The Heart of the World. By Nik Cohn. 371 pages. Knopf $21.
Con artists, cross dressers, pickpockets, drunks, whores, hoofers, palookas, promoters, pretenders and deadbeats of every description-the denizens of Nik Cohn's Broadway comprise the waking nightmare of every heartland mom and dad who ever had a child leave home to make it in New York City. Cohn, on the other hand, loves them all. His engaging literary tour of New York's-no, America's-most famous street is a doting census of sleaze.
Best known for a 1976 magazine article that inspired the movie "Saturday Night Fever," the English-born and Irish-bred Cohn has always had a keen and sympathetic eye for the lost tribes and unsung heroes of his adopted city. Concentrating here on the Broadway lowlife that thrives between the Battery and Columbus Circle, he ferrets out an astonishing lineup of golden tongued has-beens and wanna-bes. There's Liquor Jack Young, a once flush stockbroker too busy drinking away a couple of fortunes to notice that the world had passed him by. When his second wife, "my incumbent duchess, " once dared suggest he quit drinking, he eyed her malevolently and said, "Cast off the antic crutch of sin? I rather fancy not." There are the Emerald Doyles, Aggie and Tess, aging ex-burlesquers. "We find ourselves languid, inert," says Aggie. "Bored spitless, she means," says Tess.And there's the bartender whose face "was full of nose or, more properly, of bandages, tape and safety pins where a nose should have been. 'I got bit by an owl,' he said. We did not ask."
There are no famous people here, but to Cohn, a true democrat, nobody is a nobody. Describing P. T. Barnum, "Broadway's true inventor," Cohn claims that "sheer vitality, animal spirits, gusted all his sins before him." The same is true of everyone in this book. The verbal energy that pours off these pages is enough to transform the hell of places like Times Square into a roughhewn heaven, neon lit and open all night.
The history of Broadway has been written before but never better. Cohn makes you understand why people come to cities, and why, no matter how ill the wind may blow, they abide to the bitter-end. In that sense, it is not a New York book. Overflowing with voluble "animal spirits," it is a feast for anyone who loves good stories. The only thing wrong with it is, it isn't longer.