Saturday, March 1, 2014

85A - Kyle Thomas Smith (2010)

I have mixed feelings about 85A.  On the one hand I want to recommend it because it is about as vivid a portrait of Chicago circa 1989 as you will find in a book.  It's also a pretty good coming-of-age story and a decent primer on how to live a "punk rock lifestyle."  On the other hand I can't quite call it an undiscovered masterpiece because...I don't just seems to be missing something.

My friend gave me 85A sometime in November of last year.  He had gotten it from Center on Halsted, which is a non-profit organization that has a community space in Lakeview.  They were doing a weekly reading series called "Read All about It" in one of the youth groups and he was offered a copy.

COH provides crisis management services for LGBTQ individuals and have a number of youth support groups.  It is not surprising that my friend got this book from there, because it seems like the sort of place at which the main character of the novel, Seamus O'Grady, should have been a regular visitor.  Unfortunately it opened about 18 years too late.

The story takes place on January 23, 1989, and begins with Seamus waiting for the eponymous CTA bus to take him from his home in Jarvis Park to the El to his Catholic high school on the south side of the city.  I can't quite figure out the route--since apparently he takes the Blue Line (then known as the O'Hare-Congress line) and it doesn't seem to go near Ashland Ave. and Blue Island Ave., which is an intersection near his school.  But I am getting wrapped up in travel details.  I have to say I really liked the description of the escalator at the Logan Square stop because it is my home stop.

He lives in an upper middle class community and his parents are religious.  He does not seem to have any friends at his school.  He really only seems to have two friends: Tressa and Dr. Strykeroth.  The former is an artsy biracial girl who rescues him from a group of skinheads that jump him at the corner of Belmont and Clark near the "Punkin' Donuts" (this is one of my favorite moments in the novel because that Dunkin' Donuts is still there and it may be one of the famous fast food branches ever because of it); he also later loses his virginity with her.  The latter is his psychiatrist with whom he apparently has a sexual relationship.

This is a slight problem for me--not because it's sick or whatever, but because it's teased out like the reader isn't supposed to be clear on what's going on.  Like, does Seamus just go to visit him and cry on his shoulder and ask to be held?  Or are they having various kinds of sex?  Of course, a graphic description might be off-putting, but the scene with Tressa is pretty graphic, so I don't understand why Seamus doesn't blatantly tell the reader what is happening in that office.  In a sense, this makes the novel like Try by Dennis Cooper.  I say that the because the main character is gay but also has sex with a girl in it.  But obviously, Try is going for something quite different than 85A.  Still, it just seems tame by comparison.  If you're going to write about transgressive subject matter, I don't think you should beat around the bush, basically.

This book also reminds me of Crossing California.  Together, these books paint a wonderful portrait of Chicago in the 1980's.  I like this better than Crossing California because it's more compact, and less of an "award-winning novel" (i.e. like those movies that are made to win Oscars), but I like it less because it's not as intricately constructed--or at least doesn't appear to be.

Still, I read this book not long after beginning my recent stint at the CTA, and I found it very entertaining for its topicality.  I daresay this may be the ultimate "CTA Novel" though it is certainly not a history of the transit system.  Certainly there cannot be many other books named after bus routes.  Many, many people ride the CTA everyday.  I am sure that many of them would find this book to be at least of passing interest.  At the very least it would be the most ironic book ever to read while on the bus.

But I also take issue with an early scene:

"Finally!  The 85A's rounding Touhy Avenue.  Just when my thighs are freezer burnt and my balls have turned to dry ice.
Last time I asked the driver, 'What took you so fuckin' long?' he ordered me off the bus.  Refused to move til I got off.  Everyone's screaming at me.  He threatened to call the cops, so I got off.  Had to wait for the next bus.  Ended up thirty-five minutes late for school.  Got JUG.  Had to write out the St. Xavier Norms of Conduct twice and the tardiness policy three times.  It's the same asshole bus driver every morning.  So now, no matter how late he is, I have to just suck it up, flash my Student ID, deposit my token and fifteen cents and take my seat like a good little cunt." (11)

Maybe things are different today than they were in 1989, but if Seamus had reported the bus driver for ordering him off the bus, I believe that bus driver would be disciplined.  Bus drivers, like cops, are essentially public servants that are expected to put up with their share of bad behavior.  I read a case about a bus driver who was fired because she pushed an older man who had confronted her physically and had also been loudly directing racial comments at her.  She said she was wrongfully discharged but the arbitrator said you can never have a bus driver hit a passenger.  Now, Seamus is not getting hit, but that sort of behavior (stopping the bus and ordering him off) is unacceptable and I don't believe it's realistic.

Which is my main issue with this book.  My big criticism.  I just don't think it's realistic.  I'm sorry.  Some of it is absolutely wonderful and clearly drawn from true life.  But other details just seem too ridiculous to be taken seriously.  In particular, I do not believe that Seamus's father and brother would beat him as mercilessly as they do, and treat him with such cruelty.  It seems like everyone is a villain in Seamus's life and he has nobody on his side.

Now, I have to admit, I would be pretty mean to Seamus too, because he is kind of annoying.  He clearly is smart but he fails all of his classes anyways.  He doesn't want to have any kind of job but to write.  He has vague ideas about living in London and New York as a quasi-homeless artist who can get by on the kindness of others and he doesn't want to conform to any kind of "normal" life.  This is all well and good--I was like this too, and I am sometimes still like this.  But he does not have very many redeeming qualities apart from having a fair dose of artistic talent.  So that is another problem I have with the novel: cannot identify with the narrator.

Don't get me wrong.  I love the Sex Pistols and PiL.  I love Sid and Nancy.  I love all the musical references in this book.  But Seamus is just like Johnny Rotten in a way: a "fashion item."  He dresses and acts the part, but the book sort of highlights the vacuity of so-called "punk rockers."  Maybe this is just because Seamus doesn't hang out with a group of them, so you don't get the sense of the lifestyle like you might from reading Our Band Could Be Your Life or Lexicon Devil.  85A is basically a lot of posing done by Seamus.

Still, this book has a lot of heart, and would make a good movie.  It reads pretty nicely, though I think Seamus relies too heavily on the word "fuck."  The Wolf of Wall Street supposedly set a record with the number of f-bombs there are in it.  But that is a three-hour movie too.  This book might set a similar sort of record.  I understand he's a teenager but I couldn't help but feel the writing was sort of, I don't know, lazy because of it.

I don't understand the narrative "moment" either--I suppose it takes place at the final scene in the story.  But Seamus doesn't appear to be writing a memoir, or telling it to somebody.  I just don't get who the novel is addressing.  Clearly, the key referent for this book is The Catcher in the Rye.  This is basically the same novel, 50 years later, in Chicago instead of New York, and with a Catholic high school rather than a boarding school.  But Catcher is an adventure story of sorts--it's about 3 days in New York, and that's the plot.  My friend that gave me 85A said the problem with it is that it doesn't really have a plot.  At least until the end.

And the ending is great.  The last fifty pages are the best part of the book.  And the rest of the book isn't too bad, but it just feels random and sometimes (I hate to say this) cliched.  So I think I've adequately summed up my feelings at this point.  But a couple more passages:

"When I was a little kid, I used to go into a deep fuckin' freeze whenever I thought about death and being stuck in a casket some undertaker drops in the ground.  It scared the living shit out of me that buried dead might be the same as buried alive--and it'd be for-fuckin'-ever, just you and your lonely little corpse, stuck in one place under thick wood and mounds of immovable dirt, until the end of time, until the Second Coming--whenever that shit was supposed to happen.  Later, when I was about seven, I found out you could get cremated instead, so I went and told Mom I want to be cremated, have my ashes scattered to the four winds so I can at least get some elbow room when this trip is over.  She said Catholics can't.  Man, Catholics can't do shit, can they?  I think it's after she told me that that I first started checking apartment listings in the Sunday Trib, thinking I should move out.  Seven years after my cremation chat with Mom, I found myself right where I didn't want to be: flat on my fuckin' back in the afterlife, in a dark place, unable to move a muscle, probably for-fuckin'-ever." (37-38)

This is a nice example of Smith's ability to write very well, i.e. to explain a feeling that most of us have felt at one time or another and put it perfectly into words.

The other part of the novel I really like is Seamus's obsession with a boy named Colby that he met on the El.  There is a passage that was very similar to one part of my second novel S/M, and made me feel like a similar feeling was at work, i.e. writing about somebody and hoping they would one day read it and know they were the character and find you years later:

"It's been well over a year now.  Colby still hasn't called.  Not that I'm waiting by the phone anymore.  And I haven't seen him around since that night either, not even at the fuckin' Murphy's Law concert, where my eyes were peeled out of their fuckin' sockets for him.  And I've been back to the video room time and again and he never turned up.  He wasn't even at Medusa's when Ministry played.  Fuckin' everyone who's anyone was there!  Not him, though.  Who knows, maybe he moved.  God, I fuckin' hope not.  I so want to see him again.
I never told Tressa about the night I met Colby.  Never told her what happened with Narc.  Never told her about my attempts at a cockney accent and a new story.  But I did ask her if the name Colby rang a bell.  She said it didn't and asked me why I asked.  I said somebody told me some story about somebody on Belmont named Colby but I couldn't remember how it went.  I could tell she could tell I was lying.  I remembered the story.  Knew it fuckin' chapter and verse.  I was its author.  'Colby's coming with me to London': I nursed the story all last year.  I nurse it now, but not so much now that a year has gone by and the phone hasn't rung.  Yet my London Plans still stand if he ever wants to hear my pitch, if I ever see him on the L again, if we ever become friends.  I'll keep watching out for him at Irving Park station.  But I won't do a cockney accent next time.  That was just fuckin' stupid." (104-105)

In summary, 85A is a bumpy ride, but it is one that you may be glad you took.  This is a really good book for young adults, even though the language is very vulgar.  I know things are different in 2014 than they were in 1989, but there are still kids out there like Seamus who feel like nobody could ever understand them.  This book will show them that everything they're feeling is totally normal, and that they shouldn't give up hope that their lives will get better.  It's not a perfect book by any means, but it's a pretty good debut for Smith, and I would be interested to read his other books if and when they are published.

No comments: