If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I'm a major Whit Stillman fan. As such, I was thrilled when my friend Stuart (at his own birthday party!) gave me a copy of Stillman's out-of-print novel The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward. It was all I could do not to stay up all night reading it. My review:
The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward by Whit Stillman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Whit Stillman is one of America’s great cult filmmakers. In the last 24 years, he has written and directed four indie movies, and published this novel, based on his 1998 film The Last Days of Disco. He’s met with critical acclaim (one Oscar nomination, two films in the Criterion Collection) but has never become widely popular. Several of his films were financial flops*, and the novel is out of print.
Which is really a shame, because it’s a lovely entry in the kinda-pretentious-young-people-coming-of-age-in-the-big-city genre. The setting is Manhattan, circa 1980. The characters work in crappy jobs and live in crappier apartments, but as long as they can dance till dawn at the hottest nightclub in town, everything seems beautiful. They fall in love and break up and overanalyze one another’s motivations and try to figure out the proper way to live in the world as an adult.
Of course one of the major charms of Stillman’s films is his dialogue, and the novel faithfully reproduces classic scenes like the one in which a character argues that Lady and the Tramp “programs women to adore jerks.” But Stillman’s voice shows through even in the more narrative sections. E.g., describing the aftermath of a fight outside the Club: “The cops jumped out, but it was almost all over except for the mercurochrome.” There are also plenty of good moments in the novel that don’t appear in the film – I couldn’t stop laughing when I read the scene where Alice, our modest and virtuous heroine, kicks a dog** while jogging in Central Park.
So you can think of this book as something like the DVD extras or “deleted scenes” from The Last Days of Disco, but I even think it’s good enough to stand on its own. If you didn’t know better, you could almost think that it’s a minor-classic novel that got turned into an indie film, rather than the other way around. I know I said it's a shame this book is out of print, but I also feel like that somehow adds to its mystique. After all, it’s a story about the rare, precious, fleeting moments of one’s young adulthood – so it’s oddly appropriate that this book should be a rare and precious object itself.
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*CORRECTION 12/9/13 (morning): Via Twitter, Whit Stillman (!) writes to say that of his four films, "only Disco was unprofitable."
**CORRECTION 12/9/13 (afternoon): Via Twitter, Palacio Rojo Blog points out that the dog-kicking scene did appear in the movie. Oops! It's been a few years since I saw the film and I didn't recall that moment; perhaps the scene makes a bigger, funnier impact in the novel than in the film. (Stillman tweeted in reply that the dog was "a bad actor.") Oh well, another excuse to rewatch the film.