Matthew Binder’s debut novel, High in the Streets, is a risky novel, containing many of the elements that most writers are told to (and, it must be said, probably should) avoid. Writing about writing? It’s here in abundance. Shrill, oversexualized female characters? Check! An aimless man-child for a protagonist? Yep.
It takes great talent and confidence for a writer to embrace these tropes and then to use them against themselves, and I’m happy to report that Binder succeeds admirably in that pursuit. Once readers make it through the first forty-odd pages, which, like an ambitious television pilot, overflow with bombastic characters and boozy high jinks but serve mostly as set-up, they will be rewarded with a nuanced yarn, one overflowing with humor, satire, and, more significantly, undercurrents of sadness, desperation, and even hope, all of which will stick with them well beyond the final pages.
High in the Streets begins with its protagonist, Lou Brown, moving his writing desk into the master bathroom of the palatial Laurel Canyon mansion that he shares with his fiancé, Frannie. Lou’s tried writing in every other room in the house, and inspiration has yet to strike. His first book, That’s Why I Drink Every Night, was a huge success, making Lou a millionaire. The problem is that Lou cannot seem to find the same fire that inspired his first novel within himself. As he says, “The guy who wrote That’s Why I Drink Every Night wouldn’t even recognize this new Lou, this man of comfort, this sloth, this weakling, this privileged little piss-ant. The guy who wrote That’s Why I Drink Every Night had a lust for life, a thirst for drugs and booze and women and violence.”
The sentiment in these lines is what drives the plot of High in the Streets. Lou’s conundrum is that the miserable life he led before is what made him want to write while the dream life that writing has given him is keeping him from recreating that success. Lou’s quest for inspiration leads him on an often-bizarre adventure filled with drugs, jail, prostitutes, and a lot of alcohol. But the goal of this quest, the search for the inspiration, is a MacGuffin; the real story lies within each of the bite-sized encounters Lou has along the way.
Following the aforementioned first forty pages, during which Lou argues with his aloof fiancé, meets up with his every-suffering agent, and gambles with his only friend, a former professional baseball player named Cliff, he takes part in a series of truly odd misadventures which, in addition to their brazen, roughhewn whimsy, give the novel its beating heart.
Beginning with a reading at a university, where Lou reveals that his first book actually began as a suicide letter, High in the Streets launches Lou on a journey through the darker corners of Los Angeles, each encounter revealing more of Lou’s humanity without eliminating his idiotic, nihilistic charm. He shares a few rounds of drinks with a legless veteran in a simultaneously-hysterical-and-devastating encounter involving diabetes and assisted urination. Later, after getting in a bar fight and trashing a fancy hotel room, Lou finds himself hiring a prostitute for company at a cheap motel. The prostitute, Emma, is a great character, and her drunken gymnastics routine, a mixture of adult stupidity and childish joy, is a highlight of the novel. Later, Lou somehow finagles his way into teaching at a high school, which ends in disaster, but not before a dance routine, some singing, and a lesson concerning Lord of the Flies. From there, we’re treated to a near drowning, plenty of ill-advised sexual encounters, a boxing match, and much more.
The book itself references Norman Mailer and the Los Angeles setting coupled with abundance of sex and drugs recalls Brett Easton Ellis, but Binder’s writing, particularly in these misadventures, has much more in common with popular fiction writers like Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich, masters of setting zany crime fiction in seedy, familiar American locales. Unlike Hiaasen and Evanovich, however, Binder uses this writing to build a dark meditation on the underbelly of getting everything you ever dreamed of in modern Los Angeles. For that reason, though High in the Streets lacks the explicit, still-shocking detail of Mailer’s Deer Park and Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, it does reside in the same neighborhood as those works, accomplishing similar goals by using different means.
As a character, Lou is a true antihero. He’s sexist, a little racist, abusive, and almost entirely ignorant or unrepentant about all of it. Though he himself may be irredeemable, he brings about positive change for nearly all of the other characters in his orbit, the stars of the side stories he involves himself in. By the end of the novel, Lou (often unwittingly) helps others to escape sad fates, and he himself heads in a direction that, while not ideal, isn’t the prison that his previous successes pushed him into.
Matthew Binder could have easily made High in the Streets a series of interconnected stories about each of the side characters that Lou encounters on his journey. But by telling these tales through Lou’s biased gaze, we are witnesses to an eccentric, tragic, ugly, and uplifting portrait of pursuit and attainment of the Los Angeles dream. High in the Streets is a complicated romp about those who have chased that dream and, more importantly, those who live in its shadow.
High in the Streets, by Matthew Binder. Roundfire Books, April 2016. 256 pages. $14.95, paper.
Mike McClelland lives in Georgia with his husband and a menagerie of rescue dogs. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Permafrost, ink&coda, Cactus Heart, Poetry Pacific, The Flash Fiction Press, and anthologies by JMS Press and Beautiful Dreamer Press. He serves on the staff of the literary journal Arts & Letters and is a founding editor of the literary journal On the Veranda. Keep up with him at magicmikewrites.com.