Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 14 Mar 2019

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver & Me by Bill Hayes

When I finished reading Oliver Sack’s autobiography, On the Move (reviewed HERE), I was left wanting more. I wanted – and not pruriently, I hope – to know more about his final years; I wanted to know more about Sacks the person; and I wanted to know what domesticity, everyday life, looked like for the famously eccentric, preoccupied, neurologist-philosopher-physician-writer Oliver Sacks.

And then I saw reference to a book I must say I didn’t even know existed – Bill Hayes’ memoir, Insomniac City. I mentioned Hayes at the end of the previous review but resisted further investigation because I had ordered a secondhand copy of the book and I wanted to read without the influence of online reviews or interviews intruding. My copy arrived one Saturday morning and I read it immediately and almost at a sitting.

Bill Hayes is a New Yorker by adoption, a writer and photographer – and the man with whom Sacks discovered personal fulfillment and love, and spent the final six or seven years of his life. Insomniac City is by no means a perfect book – indeed, it has some faults which would normally make me run a mile – but it is genuinely and deeply moving in its portrayal of the men’s relationship and of Sacks’ illness and death.

Hayes had already nursed one partner through long-term illness and death and it was this experience which prompted him to leave San Francisco and relocate to New York – unsure where and how he would live, how he would earn a living, indeed whether he could earn a living, but convinced that he must leave San Francisco if he was ever to emerge from the grief which was overwhelming him.

The book is about a double love affair: Hayes’ complete immersion in and love for the city of New York, and his all-too-few years with Oliver Sacks. It is also about photography, the streets of New York, the people who throng those streets – sometimes vulnerable, sometimes damaged – and the chance encounters that an urban flâneur and insomniac is likely to have if determined to embrace the life of the streets as Hayes did and does.

The book is really only a collection of vignettes – of scraps, if one were feeling less charitable. Short descriptive episodes, journal jottings, almost-poems, fleeting impressions and feelings and moods. It is also, if I am to be perfectly honest, a deeply solipsistic book. Hayes is always in the foreground; he is the self through which everything is viewed. His writing can be precious, bordering on  self-help and therapy-speak; but it can also be much, much better than this, and fortunately there is enough sharp, well written prose to outweigh the weak bits.

The book really begins to pick up and come together when Hayes meets Sacks. They had very briefly corresponded before: Sacks had written a short note complimenting Hayes on one of his earlier books – indeed, he had planned to offer to write a blurb for the paperback edition, he says, but forgot. They meet and there is an immediate intellectual rapport which swiftly deepens into love.

If you have read Sacks’ On the Move, then you already know how Hayes’ book is going to end. But even so, it is the account of their few years together and of Sacks’ sudden diagnosis of inoperable cancer and his rapid decline that forms the heart of the book and the reason most people, I suspect, will read it. And in this respect, the book doesn’t disappoint. it is an essential part of the Sacks story.

What I hadn’t quite appreciated, is that Sacks’ final book, his autobiography, was a race against time. He had had a couple of health problems that interrupted his normal ferocious workloads, but final preparation of the book for publication was quite literally done against the clock, with little certainty, right until the last moment, that Sacks would live to see it. He did – just.

I finished Hayes’ book with tears prickling in my eyes – it is impossible not to be moved. For all its faults – and I should emphasise that some readers will probably be far less concerned than I was by its lapses into mawkishness, or heart-on-sleeve confessionalism. The men shared a kind of innocent, naïve unshockability, it seems to me, and it easy to see how and why they found enduring love and deep joy together, despite being separated by a generation. By the time I finished it I felt convinced that the book’s sometimes embarrassing frankness was natural and fitting, and any problems I had with this were of my own making rather than anyone else’s.

Bill Hayes gives us a picture of Oliver Sacks that no one else – and perhaps least of all Sacks himself – has been able to, and for this we should be thankful. It is a book I feel certain I will read again.


Alun Severn

March 2019