Kinfolk is famously about intentionality, about a kind of wholesome slow living that exults in deliberately curated moments, carefully selected objects, and, as its twee tagline once read, “small gatherings.” Like all lifestyle magazines, it traffics in aspiration, and if, in the past eight years or so, you have found yourself craving a precisely sliced piece of avocado toast, or a laundry line from which to cunningly hang your linen bedsheets in the sun-dappled afternoon, you probably have Kinfolk to thank for it. But the seductions featured on its pages have always been aimed as much at the soul as the body. Through intention, Kinfolk’s austerely beautiful pages whisper, lies not just a pretty room or a lovely outfit, but a truer expression of the self, something more meaningful, more, as the marketers now put it, authentic.
That there might be inherent tension in an authenticity that depends on buying the right leather apron or arranging a bunch of wildflowers just so is a notion that does not seem to trouble Williams. But perhaps that is because of the other tensions, the ones that would tear apart the small band of intimates who helped him found the magazine; the ones that would erupt within his own measured soul. It was certainly nothing compared to the trauma that lay ahead, and would strip away the well-curated façade to, ultimately, reveal who he really was. Because although it would not be accurate to say that the Nathan Williams who started Kinfolk was living a lie, neither was he living in truth.
Glenn O’Brien was the leading boulevardier of my particular subgenerational pocket, the one that thrived in lower Manhattan from the last days of the hippie era until sometime around the end of the 1990s. He was an exemplary if atypical citizen of its culture, and something of a figurehead as it evolved from local, fringe, and “underground” to international high fashion. He lived and worked on the leading edge of style at all times, and was invariably at the right club at the right hour on the right night, but his résumé suggests someone from an earlier era. As if he had flourished during the Regency or the fin de siècle, he was a dandy and a wit, an aphorist and a tastemaker. Although his point of entry was Andy Warhol’s Factory (he was born in Cleveland, attended Georgetown, and was a graduate student in film at Columbia before getting there), he worked primarily with words, as magazine editor, book editor, columnist, and publicist. He exuded cool, sangfroid, and—unusually for the time and place—quiet competence.
But those jobs, for all the money, prestige, and mobility they gave him, were not his primary claims to fame. In that era careerism was regarded with suspicion, and in that much more physical time he made his mark by his sheer presence on the scene: his role as both a throwback (some part of him always inhabited the world of The Sweet Smell of Success) and as the very image of hipness. His cultural footprint was broad and significant, if not always noticeable to the average cultural consumer. He was putatively most visible as the underwear model on the Warhol-designed inner sleeve of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (1971)—although the jury is still out on whether his picture was the one actually used.
What unites those disparate functions is the way theater, like other public art forms, makes us aware of a boundary that it simultaneously allows us, at least for a moment, to cross. Art is a way of knowing, of seeing and feeling, the borders that separate work from leisure, the sacred from the secular, the ordinary from the exalted, passivity from action, life from death. It makes us witnesses and participants in the crossing of those frontiers, and in doing so makes visible and permeable the boundaries between our individual and communal selves. We are alone in the dark of the theater or the light of the museum, and also together.
We follow characters affected by economic extremes, addiction, grief, and existentialism, with a central question tailing each: how can we become who we think we are when our lives have led us unexpectedly astray? In pursuing an answer, Mandel shows how an individual decision can alter the artifice of linear reality and enact infinite possibilities, even if these possibilities are imagined.
You don’t have to appreciate his science or his suffering to appreciate Roberts, though. When he describes life below, you are truly swept away. Even if you are a landlubber — even if you’ve never dipped your toe in an ocean — Roberts’s rich language will call to you. You will feel a yearning to follow him, to leave the burning sun, to step into the coolness of the water, to feel the tugging of the currents.
The river is heavy with phosphorus and scum.
It causes liver damage if ingested.
I don’t know exactly whose runoff it is, but so long
as they’re taking press photos with prize-winning
children and donating sizeable
sums to the ballet, I take no issue. River’s yours.