July 23, 2012
Michael-David is an actor on the verge of an identity crisis. Too old for cool, not old enough for eminence. A Look Who’s Talking-era Travolta, staring down lean years clawing for scraps. Teetering on the B-List, Michael-David lucks into his own Pulp redemption: a starring role in the latest guerilla flick by unhinged auteur Chris Culpepper.
Something, however, is very wrong with this picture.
In the early pages of Basement of Wolves, Daniel Allen Cox’s cinema-crazed third novel, Culpepper disrupts an industry gala by impersonating the immersive, identity-bending antics of Peter Sellers, and shortly thereafter, Michael-David casually cites the James Dean crash at the Monty Clift crash site. Once filming is underway, the misdirection escalates as Culpepper’s production methods mimic the gamesmanship of another bender-prone Peter – O’Toole, and his puppeteering impresario from The Stuntman. Should these bygone allusions miss their mark, Cox also bulls-eyes direct references to millennial switcheroos Being John Malkovich and Mulholland Drive. Life and art, it blurs, the script is being written one day at a time and it’s not turning out at all how Michael-David had in mind. Is Culpepper a Tarantino-inspired savior or has he lured Michael-David into a Faustian bargain? Is the evolving screenplay feeding off Michael-David’s paranoia or feeding into it? Is the director shooting an actual film or is he manipulating Michael-David to act as the trigger man in an actual shooting?
“Surreal,” says the slippery financial backer of Culpepper’s film. “Okay. We need to lose the audience so they can better enjoy the experience. Uproot them. Make them uncomfortable for their own good. Make them think halfway through the movie, ‘Hey, this is fucked-up,’ but then show them how they’re wrong.”
At the halfway point of Basement of Wolves, shooting on Culpepper’s film wraps and Michael-David bolts, holing up in a hotel and hoping to regain some semblance of sanity. And that’s when shit really comes unglued.
But before Michael-David can contend with the nature of (sur)reality, there is first and foremost the anxiety of aging. Each of Cox’s novels have bristled against the ruthlessness of time: his comic debut, Shuck, proceeds as a “found diary” from a year in the life of a gay model, perpetually on the hustle and constantly aware of the catty-quick diva-snap where the next big thing becomes been-there, done-that. Cox’s follow-up, Krakow Melt, super-imposes incendiary moments from world history while staying grounded in the seriously odd and oddly affecting affair between a queer male artist and a straight female poet, Radeki and Dorotka, the pair stuck in the diminutive by a repressive, old world Poland. As part of their immediate hooks, each of these novels provides their own theme music: Shuck cranking Duran Duran’s awesomely over-the-top “Ordinary World” from a beat-up Walkman and Krakow Melt geeking out to an obscure, fetishized vinyl copy of The Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. Soundtracking Michael-David’s midlife palpitations, in yet another direct hit, Basement of Wolves cues-up repeated references to Californication, the Chili Peppers warmed-over, over-the-hill comeback stab.
How to go about shedding those unwanted years in a hurry? The ol’ Tinseltown tradition: fuck young. Another stroke of “luck,” just as Michael-David’s getting himself unsettled in his hotel suite, a blonde-maned, nineteen-ish hustler, Tim, materializes at the door: “Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble.”
Not surprisingly, seduction doesn’t turn out at all how Michael-David had in mind. Tim takes the older man’s cash and moves right in, but isn’t in any rush to shuck his pants below their standard dude-bro sag; as Michael-David and Tim begin to cohabitate in a sexless but hardly platonic give and take, the pair explore the service lifts, maintenance chutes, and locked areas of the building, bodily possessing the structure to such a degree it’s entirely possible the two are jointly Being Chris Culpepper. And as Tim turns the hotel room into a lab for experimenting with caustic, choking chemicals, the duo may also be cooking up a Flann O’Brien-inspired coup to overthrow their creator.
Despite its gleefully open-ended plot threads and promiscuous what-the-fuckery, Basement of Wolves is often friskier off the page than on it; for all the wild and boundless “why,” the “what” of description, dialogue, and action remain largely restrained. Cox composes his set-pieces with Mulholland Drive on the brain and an eye toward the Uncanny Valley – except where David Lynch can manipulate the magical synergy of acting, framing, score, and set-design to unspool scenes so normal they’re unsettling, with words as the sole medium, “so normal” has a tendency to read as underdeveloped or indistinct. Though Cox toys with cracked ambiguity and coy insinuation, he never lets loose in the streetwise surreal of Yves Navarre’s comparable Sweet Tooth, where the narrative structure degrades as a syphilitic’s mind and body deteriorate, freeing Navarre to glory in lyrical incoherence and startling images: seedy piers and sterile hospitals, maze-like bath houses, a funeral funhouse, and indiscreet couplings furied in infestation, infection, poppers, pills, and death by fisting. Basement of Wolves flirts with the automatistic freedom from conventional motivation, but in attempting to unite elements of the uncanny and the phantasmagoric, Cox highlights a fundamental incompatibility: the former derives its effect from a near-exact simulation of the real, while the latter revels in the extravagance of distortion.
While attempting to squeeze his billow of references, influences, and dream logic into the same 150 page box of his previous books, Cox further writes himself into a corner by giving Basement of Wolves over to his least effervescent narrator. The gift of gab courses through Cox’s previous novels, with Shuck’s hustler maintaining a fast-talking, fake-tough, and very funny running-monologue and Krakow Melt’s defiant artist, Radek, pinging through digressions into pyromania, parkour, homosexual pachyderms, and Smingus Dyngus, all while exposing flashes of bare-ribbed identity pain as unnervingly tender as Perfume Genius performing “17.” Michael-David, however, is shallow. Melrose shallow. And while Cox captures the splitting image of celluloid glib, in Michael-David’s descent from midlife-crisis to nervous breakdown to end-stage paranoia, the actor has the capacity to supply only the most one-dimensional reflections.
Within its Wikiful of tangents, Krakow Melt offers an auto-didactic discourse on the “fire-tetrahedron,” the four pyramidal sides that produce the necessary conditions for a sustained burn: heat, fuel, an oxidizer, and a catalyst. A similar model can be applied to narrative, and in Basement of Wolves, Michael-David’s tindered mental-state generates heat, Culpepper’s enigmatic filmmaking douses on the fuel, and Tim the Chemical Kid serves as an oxidizer. But with the imagery and voice subdued for competing artistic purposes, with no “X-Files” Smoking Man to personify conspiracy, and with the post-J.J. Abrams embrace of blue-balling riddles, the reader is thrust into the role as catalyst, and Basement of Wolves will largely be defined through the spark of each reader’s individual imaginative work.
“Fire,” Cox writes in Krakow Melt, “bless its blue and white heart, does not choose indiscriminately. It wheedles out the weakest elements in the societies we build and forces us to do better next time.”