IS THAT A needle in your pocket or are you just glad to see me? Welcome to the bad old days. New York punk's reigning nihilist, Richard Hell, begins his new novel Go Now this way: "1980." A good sign right off that those in need of sunshine might seek out peppier literary years. Protagonist Billy Mudd, a rock & roller and junkie (though not necessarily in that order), is your guide through both the American landscape and his own annoyingly tormented psyche. We're miles past anti-hero here, driving around in the smelly, pathetic territory of addiction with a narrator trapped inside a sort of On the Road for nodding naysayers. Of his fellow citizens of the druggie nation, Billy remarks, "They are my good and scary family."
Oh, the depravity.
Surprise, surprise that the man who wrote the anthem "Blank Generation," named his band the Voidoids, and made the famous T-shirt marked "Please Kill Me" isn't out to cheer you up. But Richard Hell was always one of popular music's more complicated and original figures. His best songs rely on a tug-of-war between yes and no, asking questions like "Who says it's good good to be alive?" With some singers, you trust their words, swallow them down like aspirin. With others, like Hell, you embrace their sound. Because even when he conjured up all the doubts and death wishes in the world, or when he slung apathy at his audience by yelping "I can take it or leave it each time," the spastic passion of his voice said only one thing: "Take it!"
As a heroin novel, Go Now is predictable, but only because junkiedom is such a big fat grind. Wake up, shoot up, worry about scoring, score, more of same. The process works as a kind of ritual--as Billy says, "a tea ceremony of sorts." Our narrator knows he's a weasel, shocking even himself for resenting his girlfriend for making him walk up the seven flights to her apartment in order to "borrow" drug money. He also acknowledges that he keeps a stash of books about Vietnam and concentration camps close at hand in order to ward off self-pity.
What is surprising--or even what might be called delightful--about this novel is its fleshy beauty as a travelogue. Jack, a mysterious Brit of a patron, hires Billy and his French girlfriend, Chrissa, to drive a big old DeSoto Adventurer (how's that for symbolism?) from Los Angeles to New York and write a book about the experience. Billy's in charge of narrative; Chrissa will photograph. Maybe it's just that he hates the same cities I can't stand, but Billy's wisecracks always get it right. Loathsome Santa Fe actually makes him glad to be a doper, just because he likes "being a bruise of freelance disgust on its smug self-satisfaction." Nevada, which he had imagined as "an old fashioned cowboy saloon to the nation" disappoints him; in Reno, he discovers that "the whole town is an insinuated insult."
As a well-documented francophile, Hell's been tending to the fleurs du mal blooming in the back garden of his art for years. But Go Now's soulful reflections on his native soil occasionally read like the Statement of Purpose section of an application to an American Studies graduate program. Billy decides that their book's heart should involve a search for the "rockabilly America," finding in Elvis a notion of the nation as real: "He redeemed the poor and simple, showed the big shots the beauty of a country boy set loose...and he never left any room for doubt that first and most of all he loved his mama. Jack Kerouac worked along similar lines, when you could still be an unapologetic poet of the U.S.A. and do it for your mother."
Oh, you can do it for your mother all right, but evidently you do it to your mother's sister. No need for details, but the swirl of incest toward the trip's demise makes even shooting up seem like a happily guilt-free pastime by comparison. Sometimes Hell's narrative path takes such gruesome, filthy turns that you'd swear it works most forcefully as a morality tale. Ultimately, his most important question is quietly tucked away in a blur of musings: "Shouldn't one rebel against one's smallness?"
Billy hardly ever does. He runs away from smallness with his habit, looks away from it with his book, tries to ignore it with sex, but he never really rebels. He does, however, find salvation in the form of a cheap tape deck in Kansas City and a handful of cassettes--Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Howling Wolf. He tries to get at the musicians' magic, not as a fellow performer, but as a fan. Sitting in a motel bed with a bottle of whiskey and his notebook, he writes down, "It seems amazingly good of them to do this for us."