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In Go Now, a sort of On the Road for the CBGB’s generation, Hell is not other people—he’s the narrator. Technically, the novel’s first-person voice belongs to Billy Mud, New York punk-rock demistar, heroin addict, and unrepentant satyr, but there seems to be no essential difference between Mud and his creator, Richard Hell. Both love Baudelaire, hail from Lexington, Ky., and found themselves sidelined by record-contract wrangles in the early ’80s. As for whether or not Hell once pulled his aunt’s panties from her laundry hamper and sniffed them, as Billy does, I can’t say. But Go Now is the sort of book whose unpleasant confessions leave you hoping that some of it is fiction.
When and if punk rock is finally toted up, Hell may be noted principally for his role in the invention of spiky hair and the ripped T-shirt. Born Lester Meyers, the singer/songwriter played in two bands (Television and the Heartbreakers) that got better after he left them, but briefly found his way with Richard Hell and the Voidoids. That group made only two albums, only one of which (1977’s Blank Generation) will endure. Since then, Hell has done the occasional tour and published a few stray writings, but he can hardly be deemed productive. Go Now suggests why that might be: smack.
Hell/Mud fantasizes about starting a “Junkie Pride movement,” and Go Now is one of the new generation of novels that sees heroin addiction as not such a bad thing (cf. Trainspotting, the British sensation just published here). Indeed, Billy’s problem is not that he’s a junkie, it’s that he’s a jerk. When the novel begins, he’s looking for smack, blowing off band rehearsals, and exploiting willing young groupies. (“In the little world of dingy nightclubs where I make my living, the girls, as a rule, are there to be abused,” Hell/Mud notes.) “I don’t like being outside,” he whines, although scoring drugs persuades him to sometimes leave his Lower East Side hovel.
A change of scenery comes when Jack, a British band manager, offers to underwrite a cross-country trip for Billy and a photographer, his former girlfriend Chrissa. They’re supposed to produce a book, of course, which makes Go Now yet another novel about someone who’s trying to write one. (By comparison, the rituals of junkiedom seem positively fresh.) Billy sees this journey as an opportunity to kick his habit and renew his relationship with Chrissa, which once was idyllic in its way. (“We read books together, we wrote poems, and made drawings. One night we pissed on each other.”) But Billy is still a jerk, and one whose renunciation of smack frequently wavers. Eventually, his overeager libido devises a spectacular means of alienating Chrissa for good.
Though Billy sometimes pronounces the world “gorgeous and interesting,” America he mostly finds a drag. Watching a sitcom in his customary refuge, a motel room, he proves he’s still a punk by fantasizing that “I’d like to take the fat one and swing her from her hair at the cute one so they both split like the overripe vegetables they are and let the bugs eat ’em.” It’s not unreasonable to consider aspects of middle America appalling, but Billy’s self-absorbed, drug-colored observations are neither perceptive nor fair. As he wastes Jack’s money, he wastes our time; Billy didn’t need to drive cross-country to determine that “on the whole America is grotesque.”
A prep-school dropout, Hell is not uneducated or unliterary; Go Now’s references to Rilke, ancient Greek philosophy, and the Japanese tea ceremony indicate that Hell had more in common with Television’s Tom Verlaine than with the dead-end street kids with whom he formed the Heartbreakers. Still, the book doesn’t have a strong sense of style. Writing about Chrissa, Hell ranges from the grandiosely poetic (“her words became some awful empty childish mansion”) to metaphors worthy of Dave Barry: “I don’t want to think about how I feel about her. I bounce off that place like a superball.” At one point he’s reduced to recycling his own 20-year-old song lyrics.
What’s really scant, though, is perspective; Go Now lacks either the elegant autobiographical detachment of Joyce or the hot, giddy loathing of Céline. Apparently equating frankness with insight, Hell offers little more than 15-year-old diary entries. “Memories are better than life,” Billy muses, but that doesn’t make them art. Indeed, the memories in Go Now are like someone else’s vacation snapshots. They’ll be intermittently interesting to friends and fans, but this seemingly tossed-off book is no more a novel than “Blank Generation” is a symphony.CP