Wasted by Biff Thuringer

Sometimes I like to explore the foggy borderlands between genre fiction and literary fiction.

Raymond Chandler’s crisp and evocative prose and insightful character development transcend the hard-boiled detective genre. His novel The Long Goodbye was praised in an anthology of American crime stories as “arguably the first book since Hammett’s The Glass Key, published more than twenty years earlier, to qualify as a serious and significant mainstream novel that just happened to possess elements of mystery.”

For similar reasons, the movie Chinatown escaped its noir pulp pigeonhole to become a classic of serious film (if such can ever come from Hollywood). Screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski took it deeper than the standard commercial mystery pic.

If “eco-thriller” can be said to be a genre today, Biff Thuringer’s novel Wasted: A Story of Love Gone Toxic (Chronic Publishing/Epigraph Books, 280 pages)  walks the liminal space where that category’s conventions give way to something more, an artful challenge to everyday thinking. Thuringer does that in three ways. First, like Chandler, his prose style (distinctly not Chandler’s, but his own) is, in its smart and muscular way, perfectly suited to his content (examples to come). Second, again like Chandler, his story is about one man’s journey inside himself as much as it is about an investigative quest to vanquish evil-doers. Finally, he follows a Chinatown model: establishment power players with whitewashed public images who secretly conspire to increase their personal wealth while utterly disregarding public safety are battled by powerless common folk, but with only the most meager success. There is no happy ending tied up in a bow. There is tragedy among the innocent, and the evil goes on.

The plot of Wasted, its message about crime and pollution, its reporter-as-detective skeleton, its meticulous science and documented “truth,” its violence and suspense that will please the genre readers… these have already been explored in other reviews. I’d like to dig elsewhere, into that weird literary stuff that I find most interesting.

Thuringer chose a voice for his third-person narrator that is bold and loud, a good match for cacophonous 21st century America and the public media arena where his story of mob-corporate-government collusion and environmental poison takes place. This voice is uninhibited and gritty, it pulls no punches, even risks offense. At first I leaned away, wanting more subtlety. But then I began to see… the voice is carefully controlled and is imaginative, surprising, clever, funny. It has poetry of its own. Here are a few random samples:

“Constitutionally edgy, paranoid and cranky as a badger, Sheila required a foul, contraindicated bouillabaisse of cocaine and opiates in order to simmer down to a boil. Alcohol was no help at all, not that that stopped her from testing her half-Irish liver. She would become dangerously self-destructive whenever she drank too much, which was every night.”

“Nate reached deep inside his resentment and sucker-punched the faded pop star in his permanent sneer, knocking him out cold.” “With his right hand, Big Nick fondled the joystick of his lilac-purple Jazzy 1103 Mini Power Chair, while his equally knobby, liver-spotted left hand, its emaciated pinky swimming inside a heavy diamond-encrusted gold ring, rested on a gleaming rosewood parquetry-topped Edwardian card table, wrapped around a tall glass of fresh squeezed carrot juice.”

“When she got there, he looked like death. He had tried to hug her but he smelled like a jock strap after football practice, and she had recoiled. He then made her follow him over twisting, foggy, deer-infested back roads to the seedy FDR Motor Court on Route 11 in Roosevelton, where they were now holed up like a pair of interstate child molesters. This was bullshit already, and suddenly it was getting worse.”

Some of the pleasure of reading Chandler comes from getting to know his protagonist Marlowe, whose first-person voice is full of exquisite metaphor and simile. In Wasted, Thuringer takes an admirable step further, to allow his anonymous omniscient narrator a similarly unique, idiosyncratic speech. So we smile and wonder, “Who is this entertaining conversationalist telling this story?” This goes against the frequent writing-teacher dictum that says third-person narrators should be invisible so the story comes through without distraction — a bogus rule. Another example, at the funeral of a character dead from toxic overload:

“Even Rico’s mesa-rumped, uninvited ex-girlfriend was present, dabbing at her runny nose and the clown-like mascara stains streaming down her smooth caramel cheeks with a soggy, balled-up wad of kleenex. Whatever her motives for leaving him, she had apparently loved him, too.”

“Misty, red-rimmed eyes were the order of the day, and not only from allergic reactions to the dense, stinging mists emanating from beneath the shopping mall up the street.”

A couple of strokes of brilliance in the book occur, first, on the opening page, an inciting incident with a twist, and then in the fifth chapter, where the main character Nate begins his transformation.

Here’s the novel’s first paragraph:

“As much as she had been looking forward to it, Sheila McNally was mortified that her death was turning out to be such a public spectacle. She knew the entire Western world was watching on TV as she girded herself to go down in a slow-motion reverse mushroom cloud of twisted steel, plaster and burning jet fuel, accompanied by Jesus knows how many hapless secretaries, pencil-necks and municipal martyrs with whom she had little in common. She was surprised that her primary emotion at this climactic moment was a gnawing, self-conscious embarrassment at having fallen short at everything she’d ever done. ‘What a fucking waste,’ she thought to herself. ‘I deserve this.’”

By starting the book inside the head of Sheila, Thuringer is making a subtle but powerful move. Her point of view only lasts a page, and then she is dead in the rubble of 9-11 and the limited third-person voice jumps to the perspective of Nate, her live-in lover. 9-11 may be the book’s inciting incident, but that unique first page serves to haunt us, like Sheila haunts Nate. Her rage is the driving spirit of the story and of his transformation, and if Thuringer had opened the book from Nate’s point of view, Sheila would never have been embodied for us. The book would have been perceptibly weaker and we would never really know why.

In Chapter 5, Nate is finally recovering from toxic exposure after the towers came down, and as he moves Sheila’s file cabinet into storage, he takes the opportunity to look through her files and read her research into the nefarious practices of a large corporation and its mobster henchmen. Thuringer deserves kudos for setting this key event in the unexpected location of a drab urban storage facility, but in addition, he pumps up the power of the scene with a bit of failed flirtation with a female customer. This is Nate encountering his previous self, right in the moment of his turnaround: a perfect juxtaposition.

“As the old hormones sloshed around in his bloodstream for the first time in many weeks, Nate considered going after the girl, apologizing to her and using the negative feelings he had aroused in her to manipulate her into the sack. The tactic had worked before.

“Yet even as his cock began to stir in his pants in anticipation of the chase, it was being overruled by a new master: his slowly awakening brain. In a sharp departure from his past behavior, Nate managed to calm himself down. He unlocked his storeroom door and wheeled the filing cabinet inside. He pulled out another “Amorphous” folder, sat down on a carton of books, and resumed reading in the dim light of an overhead bulb.

“Because as exciting as the return of his old sexual persona was, there was something even more stimulating going on. He could always get back to being a profligate ho-bag; there would be plenty of opportunity for that. But for the time being, Nate’s one-track imagination had been captured by something else. He would follow it to its logical end.”

Before he can leave the facility, he is beaten unconscious and barely escapes an arsonist’s blaze that destroys the building and kills customers. Thuringer has physicalized Nate’s internal rebirth, from wastrel musician to investigative reporter on a quest for justice.

Perhaps it needs to be said that “Biff Thuringer” is the not-so-secret pseudonym of Steve Hopkins, formerly an investigative journalist. So that’s why the middle section of the book is particularly authentic. This is where Thuringer introduces us to the motley crew of earnest journalists that Nate has joined, essentially as an undercover agent on his own secret mission. And, at more of a distance, to the villains of the story, in their various stripes as gangsters, politicians, businessmen. He slyly skewers celebrities under aliases. With many convincing details about multi-syllabic chemicals and hidden waste dumps, he steers Nate into alarming discoveries and the gradual building of a firm case against the bad guys. But more important literary-wise, he chooses to have Nate fall in love with a young co-worker, an authorial maneuver that raises the stakes: the hero still has a heart and maybe even a future, so he has that much more to lose.

An important component of Wasted that echoes Chinatown, perhaps more important than the main plot (battle with wealthy evildoers for the good of the commoners), is father-daughter rape. Metaphorically, the masculine forces of power and greed have fucked with nature, the feminine. That must not stand. Sheila’s father, one of the biggest baddies in the environmental crime story, serially abused her in her younger years. So her rage was multi-dimensional. Her fury fires Nate, and his jihad is not merely on principal, but is personal.

Whether he intends it or not, Thuringer is exploring the nature of religious zeal, letting us peer inside the zealot’s reasons for self-righteous violence. They are multiple. Literary fiction lets us hold more than one point of view simultaneously, look at them both, make our choices. Or choose not to choose. In Wasted, Nate finds a new self, perhaps finds redemption, but also becomes a man lost to a cause. His investigation and his anger take him into the belly of the beast. He can never escape.

To my taste (admittedly non-mainstream), Thuringer’s only misstep may have been going a little too Hollywood near the end, spending almost forty pages detailing an outrageous bomb-hostage-gunfight scene with a big cast in a governor’s mansion, all tailor-made for a big-budget action movie. It’s precisely what many people love. He may have slipped outside the realm of literary here, but I’ll let those whose taste leans more toward that sort of material explicate its literariness.

As in the noir classics, minor battles may be won for small satisfactions but the losses are deep and the darkness continues. In Chinatown, the daughter dies, the father lives on. Not exactly so in Wasted, but the essentials are similar. There is success and there is tragedy. Thuringer redeems himself with a final chapter that returns Nate to the streets of NYC, an anonymous bike messenger and pedicab driver with a serious chronic headache, toxin-induced. In a final stroke of authorial wisdom, Thuringer leaves the ending open to interpretation, the best way.

And he skillfully engineers, through Nate’s scrambled memory, an oblique revisit to a much earlier scene, when he had found the combination to the lock on Sheila’s file cabinet that held the material that changed his life: 22-35-13.
“An image of his mother, holding his head, stroking his hair, smiling. ‘…22…minus 35… plus 13…equals…’”

Zero, of course.

Brent Robison, author of The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, 2009

-Excerpt:

For 24 hours after his world imploded, Nate lay in a St. Vincent’s Hospital bed, alternating between moaning like a homeless lunatic over Sheila and swearing at various masochistic Attack on America marathons, as a platoon of overworked Samaritans tested and treated him for respiratory system dysfunction. Every so often he could smell the benzene, PCB and sulfur dioxide-laden stench from the burning hole downtown, and late at night when the drugs wore off he would awaken himself coughing and puking up blood. When the saintly, disinfectant-scented night nurse finally succeeded in getting him calmed down and sedated, he tortured himself quietly to sleep thinking about what might have been Sheila’s left breast lying in its twisted C-cup on a West Street sidewalk.

Nate had been fished from the mouth of the river named for Henry Hudson by the stunned crew of a replica of the long-dead captain’s 1609 ship Half Moon, his lungs half full of fetid river water, the other half encrusted with skyscraper dust and complex petrochemicals, and eventually deposited on a gurney in a hallway at St. Vincent’s Hospital. He had lost his favorite hat, his glasses, his bike and his girlfriend, and felt as guilty to be alive as any of the losers blubbering their pathetic stories on TV. At least no one from FOX showed up for a bedside interview. They wouldn’t have wanted to hear what he had to say anyway.

After being stabilized and diagnosed with a variety of respiratory maladies, only one of which (chronic bronchitis, from the years of playing bad music in smoky bars) he’d ever experienced before, Nate was armed with a grab-bag full of industrial-grade antihistamines, expectorants and painkillers and released into the brave new world.

With a steady southerly breeze pushing the plume from the smoldering ruins slowly up the length of Manhattan, the air circulating through TriBeCa and SoHo, up through Greenwich Village and Chelsea and over to the Lower East Side was heavy with singed hydrocarbons and particles of decomposing flesh. To Nate the whole city smelled like a condom had caught fire in a sailor’s ass. The St. Vincent’s neighborhood around 13th Street and Eighth Avenue was eerily quiet, save for the intermittent siren blast and the muted whining of the scores of fancy, disgruntled young altruists loitering about expensively after having been told by some red-eyed official to go away. Feeling that history would be written without them, they were irritated that everyone who might have needed their precious blood was dead. Most people just meandered, walking zombified into the traffic-less streets, looking as if the wind had been knocked out of them. Many of them wore masks or scarves over their worried mouths and noses. The only sense of purpose on display from anyone not wearing a uniform was that of a scruffy entrepreneur pushing a shopping cart bristling with newly minted American flags.

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