When the writer and photographer Bill Hayes first met Oliver Sacks, the author of many much-loved books including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, dubbed “the poet laureate of medicine” by The New York Times, he was “sort of smitten”. It was 2009. Sacks was 75, almost three decades older than Hayes. Sacks knew the elements table backwards but was so out of touch with popular culture that when the news of Michael Jackson’s death broke he asked, genuinely bewildered, “What is Michael Jackson?” He didn’t own a computer, wrote with a fountain pen – and had been celibate for 35 years. In fact, he had never been in a relationship or come out as gay. Hayes “adored him”.
It was mutual. Hayes writes how, on Sacks’s 76th birthday, “After I kiss him for a long time, exploring his mouth and lips with my tongue, he has a look of utter surprise on his face, eyes still closed: ‘Is that what kissing is, or is that something you’ve invented?’ ” Sacks once declared to Hayes that “you create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate. Like Jesus. And Kierkegaard. And smoked trout …” He wished they could “dream together” at night. He came out.
But if Insomniac City is a love story, it is also one about Hayes’s relationship with his adopted city of New York. As memoir, it is one full of air and light, loosely but elegantly woven from diary entries, photos, prose poems and short narrative chapters. We meet random New Yorkers, from a “scrappy” boy who schools him in the lingo of skater subculture to a 95-year-old woman who invites him into the tiny room where she has lived for 66 years so she can draw his eye. We travel with the pair to Reykjavik for lunch at Björk’s home – Sacks had appeared on a music documentary at her request without having a clue as to who she was or what she did; Hayes schools him on the plane – and share intimate moments and conversations.
Insomniac City begins with the death of Hayes’s previous partner, a man in his 40s who died of a heart attack in his sleep, and ends with the death of Sacks from cancer in 2015. And yet it is full of joy and gentle humour: as he notes about living above a French restaurant in his first New York flat, “Laughter rises”. CG
Bloomsbury, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 18, 2017 as "Bill Hayes, Insomniac City ". Subscribe here.