Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes. Bloomsbury, 2017. 9781620404935. 304pp.
I love Oliver Sacks. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat made me laugh during community college (and convinced me my psych teacher wasn’t totally insane), and lead me to his other books and essays. Years later I finally heard his silly, totally smart and curious voice, on Radiolab, and I realized he was even stranger and more driven than Robin Williams made him out to be in the movie version of Awakenings. I started to see him in my mind as my crazy, science obsessed uncle.
And then he got sick and, after writing a few more beautiful essays, he died back in 2015. Now I’ll never get a chance to say hello and tell him what his writing meant to me. (I’ve been very fortunate — I’ve met several of the authors whose writing meant this much to me, and they’ve been very kind despite my incoherent blathering: Lloyd Alexander, Judy Blume, Ursula K. LeGuin. )
Which brings me to Bill Hayes’ marvelous book. It’s not just a love letter to Oliver Sacks, it’s a love letter to the people of New York City. Hayes captures his joy at meeting and photographing people, at getting to know Ali who works at his local newsstand, and at all of the one-off interactions with random strangers he wouldn’t have anywhere else. Best of all, Hayes captures falling in love with Oliver Sacks, and all of the wonderfully awkward moments as their affection for one another grows. Sacks seems startled by it all — he hadn’t had a relationship for 30 years and didn’t come out publicly until (I think) On The Move was published. The moments of pure, private Oliver Sacks in the book are a joy to read as he comes out of his shell. Plus there are glimpses of wonder as Sacks ponders and writes and just sits thinking and chatting. Sacks’ death from cancer happens off-page but the moment had me sobbing.
I cannot imagine writing about so profound a loss when it’s so fresh. In the postscript, Hayes says he wrote most of the book “in Rome in a single five-week period less than six months after Oliver died.” It’s brave and beautiful and I’m so happy he was able to write it.