James Goodman; With an Afterword on the Blackout of 2003

North Point Press



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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On July 13, 1977, there was a blackout in New York City. With the dark came excitement, adventure, and fright in subway tunnels, office towers, busy intersections, bus terminals, high-rise stairwells, hotel lobbies, elevators, and hospitals. There was revelry in bars and restaurants, music and dancing in the streets. On block after block, men and women proved themselves heroes by helping neighbors and strangers make it through the night.

Unfortunately, there was also widespread looting, vandalism, and arson, and even before the police restored order, people began to ask and argue about why. Why did people do what they did when the lights went out? The argument raged for weeks, but it was just like the night: lots of heat, little light—a shouting match between those who held fast to one explanation and those who held fast to another.

James Goodman cuts between accidents, encounters, conversations, exchanges, and arguments to re-create that night and its aftermath in a dizzying accumulation of detail. Rejecting simple dichotomies and one-dimensional explanations for why people act as they do in moments of conflict and crisis, Goodman illuminates attitudes, ideas, and experiences lost in facile generalization and analysis. Blackout is nonfiction at its most exciting, a tour of 1970s New York and a challenge to conventional thinking.


Praise for Blackout

"Riveting . . . The sweeping overview, the multitude of voices [in this book make] for a very satisfying whole. Blackout is an engrossing, street-level recounting and ambivalent ode to a great city in one of its darkest hours."—Jamie Berger, San Francisco Chronicle

"A curious novelistic enterprise: a terse, at times almost aphoristic account that features no central characters—indeed hardly any names at all—but instead a shifting, polytonal arrangement of voices, events, times, and places . . . [Goodman] has a point: for what do dates, names, and footnotes do but get in the way, call attention to their own distance from the narrative . . . In the end, Goodman wants to demythologise the 1977 blackout, to move back from accepted meanings and apparent truisms to actual events. He does not come to any new conclusions about why people looted but illuminates, rather, a truth about New York that is lost in the plain sight of day but can come to light when there is no light."—Tom Vanderbilt, Newsday

"Jazzy, crescendo-building portrait of the blackout that hit New York City in 1977, stitched together in a series of compressed bursts of imagery and critical readings and events . . . A collection of short, fragmented narratives and stunning word pictures culled from a variety of sources and impressively gelling into a panoptic view of the city . . . A layered dance of characters and events on shifting ground, handled by letting the seismic disturbances settle where they may for us to watch and wonder."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Goodman captures New York City during the blackout of 1977. It's a portrait of a city hurting from unemployment, spooked by the Son of Sam murders, and dizzy with inflation. Goodman uses a staccato style that is reminiscent of John Dos Passos' socioliterary snapshots, catching citizens in the midst of daily routines, at work and play, barhopping and making love . . . [A]s the story turns to looting, vandalism, and arson, Goodman's true abilities take over, and the reader is caught up in a nonfiction mystery that cries out for a solution—why do people act as they do under these circumstances?"—Allen Weakland, Booklist

"Fear and looting in New York. That's how many remember the 1977 blackout. While Son of Sam was still at large and unemployment was high, nine million people were suddenly plunged into darkness on a hot July evening. Unlike the comparative calm that characterized the 1965 and 2003 blackouts, in 1977 mobs went on a violent rampage. Adults, teens and children torched buildings, yanked protective metal grills off storefronts and smashed windows to fill their shopping carts with food, appliances, jewelry and clothing. These groups outnumbered police (only 14 officers were on duty in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that evening) and robbed more than 2,000 stores city-wide. By the time power was restored after 25 hours, damages from the devastation had climbed toward $61 million. Rutgers history professor Goodman, a Pulitzer finalist for his first book (Stories of Scottsboro), carries the reader beyond conventional journalism for a multidimensional, kaleidoscopic narrative history, covering the events and aftermath from all angles: 'I tell my story in bursts, recreating incidents, deeds, accidents, encounters, conversations, exchanges, and arguments, trying to evoke mood and place and time.' He recalls the 1977 blackout through personal accounts, studies, public reports and period articles from magazines (Time, Newsweek) and newspapers (the New York Times, Daily News, New York Post, Village Voice, Amsterdam News)."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


Afterward everyone wanted to know why.
There had to be a reason.
People wanted to know what it was.
Or they thought they knew what it was, and they wanted to say.
Either way, they talked about it, talked...



  • James Goodman; With an Afterword on the Blackout of 2003

  • James Goodman is a professor of history at Rutgers University, Newark, and the author of Stories of Scottsboro, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Manhattan.