An Encyclopedia of the Nineties

GENIUSES OF CRACK 'by Jeff Gomez Simon & Schuster $12, 430 pp.

When a course is one day offered in the social mores and pop-culture esoterica of the mid-90s, Jeff Gomez's Geniuses of Crack may well be the textbook. The book doesn't define an era, though--it just describes some of the cool stuff going on.

Gomez's protagonists, a young rock band called Bottlecap, are a lot like him. Mark, the singer and guitarist, bassist Gary and drummer Steve start off writing and practicing songs in a shack on the out-skirts of their hometown of Kitty, Virginia. They play their first gigs to tiny crowds in the little bars in Kitty and surrounding areas and slowly build up the slight recognition that could be mislabeled as a following. Just before the beginning of Geniuses of Crack, Mark is approached by an A&R; man from a new, alternative record company that wants to sign Bottlecap. The novel opens as they fidget in their seats on a transcontinental flight, destination L.A. and possible music stardom.

Gomez started out writing and self-publishing a fanzine called Our Noise, an interrelated series of short stories which introduced the world to the fictional Bottlecap. The stories were sold through mail-order and at Tower Records stores and became somewhat popular. Bret Easton Ellis, the celebrated young author of Less Than Zero, stumbled onto Our Noise and brought Gomez to the attention of publishing companies. The 'zine was subsequently adapted into novel form and published in 1995. So we meet Gomez in much the same position as his fictional alter-egos: on the verge of either big-time commercial success or embarrassing failure.

It's no wonder then, that Gomez so accurately describes the fear and frustration that comes with the big opportunity Bottlecap is presented. Just as their first major label recording attempt will either rocket them to stardom or ship them back to minimum wage jobs in Kitty, so too will Gomez's second novel either open a door to a career in writing or relegate him to obscurity.

More than just identifying with Bottlecap's precarious position in the entertainment industry, Gomez's own personality seems to shine through in almost every character and situation. The third-person narrator is just a thin cover for Gomez to make explicit comments about his characters or settings. It's hard not to wonder exactly how many of the funny little stories in the novel actually happened to Gomez or one of his friends at some point.

Likewise, it's easy to imagine Gomez, 27, who grew up in Southern California, chuckling and whispering "Cool!" to himself as he taps away at his keyboard, adding another reference to Atari nostalgia or the triple-X ads at the back of L.A. Weekly into the novel.

While the book does have a plot of sorts, it is more a compilation of snapshots of life for twenty-somethings in the mid-90s than a saga. The story is less about the band's struggle to record an album then it is about the way the band members spend their afternoons and nights. Gary, uncomfortable and nervous, makes a fool out of himself while shopping for a Christmas present in Victoria's Secret. Mark takes an AIDS test in a free clinic after waking up so hungover that he can barely remember the sex, much less have any idea whether he used a condom. Steve, meanwhile, smokes pot and folds the laundry while watching informercials.

In other words, these guys do the things that you do, or could do. Every time the characters eat, buy something or look around, there's another reference to Banana Republic or Orange Julius, Return of the Jedi or Bonfire of the Vanities; to something that you have eaten, bought, seen or done. Even the title is a reference: Geniuses of Crack is the title of a song by Tsunami which describes people who are experts in irrelevant and obscure topics.

The book succeeds wildly at cataloguing the experiences of the characters. The story, however, often wanders and diverges at what seems to be the wrong moment. In the final pages, as the plot careens towards a surprising conclusion, we are side-tracked for almost a page with a pointless anecdote about how Steve once spent a Christmas day playing in a cardboard box with his older brother. Ironically, Gomez criticizes his characters for being inattentive and losing focus, even as he meanders over their pasts and present thoughts as if there were no plot waiting to be resolved. The book often feels like Gomez really did want to write a 430-page novel but had to stretch his actual material in order to do so.

On the other hand, most of Gomez's images, while slightly off-beat, are true to life. The razor that Gary's barber pulls out to shave his head is like the one "seen in the opening scenes of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket." Later on, Mark's new girlfriend Corinne "starts feeling less like a date and more like a cruise director on 'The Love Boat,'" as Mark keeps depending on her to arrange his social life. Ultimately, through the cluster-bombed pop culture allusions, Gomez is able to describe a host of different events accurately while connecting to his target audience. He consistently sets up situations which are both funny, incredibly realistic and, most importantly, true to the nature of the 90s.

The end of the novel seems to set Bottlecap up for another sequel. While the plot is mostly resolved, we are left wondering what will happen to Gary, Steve and especially Mark in the years to come. Will their record sell? Will they become rich and famous? The same questions can be asked about their creator. Will Geniuses of Crack find the twenty-something audience that will appreciate the allusions and references? Will these same twenty-somethings be willing to shell out $12 for a paperback? Only time will tell, but it is clear that Gomez, too, deserves a sequel, and there is no doubt he will get it.