Love came quite late and unexpectedly for famed author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose many bestselling books include Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. And it came in the form of writer Bill Hayes, a man 30 years his junior, as Hayes poignantly chronicles in his memoir Insomniac City. Sacks himself had revealed his homosexuality in a book published just months before he died―On the Move: A Life―explaining that after 30 years of celibacy, he and Hayes were sharing their lives.
Insomniac City begins as an illuminating treatise on grief. In 2009, after Hayes' partner of 16 years died of sudden cardiac arrest, the 48-year-old decided to leave his San Francisco home and start life anew in New York City. There Hayes' and Sacks' writerly friendship developed into love, chronicled here in chapters interspersed with Hayes' journal entries. The result is an intimate look at what life was like with the lovable, brilliant Sacks, whose terminal cancer diagnosis didn't stop him from writing, learning and soaking up the world's delights, or saying things like: "Wouldn't it be nice if there were a planet where the sound of rain falling is like Bach?"
An adept writer, Hayes weaves many threads into his latest book. In addition to honoring Sacks, it's a delicately woven love letter to New York City, a city he came to cherish. Included are black and white photos of not only Sacks, but the cityscapes and people with whom Hayes crossed paths, some of whom he describes in passages reminiscent of Humans of New York. His many encounters range from an evening spent driving supermodel and actress Lauren Hutton home from a chamber orchestra concert to a chat with young man on the street smoking a joint laced with crack. Of Hutton, Sacks commented, "I don't know who that was, but she seems like a very remarkable person."
Despite being a book that begins with one lover's death and ends with another, Insomniac City overflows with moment after moment of unexpected wonder and joy. Sacks, for instance, composes a list of eight and a half reasons to be hopeful soon after learning that his death was imminent. Hayes tenderly chronicles Sacks' last months and days, sharing moments like these: "He reaches for my hand when we walk, not just to steady himself but to hold my hand."