Sunday 08.29.2010 | 4:23 PM EDT
Bi-Coastal Binge and Burn:
Stories of the Bleak and Famous
Aging proves the rule of regression: no matter how closely we monitor the pulse of the times, how tuned in we remain to the zeitgeist, we all inevitably yearn to revisit the culture of our youth. We break out our old Howard Jones records, recall our youthful lust, hope and heartbreak to the strains of Purple Rain and Meat is Murder. We revisit the Brat Pack by way of Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club as we mourn the death of John Hughes.
Despite Thomas Wolfe’s claim, we can in fact go home again, if only in our imagination. It follows then: literary tastes also crave the spaces we inhabited 25 years ago. Though my formative years favored the written voice of mid-century novels by Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Salinger, now is the perfect time to revisit the haunts of 80′s Lit.
No works of fiction epitomize the 80′s more than Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City. Until recently, I had only delved into the frightening, narcotic world of Bret Easton Ellis by way of American Psycho, going back for second and third helpings of that gruesome meal of nouveau cuisine, severed brains and urinal cakes. But I never gave Less Than Zero a chance, and the misinformed assumption that Ellis’ contemporary brethren James McInerny was a literary lightweight prevented me from giving his prose its proper due.
Life ain’t all chocolate and cherry pie. The shadier troughs of our condition pique an appetite for the bitter and the toxic. These two novels serve up tales of disaffected youth recklessly bingeing on empty sex, top-shelf liquor and Bolivian Marching Powder. In equal measure, Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City serve up poison and salve for our basest, most destructive impulses.
Dark reflections on lost youth in the Sodom of L.A, the Gomorrah of New York, are not exactly life-affirming. Ellis’ sparse, meticulously crafted vignettes chronicle the inert attempts of affluent L.A. youth to shed the deseased skin of their depravity. The protagonist’s chosen company elucidates his buried desire to escape from a hedonistic culture of drugs, fast cars and easy women. Absent parents obsessed with chasing the carrot of fame and status orphan their children to unchaperoned lives. Predatory pimps and dealers cruise their luxury cars from one debaucherous party after another, where teenage beauties subject their nubile bodies to failed attempts at intimacy. The story ends without redemption for its characters, no escape from the hollow distractions of anesthetic habits. But underneath all that bleakness, a moral compass lies buried, begging to be unearthed.
A contrast in tone, setting and literary voice, BLBC’s lyrical passages share a kinship with Fitzgerald, crafting a language that serves up humor and pathos in equal measure. The novel introduces a relatively innocent protagonist caught in the throes of a failed marriage and the recent loss of his mother. An aspiring writer working in the trenches of New York’s literary circle, he struggles to maintain a moral center as he prowls the clubs of the city high on cocaine and gin. His best friend and partner in crime enables a misdirected quest that trades human connection for illicit distraction. But McInerny doesn’t deny his protagonist a chance at salvation. A trifecta composed of a has-been alcoholic literary giant, a maternal colleague and a sensitive, pure female beauty prop him up with sound judgement and affectionate comfort. Epiphany and deliverance dawn as the story’s anti-hero wakes in a tub, dazed, nose bleeding, pants soiled with vomit and urine. His deep well of rock bottom ultimately offers a creaky ladder with which to climb back into the light.
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