Art’s imitation of life is not such a stranger, nor is real life masquerading as what could only be believable as fiction. Being in a punk band is a crash course in both sides of the spectrum. There are moments of such insanity, such zany freakdom that just the act of relating it years later might feel like telling a story over a campfire. Lavinia Ludlow’s debut novel, alt.punk dances along this fine line of the believable, the outlandish, the hilarious and the heartfelt.
alt.punk is about a couple that brews destruction. Hazel is a germaphobe hypochondriac stuck in the corporate limbo of managing a Safeway, while Otis is a man-child frontman of a punk band, oblivious to the consequences of his actions. They are an unlikely duo brought together by circumstance and perhaps fate. If Shiva were the controller of that fate.
The novel starts with Hazel going down on her then boyfriend, Kree, and obsessing over her utter disgust of the act and pretty much every facet of Kree’s personality. “The act would be easier to stomach if Kree let me turn off the light, because then I’d never have to see his shimmering brown pubes, the ones invading the shower, toilet, and my soap dish,” the book begins. Hazel’s mindset, her quirks, and displeasures are clear from the beginning, and it is this immediate sense of understanding for Hazel that allows the reader to buy into the book’s path of destruction from page one.
Hazel’s world is one of invaders. If not Kree’s pubic hairs in the kitchen it’s the slackers she employs at the Safeway. In fact, it’s one of those employees, who after being fired, results in her meeting Otis and getting sucked into his world of localized mayhem. Otis’ one-man hurricane of dysfunction has long tortured his friends/bandmates, but Hazel provides him an outlet. And, in time, she adds more fuel for his inability to grow-up, act responsibly, or at least stop making attempts on his own life. “I can’t be pissed: after a bottle of gin and a prescription of tranquilizers, he barely remembers which side of the nation we’re on,” Hazel says of Otis after catching him getting a blowjob from a groupie.
Once Hazel gets sucked into Otis’ life their relationship becomes a reflection of Otis, a mess of volatile drug-riddled behavior, and constant touring. Amid all this chaos is a story of love and relationships, yes, but more importantly of Hazel learning to remove herself from the boxes she’d place herself in. It is about living in the moment, adapting to your surroundings, and in the end finding, if you’re lucky, a fraction of who you want to be and who you are.
Think Tony O’Neill writing a romantic comedy. There are breakups and reunions, there’s the judgmental mother who doesn’t manage to say a single nice thing to Hazel throughout the entire book. And, as you’d hope given that potential formula, you don’t have to suffer with some Hollywood ending. While the chaos at times borders on comical, or unbelievable, in the end it is the brutal honesty, the stark naked portrayal of Hazel’s every quirk and fault that actually keeps you buying in throughout the times when you’re skeptical guard starts to rebuild its wall. Such is the case when Otis has his periodic breakdowns. “I am fuckin’ crazy. Is that what you want to hear? That I go to a fuckin’ shrink? That it’s ninety dollars ‘cause we don’t have any fucking insurance like you people?” Otis says during one of these episodes, then he is portrayed in his tirade, “He trips over his words, chokes on his saliva, and descends into a coughing fit.”
But it is Hazel’s bleak and stark honesty that saves the moment, with statements like, “Stop taking me so seriously.” Though she could easily replace herself with Otis in that command. Ludlow juggles this balance throughout, sometimes to mixed results depending on the scene. But in the end, because Hazel so firmly entraps the reader, these moments find her remaining the focus, rather than letting Otis steal the scenes with his melodrama.
Early in the book Ludlow writes, “I know what punk means to me,” and for punk fans this is nothing if not a thesis statement. Punk means a lot of things. It is the kind of word or genre that will get you ten different answers from ten different people. And alt.punk reflects that ambiguity well, it might not all be punk, but it’s all rock and roll all over your face in this book. What more could you ask for from a book about music and germ-induced chaos? What more could you ask from a debut novel?