I must admit to not liking the book at first.
It wasn’t the subject matter – Adam, the main character gives a first person recollection of his drug addicted life in San Francisco in 1997 – the year the Hale-Bopp comet appeared in our sky. He shared a house with three other addicts. Their lives are described in grim detail – shooting up, STDs, cold turkey and loveless, violent sex. All are powerful ingredients with the potential for a cracking (no pun intended) tale. I worked for many years with families whose lives were blighted by heroin, prostitution and HIV, so I wasn’t shocked by the details in the tales of the lives of drug addicts.
Neither was I shocked by the ‘bad’ language – I don’t believe in the concept – words are words – but if you overuse the ‘f’ word, it loses its effect and it just becomes a verbal tic.
However, I was irritated by the characters. I wanted to tell the main character to grow up and the three supporting characters seemed 2D and stereotypical. I was annoyed by the plethora of adverbs – especially the ones attached to almost every dialogue tag – the frantic signalling of emotions, the repetition, the use of upper case lettering. There was an awful lot of telling – lecturing almost – a feeling that the reader was being told some home truths.
I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it. I put it away at the bottom of the pile.
But something about it nagged at me. I had the feeling I was missing something, that if I didn’t get it, it was maybe because I wasn’t trying hard enough. It reminded me of when I first saw the paintings of Salvador Dali way back in the 1970s, when I was a student. I hated them – my reaction was physical – I found them nauseating. Pictures like the one on the right really shook me up and scared me. But I was also fascinated by them and so went back to take another look and now consider them utterly incredible and beautiful. The slim little volume at the bottom of the reading heap seemed to exert a similar hold. It kept beckoning – so I went back to it.
And something strange happened when I started again. It was like I found the key – or maybe I just stopped being thick and prejudiced.
I believe Cody James knew exactly what she was doing when she bravely and brilliantly tore up the writing manual of received wisdom on what makes good literature. How else could she convey this counter-culture? How else could she draw these inarticulate, powerless individuals?
Of course her characters are stereotypes, of course they talk in over-dramatic, hyper prose, of course they over-react and telegraph their every emotion. Of course their lives are passive, bleak and pointless. They’re JUNKIES – overgrown, overblown, self-obsessed adolescents – exhausted no-hopers – deadbeats. But Cody makes you care about them – see them in a ‘there but for the grace of fortune go I or my kids’ kind of light.
The comet doesn’t prove to be either omen or harbinger. As a symbol of change for Adam and his housemates, it’s as empty as their lives. But as a symbol of their lives it’s powerful – travelling in the dark a contradictory mix of cold and heat, of death and life.
I also realised that, as a reader, I was being 2D – blinded by the junkie label. As I saw the characters as Cody portrays them – really saw them – I began to see their humanity. Adam strives to get clean, to hold down a job, admits his sexual relationships are sick, in every sense. Xavi proves to be a character to care about, as do Sean and Lincoln – because, actually, they all care about each other.
The scene in the hospital where Adam and Lincoln are tacitly reconciled is beautifully written – the understatedness shows that Adam has changed – grown up a bit – and that the author is perfectly capable of conventional/ subtle when the occasion demands it. And if you still need reassuring that here is a remarkable writer whom a reader can trust – just look at the passage where Adam himself is hospitalised and ‘retching and wretched’ just wants to die.
And as for the ending – well if it’s gifted use of symbolism, metaphor and adverb-free writing you’re after, you’ll be well satisfied.
So approach with an open mind and a trusting heart – Cody James is a brave and unique writer – the book fizzes and burns as it lights up the cold dark – just like the comet – and I should have realised that from the start.
‘The Dead Beat’ can be downloaded for $2.99 from http://eightcuts.wordpress.com or bought as a paperback after November 1st 2010. There are also a couple special editions left which you can pre-order from the website. Mine’s ordered.