Some of my very favourite books are set in the Big Apple – A Little Life, Places I Stopped on the Way Home, The Catcher in the Rye, The Goldfinch – but it was only a month or so ago that I first heard about Insomniac City by Bill Hayes. On one of the copious Facebook groups I’m a member of purely to discuss an unwavering passion for books, someone posed the question – ‘What’s your favourite book set in New York?’ and a number of people named Insomniac City as one of theirs. And thus, when I found a second-hand hard-back edition at Gertrude + Alice, I quickly added it to my ever growing collection of unread books and spent one balmy afternoon on Bronte Beach, reading it from cover to cover.
Insomniac City Book Review
The type of books that immediately transports you to another time and another city, from the moment I began Insomniac City, I didn’t want it to end. A beautiful depiction of two of Bill’s great loves – Oliver Sacks and New York City – Insomniac City a beautiful collection of vignettes of his time spent in the Big Apple, and both the insignificant and the noteworthy moments that wove together to create the tapestry of his time there.
A depiction of both the delicate and destructive nature of love; an illustration of the often simple and complex beauty of human life, and an articulately woven portrait of the mesmerizing urban jungle that is New York, Insomniac City is a celebration of love; in all its many forms. From inconsequential meetings with strangers on the sidewalk, to silhouettes of his time together with Oscar, Insomniac City is a homage to the everyday and the ordinary, that sit so neatly alongside the moments and the memories that change our very being.
I already quoted my favourite part of his memoir in a post I wrote about my five year Aussie anniversary. but I’m going to leave it here again. As someone who has often dreamt of writing a book about my time down under, perhaps the most pertinent line for me was when Hayes wrote of his need to leave New York in order to be able to write about it. It’s a notion I have sometimes thought about when considering my own collection of words unwritten about Sydney. He also wrote about speaking to his former agent Wendy, who once said of New York that she loved it so much that she couldn’t bear the thought of it going on without her. ‘And yet,’ he wrote, ‘the thought of leaving it, of knowing how much I would miss it, is too painful to contemplate.’ A sentiment so exquisitely accurate for anyone who has had a great love affair with a city, much like mine with Sydney.
Tender, moving, heartbreaking and beautifully observed, this prose-rich tale is an ode, a eulogy and a love letter to the city – and the man – who stole Bill Hayes’ heart.
Insomniac City 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 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).
Bill Hayes Author Bio
The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction, Bill Hayes is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the author of several books.
A photographer as well as a writer, his photos have appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Granta, New York Times, and on CBS Evening News. His portraits of his partner, the late Oliver Sacks, appear in the recent collection of Dr. Sacks’s suite of final essays Gratitude.
Hayes has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome, the recipient of a Leon Levy Foundation grant, and a Resident Writer at Blue Mountain Center. He has also served as a guest lecturer at Stanford, NYU, UCSF, University of Virginia, and the New York Academy of Medicine.
More Bill Hayes Books
If you loved Insomniac City, you might also enjoy: The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy, Five Quarts: A Personal and Natural History of Blood, Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir, How New York Breaks Your Heart, How We Live Now: Scenes from the Pandemic, Drunk and Disorderly: Bill Hayes Story; Devon to Australia Through the Bottom of a Glass.