This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
“When they barged into the bathroom and found us, the joke was on them. They were just men with radios calling for backup. We were simian angels making love to our own darkness.” – Cult of Loretta, page 124
We can probably just stop there, but I’ll continue. A book with lines like those above deserves to be read regardless of any shortcomings. That said, this one has shortcomings.
Kevin Maloney’s Cult of Loretta (2015, Lazy Fascist) is a dizzying trip through the drug-wrecked lives of its narrator (Nelson), the titular Loretta, and their friends and enemies. It rolls along with the stumbling inevitability of its own nauseated momentum, refusing to give us reprieve from the disasters that are its characters.
The book focuses on a group of young males (it feels inappropriate to call them men even though much of the book is set in their twenties and thirties. Man-child?) who are obsessed with Loretta. Loretta, we find out, was neglected and abused as a child by her mother and raped as a young girl by her father and brother, and has spent the proceeding years living out one self-destructive cliché after another to try to cope. Every member of the narrator’s male tribe has, at one point or another, slept with her, dated her, lived with her, betrayed her, been betrayed by her. The details vary, the spirit does not: they are all in love with Loretta, and have remained in love with her. They orbit the black hole of her masochistic glory, held forever in sway by this trailer park goddess with needle-pocked veins and washed out heart.
The book deals heavily in narrative clichés cobbled together with duct tape and safety pins, but plies them so earnestly and frighteningly they work as a whole. We’ve read or watched almost every element of this story before, but not quite like this. The book is most easily a cross between Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicidesand Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, soaked in self-destruction, impotent and aimless white male anger, the lower class equivalent of middle class suburban ennui, lust, female objectification, chemical annihilation. These characters are punks at heart but have nothing to directly revolt against and neither the ability nor the gumption to do so anyway; self-destruction is the sincerest form of radical rebellion they can muster. Pulling out their own teeth while high on the worst drugs mankind has yet invented is their metaphorical fist in the air, but no one is watching who isn’t also high.
The book crackles with dark electricity, Maloney’s writing at times mimicking the sloppiness of his narrator and at times bristling with cold and furious wonder. When describing a friend’s suicide he reflects upon their first meeting as children, and writes:
“After that we pretty much did everything together until he ate a handful of pills and shot himself like an arrow into the bull’s-eye of Jesus.” – page 73
When relating the oft-told story of Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his own ear and giving it to a prostitute he writes:
“He said, ‘Keep this like a treasure,’ then walked to his yellow house holding the side of his head. The blood was hot on his left arm. It came in gushes every time his heart beat. When he finally made it to his bedroom, the smell of linseed was thick from the paintings of sunflowers still drying on the walls. He closed his eyes and bled into the pillow on his rusty yellow bed.
He wasn’t in love with her.
He was in love with color.
With his brother’s kindness. And with God.”
– page 91
If you pick up Cult of Loretta for no other reason than passages like the above, do it. There are more of them, and they are enough. As I said, of course, the book is not without its shortcomings. There are times when I wasn’t sure if the sloppiness and laziness of the narrator’s voice is accurately reflective of Nelson’s mental state or if Maloney was, in fact, being sloppy and lazy while writing. There are times when the book leans so heavily on tropes and clichés (“She was our Vietnam.”) it’s hard to parse if these characters are so pathetic they only move by such rote or if Maloney could have dug deeper but neglected to. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Cult of Loretta is not for the faint of heart, and it’s not for everyone. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, you won’t forget it quickly.