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Review: Bill Hayes’ “Insomniac City”

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Although Bill Hayes’ lyrical account of his life in New York City, Insomniac City, is more than anything a love story of the city, many readers will read the book because of his relationship with Oliver Sacks, the distinguished neurologist and writer, who died in 2015. Hayes was 48 years old when he moved to New York, after the death of his partner of many years from AIDS. Sacks was thirty years older, celibate for three-and-a-half decades and, apparently, never regarded himself as homosexual. Hayes was recovering from grief, Sacks from melanoma. The two had met once before Hayes made his move from California to the East Coast. Both were writers, though Sacks by far the more famous. Hayes saw the city as “a place where one comes to reinvent” one’s self, as a fresh start. His tiny apartment had a spectacular view of Manhattan. Both men had suffered throughout their lives from insomnia. Hence, the appeal of the city that never sleeps.

Sacks’ melanoma had begun in his eye, rendering him almost blind. During the course of their several-year relationship, the melanoma will metastasize and result in his death. Hayes will suffer through a second horrible death from a partner, though Sacks’ grace in the face of such pain and inevitability is inspiring. Early in their relationship, Sacks tells the younger man, “I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life.” Whole sections of Insomnia City have nothing to do with Sacks. Rather, they record Hayes’ gregarious encounters with dozens of people on the city’s streets at all hours of the day and night. He roams the city, taking photos of people after gently asking them for their permission. The book reproduces several dozen of these photos, narrates Hayes’ wanderings, and his journal entries that record many of his moments with Sacks (including what he says).

For me, the beauty of Hayes’ narrative resides in his observations of the people he meets, mostly on the city’s streets. The story includes his poignant encounters and conversations with taxi drivers, skateboarders, homeless people, the insomniaccityelderly, shop owners, and others. He has a sharp ability to draw out of these people memorable accounts of their lives and work. Sometimes he will encounter the same person several times. This is true of Ali, the manager of a shop, from whom he buys ice cream and other sundries. Hayes’ thirty-year subscription to the New Yorker has run out and he knows that he could save a bundle by renewing it, but instead pays $6.99 each week for the latest issue so that he can talk to Ali. Ali’s matchbooks have “Thank You” printed on them, and he gives them willingly to people who ask for them. Then one day, a man grabs one of the matchbooks, so unsettling him that when he orders more for the shop, they are blank.  With a “frozen expression his face,” Ali tells him, “No one says thank you [any longer], so the matches are same.” It’s a telling commentary on the city, which is true of any number of other terse observations in the book. Hayes pulls from people their humanity in the face of an often-indifferent environment.

The observations of Oliver Sacks are frequently startling, revealing the extraordinary personality—no surprise to the readers of his many books and essays. When they are walking outside one evening, fireflies surround them. Sacks tells Hayes to keep his mouth closed. When he asks why, Sacks responds, “They say three will kill you…. I don’t want you to die of fireflies…a luminous death!” Washing dishes together, Sacks states, “One feels they want to be cleaned. One feels they appreciate it.” This is followed by a discussion of inanimate objects having lives of their own, i.e., animism. Instead of carrying around a drivers’ license in his billfold, Sacks has a copy of the periodic table. But what is most memorable about Oliver Sacks in the last few months of his life—when he is in great pain because he has refused chemo—are the descriptions of his daily activities. He goes about these activities as if there has been no change in his life: he works on essays, describing what is happening to him, he plays the piano, and he confesses that he had “never shared his life before” with anyone. It’s a sad revelation, all the more poignant because he has finally fallen in love.

And Hayes himself, after he has suffered the second devastating death of a lover, people ask him if he will stay in New York City. Before she died, his agent of many years told him “the saddest and the most romantic thing one possibly could say—sad because New York can never return the sentiment, and sad because it’s the kind of thing said more often about a romantic love—husband, wife, girlfriend, lover. You can’t imagine them going on without you. But they do. We do. Every day, we may wake up and say, What’s the point? Why go on. And there is really only one answer. To be alive.”

That life permeates every page of Insomniac City, a dual love story of a powerful relationship that will shortly end but, also, of a city that is constantly reinventing itself.

Life and death.

Bill Hayes: Insomniac City
Bloomsbury, 291 pp., $27

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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