Editor’s Note: Last week tragedy struck and deprived the serious reading world of Terry Teachout, the arts and theatre critic of the Wall Street Journal since 2003, a monthly essayist for Commentary magazine, a major biographer of everyone from Louis Armstrong to H.L. Mencken, a diligent blogger and tweeter (surely the most civilized such voice on that medium), and all that just for starters, best I can tell. Someday his biographers will debate whether he knew more about theatre or about music and jazz. I predict a dead heat.
We knew Terry back when he was starting out. From 1981 to 1989, he contributed 20 pieces to our magazine. (They can be found here.) Already it was the clearest writing out there. His automatic command of any subject was unnatural. The copy came in perfect condition. He could have lorded over any editor, but of course he never did. He was the consummate kind man, and he no doubt knew his gifts were exceptional. And his response to that? He was as hard-working and prolific as anyone I’ve known, one more reason to learn from him.
In his honor we reproduce the review we ran in our January 1992 issue of the memoir he published in 1991, of his life before he moved to New York. It is by George Sim Johnston, the best sort of New Yorker himself, who in a certain way welcomes Terry to New York. Soon enough, Terry became a New York fixture, but in a genuine way, never losing the small town Missouri qualities that he had brought with him. And to think death claimed him when it seemed he was just starting in his prime, which like everyone I expected would last decades longer. It’s a huge loss we’ll never afford.
— Wlady Pleszczynski
City Limits: Memories of a Small-Town Boy
(Poseidon Press/204 pages/$19)
Reviewed by George Sim Johnston (TAS, January 1992)
Terry Teachout grew up in a small town in Missouri and, after brief improvisations here and there, made his way to the big lights of New York City. Now in his thirties — not exactly his dotage — he’s written a memoir of this pilgrimage, City Limits. It’s an account of what William James called the twice-born soul, of a person who somewhere between adolescence and maturity grows a second soul in order to keep moving forward. Even so, he cannot help but trail what Teachout calls the broken cobwebs of the past. These cobwebs make up much of this fine book, which can readily be put beside such quiet contemporary classics as Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.
Teachout was born and raised in a place called Sikeston, which, so far as I can tell, has not had its 1965 yet. What do I mean by this? I grew up in New York City, and in 1965 everything began to get weird. Spray-paint vandals who signed themselves COOLJET200 began to redecorate the subways, people stopped using garbage receptacles on the sidewalk, newsstands sprouted pornography, and every neighborhood became a theater of operations for psychopaths. New York, it has been observed, was once all superego, and now it’s all id. Freudian terminology aside, Sikeston, Mo. appears to be one of those unvisited pockets of decency out there in the heartland, a place where you can still leave the backdoor unlocked at night. Without such places — so it seems anyway to an exasperated New Yorker — the republic could not possibly keep muddling on.
Like Evelyn Waugh, if Teachout ever got hold of a time machine, he would set the engine Slow Astern. His father’s leanly edited home movies, he writes, “cannot satisfy my longing for a movie made up of nothing but wasted film, a prosy, commonplace, uneventful movie whose only purpose is to show how Sikeston looked on an average day in 1950 or 1960 or 1990 …” So Teachout uses the opening chapters to produce a kind of prose home movie, in which the camera lingers on childhood landmarks “lightly touched with mystery.” Evocative without being cloying, these shots of an enclave of bustling self-sufficiency, complete with A&W Root Beer stand and local Elks Club, make the reader wonder why the author did not follow the path of least resistance and set up shop as a small-town lawyer. The descriptions of his childhood family life resonate with that elusive thing called happiness, which, if we but knew it, often resides in a “normality” that requires a fair amount of effort.
The main problem with childhood, of course, is that it eventually turns into adolescence. For Teachout, this meant a “prig’s progress” into the library stacks or behind a closed door at home, where he would spend hours listening to jazz records. One way for a painfully shy teenager to loosen up a bit was to get involved in theater (“Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you everything,” as Wilde put it), and there’s a wonderful account of a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof in which Teachout, having misplaced his glasses, comes crashing down from the upper reaches of the stage set, desperately holding up a violin to keep it from breaking.
Adolescent shyness often pays its dividends decades later. In Teachout’s case, it seems to have provided a protective membrane which allowed his intellect and character to travel well beyond the city limits of Sikeston. But the trajectory was slow and uncertain. After two catatonic semesters in one college and a successful stint in another, Teachout spent more than half a decade burning holes in his résumé. First, there were four years as a bank teller in Kansas City. Not the stuff of great narrative, you might think, but he paints a portrait of post-adolescent disaffection that will strike deep chords in many readers. And there is an account of a bank robbery with bullets flying and blood on the floor that is a perfect set piece.
Shucking off the bank work, Teachout fell into what computer people call a default mode. It’s what happens automatically to a body between the ages of 20 and 30 if no other instructions are given to it: it ends up back in school. As a psychotherapy student in Illinois, Teachout found himself manning a Crisis Line for deranged people in the middle of the night. Sitting in a kitchen (surprisingly, calls were taken at home) after midnight, beneath “the tight cone of light of a pull-down ceiling fixture,” talking to anonymous strangers about their “bad night between doses of Thorazine and Valium” would seem as close to the contemporary heart of darkness as you can get.
Teachout soon came to the conclusion that must eventually catch up with most dispensers of Freudian analysis: while it’s not totally useless, it’s not very effective either. A mentor with a sardonic knowledge of the whole range of gestalts and therapies persuaded him that psychoanalysts with medical degrees were no better at curing their patients than laymen who had been given month-long crash courses in nondirective therapy. “I understood at last why my love affair with psychotherapy, the great secular religion of our time, had gone sour.”
Which makes the last stop in the book Grand Central Station. “Nobody comes to New York by accident, least of all the stray children of the small towns in America who flock here like stubborn pigeons.” A chain of coincidences leads him to an enviable editorial job, but there had been, he writes, “a single bright thread of fascination” pulling him there all the time. Such are the paradoxes of literary life: In order to really see New York and Boston, Henry James had to move to moldering old Europe; and in order to get down on paper indelible impressions of prelapsarian small-town America, it was probably necessary for Teachout to be sitting in an apartment in Bronxville in the middle of the night, listening to car burglar alarms wailing over the hum of his word processor.
Among the delights of City Limits is an elegant prose style that never calls attention to itself. There are whole chapters that give the pleasurable ache of one’s earliest memories. But like any first-rate memoir, there is not a hint of solipsism and along the way we pick up a great deal of interesting information about contemporary America. There is, for example, an elegiac chapter about the final days of jazzman Woody Herman — Teachout spent a few delirious weeks on his tour bus — that ought to be in the next good anthology of modern jazz writing. One hopes that Poseidon Press is already nagging Teachout for a sequel, which will no doubt be called Escape from New York.
George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York.
This review appeared in the January 1992 issue of The American Spectator.