Surviving the hurly-burly: A man in search of himself

—Courtesy Scott Idleman/Blink

In “Lucky Jim,” his perfectly titled autobiography, James Hart describes nearly six decades of a life lived both perilously and fabulously. Readers will conclude that Mr. Hart is indeed a lucky man to still be around to write it.

“Lucky Jim” is essentially a story about a guy in search of himself in high and low places. He’s a bright guy with a good sense for language. He had some big wins in business. He was father to a now deceased intellectually challenged son; had a 20-year marriage to Island resident and songstress Carly Simon. He is a poet and former seminarian, a confidant of the rich and famous, and a guy who helped regular people in their substance abuse recovery. He is familiar to many Island residents.

Mr. Hart himself had two separate long-running recovery battles, first with booze early in his life, then with crack cocaine in his 50s, after more than 20 years in sobriety. He claimed his life as a gay man after entering recovery from drugs in 2007.

This is an easy read if you are looking for a tell-all or a behind-the-scenes look at how one-percenters live, but it is just as likely you’ll discover that something else is going on here. Mr. Hart endured the rigors of a 12-step program that asserts that a fearless and moral inventory is necessary to find a place in the world and to live a substantial life.

He tells on himself relentlessly in “Lucky Jim,” and has captured verbatim conversations with all the important people in his life, including some who tried to save him, others who encouraged him, and some who were simply perplexed by him. He’s also included his recollections of chats with the powerful and famous. And we are occasionally carpet-bombed with name-droppings.

Two areas of his life are central to this book from my read: First, how the hell he got from where he started to where he went, and second, his marriage to Ms. Simon, whom he describes as a loving and supportive spouse in their kaleidoscopic life together.

Mr. Hart was born in the early 1950s in Long Beach, N.Y., an Irish-Catholic enclave between Brooklyn and Long Island, a culture dominated by the Catholic Church, and in which it was fine to punch your kids at the dinner table.

Mr. Hart’s alcoholic dad treated both his sons to bouts of corporal punishment, and at 14 years old, young Jimmy, altar boy and prime student, was granted acceptance to the Graymoor Franciscan monastery in Garrison, N.Y.

An expression often heard in those days in those neighborhoods was “Get up and get out,” and young Jimmy was on his way up and out. It didn’t work the first time; he was expelled after two years, but not before he was exposed to patient, educated men of intellect who gave him a look at what could be.

Mr. Hart eventually obtained a degree from Siena College, and was learning about the world and the first stirrings of his gay orientation — but he was not the man of letters and bon vivant he would become. In a 1986 chance meeting with a friend at a train station, he was introduced to Carly Simon. Given his early monastic life, his exposure to popular culture was limited. He knew arcane ecclesiastics, but he did not know who Ms. Simon was. (For reference, Ms. Simon’s “Coming Around Again” was released in 1986 for the movie “Heartburn.”)

And as we learn, Mr. Hart did not know who he was either. Years later, in 2007, standing outside the White Horse Tavern in the West Village, it occurred to Mr. Hart that, “at 56 years of age I was still asking the same questions. Shouldn’t I have found the answers by now?”

A few weeks later at a memorial service in New York for author and friend William Styron, he heard a priest say, “Life is short. So be quick to be kind,” and he was soon back in in the rooms of recovery.

Mr. Hart took the advice given to him during his crack run by movie director Mike Nichols: that owning our own lives is the most important thing we do. “You will be happy and unhappy as before, but in different proportions. Nothing is better than owning your own life,” Mr. Nichols said.

“Lucky Jim,” an autobiography by James Hart. Cleis Press, Jersey City, N.J. Paperback, $17.95. Available on-Island at Bunch of Grapes, Vineyard Haven.