Punk Junkies

How to be part of the Zeitgeist without being onto it

It's engrossing stuff, actually, in a pulpy way, and you can see an independent director making it into a decent film, provided s/he drops Schwartz's self-pitying narrator and gives the material a new attitude. For the first five or 10 pages, I thought Schwartz writes like Joan Didion: acerbic, smart and detached, with that X-Acto knife edge of devastating irony Didion's famous for. But the comparison wasn't sustainable. Whereas behind Didion's cool distance is a stark nihilism that makes her distance seem all the more necessary as an artistic stance, behind Schwartz's is one big, tantrumy inner child stamping its feet and screaming, "Life is unfair! It's unfair! It's unfair!" After 30 pages, I knew where the hard-as-nails Louise would end up: "I started to cry," she says in the novel's last pages. "And once I started, I couldn't stop. . . . I thought of me and how I had missed out on innocence." Even Zeke turns out to be beating the crap out of Louise because he's hurt, too, damn it, and comes around enough to utter a pitiful little "I'm sorry."

Schwartz can write, all right. Her sentences can sting and zing, she holds together a sturdy if too-conventional plot, her characters all bring energy into a room, and occasionally, she trusts her material enough that she doesn't need to lard it over with cynicism as a cover for sentimentality. But ultimately, Schwartz can't get past her sense of cosmic injustice with anything more than rage and self-pity. You can get away with that in punk for a while (though not forever), but on the still, quiet page, it just starts looking like self-indulgent grousing. In that, Jumping the Green is part of the Zeitgeist without being onto it.

Jumping the Green by Leslie Schwartz; Simon & Schuster. 269 pages. $23 hardcover.

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