I waited a good while to write this review after I finished “alt.punk”. I needed time to process it, to tuck it away and let my subconscious work on it for a while. It was a tough call to make – my inclination is to dive straight in to a review while the experience of reading the book is still fresh in my mind. I take notes as I read; I jot down ideas for the review and highlight passages I want to revisit; things that resonated with me. When I first finished “alt.punk”, I crafted the following to sum up my thoughts:
“The story didn’t so much end as it simply bled out, lying in a pool of it’s own vomit on the cheap linoleum bathroom floor of a mobile home.”
I still like the visceral imagery of that critique – but as I contemplated the book more, I realized it would have been a gross disservice to the story to leave that as my final word. In many ways, I found myself mirroring the comfortable acceptance of first impressions that plagued a few of the characters in the book. So, I took a step back and gave the tale time to marinate.
“alt.punk” is a story of extremes. Hazel is a hypochondriac with severe OCD, trapped in a life she realizes she does not want. Constantly berated for her weight by a family built from every middle-class stereotype imaginable, she finds herself working at Safeway and in a relationship with a man she really doesn’t like. It’s a dead-end existence that’s wasted away the last ten years of her life.
Into that powder keg of burgeoning self-awareness comes Otis – lead singer of a punk band and human car wreck. He has the emotional intelligence of a 7 year-old, the personal hygiene of a homeless person, and the drug habits of, well, the lead singer of a punk band. He is the complete antithesis of the sanitary, safe, OCD world Hazel inhabits. Once they meet, it’s clear to Hazel that he is the gateway to change she so desperately seeks.
What follows is an exploration of Hazel’s relationship with Otis and her spiraling quest to break out of the chains of her former life. It’s a raw, festering, no holds barred look at the dysfunctional world Otis creates around himself and draws Hazel in to. It was a tough read. I would have run out of steam long before the end of the story had Ludlow not written with such an engaging and honest voice. She is able to construct a brutishly elegant turn of phrase when she wants – and that kept me coming back for more.
Still, the story almost lost me. The detritus of Otis and Hazel’s relationship is so graphically and bluntly put on display, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by it all. Have you ever had a friend convince you to try something, only to find yourself in the emergency room bleeding later? You get home, give it a few days and then develop an impressive scab on your forearm (or leg, or whatever you injured in your drunken quest for immortality). Of course, you decide to pick at the scab. It hurts, it bleeds – but you just can’t help yourself. Two days later, it’s scabbed over again – and you starting picking at it again – searching for that first hint of bright, pink, freshly formed skin underneath the crust. That, my friends, was my experience getting to the end of “alt.punk”.
Having finished the book, I was ready to move on. What I forgot was – you do eventually find that fresh pink skin under the scab. Had I written my review immediately, I would have missed it. Only after I thought about the story for a while, went back and reread parts of it, did I find that glimmer of fresh skin I was looking for. At the very end of the story, Hazel says:
“According to my doctor, I have a life expectancy of eighty-eight. I don’t know how I feel about so many more years. I know that it isn’t punk to entertain old age (hell, it isn’t punk to make it past twenty-seven) but there has to be more out there than these extreme ends of the spectrum, bohemian and bourgeois, the only two lifestyles that I’ve know.”
It’s been said the political spectrum is a circle, not a straight line. You go far enough to the left and you end up on the right. I think the social spectrum can be much the same. For all their differences, both the bohemian and the bourgeois worlds Hazel experienced had many similarities. Both were unforgiving, both looked down on outsiders, and both left her unfulfilled. What she learned from them was this – the fringes may be exciting for a while, but the real living is somewhere in the middle.
There is no question that Lavinia Ludlow is a talented author and I’m anxious to see what she decides to write next. As I said earlier, the sheer enjoyment I got from reading her prose sustained me through the book. She has a great sense of voice and expertly balances both humor and humanity in her characters. At one point in the book, Hazel is working to publish a novel and gets some advice from her editor:
“You don’t have to use a load of profanity to make dialogue pop off the page.” I smile when I realize he’s talking about the manuscript. “Just like you don’t have to rely on graphic sex to make the interaction between two people darkly intimate.” He pauses to wait out a foghorn. “And you don’t have to rely solely on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to make your characters anarchic. It’s all excess, and I think you’re enough of a writer without them.”
I could not have put it better myself and you have to wonder if Ludlow was talking to Hazel, or subconsciously to herself. Either way, it’s great advice and I hope she takes it to heart. She’s has too much potential to spend her time on the scab and not on the skin.
My favorite words from “alt.punk”
“Just remember,” she says, “Your kids will resent you for bringing them in to a dysfunctional world.” There are so many ways I could respond to a declaration like that.
When I stopped mulling over everything I’m not, I naturally became someone I could stand to be, but that’s easy on the road because nothing is real.”
Put two of the most self-centered and volatile people in the same room and they won’t destroy each other, they’ll destroy themselves.
*A copy of this book was provided to thewordzombie.com by the author for the purpose of this review
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