Punk Junkies

Reading Jumping the Green, LA resident Leslie Schwartz's debut novel, I kept flashing on those strange days in April 1994 after Kurt Cobain killed himself. Thousands of young people gathered in Seattle and other cities to memorialize him, and the candlelight vigils, makeshift altars and testimonials in his honor were all predictably punk—that is to say, filled with an inarticulate (if completely understandable) rage. What was surprising was the sentimentality behind so many of the reactions, the invocations of heaven and the how-could-he-do-this-to-me hurt that I didn't expect of punks, a self-pity that seemed odd and soft coming from kids who appeared to take the numb, degree-zero emotional landscapes of "Polly" or "Rape Me" almost for granted. What crystallized it all for me was Courtney Love's incredibly narcissistic, tear-drenched public fuck-yous to her dead husband for betraying her. All at once, punk's toughness was revealed for what it often is: a pile-driver-like aggression as a defense against that terrifying and embarrassing thing called a broken heart.

Thinking back, I don't know why that should have been any kind of revelation. Of course, punk is rage against a machine that forces kids to grow up so quickly, so savvily and so unmentored that their natural response is to throw on the thick armor of aggression and cynicism. What happens, though, is that they start to believe their own pose, and they keep it up until something shatters it, whereupon they're stuck holding their naked hearts in their hands, wondering why this strange beating thing hurts so much, and then they start wailing like Munch's homunculus about betrayal and loss of innocence. Americans can't give up their loss-of-innocence myths, and this is one that Gens X and Y have been telling themselves for several years now. It is certainly embedded in Jumping the Green. Schwartz's novel isn't punk, but it does its best to be cynically tough in a youthful, alluringly fucked-up way. Still, that anger—though fairly articulate here—is a thin veneer: Schwartz turns out to be a softy, too, much more akin to Love's self-pitying narcissist than to Cobain, who, until his suicide, knew his own art would get compromised as soon as it started functioning as a plea to the audience to indulge his particular pain.

Schwartz's narrator, Louise Goldblum, is a San Francisco sculptor and installation artist blessed with skills so prodigious that she's acquiring a national reputation without her quite knowing what all the fuss is about. She's too busy, see, being really, really pissed-off, and Schwartz rolls out a long bill of complaints for her heroine. Louise is the offspring of an emotionally stunted Stanford scientist who, when he's not busy researching, retreats to his garage to build intricate dollhouses. Louise's mother, for her part, is a disappointed former beauty who decades ago descended into pill and alcohol habits. She has never had a clue how to raise or treat her kids, of which she has had, for reasons that are none too clear, five. Louise's parents never disciplined her or her siblings; allowed them early access to alcohol, sex and the other prerogatives of adulthood; and basically weren't there for them as, like, real moms and dads are. As a result, the kids grow up thick-skinned and unable to cry, harshly sardonic and condescending to the square world, and fiercely attached to one another.

Schwartz makes it easy to understand their mutual devotion, of course: they're uniformly brash, brilliant and beautiful—with the exception of one sister, Mary, who somehow misread her genetic code and ended up as sweet, kind and Christian as the Singing Nun. The brashest, brilliantest, beautifullest Goldblum of all is Esther Goldblum—or, rather, was. Esther is dead, apparently murdered during a one-night stand with a stranger in a cheap motel room in a forgotten California ghost town.

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Louise absolutely worshiped her older sister, a dangerously independent Pulitzer-nominated journalist so fearless that she once got hooked on heroin so she could write a story on addicts. Her death has made Louise spin out: she takes to swilling vodka, working up an art installation that is a too-literal attempt to "deal" with the family tragedy, and meets up with a black-clad, bald-headed pseudo-existential photographer named Zeke who beats her up when he fucks her, which she discovers she likes, or thinks she deserves, or thinks may help her become as dangerously interesting as her sister. Or something.

The novel bounces between the present and past, and works up a fairly encephalitic head of melodramatic steam. The history chapters fill us in on the Goldblum parents' neglect, as well as Esther's heroic escape from the Goldblum house into the arms of a boy with whom she had a sex-drenched affair (starting at the age of 12), which ended when the boy killed himself in despair because the brilliant Esther was leaving him for Columbia University and the big time. (His death, of course, sets up hers.) The present chapters chronicle Louise's descent: Zeke is always dropping by her Mission District loft to abuse her—though he's also Telling Her the Truth About Herself—and friends and family are always trying to get her to shape up because she's Throwing Away Her Career. Louise wanders the streets of San Francisco, stops eating and shrinks to nothing, ponders her bruises and scars from mean old Zeke, and re-enacts in her head what the last moments of her sister's life must have been like. Only in the end does she understand that she has to put a torch to the past, to her illusions about her sister, and face the future.

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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