The summer after I returned from the Peace Corps, I sat outside of my favorite café in my home town, drinking hot coffee from a glass pint glass. I watched a couple of teen boys stare at their reflection in a florist’s window as they applied black lipstick before joined the line of people waiting for the Insane Clown Posse concert. As much as I didn’t enjoy the music they were devoted to, I felt a wistful resonance since they were recreating a scene from Velvet Goldmine in which young fans apply makeup before attending a Brian Slade glam rock concert. The movie ends in a dive bar filled with fans devoted to another iteration of pop music. The movie itself begins with a nod to Oscar Wilde as a young boy declaring he wants to be a pop idol. History may not be cyclical, but it certainly rhymes.
The author of Night Class Dr. Victor Corona as a good sociologist and former fellow traveler must be familiar with Marx’s assertion that “history repeats first as tragedy, then as farce.” But what happens when it repeats after that. This seems to be the nervously unuttered question throughout his memoir about iterations of New York club culture. Corona tries to shake his academic training, peppering his writing with words like kiki and fucking. Yet he can never divorce himself from his sociological training. He presents his story in the context of evidence from which he produces the theoretical frame for his observations.
In this case, he wants to provide us with the cultural significance of his clubbing. This theoretical frame is less engaging than his actual story, but it consists of asserting the cultural authority of Andy Warhol’s Factory and loosely connecting that to Michael Alig’s Club Kids in the 1990s. His last leap was tying the Club Kids to the current slate of club goers who follow in the wake of Lady Gaga. As many intellectuals, Corona appeals to theaders’ sense of ethos by asserting his connection to other “experts” in the field. In this case, he recounts his encounters to former Factory members, his job for Michael Alig, and the relationships he has with people who know Lady Gaga. Had Corona maintained a more staid academic tone he could have avoided the occasional awkwardness of over inflating the importance of tentative social connections.
He often lacks a sense of narrative cohesion substituting a strand of anecdotes in place of story. Of course, one could argue that these at time fragmentary narratives are part of the dissipated experience of the club scene. However this structure seems much more in keeping with a work of theory like the way Jose Muñoz in Disidentifications moves from discussions of Basquiat to Van DerZee to Vaginal Crème Davis to advance a more important central concept. In some ways, Corona’s inability to center the narrative or to commit to analysis is endearing. He speaks of being a professor who tries to connect with students through popular culture. That and the book reminds me of how professors in the 1990s would try to make references to The Simpsons to show their cultural relevance.
It is in the moments when Corona discusses the figures like Ultra Violet, Linda Simpson, and Flloyd who have made their mark on the community but may not be household names where his book is most compelling. Corona mentions teaching Paris is Burning. In trying to convince readers of the cultural importance of the denizens of his chosen milieu, he would be well served in remembering the sage wisdom of Dorian Corey as a way of deciding what to focus on:
I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.
Michael Alig, Andy Warhol, and Lady Gaga all passed through the milieu he is discussing. But those who lived and endured in it give us a better idea of the habitus Corona is so often chasing. Corona does provide the reader with some interesting insights about the shifts in his floating world.
Night Class: A Downtown Memoir
Soft Skul Press