A Review by Kevin Zambrano
by Matthew Binder
Roundfire Books ($14.95)
But this debut novel’s sensibility reflects less Anton Chekhov and more Bret Easton Ellis. Lou Brown, our narrator, formerly destitute, turned his suicide note into a mega-bestselling novel. Five years later, having got his taste of the American Dream, Lou’s self-destructive impulses begin to regain control—this is where High in the Streets begins.
The book unfolds as a series of intertwined stories about trying to find a meaningful yet unconstrained way to live in the world. In these stories, Lou’s marriage dissolves, Lou’s best friend tries to get his kid back, Lou shacks up in a motel with some freewheeling women, Lou gets drunk at Venice Beach, and so on. Within each of these stories, Lou has plenty of side-stories to share of his own, about his parents or his old dog or a guy he met once at a bar. And Binder allows the people Lou meets to tell stories of their own—some real, some phony. The raconteurish quality of the book is the best thing about it. Lou (and, by extension, Binder) clearly delights in all the stories he has to tell, and the reader delights in them too.
Lou’s a true American hero, a rags-to-riches lover of freedom, a friend to scumbags and losers, always ready with a clever rejoinder. He’s also a fairly rotten person in a book full of fairly rotten people. Lou alternates between narcissism and self-loathing, with repellent opinions of women. Where you stand on the book will depend on how much irony you see in its protagonist.
For example, at one point, Lou gets a job as a substitute teacher. When he’s promptly fired for intimidating a student and scoffs at the ineffectuality of the public school system, are we scoffing with him, or at him? The book would benefit from making the answer clearer. The immediacy and immersion of first-person-present narration requires a subtle touch to allow the reader to distinguish the novel’s point of view from its character’s. In this way, High in the Streets could use a subtler touch.
In other ways, it could be far noisier. For a novel about searching for freedom, one wishes the prose would be freer, wilder, less flat and workmanlike and more manic and unhinged, capable of doing anything, saying anything, going anywhere. However, the writing, such as it is, is never obstructive, clearing the way for a funny, entertaining, and story-rich book.