REVIEW — At one point, the characters Lee Williams first novel, After Nirvana, find themselves in a Safeway with a coupon book shopping for a single stick of deodorant to handle the five hustling runaways. They are five street kids teens, two girls and three boys, who banded together to watch after each other and collectively earn what they can in the park bathrooms, highway rest areas, and adult video booths along I-5 between Eugene and Seattle. This mission to buy deodorant is probably one of the most complicated tasks undertaken in the course of the story, which sort of makes After Nirvana sound like a chronicle of five mental deficients, but really illustrates how alien buying dry goods like make-up or toilet paper are to these street kids. They loiter in front of the confusing row of choices.
I was standing next to Branch in the soap and pit-stick aisle and he was going through the Soft $ Dris, popping the tops, sniffing and holding them out to me, one at a time, asking Does this smell like snatch? but before Id say anything hed sniff the stick again, say, Yeah, too much, put the top back on, put the thing back on the shelf. Dude, theres gotta be one that doesnt reek like chick.
But before they stop at this Safeway to buy some deodorant they accomplish a series of tasks with as much fluent ease as my own tired trips to the Thriftway where I automatically pick up non-perishables and odds and ends, that is the things I need to survive and the various not essential to my survival items like deodorant to hide my own stinky presence. These kids have identified johns and hustled tricks at dusk in Eugene. They have hustled in video booths. They have engineered an appearance in a cheap triple x video and sold acid in back water towns in Oregon. But they cant manage to buy one stick of neutral deodorant to cover the smell of the five of them.
Lee Williams doesnt seek a cause and effect chain which ultimately leads to a prime mover, some action or sequence that resulted in these kids ending up the street. There isnt any moral in this book about abusive parents or drug use. And there isnt a progression toward recovery or redemption or any other artificial Aesop style moral. Unlike the movie of a couple of years ago that plays out the hackneyed story of street kids, Where the Day Takes Us, which aside from flat characters followed the street exploits of a character named Lion who benevolently watched over his pack, After Nirvana is a naked narrative following the story of how these kids meet together and then arent together anymore. Consequently, the narrative feels effectively fragmented and episodic. The novel isnt about why these kids are like this but shows the way that they are. This book is sex, drugs, and rock and roll irony lived out on thirteen year old bodies where the equations are so basic that irony is the only form of clothing these kids have. Such values as straight or gay or love or powder fresh pH balanced really are just a little more expensive than they can afford.
William Morrow and Company, New York, 1997
ISBN 0688152155, $20.00 hardback