Sunday, July 10, 2011

alt.punk

Title: alt.punk
Author: Lavinia Ludlow
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
URL:  Casperian Books
Price: $12.50 (direct from publisher)
Other Information/warnings: Graphic sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Summary (from the publisher): We Need a Cleanup on Aisle Five. Hazel is a middle-class hypochondriac doing (over)time as a manager at Safeway, the only place that would hire her with an MBA from a state school. She hates her boyfriend, her family, and her life. Otis is a guiltless weirdo who still has action figures in his bed; a postindustrial Peter Pan who wakes up in the middle of the night crying from nightmares he can't remember. A punk rock void, he describes the world with the creative imagination of a child. Together, they are a disaster.


In alt.punk, Lavinia Ludlow explores the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. With a savage eye for detail, she unveils the layers of mythmaking that underlie class and ideology in the twenty-first century.

My Review: From the moment I first heard of Lavina Ludlow’s debut novel, alt.punk, I knew it would be right up my alley. Germaphobia, hard music, and a sexy, man-boy lead singer in a punk band. I was so looking forward to it that I ordered it on release day. But, like Ludlow’s lead character, Hazel, I got too wrapped up in the drama of a day-job to find time to read it. Now, almost 4 months after the book arrived at my home, I got a long weekend to do absolutely nothing but sit down and read this really fascinating book.

Now, a warning up front…you better have a strong stomach before you dive into Ludlow’s world. There’s drugs, bodily fluids, drugs, excrement, drugs, irresponsible sex and...drugs. Hey, it’s rock and roll after all. Now, that to me is a plus, but it may not be everyone’s cup of Clorox. If it is, you’ll find yourself treated to a brilliantly dark, biting satire not only of the punk scene, but also of that middle class that settles for less than its dreams and of those who, about to exit their twenties, act as if they are living in Logan’s Run (well, the movie version), where life past 30 simply doesn’t exist.



Hazel is our heroine…so to speak…a work-a-day drone at the Safeway where she is on the fast track to upper management and a disturbingly lower-middle-class existence. Once a rebellious young teen entrenched in the anarchy and ethos of the punk scene, she now finds herself the embodiment of all that she rejected in her youth. She has to deal with employees with no work ethic, a mother who criticizes her weight and lack of a respectable boyfriend, and a strangling malaise that has hit her as she – gasp! – approaches 30. She carries with her an overwhelming sense of “where have I gone wrong” mixed with a pathological fear of germs.

One night, after feeling totally out of it at the performance of a local punk band, she finds herself entranced with Otis, the lead singer of the band. Charming, though grooming-challenged, Otis should be everything Hazel fears most: he oozes contaminating bodily fluids, his hair is a matted mess, he shoots drugs and shares needles as if there were no tomorrow. And that, is perhaps, what make Hazel, someone so afraid of everything about life, so drawn to him, a man recklessly afraid of not living. He’s boyishly charming and somehow manages not only to disagree with Hazel’s mother’s criticisms of her, but finds all those “flaws” irresistible. So what does Hazel do? She chucks it all away and goes on tour with Otis and Otis’ brother, a smart-ass, holier-than-though punk acolyte Hazel had once fired from Safeway.

Thus begins the tour and Ludlow immerses us in that world without pulling any punches. Ludlow’s own involvement in the music scene serves the novel well, the detail sharp and telling, and the characters are as real and vivid as the neighbors you really wish didn’t live next door to you. But there are two things that really make this novel stand out, especially for a freshman outing.

The first is the skill Ludlow has at drawing her characters. In a novel like this it is a very difficult thing to take two lead characters who could be easily be unlikable – a neurotic, germaphobe and a grimy, drug-addled rock and roller – and make them likable, but Ludlow is masterful. Hazel and Otis are so deftly drawn, that you can’t help but like them. Sid and Nancy they ain’t, though that may be their aspiration. When they first meet, the reader knows that Otis may be the best (or worst) thing to happen to Hazel, but he is what she needs in her life right now. Inexplicably, we find ourselves rooting for them to get together. Conversely, Hazel may be the best thing for Otis. Even Otis’ brother, Landon, a slacker beyond all slackers, is likable, his relationship with his brother surprisingly touching in a totally twisted, punker-than-thou way.

The second aspect of this novel which makes it remarkable is something I think has been largely overlooked in the other reviews I have read: the deeply satirical nature of the story. Ludlow skewers everyone in this novel and she does it with dark humor and a respectful understanding of the ails of her characters. The middle class who aspires to be bourgeoisie is represented by Hazel’s mother and by the direction Hazel sees her life headed. It’s that group that has sold out all they ever wanted to be for everything they ever wanted to have. They live for their children finding the proper marriage or the proper career or the proper car, so much so that they manage to tear their children down if they are even remotely different. But the punk scene also gets a few slashes from Ludlow’s pen as well. Sure, the excesses are part of the anarchy the scene ascribes to, but underneath it, Ludlow shows us that the punks can be just as judgmental of others in their own sphere who don’t ascribe to their particular view. In short, if you don’t like certain bands or certain drugs or a certain scene, you just ain’t punk enough. The scene—for all its desire for nonconformity, despises nonconformity within its own world. But most of all, Ludlow firmly jibes those who are intent upon having their midlife crises about 15 years too early.

So, does Hazel learn anything from her tour experiences? Does she let go of her fear of life so that she can start living? Is she redeemed? Does she pursue her dreams? Well, all of that would be just a little too pat for this novel and a little too chick-lit for an author of this caliber. In the end, Ludlow gives us a darkly funny, extremely critical view of not only the punk scene, but of the entire 21st century world where the only choices in life seem to be the extremities. Alt.punk is crude and crass, funny and serious, touching and absurd, but most of all, it’s engrossing...and gross. This ain’t no light beach read...unless the beach is outside a leaking chemical factory. It’s an anti-romance and, thankfully, the antithesis of – and antidote for—chick-lit everywhere. Highly recommended.

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