Photo by Michel Delsol
In the frenzy of fear and recrimination that followed the Columbine shootings, it became very clear to folks all over the political spectrum who had somehow not noticed it before that there is something very fucked-up in the deepest heart of this great nation. But the ensuing bans on black trench coats and the demonization of goth kids made it equally evident that few had any interest in confronting our grand indigenous abyss.
Dennis Cooper does. It is in the inky depths of our down-home darkness that his novels and stories — with their recurring themes of sex with teenage boys, drugs, serial killing, violent porn and, beneath it all, romantic love — are set. His latest, Period, begins simply enough with two teenage boys, Nate and Leon, coming up with an idea: “I’m thinking we could ask Satan for something . . . I’m thinking for sex.” Leon has an unrequited crush on Nate, so Nate magnanimously figures they can, in exchange for a sacrificed cat, ask Satan to give Dagger, a deaf-mute who closely resembles Nate, to Leon “for sexual purposes. You know, to sort of distract you from me.”
The spell works, except that Leon unexpectedly falls in love with Dagger. High on crystal while being buggered by Bob, a crazy old artist who lives in a shack in the woods, Nate comes up with “a great, evil thought.” Pretty soon they have Dagger blindfolded in a circle of candles: “Satan we call you. We offer you the sacrifice of this boy’s life. Take it and please stop fucking around with our minds.”
It’s at about that point that Cooper begins fucking with our minds in earnest. A goth band called The Omen make an appearance, filming their killings of teen-boy fans they pick up while touring (not without first asking permission: “Which is more important, the poetry mapped by our songs, or the slow accumulation of meaningless detail that constitutes your specific identity?”), but growing jaded and tired of the same old shows, same old murders. Then there’s George, who looks like Nate (who looks like Dagger), who is either Bob’s dead lover or the wheelchair-bound former lover of Walker Crane, the author of a cult novel called Period which is presumably the novel you’ve been reading so far. George communicates with Dagger from the other side of the mirror in his room. And there’s another Leon (also an ex-lover of George), a DJ who took his name from the character in Walker Crane’s book, presumably the Leon you read about in Chapter 1. There is also the popular goth band The Omen, who took their name from the band in the novel as well, and some silly business involving an Internet psychic. Later you’ll meet mirror-image â characters named Etan, Noel, even an EgoreG. No girls, though.
All of this transpires in a variety of styles: unadorned dialogue and time-coded journal entries, usually with dark, deadpan wit (“10:12: Deer on the hill. 10:13: Thinking of shooting that deer. 10:15: Nailed it. 10:17: It’s shaking a little. 10:23: Still now. 10:31: Bored.”), or Cooper’s crooked prose, black-hole dense, with its liberating disregard for conventional lyricism (“Etan’s sort of asleep by the scribbly dirt road. He’s been out here for days, smelling rank when the sky’s blue, and very bunched up when it’s starred and cold. How can he possibly know shit?”).
Period’s mirrorlike structure gives Cooper ample room for self-criticism and self-indulgence, largely through the character of Walker Crane, an obvious stand-in for the author himself. He can let characters call him a “fucking psychopath” and dismiss his work as exploitative. He can question whether his success “is an example of love co-opting form, as some would have it, or the complete opposite.” He can suggest that his writings are “wordy mazes, known for obscuring their point with complex turns of phrase and eerie special effects. But deep inside, they [are] just goony crap about love.”
Goony crap indeed. Like Cooper’s other work, Period is ultimately less shocking than it is heartbreaking. It’s about loneliness and desire and the ways in which they twist us in the great brutal nothing of the American soul.
Cooper pointedly deprives his readers of the easy pleasures usually associated with novel-reading, derived from effortless identification with coherent characters moving through well-defined settings along a logically unfolding narrative path. There are no such deprivations in David Wong Louie’s The Barbarians Are Coming, a well-told tale of immigration and assimilation, fathers and sons, self-acceptance and, most important, food. Sterling Lung, at novel’s beginning in 1978, having grown up in the back of his first-generation Chinese parents’ laundry, has graduated from Swarthmore and the Culinary Institute of America and landed a job as live-in chef at a ladies’ club in WASPy Richfield, Connecticut.
Though his employers gripe at his refusal to cook Chinese food (which he dismisses as “barefoot food, eat-with-sticks food . . . squatting-in-still-water food. Pole-across-your-shoulders, hooves-in-the-house food”) and make pronouncements like “They’re small people, with delicate bones and skinny muscles. That makes them quicker, more agile. They flit around the Ping-Pong table like a bunch of birds,” Sterling is honored to be admitted to their pearly-white world. He infuriates his parents by passing on a prearranged marriage to the beautiful Yuk (“rhymes with cook”) in favor of Bliss, a wealthy Jewish girlfriend, and later by working on a Yan Can Cook–type TV show on which he unabashedly adapts his “Peeking Duck voice”: “Today I make velly famous dish . . . shlimp and robster sauce!”
For most of the book, Sterling is a disaster, completely opaque to himself and the forces driving him to further self-abasement. The extent to which he lets his life pass him by “like a witness to Kitty Genovese’s murder who doesn’t scream, lift a finger, call for help” at times makes for frustrating reading. In a nearly 400-page novel, one wants one’s protagonists to do a little more. The Barbarians Are Coming could also use a little more structural sophistication: Its otherwise resolutely one-way narrative is interrupted by a 50-page flashback to Sterling’s father’s youth (which happens to be the most engrossing part of the book), clunked down without warning two-thirds of the way through. But Louie’s language — particularly his frequent food metaphors, as in “Her hair is egg-yolk yellow, perfectly straight, long bangs falling over the tops of her eyes like drapes. She gives the impression of milk-fed veal” — and his skill and sensitivity in crafting characters, make up for most flaws. And the scene in which Sterling humps nearly every surface in the prim main house of the ladies’ club (“I fuck the rug some more, then the brass bedpost, the armoire, the back of the overstuffed chair; eventually I fuck the entire bedroom. Still unsatisfied, I fuck the runner in the dark hallway, the moldings, the telephone and its stand . . .”) wins Louie general absolution.
Also hampered by a clumsily incorporated flashback is Jervey Tervalon’s new novel, which manages to be a good read despite an unfortunate lack of suspense. Set in the race-obsessed world of 1940s New Orleans, Dead Above Ground is Tervalon’s first fictional venture outside Los Angeles. Driving its plot is a Cape Fear–like tale of revenge for long-past crimes, hence the title’s reference to Mississippi Delta interment practices; the dead are never buried there. The handsome and ruthless Lucien Fauré, who wears a smile “like slipping into a hot bath with your wrists cut,” has taken up with Adele, the wayward married sister of narrator Lita Du Champ. Their mother (known only as Mother) explodes, insisting that Lucien “kills women.”
The plot proceeds at an even pace, detailing confrontations at knifepoint with Lita’s drunken father, Mother’s illness (“what they call an enlarged heart”), forays into the whites-only Vieux Carré (the Du Champs are light enough to pass), and the hijinks surrounding Lita’s marriage to the dimwitted Winston, which include a memorable melee between the Du Champ sisters and crazy Aunt Dot and her brood (“Albert was a big 10-year-old, missing teeth and battle-scarred, and Sonny was fat as a short-legged hog”).
Through all of this, it’s easy to forget the evil Lucien’s shady designs on Adele, the background for which is laid out in its entirety in a 62-page flashback, which, fascinating as it may be, with its riverside voodoo rituals and corrupt cops, is a somewhat crude method of explication, with predictable effects on the novel’s pacing. The charms here are in the details of the world Tervalon so richly evokes and, as in his past efforts, in the pointed restraint of his prose.
On a different note entirely comes Vanity Fair columnist Richard Rushfield’s first novel, On Spec: A Novel of Young Hollywood. This standard-issue Hollywood satire can be sharp, but its targets — the guileless ingénue and the movie-biz sharks — are so easy, it fails to sustain much interest. There’s Stu, the geeky screenwriter whose script (Kennel Break: “Tarantino meets Turner and Hooch about two small-time hoods trying to break their girlfriend’s Rottweiler out of the pound”) gets picked up by Eric Whitfield, the Long Island Jewish kid with a ghetto accent/
wannabe producer, and eventually attracts the attention of Todd, the abusive agent with a secret cross-dressing habit; Chelsea Starlot, the slutty drug-addled actress; Deana, the Brown-grad “D-girl” whose nearly every sentence ends with an exclamation point; and ultimately even Jerry, the studio head with an anger-management problem.
On Spec is occasionally quite funny, but Rushfield never dares set foot on any but the most well-trodden paths. He needs no company there.
PERIOD | By Dennis Cooper | Grove Press | 128 pages | $21 hardcover
THE BARBARIANS ARE COMING | By David Wong Louie | Marian Wood/Putnam | 384 pages | $24 hardcover
DEAD ABOVE GROUND | By Jervey Tervalon | Pocket Books | 226 pages | $24 hardcover
ON SPEC: A Novel of Young Hollywood | By Richard Rushfield | St. Martin’s Press | 192 pages | $22 hardcover