Road to Ruin
By Elizabeth Hand
Small Beer. 265 pp. $24
Small Beer Press is a Massachusetts-based micro-publishing outfit with that old-fashioned thing: a stamp of quality you can trust. But there is nothing old-fashioned about the fiction they publish. Small Beer is where you go to find writing on the edge. And Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand is about as on the edge as a book can be, straight from the top drawer.
Cass (Scary) Neary is a casualty of the punk rock generation, one of the minor figures in the vital but dangerous explosion of energy that characterized the New York scene in the late '70s. Some people played at punk while others lived it. Cass lived it and barely limped out of it. A photographer with 14-1/2 minutes of fame, she shuffles on long after punk has been swallowed and spat out by the mainstream. She's a sneering, pill-popping junkie, a promiscuous ruin and a psychic wreck. She's also the victim of a violent rape that happened on the day that, for her, the punk movement sputtered out.
Then she is given a job -- a mercy gig -- and sent to Maine in winter to interview a once famous photographer, the aging and reclusive Aphrodite Kamestos.
Maine out of season gets a brusque and unsentimental report from Hand, who lives there year-round. The locals are clannish and suspicious. And what with teenagers going missing at an alarming rate -- the mystery that loads the book with the bullets of a thriller -- it's not a good time or place to be an outsider from the big city. Cass's expensive cowboy fashion boots don't keep her feet warm on the icy quays, and her snarling demeanor only lowers the already icy temperature. The locals gathering at the harbor start to look suspiciously like a lynch mob. The assembly of supporting characters dug in with the locals are mostly refugees from a bohemian colony over which the embittered hag Kamestos once presided. They are all equally corroded, and they all seem to have well-stocked bathroom cabinets to keep Cass medicated.
Cass is a deeply unsympathetic principal character, a sour anti-hero who weeps without even acknowledging it to herself. That you don't want to give up on this unsavory and resistible figure is a testament to the fierce quality of Hand's writing. Her precise observations and eye for movement in the shadows are what make Cass worth watching; the desperate and declining trajectory of the burnt-out protagonist's soul keeps us rooted.
In one sense the novel is an essay on damage. Hand deals with a character who is almost posthumous in her post-punk exhaustion. Cass can sniff out damage on another person. She is attracted to it. She dopes on it. The title refers to the loss of quality when a photo is copied and then the copy is copied and so on. But its other meaning is, of course, the lost generation, the burn-outs, the casualties, the damaged and the damned, the rock-and-roll dead. Loss of integrity -- as an artist and as a vital human being -- is the powerful metaphor in this. Further, the motif of missing kids dovetails effortlessly with Hand's gifted manipulation of narrative and theme. "Where did all those William Blake like bursts of punk energy go to?" Hand seems to be asking. They wash up in places like this, she answers, every one of them a beautiful tragedy.
Generation Loss is a crossover novel, difficult to classify, uncomfortable, spiky. Hand is one of those writers who has challenged the restrictions of genre writing. Here, she both fights with and against the conventions of the thriller genre to get at an evil deeper than its mere perpetrator. When the killer is revealed, it's more a confirmation of dread than a surprise. So although Generation Loss moves like a thriller, it detonates with greater resound. It's a dark and beautiful novel that should not be read by anyone under the age of 30. ·
Graham Joyce is the author of 12 novels, the most recent of which is "The Limits of Enchantment."