by Cody James
104 pages, Eight Cuts Gallery Press
Review by Pat Black
Thirteen years ago, a smudged comma called Hale-Bopp punctuated the firmament. It gave stumbling drunkards like myself a moment’s pause on our own seemingly interminable circuits back home.
I looked up at that ghostly flare in the night, and I thought: You poor thing. You must be lonely out there.
Cody James takes the Hale-Bopp comet as a central motif for her novella, The Dead Beat. It's the story of a young writer, Adam, and his equally dilettante, equally wasted friends living in a cockroach-infested house in San Francisco. This book is concerned with grit and grime, and it gets things almost exactly right in places where so many works with similar themes get it wrong.
As the "beat" in the title suggests, James gives more than a passing nod to the shades of Kerouac and Ginsberg, and tips her hat to Irvine Welsh's loveable scumbags from Trainspotting. She describes a world in which perfectly intelligent people go about their wretched business to little or no effect, drifting from crap job to crap job, f**king each other with a total absence of joy and rarely thinking of anyone but themselves. They resort to taking drink and drugs to fill a terrible gap in their lives; or perhaps to pull away from out-and-out nihilism.
How irritating you might find these characters - scabbed, twitchy, palpitant and sleep-disordered thanks to crystal meth use - could well indicate how old you are. One of this book's truths is that, like them or not, these characters feel like they existed in real life. If you've ever enjoyed student days, the cast will certainly remind you of someone you knew - perhaps even yourself.
For much of this story, the narrator, Adam, is blocked. Like a toilet, when a writer is blocked, little good comes of him. A "tweaker", he drifts around from bars to parties, suffering the odd panic attack and hospital trip, stirred to moments of aggression and annoyance with his peers in the interim and destroying any chance of harmony both inside and out thanks to the speed. He sleeps with girls, sometimes because he enjoys hurting them; indeed, up until the last few pages, no-one seems to love anyone much.
The main characters’ personalities never blend into each other - no mean achievement in a novel about seemingly empty lives. Anyone irritated by Brett Easton Ellis's store-mannequin preppy punks and freaks will be heartened to see that Cody James has actually bothered to construct personalities for her characters; again, this is where she gets her study of addiction and unfulfilment completely right.
So, alongside Adam the writer and misanthrope, we have Lincoln, who's in a band; there's Xavi, who's obsessed with germs (he sees Hale-Bopp as a pathogenic apotheosis); and Stephen, who is gay - although he does jump from bus to bus, as only mid-late-90s hipsters can. What stops you from wishing death upon these self-absorbed freaks and makes the narrative soar is the humour. There's a rich seam of it running all the way through the book, and while James does sometimes resort to scuzziness to keep things, ahem, fresh - the poor cockroach, flattened and then sanctified with vomit, crumples to mind - the jokes never feel forced. There's a joyousness that transcends the situations, and it's this more than anything else which marks the book as very fine work.
You will find angst in this book, but no-one beats themselves up about things - a bear-trap scenario lying in wait for writers seeking the bite of the real. Even in the grip of narcolepsy or withdrawal, Adam still finds time to interact with people and to get a laugh out of them. It feels normal; it feels like the truth. To have painted the tweakers as faceless, narcissistic boobs would have been to kill this book, but James is wise enough never to conceal their humanity.
The casual savagery of young men was well rendered; that blind devotion to burning things up, be it drink, drugs or women. One criticism I would make is that James doesn't quite take this far enough; she shows how Adam objectifies and degrades women, but even in this horrid approach to relationships he is light years ahead of a lot of young guys I can remember. This is because he still sees their personalities and their interests, even as he excoriates them. In this acceptance of light and shade in his women, Adam at least conceives of them as people rather than a goal - or, to paraphrase Michael Stipe, as simple props to occupy his time. The sudden flare-ups and fistfights were another thing James has spot-on, the vicious swipes that best mates will sometimes take at each other in their petty confrontations.
The Dead Beat could have come out really badly; in sketching people who go beyond the pale, some writers try too hard. Some of Chuck Palahniuk's misanthropes and extremists seem to be at pains to tell you how much they don't give a f**k about anything. But Adam, Lincoln and Xavi's travails feel lived-in. Mostly, the characters are aware that they're going nowhere and they also know there's a gap in their lives. In life, it really comes down to what you choose to fill it with.
Drugs are one option. But so is love. When love appears in this book, it's not a natural-seeming thing; a symptom of the age we live in, something unwholesome that might bring Xavi out in a sweat. But we still recognise it as love, cannot refute it or call it anything else. And this brings out a terrible rage in Adam that ends in blood.
So how about that comet, then? It's not just a pretty light, that's for sure. Perhaps, to the narrator of The Dead Beat, it stands for the things that we don't have in our lives, the things that the truly hopeless are waiting to happen; the things we turn to instinctively in the dark. Until the day they turn away from us and go their own way.