08 March 2006

Larry's Literary Corner

I've been fortunate enough to read two good books lately. Well, actually, I read one great book and one sort of okay book, which the way I figure averages out to two good books, right?

Both are by authors of about the same age, with roots in the punk scene, but while King Dork, by (Doctor) Frank Portman, makes little overt mention of punk rock apart from some passing references to the Ramones, it's not only a vastly better book than What We Do Is Secret, by Thorn Kief Hillsbery, it's far more punk, in the truest and best sense of the word.

Which is ironic, because Hillsbery's book is set deep in the punk underground of Los Angeles, 1981, and never strays out of that most hardcore of punk scenes, the one that grew up around the Masque and the Germs and some of the most desperate and crazed street kids you'd never want to meet. And yet, while Hillsbery has all the ingredients for a classic novel set in a milieu that few people experienced and even fewer survived with enough brain cells intact to write a sentence or two, he blows it bigtime, producing a pretty good story only to drown it in art-damage poetics that render large sections of it almost unreadable.

No such trouble with Dr Frank's work: King Dork is supremely, delightfully readable, and although it contains big words and big concepts, it never resorts to heavy-handedness or didacticism (i.e., it never tries to make a point by using words like "didactism"). Instead, it lays out a story and tells it very straightforwardly, or as straightforwardly as its rather quirky and deeply thoughtful 14 or 15 year old narrator can make it. One reader said that he kept hearing Dr Frank's voice instead of that of Tom Henderson, aka Chi-Mo, the self-proclaimed "King Dork" of the novel, but as someone who has known Dr Frank reasonably well for many years, I didn't find that true. I heard echoes of Frank's voice (and especially his philosophy), but the character he'd created had more than enough substance to stand completely on his own.

This is unfortunately not the case with Hillsbery's lead character, a 13 year old worshipper (and alleged lover) of the recently deceased Darby Crash. He's a picturesque character, all right; every scene used to have one: the mouthy, small-for-his-age but brashly cute kid who everyone kind of adopts as a pet and gives drugs to and encourages him to do crazy things that make everyone laugh and say, "Man, he's so cool." Until, of course, he reaches puberty and isn't cute anymore and becomes just another junkie or ripoff merchant and ends up ODing or getting stabbed in some back alley.

Well, fortunately that didn't happen to Hillsbery's hero, partly because all the action takes place in one day, partly because by the end of the book Hillsbery has veered so far off into I-wish-I-was-Rimbaud word riffage that it's hard to tell what if anything has happened.

Hillsbery obviously knows something about the LA scene; either he was there or is a top-notch researcher. He weaves real people into the action as though they were fictional characters, too; something I've always thought was a good idea, especially if you can avoid being sued. My own experience of the LA punk and hardcore scene is pretty limited, but I did spend a little time there and actually know some of the people described or at least name-checked here. And when it comes to capturing the sheer squalidness and desperation of disillusioned punks turning into desperate junkies, which was what was happening when I was down there in late 1980, he's got it going on.

Pity then, that he couldn't stick to telling what started as a great story, but instead went sailing off into wilder and wilder free association wordplay that - to me at least - sounded a lot more like acid-tripping hippies in the early 70s than Hollywood punks in the the early 80s. And the more frantically he grasps for images, the more he forgets time and place and slips into mood-shattering anachronisms. He refers to "screeching weasel wheels," for example, and "Ritual de lo habitual," neither of which would have had any meaning in 1981, and constantly slips in lines from Bob Dylan and occasionally the Beatles, neither of which 13 year old Hollywood punks would have been too familiar with, or even if they were, certainly wouldn't have admitted it. Eventually I had to just skip a couple whole chapters near the middle of the book, where apparently Hillsbery was trying to demonstrate that the characters were on drugs. Or that he was, which come to think of it, sounds more likely.

Dr Frank, on the other hand, by avoiding the confines of the punk scene altogether, makes it possible for his preternaturally intelligent protagonist to say and think just about anything and have it sound plausible. You may never have personally met a kid this bright (or wise-assed), but you know he probably exists or existed somewhere, and even if he didn't he's entertaining and endearing enough that you're willing to believe in him. Or as Oscar Wilde put it:

The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies.

Hillsbery, on the other hand, has said that his work is largely autobiographical, and as a result sets himself a test that he's almost sure to fail. In fact, he comes off more than a little J.T. Leroyish, both in his carefully controlled and almost certainly fudged bio, and in his often over-the-top efforts to use his character(s) (but really there's only one, his alter ego) for maximum shock value.

It's a pity, really, because that whole LA scene is just crying out for a good novel. For that matter, so is the punk scene in general, but I certainly haven't seen one yet. But even though Dr Frank has assiduously avoided, at least with this book, tackling the punk scene head on, by reading it you're far more likely to get an idea of how and why a kid becomes a punk, an idea which is far more subtle and thought-provoking than Hillsbery's explanation, which isn't bad either:
Why am I a punk? Because I wasn't anything before, except different. And now it's like I'm different, but with a vengeance.
Of course maybe we're talking about two very different kinds of punks here: the nihilistic, self-destructive ones of the Darby Crash era, and the thoughtful, creative ones who grow up to write what may turn out to be one of the more important novels of the early 21st century. Well, not just maybe; we are. It just occurred to me that Frank would have been just about the right age to run away to Hollywood and hang out with Darby Crash and do drugs and make a total mess of his life by the time he was 16. Read King Dork, though, and not only will you be glad he didn't; you'll have a much better understanding of why he didn't.

As for What We Do Is Secret, despite my criticisms and regrets that it didn't live up to its potential, I'm not panning it completely. I can't wholeheartedly recommend buying it, but I'd certainly suggest hanging out at your local book store and devoting an hour or two to skimming through all the best bits, possibly with your iPod blasting a good selection of Germs and other circa 79-81 SoCal hardcore. Then maybe go write your own book and see if you can do better.

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