INSOMNIAC CITY – early reviews; book available 2/14/17.
“Hayes’ tender encapsulations of his lover are gold on the page … this book is Hayes’ letter of love for Sacks and New York City….” – Forthcoming issue, January 5, 2017
“A photographer and distinguished nonfiction writer’s account about starting over at midlife in New York City and falling in love with famed neurologist Oliver Sacks.
“Looking for a fresh start after the sudden death of his long-term partner, Hayes (The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy, 2007, etc.) moved to Manhattan from San Francisco in 2009. He immediately felt at home in New York largely because the “city that never sle[pt]” was as much an insomniac as he was. The author quickly made friends with Sacks, with whom he had begun corresponding about The Anatomist. Not knowing whether Sacks was hetero- or homosexual, Hayes found himself “sort of smitten” with the eminent neurologist from the start. Shy and formal, Sacks was as ebulliently “boyish” as he was quirky and brilliant. As their relationship deepened, Hayes was also drawn into the magical restlessness that was New York. He took pictures, many of which he intersperses through the narrative, of everything from trees in winter and his beloved Oliver to young lovers and ex-cons. Hayes also diligently recorded his impressions—alongside conversations had and overheard—in personal journals, and he interweaves these observations throughout the book with anecdotes about his relationship with Sacks, who died of cancer in 2015. The author’s vignette-style recollections are especially endearing for the sensitive way they portray a 70-something Sacks coming into awareness of—and claiming—his own homosexuality as he fell in love with Hayes. But perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the way it weds one man’s openness to experience with what ultimately, and quite unexpectedly, became his two greatest passions: a closeted neurologist nearing the end of his life and a city in an endless state of flux and evolution.
“A unique and exuberant celebration of life and love.” – December 15, 2016
Writer and photographer Bill Hayes first met the great writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks in 2008, when Sacks contacted him to say how much he enjoyed Hayes’s The Anatomist. They corresponded, found shared interests and met once for lunch. “He was brilliant, sweet, modest, handsome, and prone to sudden ebullient outbursts of boyish enthusiasm…. I was sort of smitten, I had to admit.”
Hayes was grieving his partner of more than 16 years, who one night suddenly went into cardiac arrest and died. In 2009, Hayes moved from San Francisco to Manhattan for a change of scene. Although he had not moved for Sacks, he was now his neighbor, and they began spending time together. Sacks at 77 was a deeply intellectual, unworldly man who had never come out as gay, had never been in a relationship and hadn’t had sex in 35 years. “He was without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known, and before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.” Sacks told him to keep a journal, and Hayes’s brief impressionistic entries are woven throughout Insomniac City, which seems written in heightened states of feeling that infuse every detail with meaning and transient beauty.
One of the remarkable elements of this memoir is its portrait of emotional openness. Hayes seems to be one of those people whose appreciation of daily life and capacity for love only expand with age and the awareness of death. His compassionate curiosity extends to everyone and everything around him. He loves the city in all its noise and grime, the late-night laughter rising to his first apartment from a café below, the shifting weather, the subway trains and the public dramas. “Life here is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent.” He meets all kinds of New Yorkers in the streets and on the subway, talks with them, photographs them (his photos bookend numerous prose segments throughout), builds acquaintanceships and friendships. At the same time, he credits the trees outside the window of his first apartment with helping him understand how to manage his grief and live a full life day by day. His relationship with Sacks is filled with domestic detail and tenderness–walks and baths, cooking, conversations, books and music–through to Sacks’s final illness and his death in 2015. Thankfully, Hayes has no pat answers for anything in life, but many reasons why it continues to be worth living. –Sara Catterall, “Shelf Awareness,” January 2017