Insomniac City, Bill Hayes: Book Review

By Satya Naagesh


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.

Bill Hayes‘ Insomniac City is a collection of short essays and notes woven together by his own honest reflections on love, grief, and life in New York City. After his lover suddenly passes away due to a heart attack, he flees San Francisco, his home of 10 years and moves to New York City. Like many other transplants to the city, he is simply in search of a fresh start but ends up gaining tremendously more than he ever expected.

Although he is initially unable to write, Hayes works at a nonprofit and begins to take photographs of people and the city itself. He lives in a quintessential New York walk up above a lively French restaurant. At first, the noise from below irritates him until he realizes how the celebrations, conversations, and people watching he is privy to, spark his imagination. As an insomniac, Hayes often wanders the streets at odd hours and his most interesting and beautifully documented photos and stories come from his encounters late at night. As the city slowly begins to inspire him to write, Hayes, who thought he would never find love again, falls into a beautiful relationship with the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. Their tender, intellectual companionship, underscored by their relatively simple life in New York City and travels to Reykjavik, forms the base of the book.

Just as the city draws happiness and light into his life, it also brings fresh heartbreak as aging Oliver’s health begins to deteriorate. His eyesight worsens and he is often bedridden. Hayes’ touching portrayal of Oliver’s last years is one of the best parts of the book. Facing the loss of a lover for the second time in his life, he remains remarkably open and sanguine. Their sweet, intimate moments juxtaposed with the furiously, fast paced life outside their apartment is exquisitely wrought. Other than his relationship with Oliver, Hayes’ portrait of life in New York City is a must read for any recent transplants, those who dream of moving here or generally anyone who loves the city. From people watching on the subway, enjoying various little bodegas, coffee shops, art galleries and exploring hidden corners here and there, this book is a true tribute to the vibrant often curious lives of New Yorkers and their effulgent city.

I was given this book as I recently moved from Los Angeles to New York and it has served as a tremendous introduction. An ode to my new home, this book brings to light the magic, frustration, and solace that one can only experience in a city like this. The truly filthy, insomniac city and its ability to inspire you to the highest levels of success and achievement yet can also make you feel inexplicably alone despite living in the midst of eight million people.

Hayes’ gorgeous writing style and photographs illustrate how New York City simultaneously can leave one heartbroken yet at peace. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of book, one to have in hard copy and to truly savor and read over and over again.

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