by Arty Nelson
Warner Books, $18.95
There is something uplifting in reading a success story, but what is to be gained from reading an anti-success story? Like watching a balloon deflate and sink slowly to the ground, reading Arty Nelson's first novel Technicolor Pulp is comforting, unthreatening and a slightly amusing way to pass the day.
Pulp drags you along in its aimless, stream-of-conscious storytelling, a slip-shod version of Catcher in the Rye. Its central character, Jimi Banks, graduates from college and, overburdened with a lost love and a friend's suicide, turns himself into a cheap-thrill escape artist. He seeks to lose himself in foreign countries, foreign liquor, hash and lusting after women.
Jimi is the classic slacker, an overeducated and undisciplined moocher. But unlike most present day slackers, wrapped comfortably in flannel shirts and idolized in songs by Beck, this slacker is stripped of all glory. The people in suits, the ones that often pay for Banks' drinks, say they envy his freedom and his one-day-at-a-time mentality, but the utterly demeaning nature of his existence demonstrates the hollowness of this conceit.
Jimi runs away from restaurant tabs, allows a queenie to moon over him while he feeds him dinner and begs at the backs of a restaurant for scraps. People in suits may wistfully stare out of their office windows at some guy sprawled in the park with a beer, but in reality they're better off where they are.
The problem with writing the bio of a loser is that after a while, his utter carelessness gets annoying. It's hard to read about Jimi doing nothing and mooching his way off his friends and not think, "What a jerk," or, like the hardworking cooks who throw carrots at him out the restaurant window, want to yell "Get a job asshole." Throwing carrots along with the cooks is a tempting prospect.
As a narrator, Jimi tends to focus on the most unsavory moments of his life. With the morbid curiosity of an adolescent he describes the smells, shapes, and the sizes of his own chunks of vomit. He strives to get it just right. But do we care? Many passages in this book, like the pulp it's named after, deserves nothing more than a skimming, if that.
Yet about once every ten pages, between the beer going down and the macadamia nuts coming back up, emerges a voice worth listening to. Out of a mind cluttered with pop culture icons and high brow trivia--James Dean, Lucky Charms, Cezanne--come the big big modern philosophical questions, refurbished with Nelson's own pessimistic twang. "Who the fuck am I?" he asks.
Even if you don't agree with his answers, you can't help but admire his way of putting things. He has a real knack for producing fortune-cookie phrases that pass for universal truths in his world: "Money is harder to find than a true blonde," and "Success is just a fool's word for survival." These wisdom-bites accumulate and form an actual weltanschaung--bleak but authentic. Jimi emerges as a megaphone for the Generation we all know as X, a generation overeducated and underemployed by today's working world..
As well as confronting his unemployment blues, Jimi grapples with the perils of sex in the '90s. In his love-making, he is unashamedly emotional. A guy with a little more machismo or self-esteem would give a self-congratulatory "scored one" story. Jimi sees himself as he is--weak-willed and groveling for affection. His reaction to contracting the herpes virus is oddly endearing: "It ain't AIDS," he says, "but it still sucks! An Eternal Scar. One slip and young lust jumps out a window."
"The reality of the virus" forces him to be extremely careful and up front with his sexual partners. Even while making love, he prays not to "give her my curse." It becomes clear that Jimi hasn't totally submitted to the insensitive, hopeless grinder through which the world has plugged him. In a cartoonish way, he still cares, and that in turn makes us care. The question remains, however, whether he cares, or we care, enough.
In Technicolor Pulp, Nelson's Jimi claims no high moral ground, calling himself neither martyr nor victim. He speaks from the position of nowhere, which keeps his statements pure: "I have no desire at all to be a rebel. I don't believe in anything enough to be a rebel." He may not be inspirational, but at least he's honest.