-Reviewed by Lucy Ayrton-
The Dead Beat is a haunting, dreamy account of a group of four young men – Adam, our narrator, and his three flatmates – losing control of their lives. The Hale-Bopp comet hanging over their home serves as a metaphor for the lives of the inhabitants – they look like they’re moving really fast, but really they’re just hanging there in space. This is an endearing and compelling novella, which is slightly spoilt by leaning on its key themes a little too much for them to be fully effective.
I was initially a little irritated with The Dead Beat. The beginning, especially, is under edited and over written, and there are wobbles with the voice. The book is also very light on action, especially for such a short novella, and what there is is very downplayed, with the most dramatic events being given a scant paragraph, but pages given to boring arguments between flatmates. This is annoying, but also clever, because it is annoying in exactly the same way that the protagonist is annoying to those around him – the fact that the first person narrative is so irritating at times is actually a sign of the quality of the writing.
After a shaky start the voice of the protagonist is spot on and the writing is evocative and immediate, with plenty of crackly, well observed dialogue. Cody James has some lovely turns of phrase; I especially enjoyed the idea of writer’s block as ‘sitting there on my chest like some ex girlfriend’s unpacked suitcase.’
There is a lot of reference to the Beat Generation, which I feel would have been more interesting if played with a slightly lighter hand; we don’t really need Adam to tell us that his favourite authors are Kerouac, Ginsberg and Whalen to get the reference, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that only a passing reference was really relevant, and that the point was hammered home in an attempt to lend an air of cool to characters that neither needed nor deserved it. In contrast, the commentary on the nature of addiction and hope felt entirely accurate and genuine. The moment when the protagonist recalls his mother telling him about nervous laughter was really quite moving, and a skilful handling of revealing more to an audience in a first person narrative than the narrator knows about himself. Or at least, it was the first time that device was used. By the third repeat, it had lost its kick a bit.
Overall, this is a novella with more charm than flaws. I didn’t really enjoy reading it – the characters are all unpleasant, the world it is set in is filthy and ugly and nothing really happens – but by the end I was totally gripped anyway. The thing about The Dead Beat is, the flaws in it – the too many adverbs, the labouring of points, the circular arguments, the gloss over importance and focus on minutiae – maybe none of these are Cody’s fault. Maybe they are Adam’s, and she is a genius. Or maybe this is just another pretentious fetishisation of California junkie/slacker culture. I genuinely don’t know, you’ll have to read it to find out.