One of the most intriguing things about New York City to me has always been wondering what it is like to actually grow up in the city. Actually, let me rephrase that: I’ve always wondered what it is like to experience a childhood in New York City. I make the distinction for the reason that no matter how old you are when you move here, you always grow up a little more if you can survive New York City. But to be a child and grow up here from scratch? That’s a whole different experience than any other kind of American childhood that I can think of. From inner-city to suburban to rural, there is a demographic and cultural homogeneity in those environments that, however rough or cold or remote they may feel, remains soothing, if only for their familiar continuity. In New York City, you don’t have that. You can see it in the faces of New York kids. There’s something (albeit stereotypically) tougher, harder about them, even the more privileged ones, than kids who grow up in other places. That knowing, adult look in the eyes of little people carrying overstuffed backpacks out of schools that are situated just feet away from crack dens, gay bars, world-class museums — or all of the above. The early introduction to social class and diversity and the vicissitudes of their implications about identity and fairness and inequality and luck. The noise, for God’s sake.
Enter the memoir Fame Shark, by Royal Young. Young presents a scathingly honest account of both kinds of growing up in New York City — the literal and the figurative — in his memoir of an enchanting, if often heartbreaking childhood as the eldest of two sons raised by second-generation American Jewish liberals in the rough-and-tumble Lower East Side of 80s and 90s New York City. It’s a classic New York coming-of-age/coming-up-from-under story. Young’s parents are frugal, artsy academics keen on giving their kids a better life and saving so ruthlessly for their education that Young’s father salvages clothes, backpacks and art supplies from not just thrift stores but real garbage. Maybe that isn’t the most inventive depiction of an old-school, lower-middle class New York Jewish family, but rendered as it is here with the kind of redeeming and often wince-inducing shameful, shameless and embarrassing details that epitomize Tolstoy’s famous quote about unhappy families, the reader definitely gets a sense of why this family is different from any other one. By the time you see six year-old Royal in his father’s basement art studio early on looking at the giant phallus depictions in his father’s paintings or realizing that his old man’s portrait of him on a New York subway wall commission turns him from a nice Jewish boy to a streetwise black kid, you’re already forgiving your own parents for not letting you go to that expensive summer camp. Artistic license notwithstanding, who could blame Royal if that was not what he expected from a public portrait by his own father? Or, as it is implied, from a father (or a family), period.
Young, equally as artistic and temperamental as his father and intelligent as his watchful, if placating, over-educated social worker mother, wants Fame — with a capital F. He unapologetically seeks the result of artistic achievement before he even realizes exactly what creative or social medium entitles him notoriety at all. First, as an aspiring child actor in his pre-teens whose ambitions are fodder for ridicule by his own fame-eluding artist father. Then for his drawing. After acceptance to some of the city’s most competitive public art schools, including the storied New York School for Performing Arts High School (of Fame the film fame), lends Young the narrative credibility to seem worthy of said fame at all, the reader gets the sense that he is more than just a dreamy egoist but a genuinely gifted artistic child and student. By the time you see Young as a musician, charismatic misfit and general catalytic personality at privileged, WASPy Bennington College, you’re rooting for him too. Like reading the backstory of a Beyonce or Madonna bio, you feel like any page now he’s going to stumble into the person or opportunity that puts him on a real track for this reward and he’s someone you should have already heard of by now.
Yet Fame Shark gets real all right, but not along the storied track Young dreams of or that you might have hoped. In Young’s later adolescence we are taken in unforgiving detail to some seedy depths as the author desperately navigates his way through the city’s ruthless social underworlds as a needy, broke and nearly broken young striver. Lost and turned out, overnight Young transforms from elite college quirk to social-climbing downtown scenester/hustler leeching on a network of adoring, sleazy and equally desperate older gay mentors and pathological, underage rich girls who like to party and pay for taxis. It’s not long before we see growing pains turn into real, life-altering problems. Ugly rows with the parents. Sexual conflictedness. Crack cocaine. Name changes. Along the way to figuring out who he is and what he wants to be at all it becomes less clear whether the deep sea predator of the title is the author himself or what might eat him whole. And even if that doesn’t seem quite resolved by the end of the book, in which the author isn’t even out of his 20s, there is the sense that Young comes to terms with his own near-unravelling, his splintered family relationships and potentially deal-breaking drinking and drugging habits. You hope in another ten years we get to see what a fame-achieving Young has unpacked from swimming in the existential and manifest promise shark waters of his 30s.
More resonant than anything in the book for this reader, however, is the memoir’s parallel significance as an ode to a bygone Lower East Side, “downtown” and New York City self in general. Like a lot of things written and said about the city these days by other artsy New Yorkers, both famous and not, conveyed in this wonderful memoir is a sense that, unless you grow up here literally, to be young and artistic and yearning to find yourself in New York City might be something from a very different time, like the shtetl of Young’s Bubbie’s Lower East Side. The New York before the city sold some of its school-of-hard-knocks cache for the glassy condos and artisanal bakeries of the new, more — well, perhaps too grown-up New York we know today.
Review by: Brandon Fizer