5 Stars -Highly Recommended / The Next Best Book
I gotta tell ya, it's nice to have author friends. What's even nicer is having author friends who have similar literary tastes to you. Wanna know what's even nicer than that? Having author friends who have awesome taste in literature (who like what you like) who introduce you to new awesome literature!
I may never have read Lavinia Ludlow's alt.punk if it wasn't for longtime TNBBC buddy Ben Tanzer mentioning the author's name on a post I wrote back in March illustrating the top 10 authors who deserve more recognition. An anonymous account commented on how surprised they were that I named only male authors, and to be honest, until I had created that list, I hadn't noticed just how few female authors I had actually read.
Looking at it, my female to male ratio was really embarrassing. Just to give you an idea - out of 52 books on a random bookshelf, containing books I have already read, only 2 were written by females. (Since my lack of exposure to female authors was brought to my attention, I have made an attempt to level out the reading field - currently, of the last 20 books I have read, 6 of them were written by females.)
And before I take this review and turn it into a blog post where I compare and contrast gender in literature and rationalize my obvious-to-everyone-but-me preference for male authors, let me just say that I didn't chose to review alt.punk solely on the fact that it was penned by a female. It may have been brought to my attention because it was penned by a female, but that is not why I decided to review it.
I decided to review it based on the jacket copy, which described it's protagonist as a "middle-class hypochondriac" who hates "her boyfriend, her family, and her life", and refers to the book as a novel that "explores the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity...". It sounded edgy, angsty, and right up my alley. And I suddenly had to have it.
The novel begins with our germ-and-pubic-hair-hating protagonist delivering a less-than-enthusiastic blowjob to her boyfriend. As she performs the act with eyes squeezed shut so tightly they go numb, wishing she could glue them together to avoid them randomly popping open, she fights the urge to dry heave as she thinks things like "This is where he pees" and "maybe I am gay because it's not natural to hate it this much".
Within the first few pages, Ludlow paints an extremely awkward and uncomfortable picture of what it is like to live life as Hazel - a woman who is tortured by the very thought of unclean, unsanitary, unbleached objects coming into contact with her. She scrubs her walls with disinfectant, pours herself bleach baths, and repeatedly visits her doctor convinced that she's contacted every single illness or virus she's ever heard of.
No wonder sex is such a disgusting concept to her. It's a breeding ground for disease! All that sharing of saliva and bodily fluids... yuck!
As if suffering through all of this wasn't enough, she is also tormented by her family's constant nitpicking over her weight. Tipping the scales at a mere 115 pounds, Hazel is the heaviest female in her family, a fact that she is reminded of almost daily. She refuses to eat in front of them for fear of being called "fat" and binges on cases of diet soda, handfuls of chocolate, and bags of chips within the uncontaminated walls of her apartment.
It doesn't help that her boyfriend Kree is a jobless mooch, leaving her the responsibility of "bringing home the bacon"(another concept she despises since she doesn't eat meat). She hates her job as Manager of Safeway, gets no respect from her subordinates, and secretly wishes she could punch every single customer who complains directly in the throat.
Of course, one can only handle the stress and pressure of living like this for so long. One stray pubic hair floating in the kitchen sink is all it takes to break her. In a suffocating moment of fury, she kicks her boyfriend out of the house and soon finds herself hanging out with the lead singer of a punk rock band.
Desperate for a change, and incredibly drawn to this unclean, slobbering, drug and alcohol addicted frontman, Hazel makes the incredibly difficult decision to leave her extremely controlled life behind and tour with the band across North America.
We watch as Hazel slowly evolves from a severe hypochondriac/germaphobe to a prescription drug addicted groupie who finds herself bathing in gas station bathrooms, wearing the same dirty clothes days in a row, and cleaning up the vomit and blood that nightly find their way out of her lover.
Ludlow reveals the imperfections and ugly truths of life on the road with a punk rock band, while endearing us to this emotionally stilted and sarcastic woman. It's sort of like a "coming of age" story, although that isn't quite the right term, since our leading lady is in her early thirties. So perhaps it's more of a raw and ragged look at a woman suffering from a quarter-life crisis?
Either way, it's edgy, it's full of sex and drugs and rock and roll, and it's impressive as hell for a first novel. It caught my attention from the very first line, and held onto it so tightly that I plowed through the novel in an entire day. I couldn't bear to be away from it - the only times I put the book down were to eat, pee, and feed the animals.
Though I'm not a neat and clean freak, and I've never traveled on the road with a band before, there were so many aspects of this novel that I could relate to. The griminess of the road paralleled my weekend camping trips - the initial shock of having to "go" in the woods, stinking like campfire and dirt, picking bugs off of your clothes and knots out of your hair. The stress of attempting to keep a clean house when you live with someone who can't put their own laundry away, or wipe up the pee they've dribbled all over the toilet seat...I get it. I really do.
Ok, I'm going to end this review before it becomes a book of it's own in need of a review....
Do me a favor, go out there and get yourself a copy of this. It's Catcher in the Rye in it's thirties. It's the female version of Banned for Life. It's everything you want a book written by a female about a female to be. It's the anti-chick-lit of independent literature. And it's waiting be read by you!