“The Seedier Angels of Our Nature”: Derek Maine on Reading Body High by Jon Lindsey

Los Angeles is an almost incomprehensively vast place. The expanse opens up a world of nooks, crannies, and hiding places for the seedier angels of our nature to roam. In The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West’s brilliant 1939 Hollywood novel, the scaffolding of celebrity and glamour coating the myth of Los Angeles is torn down to reveal the charade. It seemed from then forward that Los Angeles fiction would live in-between worlds and the central conflict would forever be the clashing cultures of the rich-and-famous with the down-and-out.

Then hard-boiled fiction writer Raymond Chandler worked his Los Angeles befuddling the stories of those still clinging to the fantasy, damning his naïve characters to hell. Chandler and West both wrote from a place of anger. I fell in love with Los Angeles, in print, with Chandler. I used to tell my wife I was going to the gym—this was years and years ago—and I’d put my workout clothes on and then sit in the parking lot of the K&W Cafeteria smoking cigarettes in my car, with the windows rolled up, eating Pecan Pie and reading Chandler. I was addicted to so many things. It feels nice to remember that private Los Angeles moment of mine. I have a difficult relationship with Los Angeles outside of print. Maybe everyone does. It scares me. Attracts me. Repulses me. Makes me lonesome.

Jon Lindsey creates his Los Angeles as a farce, experienced in a kind of stupor, characters unmoored by the plight of any particular class. Body High is a cinematic, hilarious, heartbreaking, absurd romp through Los Angeles in the daylight. It scours the canyons and strip mall parking lots. With apologies to Paris, Los Angeles is defined by light. The bright lights, of course. But the bright lights shine for only a few, whereas the real light, the source of it all, the unceasing sun, illuminates everything for everyone. In Body High the sun shines on our desperation and pain as we seek to love and to be loved:

People seem to think it’s impossible to feel sad under the Southern California sun, but I have seen otherwise.

I haven’t felt Los Angeles this deeply since those days in the K&W parking lot reading Chandler. If that was all Body High did then it would be a very good book. But within these sun-soaked pages you will encounter more than just place and a play on the relationship between light and dark.

Body High begins at a funeral. Leland, our narrator, is burying his mother. The eloquent, painful notes of Leland remembering his mother in rehab stints, halfway houses, psych wards and as an overall extremely complicated vessel for his love is rudely interrupted when he drops the surprisingly heavy casket and, instead of his mother, out rolls the corpse of a Jack Nicholson impersonator. And with that, Body High announces itself. Everything does not exist to Lindsey to be shat on or spat out or, worse, redeemed. It is enough that everything simply exists. See Leland’s cousin Jolene, who might be his aunt or sister and in any case is the living object of his gaze, commenting, upon visiting a movie set: “I thought being this close would make it feel more real.”

The plotting and pacing in Body High are, on a technical level, an absolute clinic. The action flies off the page. The story cascades, crescendos, careens, and curls in on itself while always moving forward, always, even in the most hilariously incongruous moments, following its own internal logic. This kind of mad dash to turn the page and sink yourself into the pulse of the story reminded me of James Purdy: literary work as a drug. But Body High does not read like either Raymond Chandler or James Purdy. The voice is too singular for those kinds of 1v1 comparisons. The imagery is so bright and visceral that I think you have to step outside of literature and into film if your aim is to saddle the work with an influence.

I basically hate doing this, but the genre of review demands its vittles: Body High could and should be adapted to the screen by the Coen Brothers. Both Burn After Reading and A Serious Man operate in that same space where black comedy propels the Absurd to actually say something significant about what it means to exist. In the former, the lesson might be something like the logical universe throwing up its hands in resignation at the randomness of it all, whereas the latter tests an individual’s faith and ultimate capacity for goodness in the face of a staggeringly (and increasingly adept) cruel world. The Coen Brothers are well-known for their use of allegories as well as basing many of their works on classic stories (The Book of Jobs for A Serious Man, The Odyssey for O Brother, Where Art Thou, for instance) and I think it’s fair to suggest that some kind of grounding is critical with works of art so happily mired in the Absurd.

The high artistry in Body High is in the fusing of the Absurd, grotesque, and taboo with the pureness of a son’s love for his mother. Besides the corpse of a Jack Nicholson impersonator there is possible (likely?) incest, a plethora of drugs and nootropics, kidnapping, heists, and black-market kidneys. And yet all of these elements actually tie together and serve the larger narrative. There is no fat or even absurdity for the sake of itself at play here. The grounding and the current of real pain pulsating throughout Body High is in the relationship between Leland and his dead mother. Leland grapples with the love of a mother, now and perhaps always a ghost, whose addictions and precarious mental state invert the traditional roles to where son is nurturer and mother is constant need:

Each time depression returned, she visited the psych ward for more electric shocks. She lost more and more. She forgot about the boyfriend who copies the pin code to her debit card and stole the money I gave her from the sale of my kidney.

It seemed there was nothing left worth remembering, so I wanted her to forget more …. [S]aying I wanted the electricity to erase her childhood, her father.

Each dose of pain Lindsey metes out in fulfilling this relationship between a mother and a son comes with the promise of real, genuine intimacy and a void developing in Leland as he seeks to know love from such a broken, terribly perverted starting position:

I remember kissing my mom with tongue. As a child. Eating spaghetti in my underwear, I was imitating lovers on television. Asking for a kiss. Then forcing noodles into her mouth. She threw me from the couch.

“Kissing like that is for people in love,” she said.

“I love you,” I said.

It’s best not to delve much further into this relationship, between Leland and a ghost, because we lose something of the joy of discovery if too much of the pulp is tendered. But there are questions of nurturing (and nourishment), love (and lust), and the vampiric relations we cultivate bubbling throughout, and ultimately spilling out messily like a shaken-up beer can. Body High is a fabulists’ broken-hearted aftershock. As the stakes build, methodically at first and then exponentially all at once, Leland remains our solemn guide. He keeps his same demeanor from the pews at the funeral home to the backseat of the getaway car, allowing us to wander into a sick, forbidden zone assuring us that he, too, possesses a weak stomach for the filthy and deranged animals we’ve always been.

Body High, by Jon Lindsey. House of Vlad Press, May 2021. 188 pages. $13.00, paper.

Derek Maine lives in North Carolina with his wife, two children, and dog (Gidget). They also feed an outdoor cat, Lily. Derek’s work has appeared in X-RAY, Ligeia, Expat Press, Misery Tourism, and elsewhere. He is on Twitter too much @derekmainelives.

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