Some writers create books full of non-stop action and noise. Others take hundreds of pages to tell sprawling stories that span generations. Cody James writes pitch-perfect short-novels in which the world is revealed to us in the smallest details.
I fell under the hypnotic spell of James’ prose when reading her first novel, Babylon — which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be available at the moment. (I hope it’s reissued soon,) Her second novel, The Dead Beat, is not a disappointment.
The Dead Beat is set during the summer of 1997 in and around San Francisco. Adam, a blocked writer and meth addict is our narrator. He lives in the usual squalor with his fellow-junkie friends. Not much happens. A comet comes and goes as do a couple of girlfriends and jobs. Resolutions are made and broken. It all leads somewhere, sort of.
But you don’t read James for her plots. You read her for the voice, the inimitable, bewitching rhythm that gets into your head and builds itself a home.
A writer to whom she’s arguably comparable is Flannery O’Connor though Bukowski might be a more obvious choice. O’Connor was famous for her Catholicism, and James is a self-avowed Satanist, but both are astute observers able to capture the human condition concisely. Both offer their characters (and readers) momentary glimpses of a greater truth — what O’Connor defined as “grace.” Neither is ever guilty of sentimentality, and both write in prose sharp enough to draw blood.
In The Dead Beat, James has the technical challenge of telling the story in the first person through Adam. She must filter her voice to fit him. It’s always a bit of magic when a writer can pull this off, whether it’s Samuel Clemens convincing us he’s Huck Finn or Nabokov masquerading as Humbert. Adam is probably more reliable than either of those two, but he’s still limited. — dead pan, shut down, often high, looking for drugs or in withdrawal.
The grace here is not heaven sent. If there is a greater power at work, it’s one that comes from community — however warped. Adam and his roommates care for each other as best they can. The transcendent is what’s left of their humanity — what the addiction hasn’t yet destroyed — their ability to be kind to each other — to connect. It’s the sometimes goofy conversations about every day stuff that show us these lost souls — the debate about whether “uncomfort” is a word, whether pot heads are more annoying than coke heads, and of course whether anything has any meaning at all.
This is a novel in which characters struggle to find a reason to go on living, yet it’s strangely life affirming. James has brought us Adam’s truth, and ultimately it’s our truth as well, one with which we all struggle and can identify.