions turned somber. The sidewalk outside the Club, about a half block away, was already a tragic mob scene of rejection, a horde of people forced to wait ignominiously while a pallid chosen few were whisked inside. Members of the crowd who sought to slip in with them were cruelly rebuffed. One young woman sobbed as four bouncers hustled her boyfriend out to the curb, shouting and squirming.     "Let's get a cab," Alice said, stepping off the curb and raising her arm to flag one.     Charlotte followed her. "Maybe you're right." (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Whit Stillman. All rights reserved.