A World of Saints and Gangsters

In his essay on Walker Evans, one of twenty-five essays and reviews included in his new collection Kill All Your Darlings, Luc Sante quotes the photographer’s third-person self-description—“Evans was, and is, interested in what any present time will look like as the past”—and goes on to note: “Wherever he went, Evans thought of himself, consciously or not, as documenting Pompeii just before the volcano blew.”

Pompeii, as it happens, has already made an appearance in Luc Sante’s book, in an extraordinary piece (“The Ruins of New York”) originally written to accompany reproductions of the frescoes that Francesco Clemente painted on the walls of the subsequently demolished New York club the Palladium. Imagining a volcano erupting in Upper New York Bay in late 1985, Sante proceeds to a description of the life preserved in its hardened lava as it appears to the eyes of a twenty-fifth-century archaeologist:

We see thieves holding guns to the heads of grocery-store proprietors, prostitutes leaving grimy hotel rooms bearing the wallets of drunken clients, policemen in uniform clutching envelopes filled with cash in the hallways of ghetto drug dens. We see sex slaves in leather harnesses cowering in expensively appointed dungeons, clergymen of high rank sharing drugs with naked schoolchildren in the crypts of great churches, fresh corpses rolled up in carpets in the trunks of limousines arrested in flight on the peripheral roadways. Everywhere we dig, it seems, we find exchanges of money, sex, drugs, and death.

This bit of miniaturized social epic—lurid but hardly exaggerated, the material for a thousand-page novel by Hugo or Dreiser folded neatly but completely into less than a paragraph—exemplifies the density of Sante’s own excavation of ruins both past and future.

In “The Ruins of New York” he enlists the resources of a brilliant comic imagination in order to realize the impossible gesture of stopping time and walking around in a frozen moment. The lava-encrusted city becomes a museum in which everything can be contemplated just as it is, and for as long as the scientist from the future may desire. The frozen moment itself contains other, earlier moments—the interior of “an enormous billiard parlor favored by old men who carried knives in their socks,” the ruins of a classic German restaurant “fallen out of favor when Gemütlichkeit passed into obloquy”—until the proliferation of alternate realities, gone worlds nested in other gone worlds, encourages a mood of exhilarating freedom, a mood suggested in the first place by the freedom of the form in which Sante has cast the piece.

The Palladium as Pompeii: the game is appealing precisely because it’s been conceived in such an idiosyncratic spirit, the author amusing himself even in the absence of any reader. Yet it’s executed with such cartographic exactness that if you were anywhere near that place or time you could measure your distance from his position. The reader’s phantom city is superimposed on Sante’s until there is an impression …

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