Leslie Schwartz’s award-winning first novel, Jumping the Green, begins with the sentence: “My discovery of masturbation is accompanied by the sudden epiphany that lovers slap each other around.” Young Louise Goldblum is floating in the neighbors’ swimming pool, her hand between her thighs, observing their scufflings and tearful embraces, when she’s overcome by this double revelation. The pages that immediately follow, through descriptions of an unhappy suburban childhood — her parents “poolside with the Kowolskis, getting soused on watermelon nui-nui and sangria,” fighting and flirting with other people’s spouses — subtly explore the relationships between desire and violence, love and disgust. “When I come,” later that night, Schwartz writes, “the shrieks of my parents’ argument drift through the walls and into my room, where they float around in the sweaty, shameful aftermath of a hundred butterflies alighting from my naked, exhausted body.”
Schwartz tackles these same relationships with far less success in chapters set in present-day San Francisco, in which Louise, all grown up and traumatized by her sister’s recent murder, indulges in a newfound “penchant for one-night stands and vodka for breakfast” that eventually leads her to Zeke, a goateed and tattooed photographer who shows her “a new terrain of caustic pleasure.” Zeke likes to tear off her clothes, slap her, humiliate her, and drop pretentious and silly remarks like “Take away the cunt and you take away the power.” Louise is entranced: “The meaner he was, the more I wanted him.”
Zeke, unfortunately, is not merely mean, he is dull, as are, for the most part, his and Louise’s S/M couplings. Meanwhile, Louise, equally obsessed with Zeke and her murdered sister, Esther — the second least interesting character in the novel — spirals into self-destruction while everyone she knows tells her over and over to pull herself together. Not to worry, it’s clear from the get-go that everything will turn out okay. In the literature of self-discovery, no suffering goes unredeemed.
Thankfully, Jumping the Green is studded with returns to Louise’s pre-Zekean youth. Childhood memories of a trip to the drive-in with her alcoholic mother, during which her mom sneaks off between the cars with Mr. Kowolski, of catching her sister fellating a teenage boyfriend, are vastly more evocative and less forced than the simplistic sadomasochism of the nefarious Zeke. And they betray enough skill to suggest that Schwartz can write a better novel than this one.
The rough sex in Gary Phillips’ The Jook is a bit more fun, and funnier. The book starts with Zelmont Raines, a washed-up former pro football player trying to get back in the game, cruising South-Central to chase down the punks who owe him money, then heading over to his girlfriend’s for a quickie. Davida, a Paula Abdul–wannabe superstar, likes to be choked with her own panties as Zelmont “jug[s] her coochie from behind.” When she turns up dead a few chapters later, strangled with the very same panties, the cops think Zelmont’s their man.
That, however, is just the beginning of Zelmont’s troubles. The Bible-thumping football commissioner, who frowns on Zel’s less than role-model-perfect behavior (well-publicized sexual foibles and a lingering affair with the crack pipe), won’t let him play pro again. Meanwhile, he’s got a lifestyle to maintain, statutory-rape charges to fend off (“All I got was a couple of blow jobs for all the goddamn trouble that handicapped chick caused me”) and alimony payments to the onetime “big-legged 19-year-old high school dropout sports groupie” who bore him an unwanted and unseen son (“and I only did her ã twice”). So against his better judgment, he lets a flamboyantly bisexual Dennis Rodman–esque football buddy and the vixenish lawyer for the fledgling L.A. expansion team, the Falcons, talk him into stealing millions in cash from the Falcons’ owner and his Serbian mob-boss cousin. Thereafter, the pages are soaked in blood and semen.
Zelmont, if it’s not already clear, is a Hall of Fame–quality asshole, unremittingly homophobic, misogynistic and self-absorbed. But he makes no excuses for himself, and neither does Phillips. The result, in addition to some entertaining reading, is a precious quality rarely found in crime novels: ambiguity.
The characters in Donald Rawley’s Tina in the Backseat inhabit a very different Los Angeles than Gary Phillips’ testosterone-slicked city, a post-AIDS version of James M. Cain’s L.A. of suburban despair. Rawley died of AIDS in 1998, and death hangs heavily over these 13 stories, populated by characters who are alone, desperate and searching, be it in a Beverly Hills mansion, a pai go parlor in Gardena, a limo speeding out to Palm Springs or a “small but nicely decorated condo in Canoga Park.”
Desperate is a big word for Rawley. It crops up more than once, perhaps most notably in the first line of “Saigon” (“Life’s a desperate thing. That’s what Virgil told me and I didn’t believe him.”), among the best stories here, about the delicate friendship between the lonely and detached narrator, dying of AIDS, and Virgil, a drunken veteran who lost his legs in Vietnam and waxes nostalgic about the sublime chaos of wartime Saigon. It’s there again in “The Closest Thing to God” (“Some of us search for God in the woods, and some of us find God under the living-room sofa. Some of us, the pilgrims among us, search in dense cities and small towns, but in the long run we either die young or we die old, and that’s when the desperation begins”), the lovely and comparatively upbeat tale of Iris, a butch lesbian ambulance driver, who suffers from an un- requited crush on the glamorous Dot.
There are a couple of other good stories in Tina in the Backseat, some wonderful passages and memorable lines. But in several stories the air of despair is so thick, and Rawley’s prose so restrained, that they get lost in what one character terms “a sea of beige perfection.” The unhappy protagonists blend together in a cloud of even-toned misery. Mawkishness invades. Stereotypes take over, particularly in the unfortunate “Mother of Pearl,” in which the forlorn gay narrator falls for a hot and spicy Mexican boxer, and which contains both an unseemly burrito metaphor and the unfortunate line “Felice’s cock is pressing against me like a mariachi’s golden guitar.”
There is an excellent comic novel hidden within the 452 pages of Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife, and it’s only about 250 pages long. Which is to say his book, which is his 15th novel, is bloated and loose, loose, loose, though it’s still a lot of fun. You just have to learn to skim.
The book’s conceit is that the afterlife is nothing but what you make of it. God is nowhere to be found, and it’s up to each spirit to build his or her own heaven or hell. Dead evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson has split in half into Aimee, her aggressively goody-two-shoes side, whose heaven is part Fantasia, part Maxfield Parrish painting, and Semple, her straight-out sinful side, in whose realm “the primary focus was the practice of torture and subjugation.” When we meet her, Semple is busy punishing an angel kidnapped from Aimee’s realm for its incompetence at cunnilingus.
Aimee, disappointed at God’s apparent absence, decides to “engage in a Holy Mission, perhaps an actual Crusade, to forcibly reconfigure the entire Plane of the Afterlife to her image of Heaven,” but she realizes that she’ll need a little help, since “back on Earth, from the moment she had devoted herself to God and His works, she’d had little call to use her imagination, and now she found it a weakened and atrophied thing.” So she enlists Semple to scour the underworld in search of a poet to help her out with the creative angle. Dead rocker Jim Morrison appears on the scene, drinking and drugging his way through the hereafter. Morrison’s and McPherson’s paths eventually converge, though not in the way you’d guess.
In the meantime, there’s the entire afterlife to explore, complete with UFOs, voodoo gods, Dylan Thomas reborn as a goat, and a poker game that includes Doc Holliday, Lucifer, the Hindu goddess Kali, Richard Nixon and a North Korean secret policeman. At one point, Semple, having just escaped an A-bomb explosion and a stoning by the followers of a self-styled Moses, is sucked through Godzilla’s eye into a tumor in his brain, where she meets the aforementioned Mr. Thomas and Jesus himself, a tad autistic, who curls up in a fetal position and jacks off while watching old Zorro serials on TV.
You get the idea. Farren is wildly imaginative, but a sloppy and undisciplined writer. Most of his characters, be they Doc Holliday, Jim Morrison or Moses — rather different figures on the “lifeside” — speak with almost exactly the same voice, which happens to be the same as the narrative voice. The result is more like Mel Brooks with pot-brownie-induced giggles than the Burroughsian absurdism to which Farren apparently aspires. It is nonetheless sporadically hilarious.
JUMPING THE GREEN: A Novel | By LESLIE SCHWARTZ | Simon & Schuster | 269 pages | $23 hardcover
THE JOOK: A Crime Novel | By GARY PHILLIPS | Really Great Books | 222 pages | $13 paperback
TINA IN THE BACK SEAT: Stories | By DONALD RAWLEY | Avon Books | 149 pages | $12 paperback
JIM MORRISON’S ADVENTURES IN THE AFTERLIFE: A Novel | By MICK FARREN | St. Martin’s Press | 452 pages | $25 hardcover