Insomniac City by Bill Hayes
Release Date: February 14, 2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Themes: LGBT, memoir, nonfiction
My Rating: ★★★★★
Summary: Bill Hayes came to New York City in 2009 with a one-way ticket and only the vaguest idea of how he would get by. But, at forty-eight years old, having spent decades in San Francisco, he craved change. Grieving over the death of his partner, he quickly discovered the profound consolations of the city’s incessant rhythms, the sight of the Empire State Building against the night sky, and New Yorkers themselves, kindred souls that Hayes, a lifelong insomniac, encountered on late-night strolls with his camera. And he unexpectedly fell in love again, with his friend and neighbor, the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose exuberance–“I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life,” he tells Hayes early on–is captured in funny and touching vignettes throughout. What emerges is a portrait of Sacks at his most personal and endearing, from falling in love for the first time at age seventy-five to facing illness and death (Sacks died of cancer in August 2015). Insomniac City is both a meditation on grief and a celebration of life. Filled with Hayes’s distinctive street photos of everyday New Yorkers, the book is a love song to the city and to all who have felt the particular magic and solace it offers.
My Review: I was sent this book as an eARC by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a nonfiction book, let a lone a memoir. So bear with me as I figure out exactly what I want to say about this book. This book is beautiful in a lot of different ways. First of all, Bill Hayes’s life isn’t anything particularly extraordinary, but it’s precisely this that makes this book so incredible. Bill Hayes writes like he has the most extraordinary life, and he makes the reader believe it, too. Every word he writes exalts his simple, humble life in the most breathtaking way. As stated in the summary, this book truly is a “love song to the city” of New York, where he lived alongside his partner, Oliver Sacks, and the millions of other people moving through life in New York City.
Told mostly in short journal entries mixed with small anecdotes and commentaries, this book is a kind of stream-of-consciousness window into not only Hayes’s everyday life, but also into the great mind of Oliver Sacks, an incredibly intelligent man and author. The way Hayes writes about Sacks is so incredibly endearing, and Sacks’s child-like curiosity and enthusiasm for the world around him is so sweet and infectious. Seeing this through the eyes of Hayes, someone who loved him dearly, was absolutely beautiful.
Hayes’s other true love that we get to see is the city of New York. As a person who has only been to NYC once, and didn’t find it to be particularly pleasant, I can now officially say that I am in love with New York City. All of Hayes’s interactions with the people he would meet and photograph around the city were so fascinating and surprising. I almost never talk to strangers on the street beyond the typical “nod and smile”, but this book made me want to stop and talk to every single person. It absolutely amazes me that Hayes could have had so many positive experiences with so many random strangers.
One of the most miraculous things about this book is how easily both Hayes and Sacks make what is honestly a pretty horrible situation into something simple, and completely normal. Neither of them have any trouble going about their lives, no matter what life throws their way. They’re just so happy in the simplest, sweetest way, and it was an absolute joy to read. Their uninhibited love for life and the world around them was so refreshing in this cynical, divisive world, and I’m so glad I got to read and review this book.